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Gen Z, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and African Universities

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The 4th Industrial Revolution is only one of many forces forcing transformations in higher education. As such, we should assess its challenges and opportunities with a healthy dose of intellectual sobriety, neither dismissing it with Luddite ideological fervour nor investing it with the omniscience beloved by techno-worshippers.

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Gen Z, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and African Universities
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Like many of you, I try to keep up with trends in higher education, which are of course firmly latched to wider transformations in the global political economy, in all its bewildering complexities and contradictions, and tethered to particular national and local contexts. Of late one cannot avoid the infectious hopes, hysteria, and hyperbole about the disruptive power of the 4th Industrial Revolution on every sector, including higher education. It was partly to make sense of the discourses and debates about this new revolution that I chose this topic.

But I was also inspired by numerous conversations with colleagues in my capacity as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Kenya Education Network Trust (KENET) that provides Internet connectivity and related services to enhance education and research to the county’s educational and research institutions. Also, my university has ambitious plans to significantly expand its programmes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the health sciences, and the cinematic and creative arts, in which discussions about the rapid technological changes and their impact on our educational enterprise feature prominently.

I begin by briefly underlining the divergent perspectives on the complex, contradictory and rapidly changing connections between the 4th Industrial Revolution and higher education. Then I seek to place it in the context of wider changes. First, in terms of global politics and economy. Second, with reference to the changing nature of work. Third, in the context of other key trends in higher education. Situating the 4th Industrial Revolution in these varied and intersected changes and dynamics underscores a simple point: that it is part of a complex mosaic of profound transformations taking place in the contemporary world that precede and supersede it.

As a historian and social scientist, I’m only too aware that technology is always historically and socially embedded; it is socially constructed in so far as its creation, dissemination, and consumption are always socially marked. In short, technological changes, however momentous, produce and reproduce both old and new opportunity structures and trajectories that are simultaneously uneven and unequal because they are conditioned by the enduring social inscriptions of class, gender, race, nationality, ethnicity and other markers, as well as the stubborn geographies and hierarchies of the international division of labour.

The 4th Industrial Revolution 

As with any major social phenomena and process, the 4th Industrial Revolution has its detractors, cheerleaders, and fence-sitters. The term often refers to the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, machine learning, data analytics, big data, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the convergence of the digital, biological, and physical domains of life.

Critics dismiss the 4th Industrial Revolution as a myth, arguing that it is not a revolution as such in so far as many innovations associated with it represent extensions of previous innovations. Some even find the euphoric discourses about it elitist, masculinist, and racist. Some fear its destructive potential for jobs and livelihoods, and privacy and freedom as surveillance capitalism spreads its tentacles.

Those who espouse its radical impact say that the 4th Industrial Revolution will profoundly transform all spheres of economic, social, cultural, and political life. It is altering the interaction of humans with technology, leading to the emergence of what Yuval Noah Harari calls homo deus who worships at the temple of dataism in the name of algorithms. More soberly, some welcome the 4th Industrial Revolution for its leapfrogging opportunities for developing countries and marginalised communities. But even the sceptics seek to hedge their bets on the promises and perils of the much-hyped revolution by engaging it.

In the education sector, universities are urged to help drive the 4th Industrial Revolution by pushing the boundaries of their triple mission of teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement. Much attention focuses on curricula reform, the need to develop what one author calls “future-readiness” curricula that prepares students holistically for the skills of both today and tomorrow – curricula that integrates the liberal arts and the sciences, digital literacy and intercultural literacy, and technical competencies and ethical values, and that fosters self-directed and personalised learning. Because of the convergences of the 4th Industrial Revolution, universities are exhorted to promote interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teaching, research and innovation, and to pursue new modes of internationalisation of knowledge production, collaboration, and consumption.

Changes in the global political economy

From Africa’s vantage point, I would argue there are three critical global forces that we need to pay special attention to. First, the world system is in the midst of a historic hegemonic shift. This is evident in the growing importance of Asia and the emerging economies, including Africa and impending closure of Euroamerica’s half a millennium of global dominance. Emblematic of this monumental transition is the mounting rivalry between a slumping United States and a rising China that is flexing its global muscles not least through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Those who espouse its radical impact say that the 4th Industrial Revolution will profoundly transform all spheres of economic, social, cultural, and political life. It is altering the interaction of humans with technology, leading to the emergence of what Yuval Noah Harari calls homo deus who worships at the temple of dataism in the name of algorithms.

The struggle between the two nations and their respective allies or spheres of influence marks the end of America’s supremacy as the sole post-Cold War superpower. The outbreak of the trade war between the two in 2018 represents the first skirmishes of a bitter hegemonic rivalry that will probably engulf at least the first half of the 21st century. The question we have to ask ourselves is: How should Africa manage and position itself in this global hegemonic shift?

This is the third such shift over the last two hundred years. The first occurred between 1870-1914 following the rise of Germany and its rivalry with the world’s first industrial power, Britain. For the world as a whole this led to the “New Imperialism” that culminated in World War I, and for Africa and Asia in colonisation.

The second hegemonic shift emerged out of the ashes of World War II with the rise of two superpowers, the former Soviet Union and the United States. For the world this led to the Cold War and for Asia and Africa decolonisation.

Can Africa leverage the current shift to achieve its long-cherished but deferred dream of sustainable development?

As the highest concentrations of collective intellectual prowess, African universities and researchers have a responsibility to promote comprehensive understanding of the stakes for Africa, and to inform policy options on how best to navigate the emerging treacherous quagmire of the new superpower rivalries to maximise the possibilities and minimise the perils.

More broadly, in so far as China’s and Asia’s rise are as much economic as they are epistemic – as evident in the exponential ascent of Asian universities in global rankings – the challenge and opportunity for our universities and knowledge production systems is how best to pluralise worldly engagements that simultaneously curtail the Western stranglehold rooted in colonial and neocolonial histories of intellectual dependency without succumbing to the hegemonic ambitions of China and Asia.

Second, world demography is undergoing a major metamorphosis. On the one hand, this is evident in the aging populations of many countries in the global North.  China is also on the same demographic treadmill, thanks to its ill-guided one-child policy imposed in 1979 that was only abolished in 2015. On the other hand, Africa is enjoying a population explosion. Currently, 60 per cent of the African population is below the age of 25. Africa is expected to have 1.7 billion people in 2030 (20 per cent of the world’s population), rising to 2.53 billion (26 per cent of the world’s population) in 2050, and 4.5 billion (40 per cent of the world’s population) in 2100.

What are the developmental implications of Africa’s demographic bulge, and Africa’s global position as it becomes the reservoir of the world’s largest labour force? The role of educational institutions in this demographic equation is clear. Whether Africa’s skyrocketing population is to be a demographic dividend or not will depend on the quality of education, skills, and employability of the youth. Hordes of hundreds of millions of ill-educated, unskilled, and unemployable youth will turn the youth population surge into a demographic disaster, a Malthusian nightmare for African economies, polities and societies.

As the highest concentrations of collective intellectual prowess, African universities and researchers have a responsibility to promote comprehensive understanding of the stakes for Africa, and to inform policy options on how best to navigate the emerging treacherous quagmire of the new superpower rivalries to maximise the possibilities and minimise the perils.

The third major transformative force centers on the impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution. During the 1st Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century, Africa paid a huge price through the Atlantic slave trade that laid the foundations of the industrial economies of Euroamerica. Under the 2nd Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, Africa was colonised. The 3rd Industrial Revolution that emerged in the second half of the 20th century coincided with the tightening clutches of neocolonialism for Africa. What is and will be the nature of Africa’s levels of participation in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Will the continent be a player or a pawn as in the other 3 revolutions?

The future of work

There is a growing body of academic literature and consultancy reports about the future of work. An informative summary can be found in a short monograph published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “The Future of Work: How Colleges Can Prepare Students for the Jobs Ahead”,  it is argued that the digitalisation of the economy and social life spawned by the 4th Industrial Revolution will continue transforming the nature of work as old industries are disrupted and new ones emerge. In the United States, it is projected that the fastest growing fields will be in science, technology, engineering, and healthcare, while employment in manufacturing will decline. This will enhance the importance of the soft skills of the liberal arts, such as oral and written communication, critical thinking and problem solving, teamwork and collaboration, intercultural competency, combined with hard technical skills, like coding.

In short, while it is difficult to predict the future of work, more jobs will increasingly require graduates to “fully merge their training in hard skills with soft skills”. They will be trained in both the liberal arts and STEM, with skills for complex human interactions, and capacities for flexibility, adaptability, versatility, and resilience.

In a world of rapidly changing occupations, the hybridisation of skills, competencies, and literacies together with lifelong learning will become assets. In a digitalised economy, routine tasks will be more prone to automation than highly skilled non-routine jobs. Successful universities will include those that impart academic and experiential learning to both traditional students and older students seeking retraining.

The need to strengthen interdisciplinary and experiential teaching and learning, career services centres, and retraining programmes for older students on college campuses is likely to grow. So will partnerships between universities and employers as both seek to enhance students’ employability skills and reduce the much-bemoaned mismatches between graduates and the labour market. The roles of career centres and services will need to expand in response to pressures for better integration of curricula programmes, co-curricula activities, community engagement, and career preparedness and placement.

In short, while it is difficult to predict the future of work, more jobs will increasingly require graduates to “fully merge their training in hard skills with soft skills”. They will be trained in both the liberal arts and STEM, with skills for complex human interactions, and capacities for flexibility, adaptability, versatility, and resilience.

Some university leaders and faculty of course bristle at the vocationalisation of universities, insisting on the primacy of intellectual inquiry, learning for its own sake, and student personal development. But the fraught calculus between academe and return on investment cannot be wished away for many students and parents. For students from poorer backgrounds, intellectual development and career preparedness both matter as university education maybe their only shot at acquiring the social capital that richer students have other avenues to acquire.

Trends in higher education 

Digital Disruptions  

Clearly, digital disruptions constitute one of the key four interconnected trends in higher education that I seek to discuss. The other three include rising demands for public service and engagement, unbundling of the degree, and escalating imperatives for lifelong learning.

More and more, digitalisation affects every aspect of higher education, including research, teaching, and institutional operations. Information technologies have impacted research in various ways, including expanding opportunities for “big science” and increasing capacities for international collaboration. The latter is evident in the exponential growth in international co-authorship.

Also, the explosion of information has altered the role of libraries as repositories of print and audio-visual materials into nerve centres for digitised information communication, which raises the need for information literacy. Moreover, academic publishing has been transformed by the acceleration and commercialisation of scholarly communication. The role of powerful academic publishing and database firms has greatly been strengthened. The open source movement is trying to counteract that.

Similarly far reaching is the impact of information technology on teaching and learning. Opportunities for technology-mediated forms of teaching and learning encompassing blended learning, flipped classrooms, adaptive and active learning, and online education have grown. This has led to the emergence of a complex melange of teaching and learning models encompassing the face-to-face-teaching model without ICT enhancement; ICT-enhanced face-to-face teaching model; ICT-enhanced distance teaching model; and the online teaching model.

Spurred by the student success movement arising out of growing public concerns about the quality of learning and the employability skills of graduates, “the black box of college”—teaching and learning—has been opened, argues another recent monograph by The Chronicle entitled, “The Future of Learning: How colleges can transform the educational experience”. The report notes, “Some innovative colleges are deploying big data and predictive analytics, along with intrusive advising and guided pathways, to try to engineer a more effective educational experience. Experiments in revamping gateway courses, better connecting academic and extracurricular work, and lowering textbook costs also hold promise to support more students through college.” For critics of surveillance capitalism, the arrival of Big Brother on university campuses is truly frightening in its Orwellian implications.

There are other teaching methods increasingly driven by artificial intelligence and technology that include immersive technology, gaming, and mobile learning, as well as massive open online courses (MOOCs), and the emergence of robot tutors. In some institutions, instructors who worship at the altar of innovation are also incorporating free, web-based content, online collaboration tools, simulation  or educational games, lecture capture, e-books, in-class polling tools, as well as student smartphones and tablets,  social media , and e-portfolios as teaching and learning tools.

Some of these instructional technologies make personalised learning for students increasingly possible. The Chronicle monograph argues for these technologies and innovations, such as predictive analytics, to work it is essential to use the right data and algorithms, cultivate buy-in from those who work most closely with students, pair analytics with appropriate interventions, and invest enough money. Managing these innovations entails confronting entrenched structural, financial, and cultural barriers,and “require investments in training and personnel”.

For many under-resourced African universities with inadequate or dilapidated physical and electronic infrastructures, the digital revolution remains a pipe dream. But such is the spread of smart phones and tablets even among growing segments of African university students that they can no longer be effectively taught using old pedagogical methods of the born-before-computers (BBC) generation. After spending the past two decades catering to millennials, universities now have to accommodate Gen Z, the first generation of truly digital natives.

Another study from The Chronicle entitled “The New Generation of Students: How colleges can recruit, teach, and serve Gen Z” argues that this “is a generation accustomed to learning by toggling between the real and virtual worlds…They favoir a mix of learning environments and activities led by a professor but with options to create their own blend of independent and group work and experiential opportunities”.

For Gen Z knowledge is everywhere. “They are accustomed to finding answers instantaneously on Google while doing homework or sitting at dinner…They are used to customisation. And the instant communication of texting and status updates means they expect faster feedback from everyone, on everything.”

For such students, the instructor is no longer the sage on stage from whom hapless students passively imbibe information through lectures, but a facilitator or coach who engages students in active and adaptive learning. Their ideal instructor makes class interesting and involving, is enthusiastic about teaching, communicates clearly, understands students’ challenges and issues and gives guidance, challenges students to do better as a student or as a person, among several attributes.

For Gen Z knowledge is everywhere. “They are accustomed to finding answers instantaneously on Google while doing homework or sitting at dinner…They are used to customisation. And the instant communication of texting and status updates means they expect faster feedback from everyone, on everything.”

Teaching faculty to teach the digital generation, and equipping faculty with digital competency, design thinking, and curriculum curation, is increasingly imperative. The deployment of digital technologies and tools in institutional operations is expected to grow as universities seek to improve efficiencies and data-driven decision-making. As noted earlier, the explosion of data about almost everything that happens in higher education is leading to data mining and analytics becoming more important than ever. Activities that readily lend themselves to IT interventions include enrollment, advising, and management of campus facilities. By the same token, institutions have to pay more attention to issues of data privacy and security.

Public Service Engagements 

The second major trend centres on rising expectations for public engagement and service. This manifests itself in three ways. First, demands for mutually beneficial university-society relationships and the social impact of universities are increasing. As doubts grow about the value proposition of higher education, pressures will intensify for universities to demonstrate their contribution to the public good in contributing to national development and competitiveness, notwithstanding the prevailing neoliberal conceptions of higher education as a private good.

On the other hand, universities’ concerns about the escalating demands of society are also likely to grow. The intensification of global challenges, from climate change to socio-economic inequality to geopolitical security, will demand more research and policy interventions by higher education institutions. A harbinger of things to come is the launch in 2019 by the Times Higher Education of a new global ranking system assessing the social and economic impact of universities’ innovation, policies and practices.

Second, the question of graduate employability will become more pressing for universities to address. As the commercialisation and commodification of learning persists, and maybe even intensifies, demands on universities to demonstrate that their academic programmes prepare students for employability in terms of being ready to get or create gainful employment can only be expected to grow. Pressure will increase on both universities and employers to close the widely bemoaned gap between college and jobs, between graduate qualifications and the needs of the labour market.

Third is the growth of public-private partnerships (PPPs). As financial and political pressures mount, and higher education institutions seek to focus on their core academic functions of teaching and learning, and generating research and scholarship, many universities have been outsourcing more and more of the financing, design, building and maintenance of facilities and services, including student housing, food services, and monetising parking and energy. Emerging partnerships encompass enrollment and academic programme management, such as online programme expansion, skills training, student mentoring and career counseling.

Another Chronicle monograph, “The Outsourced University: How public-private partnerships can benefit your campus”, traces the growth of PPPs. They take a variety of forms and duration. It is critical for institutions pursuing such partnerships to determine whether a “project should be handled through a P3,” clearly “articulate your objectives, and measure your outputs,” to “be clear about the trade-offs,” “bid competitively,” and “be clear in the contract.”

The growth of PPPs will lead to greater mobility between the public and private sectors and the academy as pressures grow for continuous skilling of students, graduates, and employees in a world of rapidly changing jobs and occupations. This will be done through the growth of experiential learning, work-related learning, and secondments.

Unbundling of the Degree

The third major transformation that universities need to pay attention to centers on their core business as providers of degrees. This is the subject of another fascinating monograph in The Chronicle entitled “The Future of The Degree: How Colleges Can Survive the New Credential Economy”. The study shows how the university degree evolved over time in the 19th and 20th centuries to become a highly prized currency for the job market, a signal that one has acquired a certain level of education and skills.

As economies undergo “transformative change, a degree based on a standard of time in a seat is no longer sufficient in an era where mastery is the key. As a result, we are living in a new period in the development of the degree, where different methods of measuring learning are materialising, and so too are diverse and efficient packages of credentials based on data.”

In a digitalized economy where continuous reskilling becomes a constant, the college degree as a one-off certification of competence, as a badge certifying the acquisition of desirable social and cultural capital, and as a convenient screening mechanism for employers, is less sustainable.

Clearly, as more employers focus on experience and skills in hiring, and as the mismatch between graduates and employability persists or even intensifies, traditional degrees will increasingly become less dominant as a signal of job readiness, and universities will lose their monopoly over certification as alternative credentialing systems emerge.

As experiential learning becomes more important, the degree will increasingly need to embody three key elements. First, it needs to “signify the duality of the learning experience, both inside and outside the classroom. Historically, credentials measured the learning that happened only inside the university, specifically seat time inside a classroom.”

Second, the “credential should convey an integrated experience…While students are unlikely to experience all of their learning for a credential on a single campus in the future, some entity will still need to help integrate and certify the entire package of courses, internships, and badges throughout a person’s lifetime.”

Third, credentials “must operate with some common standard… For new credentials to matter in the future, institutions will need to create a common language of exchange” beyond the current singular currency of an institutional degree.

The rise of predictive hiring to evaluate job candidates and people analytics in the search for talent will further weaken the primacy of the degree signal. Also disruptive is the fact that human knowledge, which used to take hundreds of years, and later decades, to double is now “doubling every 13 months, on average, and IBM predicts that in the next couple of years, with the expansion of the internet of things, information will double every 11 hours. That requires colleges and universities to broaden their definition of a degree and their credential offerings.”

All these likely developments have serious implications for the current business model of higher education. Universities need “to rethink what higher education needs to be — not a specific one-time experience but a lifelong opportunity for learners to acquire skills useful through multiple careers. In many ways, the journey to acquire higher education will never end. From the age of 18 on, adults will need to step in and out of a higher-education system that will give them the credentials for experiences that will carry currency in the job market.”

In short, as lifelong careers recede and people engage in multiple careers, not just jobs, the quest for higher education will become continuous, no longer confined to the youth in the 18-24 age range. “Rather than existing as a single document, credentials will be conveyed with portfolios of assets and data from learners demonstrating what they know.”

Clearly, as more employers focus on experience and skills in hiring, and as the mismatch between graduates and employability persists or even intensifies, traditional degrees will increasingly become less dominant as a signal of job readiness, and universities will lose their monopoly over certification as alternative credentialing systems emerge.

Increasing pressures of life for lifelong learning will lead to the unbundling of the degree into project-based degrees, hybrid baccalaureate and Master’s degrees, ‘microdegrees’, and badges. Students will increasingly stack their credentials of degrees and certificates “to create a mosaic of experiences that they hope will set them apart in the job market”.

As African educators we must ask ourselves: How prepared are our universities for the emergence and proliferation of new credentialing systems? How are African universities effectively integrating curricular and co-curricular forms of learning in person and online learning? How prepared and responsive are African universities to multigenerational learners, traditional and emerging degree configurations and certificates? What are the implications of the explosion of instructional information technologies for styles of student teaching and learning, the pedagogical roles of instructors, and the dynamics of knowledge production, dissemination, and consumption?

Lifelong Learning 

The imperatives of the digitalised economy and society for continuous reskilling and upskilling entail lifelong and lifewide learning. The curricula and teaching for lifelong learning must be inclusive, innovative, intersectional, and interdisciplinary. It entails identifying and developing the intersections of markets, places, people, and programmes; and helping illuminate the powerful intersections of learning, life, and work. Universities need to develop more agile admission systems by smarter segmentation of prospective student markets (e.g., flexible admission by age group and academic programme); some are exploring lifelong enrollment for students (e.g., National University of Singapore).

Lifelong learning involves developing and delivering personalised learning, not cohort learning; assessing competences, not seat tim,e as most universities currently do. “Competency-based education allows students to move at their own pace, showcasing what they know instead of simply sitting in a classroom for a specific time period.”

Lifelong learning requires encouraging enterprise education and an entrepreneurial spirit among students, instilling resilience among them, providing supportive environments for learning and personal development, and placing greater emphasis on “learning to learn” rather than rote learning of specific content.

As leaders and practitioners in higher education, we need to ask ourselves some of the following questions: How are African universities preparing for and going to manage lifelong learning? How can universities effectively provide competency-based education? How can African universities encourage entrepreneurial education without becoming glorified vocational institutions, and maintain their role as sites of producing and disseminating critical scholarly knowledge for scientific progress and informed citizenship?

Conclusion 

In conclusion, the 4th Industrial Revolution is only one of many forces forcing transformations in higher education. As such, we should assess its challenges and opportunities with a healthy dose of intellectual sobriety, neither dismissing it with Luddite ideological fervour nor investing it with the omniscience beloved by techno-worshippers. In the end, the fate of technological change is not pre-determined; it is always imbricated with human choices and agency.

At my university, the United States International University (USIU)-Africa, we’ve long required all incoming students to take an information technology placement test as a way of promoting information literacy; we use an ICT instructional platform (Blackboard), embed ICT in all our institutional operations, and we are increasingly using data analytics in our decision-making processes. We also have a robust range of ICT degree programmes and are introducing new ones (BSc in software engineering, data science and analytics, AI and robotics, an MSc in cybersecurity, and a PhD in Information Science and Technology), and what we’re calling USIU-Online.

 

This article is the plenary address by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza at the Universities South Africa, First National Higher Education Conference, “Reinventing SA’s Universities for the Future” CSIR ICC, Pretoria, October 4, 2019.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger.

Ideas

Why Indeed Scholars are the Heirs of Prophets

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo. Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing—Knowledge.

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Why Indeed Scholars are the Heirs of Prophets
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“Scholars are inheritors of Prophethood”
Prophet Muhammad PBUH

To fully contextualise and grasp the gravity of this saying of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH requires knowledge of not just the role of prophethood in society but also of the nature of society. At both the level of Max Weber’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, society consists of large groups underpinned by a set of beliefs that organise the membership’s affairs. This is irrespective of the fact that one is organic and the other legal-rational.

This underpinning corpus of beliefs that serves as the groups’ existential truth, criterion of measure and all-encompassing narrative of and about existence, is the lens through which the internal and external universe at both individual and group level is perceived and therefore ordered. It is this story that is articulated by prophets and oracles of yore, and the scholars and intellectuals of the present day.

It is by this measure that the scholars are inheritors of prophethood. From this saying, by analysis of the function of prophets, we can extract the role of scholars in society.

All through history prophets have oscillated between one extreme end, the highest level of political leadership — what Plato called “the Philosopher King”, the ruler of his utopian city Kallipolis who possesses wisdom and simplicity — and the other extreme end, the highest level of political activism — what the 19th century termed as Radical Activism, individuals who called for total societal change, engineering complete upheaval of the status quo.

Both the Philosopher King and the Radical are enabled by one thing — Knowledge.

What knowledge?

Knowledge of truth.

What truth? Which truth?

Empirical? The truth about the inner workings of nature? No.

The truth about the existential, teleological and relational nature of man. In short, a coherent set of beliefs that tell us where we came from and where we are going, why we are here and how we should relate to one another.

The most cogent and convincing story told, that comprehensively answers this question, will calibrate all social interaction, order and direct us all.

It is for this reason that British colonialism of the African continent began with a story. A Story about the salvation of souls, a promise of a beautiful place of endless bliss and, over and above that, complete absolution. Successful “Christianisation” was a sine qua non for absolute subjugation and slavery of the natives. The advance guard of imperialism was the Church Missionary Society.

In fact, the need for this “story” and its power over peoples was common imperialist knowledge. Penelope Carson’s book The East India Company and Religion 1698-1858, records an incident in which 17th century churchman and orientalist Humphrey Prideaux, who was later to become Dean of Norwich, castigated The East India Company for neglecting the propagation of Christianity in India, pointing to the success of the Dutch East India Company, arguing that their Dutch counterparts thrived due to proselytisation of Christianity where they expanded.

Where native elites intervened to bar the entry of missionaries in places such as Japan, the peoples of these lands remained free of European colonisation for centuries.

The answer to the question of existence, manifested in the instinctive questions we all ask — Where did we came from? Where we are going? Why are we here? How we should relate to one another? — has all-encompassing power over a community and society, and herein lies the power of the scholar.

Knowledge has only one purpose: to elevate the human condition, to drive away barbarism and raise us to civilisation. For knowledge is the only attribute that differentiates us from the rest of creation.

Why not make the case for free will here too? For free will is a factor of knowledge. Free will and self-awareness are implied and are necessary predicators for knowledge.

There was never any need for a tree of knowledge in the heavens where angels reside, as angels have no free will. Neither was there any need for one in the realm of beasts, for beasts have no intellect. Only man has the unique ability to value knowledge, for only he has both intellect and free will.

Given that the purpose of knowledge is to lead us to our Xanadu, it follows that those amongst us with the wherewithal for knowledge have a teleological duty to the knowledge and an essential duty to their kind to take the mantle of intellectual leadership together with all the risks and rewards it portends.

This knowledge of purpose enables the scholar to direct the society from its empirical state towards its normative ideal. This direction is not frictionless. It ensures a never-ending struggle between the interests anchored in the status quo and those rising from the promise of change. American scholar and activist Noam Chomsky captures this function well in this quote from his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals: “With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.”

Failure to rise to this duty can be legitimately termed betrayal of calling, betrayal of self.

In the past, where humanity was organised at village and tribal level, it would have been sufficient to speak to individual scholarly duty, but in today’s complex social order, we must communicate the same argument to the organisations in our society that consist of knowledge workers and whose purpose is knowledge or a derivative of knowledge.

This would consist of universities and religious organisations and their affiliate unions and associates. To this end we will cite the most well-known or stereotypical examples of individuals and organisations that have endeavoured to live up to the demands of this vital function, or calling.

The unity of individual scholarship and activism is perfectly epitomised by the world-renowned Scholar Noam Chomsky mentioned earlier, as this summarised excerpt from Who is Noam Chomsky?” perfectly illustrates:

Chomsky joined protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes.

He also became involved in left-wing activism. Chomsky refused to pay half his taxes, publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested while participating in an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. During this time, Chomsky co-founded the anti-war collective RESIST with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald. Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, Chomsky gave many lectures to student activist groups and, with his colleague Louis Kampf, ran undergraduate courses on politics at MIT independently of the conservative-dominated political science department.

Because of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was arrested on multiple occasions and included on President Richard Nixon’s master list of political opponents. Chomsky was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience and his wife began studying for her own doctorate in linguistics to support the family in the event of Chomsky’s imprisonment or joblessness.

Locally Dr David Ndii has struggled immensely and very successfully to live up to Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals, explaining the economic reality and the Government of Kenya’s policies/plans to the public in terms understandable by all. He began in the most widely read newspaper Daily Nation and now writes economic analyses and open letters to the rulers on the popular online political journal The Elephant, often successfully compelling the government to respond, albeit with more propaganda and red herring.

His sister-in-arms Dr Wandia Njoya has waged an equivalent struggle in the domain of education and culture. Patrick Gathara and Rasna Warah, whose timely pieces questioned the reasons for the Kenya government incursion into Somalia as part of America’s global imperialist Wars of Terror, triggered a vital conversation at the most appropriate time and place, where the powers that be would have preferred none.

Two critical parts remain for our native scholars and intellectuals (“native” continentally-speaking). First is crystallising their ideas into philosophies that can animate the public and move it to action, “action” being the work of bringing the ideas to life in social order and government policy.

Second is inculcating in a group of their students their philosophy, and organising them to carry it to the public space. The scholar or intellectual is a social actor just as is the politician, only at a different stage of the work of social organising. The scholar or intellectual produces the ideas that the politician or activist organises the public around. If a politician is “Philosophy in Action”, the scholar then is the “Action of Philosophy”. That the group for the politician is termed a political party is moot; the currency for both actors is public opinion and neither scholars nor politicians can be effective without the support of groups. We may term the group around a scholar as followers or disciples for purposes of differentiation.

It is hard to imagine, but Noam Chomsky was once a student. Chomsky began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Chomsky states in many interviews that he found little use for his classes until he met Zellig S. Harris, an American scholar touted for discovering structural linguistics (breaking language down into distinct parts or levels). Chomsky was moved by what he felt language could reveal about society. Harris was moved by Chomsky’s great potential and did much to advance the young man’s undergraduate studies, with Chomsky receiving his B.A. and M.A. in non-traditional modes of study.

Noam Chomsky is categorical that, outside of his father, Zellig S. Harris is most responsible for his intellectual direction, political thought and activism.

From scholar-activists to organisation activism

For examples of organisations that have transcended the limited group interests of their membership to actively engage social issues that affect all, we may look to the teacher’s unions in Latin America which are actually social movements that have played critical roles at national and sub-national levels.

The paper Promoting education quality: the role of teachers’ unions in Latin America from the UNESCO Digital Library reports that in Brazil, during the 1988 constitution-writing process, teachers’ unions worked with academic, student and national trade confederations to advocate minimum funding for education. They succeeded in obtaining a constitutional provision establishing that 18 per cent of federal and 25 per cent of state and municipal taxes must go toward education.

Given the crisis we face today is fundamentally a crisis of ideas — or more specifically the lack thereof — to galvanize society, we need our scholars to tell us a new story, or to tell us an old story in a new way.

The Canadian scholar and psychologist, Dr Jordan B. Peterson, serves as an apt example of telling “an old story in a new way”. He reframed the Christian story for an atheistic age, infusing new life into the West’s Cultural Right. After years of losing ground to the liberal social values of the Left, conservatism has found its footing.

Sheikh Taqiuddin An-Nabhani, the Palestinian jurist and founder of political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, reframed Islam as a System for “the Age of Systems”, giving Muslims a way to perceive the complex new global order through the lens of their beliefs. And in so doing, giving Muslims new faith in their way of life and re-energising them to work to find their way forward to re-establishing the Islamic order they had lost.

This spark is what we need. As individuals, and as humanity.

For us in Africa, the 1885 Berlin Conference order is in the terminal stages of decay, just like its Sykes-Picot equivalent in the Middle East. Talk of secession is everywhere in Africa. Even the presumably stable territories like Kenya have not been exempt. Secession, which is the fracture of states, suffers conditions similar to “entropy”, which is the dissipation and dispersion of particles within an entity. Secession creates new problems beyond the potential for an infinite recurrence of further secession. Darfur’s struggle to secede from South Sudan, after South Sudan seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011, after Sudan seceded from Egypt on 1 January 1956, is a perfect modern example in Africa. Somalia need not be elaborated.

Superficial measures such as renaming countries are no different from adopting some costume as a national dress in search of a new post-colonial identity. They are named in top-down tyrannical initiatives and “un-named” after the death of the baptising despot.

Convergence of nations into new blocks has failed to resolve any of the problems humanity faces, even at the highest level of political awareness, with the blocks beginning to BrExit and GrExit even before they are fully formed.

Democracy is imploding as the multiple centres of thought — democracy’s vaunted raison d’être, “Pluralism” — mature into the centres of gravity of powerful hurricanes of political movements, many currently spinning across America leaving death and destruction in their wake, and threatening to tear America, the paragon of Democracy, into a thousand pieces.

Yet we cannot dial the clock back to our tribal ways as Mungiki the Kikuyu tribal cult that rose in the central highlands of Kenya proved. Our tribal enclaves have been completely shattered by imperialism’s modern-day manifestation — liberalism — never to exist again. There is no tribal safe haven to return to for any of us.

Never in the history of humanity has there been such plenty sitting side-by-side with such great need. Capitalism promised humanity that the free market would solve all its problems. Freedom as a doctrine would lead all of humanity to happiness, plenty and fulfilment. This paradise would follow absolute “freedom of markets”, “freedom of capital”, “freedom of thought and speech”.

But as the Bible famously says, “as it was in the beginning so is it in the end.” Freedom of ownership was first enshrined in the Magna Carta, the 1215 AD agreement between King John of England and his Barons, the land owning aristocracy. Freedom of religion, was promulgated in 1648 from the Treaty of Westphalia, as the right of the Kings and Princes of Europe to choose the religions for their nations and therefore their subjects. The now sacrosanct “Universal Suffrage” born of the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848 was a “right to vote” for “white men”. Universal Suffrage being for white men had the net effect of establishing a “political universe” in which only white men are the only legitimate citizens.

That summarised the beginning of “our cherished freedoms”.

History shouts loud and clear that freedom, in all its configurations, from the beginning was and is only for the powerful ruling elites, yesterday the Barons and Princes, today the capitalists and selected politicians, or as Marx termed them, the Bourgeoisie. As for the working class, the poor masses, in the words of Marx, freedom for them was, is and continues to be, the freedom to choose “to work” or “to starve”.

Yet the story the “angry genius” Karl Marx himself told, that promised equality by negation of our most basic human instincts — our instinct to possess, our instinctive need to believe and to be, and that has gained great resurgence powered by the dramatic failure of Capitalism in recent times — also failed humanity epically.

It is incumbent upon those gifted with ability and knowledge, and those vested with the leadership of organisations that consist of agents of knowledge, to transcend their group interests and work for society’s overall well-being.

The need has never been greater.

An outcome of the homogeneity imperialism imposed upon us all is that we are all immersed in the same operating system, secular capitalism. For this reason, we find ourselves in the same predicament of crisis, literally globally.

We need a powerful new story, or an old story told in a powerful new way.

A story that will remind us of our common humanity, harmonise our relations with each other and the rest of creation and reveal to us a common destiny, that can unify our sense of purpose.

We need scholars at the universal and local level, to crystallise a story, an idea into an isotope that will fuse with our imaginations and trigger a chain reaction that will galvanize radical change.

The situation is critical, the need urgent.

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Ideas

The Death of LAPSSET and Kenya’s Poverty of Imagination

The Kenyan government’s misguided and costly investments in big infrastructure projects are compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Meanwhile, elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.

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The Death of LAPSSET and Kenya's Poverty of Imagination
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The Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project was officially launched at Magogoni, the site of the new Lamu port, in 2012. The two heads of the coalition government attended.

At the launch, President Mwai Kibaki told the people of Lamu that they had a new constitution and that they should familiarise themselves with its provisions to protect their land rights. Prime Minister Raila Odinga said something to the effect that the train is now leaving the station and either you Swahili can get on board and go forward with the rest of us, or you can remain behind as is your usual custom.

After the launch, LAPSSET progressed in fits and starts. A modern building to house the secretariat was built in Mokowe, an official website came online, and construction of three of the 32 planned berths began.

LAPSSET is by far Africa’s most ambitious project. Its description on the website is a testament to Kenya’s central planners’ imagination:

This mega project consists of seven key infrastructure projects starting with a new 32 Berth port at Lamu (Kenya); Interregional Highways from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba (South Sudan), Isiolo to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), and Lamu to Garsen (Kenya), Crude Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba; Product Oil Pipeline from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Addis Ababa; Interregional Standard Gauge Railway lines from Lamu to Isiolo, Isiolo to Juba, Isiolo to Addis Ababa, and Nairobi to Isiolo; 3 International Airports: one each at Lamu, Isiolo, and Lake Turkana; 3 Resort Cities: one each at Lamu, Isiolo and Lake Turkana; and The multipurpose High Grand Falls Dam along the Tana River.

During the interim, the local community fought back through Save Lamu, a coalition of community organisations. Their objective was to make the Kenyan government hear their voices and to facilitate local participation.

Save Lamu was ignored, harassed, and accused of opposing the region’s development. The organisation constantly repeated they were not against the project, but rather, they were fighting for the right of the local community to be consulted over its impact on the environment and local livelihoods. At one point, the office holders were summoned to Nairobi by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). For two days, CID officers interrogated them about their imputed involvement in the horrific Al Shabaab attack in Mpeketoni. They returned safe but frazzled by the experience.

Several months later, the coalition extended its advocacy to the Lamu power plant, a 1,050 Mw coal-fired electricity project to be built next to the port at enormous cost and protected by Treasury-sapping guarantees for payment of the power whether the electricity was used or not. Although some people in Lamu supported the new port for the prospects of the jobs it would create, the community in no uncertain terms did oppose the coal-fired plant.

Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention. The lack of acclamation reflects the simple fact that the tide has been going out on LAPSSET for several years.

Kenya left holding the baby

In 2016, the Ugandan government announced plans to build a railroad that would connect Juba to another planned rail line from Kampala to the port of Tanga in Tanzania. Kampala explained that although the Tanzanian route was longer, the lower cost of construction justified the decision to withdraw from the planned link-up with the LAPSSET route through Kenya. In September, Ethiopia set in motion plans to build a 1500-kilometre railway to Khartoum and Port Sudan. The planned rail line effectively removing Ethiopia from the LAPSSET equation added another nail in the project’s coffin.

In 2009, major Western and Asian governments were queuing up to finance the diverse components of LAPSSET. South Sudan, or more correctly, the oil in South Sudan, was the main prize. At the time of LAPSSET’s initial conceptualisation, the country was forced to export its oil through Port Sudan. Newly independent South Sudan was exporting over 350,000 barrels a day in 2012. Although the supply was expected to decline over the decade, exploration held out the promise that much more crude oil would be coming, complementing the even larger deposits found in northern Uganda and eastern Congo.

Compared to the PR invested in the LAPSSET during the previous years, the announcement several months ago that two of the berths at the Magogoni port were completed came with no fanfare and limited media attention.

The sea of oil reportedly floating underneath the long neglected region made the grandiose infrastructural investment appear sensible at the time. The peak oil theory was making waves. But a matrix of factors, including climate change, the discovery of new oil reserves across the planet, and the falling cost of renewable energy, shifted the calculus. The financiers slowly melted away, leaving the Government of Kenya holding the baby.

This was also due to the other usual suspects: unreliable state partners, the fickle nature of investment capital, and the multiple problems that come with big projects in this and most parts of the world – all of which was compounded by the fact that exporting the thick crude required building the supporting superstructure from scratch, including heated pipelines to prevent coagulation en route. The pipeline to Lamu was estimated to cost US$ 8 billion circa 2012. China, the primary purchaser of Sudan’s oil, told Salva Kiir they would loan him the money for the pipeline but would not pay for it as many local stakeholders had assumed.

LAPSSET was already losing its shine at that juncture, and even before the pandemic, Kenya’s investment in big infrastructure (epitomised by the financially challenged Standard Gauge Railway project) was proving to be a debt spinning mirage. If this is not a concern for those playing the front-end game, the Big Project mentality should be a concern for everyone else.

Colonial conquest and economies of scale

The expanding powers of Europe invaded the continent when the age of industrial capitalism was taking off. Material progress and the conquest of nature became the measure of man and nations. During the first half of the 19th century, world trade doubled; between 1850 and 1870 it expanded by 260 per cent.

Coal and iron fueled industrial commerce. Steamships and railways provided the sinews. The length of European railway tracks increased from 1,700 miles in 1840 to 63,000 miles in 1870, and passed 100,000 miles ten years later. Progress in other infrastructural domains followed a similar trajectory.

The unification of countries, new constitutions, and an increase in civil liberties preceded these developments in Europe. The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.

The contrast accounts for why the British colonial administrator, Charles Eliot, found little to recommend in the socio-economic domain during his tour of the East African Protectorate. The country’s future, he opined, “lay in the vegetative kingdom”, but it was infrastructure that led the way. Eliot’s comment, “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country”, conveyed not only the inverted logic of colonialism, but also the outsized impact of the Uganda railroad.

The establishment of industrial capitalism redirected the pathway to include investment in public goods like education and scientific research. The knowledge creation enabling the imperial surge came from a different mindset. The work of Charles Babbage in informatics, the engineering audacity of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Alexander von Humbolt’s quest to map the planet’s geographical features all stemmed from an outsized imagination.

The illumination of the Enlightenment had created an ecosphere of brightness and shadows, unchaining rationality from its religious and superstitious fetters in Europe but shrouding Africa in relative darkness.

The process supported a complicated system dedicated to the maintenance of growing armies of labourers and soldiers while erecting monuments, heroic statuary, and grandiose houses of worship. For generations, communities bought into the idea because it improved their security and facilitated trade.

The scale of such intellectual agendas is different than the Thinking Big model of development. Expanding vistas of science and the imagination is not the same as building a gigantic dam or assembling the King of Bahrain’s new robot bodyguard. Such toys and vanity projects, like Dubai’s artificial islands, represent one endpoint set in motion by the capture of surplus, the rise of elites, and the formation of states.

Once upon a time the rise of the state offered a pathway out of a world of fear, superstition, conquest by neighbours, and punishments ordained by the gods. Half a millennium later, the Leviathan became the new god of economic rationality that substituted hierarchy for cooperation, replaced the commons with capitalist extraction, and generally raised the quality of life in exchange for the mega-accumulation benefitting a small group of individuals. All this was done in the name of efficiency and progress.

For five hundred years, the state expanded, culminating in big government experiments, such as the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s China. Its post-1989 retreat left us with Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Water, Big Data, Big Finance, Big Retail, and even Big Foreign Policy in the guise of Xi Ping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The skewed rewards of stardom has made competition a Winners Take All game across the board, from corporate salaries, sports, to social media.

The Big State was colonialism’s parting gift to Africa and the neoliberal economy now incentivises its agents to transact resources and to cash in on their geopolitical location.

Mentalities of scale

The United Kingdom’s Whitehall model replicated itself across the Empire’s colonies. Everything from the formal school system, the conventional assumptions of developmental policies, and the inability of the colonial-designed African nation-state to remake itself following the unsuccessful post-independence alternatives championed by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and Julius Nyerere reinforces this state of mind.

Historically, infrastructural development takes care of itself once the factors of production, exchange, security, and basic rights are in place. No one planned or financed the Great Silk Road but it sustained Central Asia’s contribution to world civilization from the pre-Christian era until about two hundred years ago. Even the succession of invasions, conquests, and dynasties that swept over the region did little to disrupt the underlying system that supported the trade network until Russia’s colonial ambitions instigated the 19th century imperial great game in that region.

Now China is seeking to build a grander Great Silk Road spanning the Eurasian Steppe as part of the Communist government’s Belt and Road Initiative. It remains to be seen if the outcome will work the way XI Ping’s planners anticipate. In the meantime, the mega cities built on the country’s margins remain uninhabited and many of the centrally-planned BRI projects are experiencing cost overruns and other problems. The New Silk Road may yet set in motion a revival of the complicated oppositions and conflicts characterising the region’s history.

Back in this part of the world, where the historical template is totally different, it is still mind-boggling that big failures, from the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme to LAPSSET, the Galana-Kulalu Irrigation scheme and the Jubilee government’s faltering Big Four agenda, continue to propagate themselves. The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.

There is a difference between tapping economies of scale and scalability. This also applies to the world of ideas. We live in a world where the critique and testing of concepts and beliefs that long underpinned human processes is being reduced to the circulation of memes. This is reducing political discourse in the democratic West to the capture of single-issue constituencies and battle lines based on memetic tribes.

In Kenya, the political arena has long been dominated by a dynamic based on the control of the monolithic state. In these conditions, the problem of scale is not a function of small-to-large, even though the educated elite have been conditioned to think in these terms. Politics in these conditions descended into a monetised exercise based on ephemeral ethno-linguistic coalitions.

The terms of repayment behind the Jubilee government’s Standard Gauge Railway gambit may even reverse Eliot’s observation: for the first time, building a railway has unmade a country.

This approach has proven to be poorly suited to the challenge of fitting together multiple units of different sizes into a synergetic economic configuration. The history of the pre-colonial era provides an alternative political economy template. Kenya’s constitutional reform marked a step in this direction, but replicating the dynamics patterned on regional initial conditions will remain a work in progress as long as the power concentrated in the centre works to break creative devolution and participatory development.

We are witnessing shifts in workplace and settlement patterns that make it possible to envision the process reaching an equilibrium point where entities based on the old clan and new tribe continuum may reemerge as an asset. But who is thinking about the future in terms that question the conventional assumptions about organisation, or that tap into the co-evolutionary potential inherent in Kenya’s cultural mosaic?

Kenya’s superstructural poverty

In social science, superstructure refers to the ideational domain – the world of concepts, languages, myths, ideologies, science, religion, superstitions, beliefs, and shared assumptions that define the societal mind. Culture is an overlapping concept that is typically defined in terms of a population’s superstructural orientations and the behavioural patterns they generate.

The influence of superstructure and the cultural domain occupies a secondary role in materialist and evolutionary analysis. For example, the use of tools and fire resulted in the reduction in the size of early human beings’ jaws because they no longer had to use their mouths to rip and chew meat. This in turn led to the rise of language, a primary enabler of cultural development.

Things were simpler during the Paleolithic. Today societies are complex systems where prediction based on infrastructure variables, such as the development of roads and communications, is confounded by the influence of non-linear dynamics and unpredictable forces. This is because superstructure is a mutable domain. It acts as both a critical source of both system maintaining and system changing feedback. This is a key element of societal transitions that allows us to translate our collective experience into resilience. Once deemed an epiphenomenon, evolutionary ecology studies now document the role of culture in accelerating the slow process of biological evolution.

The colonial model superstructure worked to stabilise Kenya’s development during the first decades after independence. When the rigid organisational order began changing due to a release phase during the Moi era, the ground began to shift under the received paradigms of development. Before that the socialism versus capitalism dichotomy contributed to the intellectual debate about Kenya’s and the developing world’s progress in general. Both sides of the discourse acted as mechanisms selecting for the regional ideological convergence we now take for granted. Promoting integration is a good idea but the utility of the current top-down approach is debatable.

A recent journal article examining LAPSSET and three other similar infrastructure corridors described the political economy of corridors as “contests over the framing of development interventions influenced by a range of social and technical imaginaries”. Kenya’s politicians’ and policy makers’ embrace of large-scale centralised planning comes with high costs; the benefits of Kenya serving as Eastern Africa’s hub are slipping away. Kenya’s reputation of maintaining an even-handed regional foreign policy has also been marred.

The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind. Preachers, social media, and identity politics expanded into the vacated superstructural space. The influence of the Chinese model contributed to passive acceptance of the techno-infrastructural developmental pathway. Behind-the- curtain dealings have generated the funding.

As a result, Kenya’s public-private cartels continue to benefit from a succession of revenue-draining projects and a succession of massively overpriced feasibility studies that render local stakeholders invisible. The Infrastructural Master Plan for the LAPSSET Corridor and Lamu Port, for example, is a thousand-page document that does not mention the regional population and communities affected. The attempt to build a technologically obsolete pollution-belching coal plant next to one of the planet’s most unique near zero-carbon urban settlements and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is proof of what can happen in the absence of a countervailing developmental narrative.

The passage of the 2010 constitution set the stage for a new phase of transformational reorganisation, allowing Kenyans greater scope in defining their future. But the critical thinking required to guide the transition has lagged far behind.

This is not to say the objectives of projects like LAPSSET will not be realised. The issue is not so much thinking big but the actors and incentives behind it. The corporate-empowered developmental state many African governments aspire to be should not be conflated with the moonshot mentality behind so many of humanity’s greatest achievements. The regional links will coalesce over time, Old Silk Road style.

In the meantime, Kenya’s superstructural deficit is compromising the nation’s socio-economic transformation. Elite-driven opportunism has suffocated intellectual debate and multicultural vibrancy that once characterised the flow of ideas in this part of the world. Unlike infrastructure, investment in the exchange of ideas is not costly. The time is ripe for a Big Conversation.

We will discuss the some of the concepts and practices framing the new developmental narrative emerging across the world in the second part of this epistle—which will also locate Kenya as an important player in our collective transition to the Anthropocene.

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Is Universal Basic Income the Answer to Alleviating Poverty?

Poverty is the main factor in the transmission of coronavirus. What we need is a “vaccine” against the disruption of livelihoods, and a model might just be staring us in the face.

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At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, made a statement that has become the butt of social media jokes. He said, “If we continue to behave normally, this disease will treat us abnormally. Behaving normal under these circumstances is akin to having a death wish.”

The man in charge of the health docket as the nation is in the throes of a global pandemic moaning and lamenting the public’s apparent refusal to comply with the official prevention strategy sounds defeatist.

The government had curtailed movement into and out of the capital city, Nairobi, and Mombasa and Kilifi counties. A national dusk-to-dawn curfew had been imposed, and a health advisory required that all Kenyans wear masks, avoid social gatherings and other crowded places, including places of worship, and practice handwashing with soap and running water, preferably every half hour.

“Stay at home. Work from home,” was the official line.

“What work? Which home”? Kayole resident Albert Otieno, a 32-year-old father of two who lost his job when the economy was shut down by the virus and is battling a chronic health condition, puts the stay-at-home order in perspective:

Sasa ku-stay at home na isolation, pande yangu ilinifinya. Ilinifinya proper. Kwa sababu, for my family to eat . . . na mimi napata hand to mouth, yangu siwezi sema hata nita-save, yangu nikikuja nayo hivi, ni kuiweka kwa meza. Kesho unaenda tena kwenye umetoka. Unatoka kwa nyumba tena bure, bila hata bob, ya kuenda hata utasema eti nitaenda kula lunch huko kwenye ninaenda, ama utakula breakfast. So hiyo social distance iliniua. Hiyo working at home, mimi sina ati kazi nitaifanya kwa nyumba. Sasa kazi gani nitafanya na mimi kazi yangu ni ya mikono yangu? Now to stay and home and the matter of isolation to me was oppressive, properly oppressive. This is because for my family to eat, and I only get hand-to-mouth, for me I cannot even think of saving, what I earn lands on the table that day. Tomorrow you have to go back where you earned the previous day, you leave the house without even a shilling, nothing that you can say you will use to eat lunch or breakfast. For me when I put my earnings on the table it is all gone. So that social distancing is a death sentence, that working from home too. I do not have any work that I can engage in at home. What work will I do when I survive from the work of my hands?

The question that lingers is whether the government took into account what “normal” means for a majority of Kenyans before suggesting that behaving normally is akin to a death wish.

The Cabinet Secretary was addressing himself only to a small proportion of the Kenyan population, those with the wherewithal to host parties and deliberately disregard health advisories, and certainly not the majority of Kenyans whose existence is defined by poverty.

The coronavirus disrupted the livelihoods of a majority of Kenyans, and the only way that they could survive was to continue their usual, normal life struggles. The 17th edition of the Kenya Economic updates 2018, places 36.1 per cent of Kenyans below the poverty line, whereas a SIDA report indicates that almost 80 per cent of Kenyans are either income poor, or near the poverty line. This means that a majority of Kenyans are tottering on the precipice and risk losing their means of livelihood at the drop of a hat. The report paints a gloomy picture of the Kenyan economic situation. It states,

As much as 78% of Kenyan workers are employed in the informal sector, many of whom lack security of employment, have few labour rights, lack trade union organization, and suffer from low access to social protection. Women, youth and persons with disabilities are even less likely than other groups to receive benefits, including health benefits, when engaged in the informal sector.

The informal sector is made up of small-scale business people, typically, casual or domestic workers, mama mboga (vegetable sellers), mama fua (washerwomen), street hawkers, jua kali artisans, boda-boda (motor-bike and bicycle taxis), kamjesh (transport sector crew) and mjengo crew (builders). Seventy-two per cent of the households which earn their livelihoods in the informal sector do not have a stable income and live mainly from hand-to-mouth. In the 2019 census, Nairobi recorded a population of 4,397,073 of whom 60 per cent — about 2.6 million people — live in informal settlements. Of these city residents, 30 per cent or 1,446,549 are severely food insecure with only 25,000 having a semblance of food security.

According to a rapid food security assessment conducted in April 2020 by The Kenya Red Cross Society, a majority are experiencing severe hunger. Only one out of every four households in Nairobi’s informal settlements has a stable income. Only 20 per cent of the thousands of households in Mukuru and Korogocho are able to support 80 per cent of their domestic needs. This is the situation in Kibera, Mathare, Soweto, Majengo, Gitare, Marigo, Gatina, Lunga Lunga, Kayole and probably in many other informal settlements in the Kenyan urban areas.

The Kenyan economy was already doing badly when the coronavirus struck and COVID-19 was just one more nail in the coffin. Those who were struggling are now barely clinging to life by the skin of their teeth. As the pandemic intensified, food prices soared and reached an unprecedented three-year high, while the cost of essential items like paraffin for lighting and cooking went up by more than 20 per cent in some cases.

Mildred Lucia, a single mother of four living in Dandora who used to wash clothes to earn a living until the coronavirus struck, laments the rise in the prices of basic commodities. “Vitu zimepanda, kama unga tulikuwa tunanunua unga kilo moja shillingi 40. Saa hii imepanda hadi 50 to 55. Napia mchele imepanda. Tulikuwa tunanunua Pakistan 40 shillings saa hii imepanda ni 55 nusu kilo!” The cost of basic commodities has skyrocketed, like maize meal that we were buying at forty shillings now costs between fifty and fifty-five shillings. The price of Pakistan rice has also gone up. We used to buy at forty for half a kilo and now it’s fifty-five!

Food prices have risen by over 25 per cent since the pandemic struck. Food and rent are the highest recurring costs in the informal settlements, followed by health. With no work, residents in the informal settlement see their debts pile up day after day. The sense of desolation evident in Nairobi’s informal settlements is replicated in every informal settlement in Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Nakuru.

The coronavirus pandemic and the government’s mitigating strategies disrupted livelihoods. Informal jobs were lost. Those working in the construction industry lost their jobs because building sites were closed and those that remained open could only operate within the limits of the curfew. At the beginning, the 7 p.m. curfew meant that construction sites closed at 3 p.m. having opened late as the curfew only ended at 5 a.m.

Workers were paid less for working fewer hours. Women who sell food and water to the construction workers and the washerwomen who make a paltry Sh200 per day washing clothes suddenly found themselves persona non grata in the homes of the wealthy who feared that they might transmit the coronavirus to them. The street hawkers selling food, groceries, vegetables and fruits were affected, not only because they were not able to freely ply their trade, but also because the incomes of their customers had been disrupted. And with movement curtailed, the earnings of boda boda riders dropped because they had fewer clients.

Children in the informal settlements had their education completely disrupted because they do not have access to online learning facilities and nor can they afford home schooling. Children stayed at home, or wandered aimlessly around the informal settlements making their parents very worried for their safety. Staying at home in the crowded informal settlements is untenable, yet when the children and their parents wander outside the anxiety rises further because no one knows who could be a COVID-19 vector. Parents return home after a day of trying to earn money to buy food and cannot hug their children because they do not have water to sanitise. Water in the informal settlements costs 150 per cent more than it does in the more affluent neighbourhoods where it is piped right into the houses.

As the loss of livelihoods ate up whatever savings families had, debts began to pile up: food credit, fuel bills and rent arrears. Landlords evicted the Incomeless tenants and locked up the houses, in some cases locking up the tenants’ belongings inside. Many residents of informal settlements built up huge rent arrears forcing them to adopt extremely desperate measures. Thirty-two-year-old Albert Otieno moved into the single room occupied by his old ailing mother, whose own house back in Budalang’i in Busia County had been swept away by the floods that preceded the coronavirus pandemic. In Albert’s culture, this is taboo and totally unacceptable. He says this has affected the entire family.

All these little traumas arising from valiant attempts to stay alive are taking a toll on the mental health of the inhabitants of informal settlements. Cases of domestic violence, homicide and suicide have risen significantly since the coronavirus hit. The National Council on the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) noted that 35.8 per cent of crimes reported just a fortnight into the coronavirus lockdown were of a sexual nature. The perpetrators were for the most part people close to or known to the victims.

Data from the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) shows a similar trend. During the pandemic, CREAW’s gender-based violence helpline has been recording an average of 90 cases a month, compared to 20 cases during the same period last year. The rate of gender-based violence was alarming enough for President Uhuru Kenyatta to order investigations into the rising cases. The National Crime Research Centre was tasked to probe the escalating cases of gender-based violence as well as the sharp rise in teenage pregnancies during the lockdown.

Distress calls to helplines have surged more than ten-fold since the lockdown measures were imposed. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that dealing with pandemics can be stressful, and that the prevention strategies suggested could lead to fear and anxiety thereby increasing stress levels. Stress can cause fear and worry for one’s safety as one is forced to continue doing what they must in order to live. This results in an upsurge of mental health challenges and a worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions.

There are also other health-related challenges that further complicate the lives of the poor. In the informal settlements where cases of chronic diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are more prevalent, and cases of hypertension and cardiovascular disease remain untreated for long, access to health services is disrupted because resources to travel to seek health services cannot be raised. The result is that scheduled medical appointments are missed, and respecting medication schedules becomes impossible.

There is also the reluctance to visit a health facility for fear of contracting the coronavirus there and cases have been reported where healthcare providers lacking personal protective equipment (PPE) are reluctant to see patients they suspect could be infected. This means that expectant mothers are not able to access prenatal care, and new-borns cannot be taken for post-natal clinic appointments. Moreover, many children in the informal settlements will miss their immunisations and this will have long-terms effects well after the COVID-19 curve has been flattened. Mutahi Kagwe’s remarks rang hollow for the millions of poverty-stricken Kenyans forced to take risks and behave as they normally do as they struggle to eke out a living day by day.

Universal basic income is the answer to the inequalities exposed by COVID-19. This bold statement is the title of a blog by Kanni Wignaraja, the United Nations Assistant Secretary General and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, and Balázs Horváth, Chief Economist, UNDP, Asia-Pacific. Kanni has been consistent in her writing in support of a policy response to the coronavirus that has universal basic income (UBI) as its centrepiece. She has argued that without a robust response targeting the poor and the marginalised, the long-term social effects could be grim, and could erase any economic recovery put in place to re-energise the economies devastated by the coronavirus lockdown.

Of all the models of social protection, universal basic income is probably the most radical approach. Social protection describes a wide range of interventions — direct and indirect, in cash or in kind, social services, reliable public and private initiatives that enable people to deal with risk, vulnerability or shocks such as the coronavirus, provide support to overcome acute and chronic poverty and enhance the resilience, the social status and rights of marginalised individuals.

As the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the informal settlements, a consortium of NGOs — Oxfam Kenya, The Kenya Red Cross Society, Concern Worldwide, ACTED, IMPACT, the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) and the Wangu Kanja Foundation — have been running a cash transfer social protection project targeting 20,000 households in Nairobi’s informal settlements with funding from the European Union (EU). The programme began in June and was designed to complement the government’s Inua Jamii initiative that was offering cash support to the poor. The cash transfer project reached out to 11,250 households that were already receiving Sh2,000 from the government with a Sh5,668 top-up every month.

Through the Nyumba Kumi mechanism, the project identified a further 8,750 households which received Sh7,668 monthly. The sum was calculated to provide at least 50 per cent of what is described as the Minimum Expenditure Basket (MEB), or half of what an average family needs to survive. The project also identified 1,200 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) for legal and psychosocial support and even resources to find a safe house. The Royal Danish Embassy also signed a DKK20 million (Sh310 million) grant to provide cash support to 40,000 vulnerable households within informal settlements in Mombasa and Nairobi. By mid-September, Sh204,020,492 — approximately €1.6 million — had been transferred to 15,792 individuals. This is obviously a drop in the ocean, but does it present a model that can be scaled up as a solution to help alleviate poverty?

Social protection programmes that provide cash transfers have greater impact compared to initiatives run by the government. Studies have shown that government-run social protection programmes in Kenya typically missed out 90 per cent of the informal workers compared to a reach of 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Workers in the informal sector, when compared to other workers in Kenya, are less likely to get involved with organisations or service providers through whom they can access medical benefits from employers. The elderly and persons with disabilities (PWD) are worse off in this respect.

Speaking for UNDP, Kanni Wignaraja has made it clear that there must be some sort of minimum income that acts as a safety net so that the most vulnerable do not succumb to hunger or other diseases well before COVID-19 gets them. In Nairobi’s informal settlements where this social support project was running, it was a case of pulling people back from the brink.

Beneficiaries of the cash transfers recount how the money literally gave them a lifeline. Albert Otieno was able to pay his rent arrears, buy medication to treat his cancer and buy food for his children. The money also eased the domestic tension and brought a smile to his wife’s face; for the first time since he lost his job his family were able to eat three square meals a day. Albert is still in disbelief that he was included in the social protection programme without knowing someone or having a godfather or being asked to pay a bribe. He describes himself as a guy who was a thorn in the flesh of the Nyumba Kumi chairman because whenever he had no money to buy his medication or food for his family he would go to the chairman. The transparency in vetting and the integrity of the programme is why he feels it should be adopted by the government. Otieno says that in Kayole where he lives, he has not heard of any beneficiary of the government’s Inua Jamii programme although it is supposedly on the ground.

Beatrice Mbendo, a 39-year-old pregnant single mother of three whose washing jobs had dried up, was able to pay her debts including rent arrears when she received the money. In her view, the government should have a social protection programme for the poor even in the absence of a pandemic. So does Mildred Lucia, who sells tissue paper in Dandora Phase 4. She is a mother of four whose business collapsed with the onset of COVID-19. She used to be a washerwoman, but all like her are now treated like pariahs because of fear that they might infect their clients. When she received the cash transfer, the money went to feeding her family which had been reduced to eating a single meal a day. Mildred also invested a little money to grow her business and she is hopeful that this boost will get her out of the clutches of poverty.

Margaret Mutambi was thrown out of her home after an abusive eleven-year marriage. When she received the cash transfer she was able to purchase household goods for her new home, pay rent arrears and buy food for her children. Margaret decries the fact that there are no formal jobs for women in the informal sector, saying that their vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence is exacerbated by their dependence on men. At her lowest moment before she received the cash transfer Margaret had to re-use a face mask when she went out to look for work because she could not afford Shs20 to buy a mask and could not afford to stay put at home.

Cash transfer as a social support strategy has its critics, with the most vociferous saying that it is unsustainable and leads to a dependency syndrome that results in recipients not being keen to try and get back on their feet. Others have complained that receiving “hand-outs” is undignified and robs the assisted communities of their sense of self-worth. Yet others complain that cash transfers promote lethargy and laziness, that recipients adjust to being in the programme and have no incentive to exit even when their lives improve. Those against cash transfers also argue that poor people do not know how to handle money, and that they are wont to waste whatever they receive or invest in non-essentials. However, research and evaluative studies have debunked these myths and vindicated the cash transfer social protection approach.

The argument that UBI is unsustainable is the most challenging one to counter except from a moral standpoint. Kanni responds to it with an existential dilemma. She states,

The alternative to not having UBI is the rising likelihood of social unrest, conflict, unmanageable mass migration, and the proliferation of extremist groups that capitalise and ferment on social disappointment. It is against this background that we seriously need to consider implementing a well-designed UBI, so shocks may hit, but they won’t destroy.

A properly designed social support programme should be able to transition the community from abject poverty to a state where social business can take over in uplifting living standards The Grameen Bank model has demonstrated that the poor have the capacity to work themselves out of poverty as long as they are given initial support. By the end of 2008, the bank had loaned up to $7.6 billion to the rural poor with a repayment rate of 99.6 per cent. Of these borrowers, 97 per cent were women. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recognised the work of Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus.

Grameen Bank believes that the poor know best how to better their situations and debunks the notion that unconditional cash transfers to the poor will be abused and lead to further poverty. Research findings show that cash transfers actually do provide the poor with support to pull themselves up, and notions of reluctance to resume work have been disproved.

In the informal settlements the normal cannot be avoided. It is a threadbare normal, rendered worse by the efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Without cash transfers, the risk of death lies not in ignoring the government’s advisory but in actually adhering to it.

Today, the cash transfers from the state and the bilateral partners have ceased but millions are still held hostage by poverty. Is there a lesson to be learnt from the UBI “coronavirus vaccine” that, for a while, shielded some 20,000 households from COVID-19? Could UBI be used as a blueprint for a national social support and livelihood system that could be run by the national and county governments?

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