23 February 2013

Kenya: Formal Education Is Not Automatically Good


As an analyst, you're ultimately measured by the reliability of your forecasts. The elections in 2007 were one of my biggest failures. I didn't see the violence coming at all - and I wonder, in retrospect, if my perception of the run up to the elections had been tainted what I had wanted to see: Political maturity.

A peaceful transition in power. A one-term president being ok with a one-term presidency. Right now, I'm torn: partly, I think, I want to know, that it cannot happen again. That it would be inconceivable.

That nobody would put the country through such turmoil again. But then there's that sinking feeling: too many warning signs, too many déjà vu. The party nominations took me right back to 2007. The threats against the chief justice - we've seen that before, right? And why would we even be surprised by it?

Seriously worrying, by far not sufficiently covered in the media: the IEBC's technical readiness ‐or unreadiness.

In a short article for the Star, Sarah Elderkin described a demonstration of the IEBC's equipment for vote tallying and reporting. It took an hour, she said, for one of the five phones used or the demo to be able to transmit results.

With less than three weeks to go? When the IEBC (and GoK) literally had years to prepare? Too many fault lines for what was always going to be very complex, very difficult, very tense.

Amongst the images that linger from the last election are young men. Maybe my perception is very selective - I don't actually believe that women are inherently nicer than men (and good grief, there are some Sonko-style, beating- doors-down bruisers amongst the ladies running for office).

But I remember those images of young men, crowds, around matatus, with pangas, with other arms. It has been repeated so often that it is beginning to sound like a cliché: unemployed angry young men are a time bomb.

I suspect that this is not something that you can resolve with NGO programmes: If you can get someone to threaten neighbours, political opponents, business competitors, or simply people not wanting to pay an illegal 'tax' on their little hut for as little as a few hundred shillings - will that person be receptive to Facebook/Twitter campaigns on integrity and 'peacebuilding'?

It's been repeated just as often: if you don't give the members of this so-called youth bulge a perspective, jobs, prospects, then they are easy perpetrators (and easy cannon fodder).

But when you look at the promises being made at the moment, I can only laugh. It seems to be de rigueur, on every side, to pull some ludicrous random number out of a hat and promise that many jobs being created per year.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is enormous under and unemployment in Kenya, but I think the half a million jobs promised under the last administration didn't really work out either.

Throwing out yet another youth credit facility is not the solution: Never mind the inevitable massive leakage of funds in such facilities, it is also wildly unlikely that all those young people will be able to run businesses.

It is interesting how many jobs will reportedly be created in or through Konza. And quickly so. But if we're looking at a city with (relatively) high-tech jobs, where will the human resources come from?

Yes, Kenya beats its neighbours when it comes to educational and training levels, but still: the great unwashed and, more important, unemployed masses are not the ones who I anticipate will find jobs in Konza.

If Kenya is serious about, say, its ambitious ICT sector plans, then it also needs to get serious about creating the foundations for suit- able human resources. This isn't a question of simply herding more children through FPE anymore.

This is also not a question of making more wild promises about giving every school child a free laptop (which suggests that someone may have taken leave of his or her fiscal senses).

It's not something that will happen in the next three years, and not something that will come out of a tech hub. There is another angle to this: formal education isn't automatically good education.

Take a quick look online: there are far too many recent university graduates who can't string a (correctly spelled) sentence together, let alone a coherent argument.

Memorise, repeat, forget is the MO in way too many Kenyan schools and universities - not critical thinking and problem solving. This won't be helped by an ever growing number of universities. For one, having more graduates of the same low quality isn't progress.

And then there is the entire middle ground that is not covered: those people who are not necessarily university material, but who would do very well in vocational training: carpenters, electricians, plumbers and so on.

Kenya's jua kali sector is brimming with energy that could be harnessed with systematic skills development. Both require systemic, institution-based solutions, and not unrealistic pledges of simply more cash (that may or may not go safari - Prof Ongeri?).

Do you see those guys hanging around the matatu stages finding Konza jobs? Even if Kenya finds a way to turn around this problem, they might still be a lost generation. As a friend of mine said: you can't parade around a high unemployment rate as a ready labour pool.

The writer is an independent country risk analyst.

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