Two Important Lessons Americans Should Learn From the Senate Torture Report

As Americans digest the contents of the just released Senate Report on CIA’s use of torture, here are two important lessons that they ought to internalize.

  1. The release of the report neither absolves America of the deeds highlighted therein, nor does it mean that such gross violations of the rights of non-Americans have ended. As Mother Jones reported back in 2012, President Obama may have ended officially sanctioned torture, but as it continued to wage the global war on terror America merely “outsourced human rights abuse to Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere” through rendition programs. In addition, CFR has calculated that over the course of 500 drone strikes under both the Bush and Obama administrations 41 men were targeted, but 1147 people were killed. Dangerous terrorists should be taken out, by all means. But at some point we must begin to ask questions about what ought to constitute an upper limit of tolerable collateral damage. Especially in relation to the lives of innocent non-combatants.
  2. By outsourcing illegal practices to governments in the developing world America is contributing to the weakening of institutions of accountability in those countries and the radicalization of potential jihadists. Six months ago I argued for caution in the ongoing militarization of US-Africa relations. My worry is that many American security arrangements with African governments are designed to bypass normal democratic channels (like direct military to military cooperation) and risk creating unaccountable militaries and governments. In Kenya, for instance, it is increasingly unclear whether the military or the elected civilian administration is in charge of national security policy (especially with regard to the mission in Somalia). Nairobi has also recently been on the spotlight accused of engaging in extra-judicial killings of suspected terrorists with foreign assistance. In addition, many governments in the region that cooperate with the US have enacted sweeping anti-terror laws, many designed to also silence domestic political dissent. If it is not yet abundantly clear, it is high time American policymakers realized that unaccountable and highly securitized governments play into the hands of jihadist recruiters.

The release of the report is certainly commendable. It is a shining example of the virtues of separation of powers, something that America, more than any other nation in history, has perfected. But it is not an end in and of itself. It ought to be a first step in acknowledging that human rights do not end at the water’s edge, and putting pressure on elected officials to devise national security and foreign relations policies that respect this fact. Despite what some Americans may say, respecting the rights of non-Americans and their desire for accountable political and military institutions will not weaken America. On the contrary it will make it stronger by bolstering its soft power, and safer.

On the quality of higher education (and human capital development) in Africa

This post first appeared on the African Development Bank’s Integrating Africa Blog where I am a regular contributor. 

UPDATE: I got an email from readers working with the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE), exactly the kind of collaboration that I am saying is much needed in Africa. Check them out here.

According to The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013, the highest ranked university in Africa, the University of Cape Town, is 113th in the world. The ranking system employs 13 performance indicators that take into account universities’ core functions, including “research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.” Among the leading 400 world academic institutions, there are only four from Africa, all in South Africa. As a region, Africa only has 35 scientists and engineers per million inhabitants, compared with 168 in Brazil, 2,457 in Europe and 4,103 in the United States. The region is clearly behind as far as knowledge production and dissemination is concerned, producing only 1.1 percent of the world’s scientific knowledge, despite comprising more than 13 percent of the global population.

At barely over 8 percent, Africa’s gross enrollment in tertiary institutions of learning is the lowest of any region in the world (UNESCO, 2011). The average enrollment rate for developing countries is 23 percent, and that for advanced countries is 74 percent. Africa’s poor showing in the higher education sweepstakes is both a cause and effect of the region’s poor economic environment. The massive cuts in higher education funding in the wake of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 1990s, even as enrollment more than tripled between 1991 and 2005, have had an adverse impact on quality. And in turn, the lack of high quality tertiary level education has starved the region of high skills needed for efficient allocation of factors of production thereby stunting improvement in productivity, high value addition and research and development. Africa devotes less than 1 percent of its GDP to research and development.

Data from 33 countries for which it is available show that tertiary education financing in the region has declined from a high of US $6,800 per student per year in 1980 to just about $981 in 2005. Over the same period the World Bank decreased its education lending from 17 percent in 1985-89 to just 7.5 percent currently (this is despite the fact that the World Bank nearly doubled its education lending between 2008 and 2009). The decline in public funding in the face of increasing demand for higher education has led to the proliferation of private universities of dubious standards and a bias towards perceived “soft” fields. In 2004 a meager 28 percent of students were enrolled in perceived “hard” disciplines in the sciences and engineering.

A 2008 study of 12 countries showed an increase in public universities from 113 to 188 between 1995 and 2008. Over the same period private universities ballooned from 14 to 107. This rapid increase in the number of universities in the region has not been matched by an increase in the number of trained teaching staff or facilities such as laboratories, libraries, and the like. Indeed, most of the new universities have tended to specialize in vocational subjects that require very little capital and human resource investment. To put it mildly, there is a great mismatch between the region’s development needs and the type of graduates it produces each year.

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An impression of the proposed Konza City in Kenya

The shortage of skills permeates nearly all skill levels, and could get worse as the region’s economy continues to grow over the next two decades. The case of Kenya is illustrative. The country has an ambitious plan to be the information and communication technology (ICT) hub of Eastern Africa (dubbed the “Silicon Savannah”) complete with a proposed $10 billion techno-city (Konza City) situated about 60 kilometres southeast of Nairobi. Already ICT multinationals, including IBM, Microsoft, Google and Intel, have their regional headquarters in Kenya. All this sounds good, except the lack of local skills. IBM’s research lab in Kenya has had to source for top talent among graduates in computer science, electrical engineering, mathematics, and data scientists from American universities. There is still a shortage of required skills among graduates of Kenyan universities. Quality assurance is also lacking, as recent news reports of “theses for hire” have demonstrated.

As the Kenyan case suggests, the lack of sufficient investment in high quality tertiary education has adversely impacted Africa’s ability to realize its economic potential. A 2005 study showed that a one-year increase in the higher education stock of the region could boost growth rate by about 0.63 percentage points. This adds up to an overall increase in income by about 12 percent over five years. For the region to take off economically there is need for greater investment in quality higher education that will train workers for the 21st century economy. But improving the quality of higher education in the region will be a very costly affair. On their own, the region’s countries lack both the resources (on account of their small economies) and demand (on account of their population sizes) to justify the types of investments required. This is where regional cooperation comes in.

Cross-border educational exchanges are not new in Africa, and go back to the pre-independence era. For generations non-Senegalese francophone students have studied in Senegal, seen as a cheap way of getting quality education at par with diplomas from France. Uganda, with East Africa’s top university, Makerere, hosts legions of Kenyan students, eager to avoid congestion and high costs back home. South Africa, with its many quality institutions is also a preferred destination for students from across the continent. These historical cross-border exchanges have led to the formation of regional associations of higher education – the francophone Conseil Africain et Malgache pour l’Enseignement Superieur (CAMES); Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA); Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA); and inter-university cooperation under the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). Continent-wide, the 208-member Association of African Universities (representing 45 countries) is the umbrella organization of the region’s institutions of higher learning.

These associations need to be strengthened and empowered as drivers of regional harmonization of higher education both to facilitate cross-border inter-university mobility of both teachers and students and guarantee quality assurance. As a 2007 World Bank report aptly noted, “regional quality assurance networks are particularly relevant to Africa because of human resource constraints.” On this score the European Higher Education Area provides a possible model. The just over 10 years old Bologna process is working towards ensuring inter-university mobility (in terms of courses, qualifications, and periods of study) as well as a uniform quality assurance standard. In the African context, a continent-wide area of higher education is infeasible because of language and logistical constraints. However, sub-regional areas of higher education, based on the existing associations, provide a possible avenue to invest in a few good institutions of higher learning that can have a demonstrative effect on national institutions as well set high standards of learning. The associations themselves can also serve as certification bodies to ensure a uniform quality assurance standard (see here).

The announcement in late July 2013 of the creation of a new US $154.2 million multinational science, innovation and technology Pan African University (PAU) in the next five years is therefore welcome. (The African Development Bank (AfDB) has pledged a $45 million grant towards the effort.) PAU will be structured around existing institutions of higher learning across Africa’s five sub-regions. Basic sciences, technology and innovation will be based in East Africa; earth and life sciences including health and agriculture in West Africa; governance, humanities and social sciences in Central Africa; water and energy sciences including climate change in North Africa; and space sciences in Southern Africa.

Thus far, discussions over regional integration of systems of higher education have tended to view tertiary institutions as tools for regional economic and political integration – be it in East Africa, Europe or East Asia. However, the creation of stronger regional areas of higher education – especially in a region like Africa – can also be an economically efficient way of facilitating greater investment in higher education to match the demands of a 21st century economy. It is encouraging that current trends signal a move in this direction. University systems in Africa’s sub-regions would be a good place to start.

I conclude with a caution. The rapid increase in the number of public and private universities in Africa over the last two decades has come at the expense of other post-secondary institutions of learning such as polytechnics (this shift has occurred to a lesser extent in francophone Africa than anglophone Africa). In many countries governments have simply converted polytechnics and other constituent colleges into fully-fledged universities. This trend is worrying, especially given the fact that the vast majority of high school leavers on the continent do not make it to university. The low quality of high school education in the region (as demonstrated by the recent mass student failures in Liberia and Tanzania) is yet another reason why these “bridge” tertiary institutions are needed, both to prepare students for university and to impart valuable skills for those that do not eventually make it to university.

The rush to invest in university education should not distract from the fact that vocational post-secondary institutions, such as polytechnics, are an important component of human capital development, even in advanced countries as is the case in Germany (with its impressive “dual system” of training codified in the Vocational Training Act of 1969). As African economies move from dependence on primary commodities to manufacturing and technology, there will be need for skilled workers at all occupational levels. Doing away with vocational post-secondary institutions will only serve to further inhibit the development of adequate and relevant human capital to match the increased demand for skilled workers.

And now onwards with life after fieldwork…

With findings and humility.

And now onwards with life after fieldwork...

Kenyan Elections 2013 and The High Potential for Violence

In an excellent piece over at African Arguments Sheekh and Mosley give a comprehensive discussion of the recent outbreak of violence in the Tana Delta region of Coast Province, Kenya. According to the authors:

Long-standing competition and conflict over access to pasture and water resources were important factors, but did not alone provide the trigger for violence.  A range of political and economic factors have fed into the local dynamics in Tana Delta. These include longer-term trends related to alienation of local people from land due to large-scale government and private sector purchases, and shorter-term impacts related to the process of delineating electoral constituency boundaries and county districts in line with Kenya’s new constitution. The ready availability of small arms has also seen such conflicts intensify in recent decades. Lack of livelihood opportunities for the youth is also a major factor.

As such, the recent clashes are emblematic of wider trends.  Although the Tana Delta (along with the rest of Coast Province) has tended to be politically marginalised, tensions in other areas – such as Mt Elgon and parts of the Rift Valley including Eldoret, Nakaru and Naivasha, and counties in northern Kenya – could also be exacerbated by the same political factors.  Some of these areas were flash-points in the post-poll violence of late 2007 and early 2008, with major national and regional ramifications.”

Spot on.

The Tana Delta conflict is symptomatic of a larger dynamic that will play out in anticipation of the March 4th 2013 elections in Kenya. The new constitution has created 47 county governments, many of them multiethnic or otherwise diverse, that will each have three county-wide elected officials (a governor, deputy governor, and a senator). Ethnic and communal rivalries will inevitably surface in these county contests, with potentially disastrous outcomes such as what we’ve seen so far in Tana River County.

The potential for decentralized violence in Kenya’s 47 counties is a real cause for concern.

In order to limit the potential for violence, the national commission charged with policing ethnic harmony has initiated talks in potential flash-points to broker inter-ethnic power-sharing deals with the hope of avoiding a situation in which certain communities are totally excluded from county-wide elected offices. Sadly, so far there is no sign that these initiatives will work (Not to mention how un-democratic such back room arrangements will be). Plus the violence will not necessarily be exclusively of the inter-ethnic variety (which is what the commission is fixated on at the moment). Even ethnically homogenous counties might experience inter-clan violence.

While most of the attention in the next few months will be on how to avoid a repeat of the aftermath 2007-08 election, Kenya watchers should be warned that the problem will be much more complicated. If nothing is done, many counties will experience inter-communal violence. The new county governments will have real resources (about a third of national revenue) that will generate real patronage networks worth fighting for.

Given the nature of Kenyan politics, the race for the presidency (more blog posts on this soon) will inevitably hog all the attention in the next five months. I hope the contest for State House and its own risks for violence will not overshadow the county-level contests which will also be just as intense and likely to result in violence.

Happy Independence Day to all the Zambians out there!

Image source: Wikipedia

Who’s interested in democracy?

According to Google Trends the answer is Ethiopians. Between 2004 and now they score the highest in the search index for the word “democracy,” at least among the English speaking countries of the world. Ethiopians have lived under successive military and quasi-military dictatorships since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

It is also interesting to see the relative concentration of searches for the word in eastern and southern Africa compared not only to other regions in Africa but also to the rest of the world. Besides Ethiopia, the other countries in Africa with a high search index have recently had somewhat high levels of political contestation through reasonably competitive elections.