The World Bank Group Africa Fellowship Program

The Bank has an exciting fellowship for PhD students from the Continent.

According to the Bank’s website:

Fellows will spend a minimum of six months at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. getting hands-on experience in development work. This includes knowledge generation and dissemination, design of global and country policies and the building of institutions to achieve inclusive growth in developing countries. While benefitting from research and innovation in multiple sectors, Fellows will also work on economic policy, technical assistance, and lending for eliminating poverty and increasing shared prosperity. Special attention will be given to work with Fragile and Conflict-Affected States.

More on this here.

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.

What if we killed all the mosquitoes?

It appears that a malaria vaccine will not be available for some time. According to Reuters,

“The world’s first potential malaria vaccine proved only 30 percent effective in African babies in a crucial trial, calling into question whether it can be a useful weapon in the fight against the deadly disease.”

Reading this reminded me of my own illness with malaria at the end of summer.

Back in September I contracted malaria while on a short trip back home in Kenya. Due to malaria’s incubation period I only started feeling sick after I was back in Palo Alto. My illness set off a total freakout at the Stanford Hospital. No less than four medical students, besides the crowd from the infectious disease unit at the hospital, passed by my hospital bed to ask the EXACT same questions (And of course they wanted to keep me overnight. They had an IV drip already installed in my arm. I tried my best to tell the doctor that I didn’t think I needed to be hospitalized to no avail.) The nurse who took my vitals put a mask on my face the moment I told her that I had malaria (I had to restrain myself from reminding her that malaria is not airborne). A week later the Santa Clara county infectious disease office called me to get my details and ask me if I was feeling better – The government wanted to know where and how I got malaria (The grad student in me was fascinated by this level of state capacity).

A few weeks before my Kenya visit I was in Fort Worth, TX. This was at the height of the West Nile virus outbreak that killed dozens of people. At the time the health authorities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were in the middle of spraying the area to kill all the vectors (mosquitoes). My girlfriend reminded me of the fact that as recent as when her parents were growing up in Grand Prairie, TX much of the American South still had to be sprayed regularly (with DDT) to get rid of disease-bearing mosquitoes.

The reason I recounted these stories is to illustrate the fact that there is an alternative to pouring tons on money on vaccine research or bed nets. Yes, these may result in cool scientific discoveries or provide excellent opportunities for social scientists to get published on their RCT findings. But the reality is that millions of people are still dying.

Instead of asking those living in high disease burden environments to change their behaviors and sleep under mosquito nets, how about we get rid of the mosquitoes??

If it worked in the American South, and many other places, why can’t it work in Africa?

I would very much love to live in a place free of malaria. Because of my age and health, my malaria infection at the end of summer was a mere nuisance – muscle aches, head aches and fatigue. But for millions of children and post-natal mothers across much of tropical Africa malaria is a fatal disease.

But is DDT the answer? Haven’t we been made to internalize the evils of DDT?

It turns out that what we know about DDT might not be the whole truth. As Gourevitch argues, the environmental impact of DDT might have been overblown by the environmentalists.

Writes Gourevitch:

“Around the same time, the U.S. government launched an ambitious DDT-centered malaria eradication project which by the early ’60s had virtually eliminated malaria from Southern Europe, the Caribbean, and parts of East and South Asia. (In India, for example, annual deaths went from 800,000 to zero.) At the time, DDT was thought to be such an effective and useful substance that in 1948, Muller received a Nobel Prize in medicine. “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT,” declared the National Academy of Sciences in a report in 1970. “In little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths, due to malaria.””

Adding that:

“But over the years, mainstream scientific opinion has absolved DDT of many of its supposed sins. Indeed, the Stockholm Convention partially backfired because it brought to light a slew of studies and literature reviews which contradicted the conventional wisdom on DDT. Like nearly any chemical, DDT is harmful in high enough doses. But when it comes to the kinds of uses once permitted in the United States and abroad, there’s simply no solid scientific evidence that exposure to DDT causes cancer or is otherwise harmful to human beings……

Not a single study linking DDT exposure to human toxicity has ever been replicated.”

But even assuming that the effects were as bad as they were claimed to be, shouldn’t we as humans be able to decide on the relative importance of human lives versus bald eagles?

How many children should be allowed to die so that bird watchers can better enjoy their Sunday afternoons?

please do away with the “omnipresent smells of donkey dung”

Big business and economic development in “pristine lands” is awful. Especially if you grew up with the comforts of indoor plumbing and general over-abundance of the purest hedonistic-capitalist kind. It is only when you have the choice to pop in and out of “tropical obscurity” that you would find the intellectual courage to defend a way of life that is just above that of man circa 1750 A.D. Suddenly you find yourself forgetting the basic fact that it is underdevelopment that makes infant mortality, HIV infection rates, gender inequality and a whole lot of other maladies most acute in your presumed tropical paradise.

I am beginning to read things to the effect that the development of a port in Lamu (Kenya) is bad – both for the environment and the local people and their culture. I don’t buy most of the stuff though. The likes of Gettleman want us to believe that people in places like Lamu are inherently anti-development. According to him the people of Lamu “say they are not especially well suited for the mechanized world.” Good for them. They would much rather live with the “omnipresent smells of donkey dung” than have a modern port constructed in their district. This is total horse manure.

Firstly, the environmental costs of having a modern port in Lamu will surely be outweighed by the socio-economic benefits. Oil exports from Uganda and Southern Sudan, among other trading opportunities in the wider region will surely create jobs in the area. Secondly, why should we assume that exposure of Lamu culture to the wider (albeit still not completely apparent) Kenyan Culture is necessarily bad? Aren’t cultures supposed to change with time? Plus if Lamu culture cannot keep up after such an encounter it should be allowed to go the way of the dodo. That is why we build museums.

If it can be done – as it should – the construction of Kenya’s second port in Lamu should be a foregone conclusion. The Kenyan government should make this crystal clear to all the environmentalists and anthropologists concerned.

subsidiary of british firm suspends ore imports from congo

It is not a secret that the war in eastern DRC is more than anything else economic. The trade in charcoal and a litany of minerals has forever been blamed for the conflict that has killed, maimed or displaced millions of Congolese. It is therefore encouraging to learn that Thailand Smelting and Refining Co. (Thaisarco), a subsidiary of British metals giant Amalgamated Metals Corporation (AMC), has suspended the import of tin ore (cassiterite) from the Congo because it believes that the trade in the mineral might be financing the Congolese civil conflict.

The move has however been criticised by Global Witness, an advocacy group.Global Witness argues that if AMC is indeed concerned about the financing of the conflict then instead of cutting and running it should contribute in the setting up of a proper industry-wide system of checks on all sources of metals. The cessation of imports, argues Global Witness, does nothing for artisanal miners in the Congo who depend on trade in metal ore for their livelihood. It also does nothing to stop the trade in ‘blood’ metals in general from the Congo.

Citing a 2002 UN Report that accused AMC and its subsidiary (among other firms) of breaching OECD guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Global Witness said that AMC and Thaisarco had always known that their activities in the Congo were funding the conflict there.

AMC and Thaisarco cited “the threat of misleading and bad publicity” as their main reason for halting their trading operations in the DRC. Kudos to Global Witness for their campaign against militarized exploitation of minerals in the DRC. I hope this sets a precedent for the many foreign firms that continue to profit by trafficking in minerals from the Congo – at the expense of millions of innocent women and children… and men.

ruto is a disappointment over mau

Leaders are meant to lead – to set the agenda and make people believe that what is good for them is exactly what they need. On this count, Agriculture minister William Ruto has failed as a leader. On the issue of Mau Forest, he is increasingly sounding like a mad populist out to gain political mileage at the expense of millions of Kenyans – including those that he is purportedly protecting.

That deforestation in the Mau is causing the drying up of vital water sources – 12 rivers included – is no longer contested, not even by Mr. Ruto himself. I therefore do not understand why he is still against the eviction of those who illegally acquired land in the forest. The government has already agreed to compensate small holders (with title deeds) who were cheated into buying land in the forest. But wealthy Kenyans who acquired land in the Mau due to their connections to the Moi Administration should not be given a cent. In any case they should be investigated.

I say it is time that Mr. Ruto acted as a leader and made the case to his constituents that saving the Mau is in their best interest. This is the least he can do if he really aspires to be seen as a respectable national leader rather than an over-glorified tribal chief.

another african big man won’t leave

Mamadou Tandja, the president of Niger, yesterday announced that he will ignore a court order against a referendum on whether to extend his rule or not after his term expires later this year, adding that he will continue to rule by decree. Mr. Tandja has been in office since 1999 and is constitutionally barred from running for a third term. His second term ends later this year. The country’s parliament was dissolved in May. It is unclear whether parliamentary elections scheduled for August 2oth will be held.

Niger, a nation of 15 million, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its per capita income is US $700 despite being a major uranium exporter. Most Nigeriens depend on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood in this mostly desert country. Ever shortening drought cycles, continued desertification in the Sahel and a rapid population growth have conspired to retard meaningful economic development.

It’s weird how things never change. We have heard this story countless times in many an African country. President Tandja belongs to the crazy bunch running the Continent who see themselves as irreplaceable demiurges entitled to rule for life. What amount of hubris would make a scarcely educated 71 year old man think that there is no one else in a country of 15 million that can fill his shoes? And given the dismal state of Niger’s economy it can’t be that hard to outdoor Mr. Tandja. He should simply go home.

africa continues to be myopic and ready for the picking

So I keep reading stories about foreign governments like China, the Gulf States and South Korea that are planning on buying millions of acres of Africa’s arable land in order to provide food security for their citizens. From what I gather, most African governments are eager to sell 100 year leases in order to make a quick buck and then for 100 years condemn their countrymen and women to being near-slaves to foreigners in their own countries. How more stupid can our leaders get?

As a continent, Africa is the most food insecure place on the planet. Millions depend on food aid, even in supposedly more developed countries like Ghana, Kenya and Senegal. Some countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and nearly all of the Francophone Sahel have never known food security for decades. They have been permanent recipients of aid from the US and the World Food Program. It makes you wonder why it is not these governments making deals with their fellow African countries to guarantee the continent some food security.

Food production is what propelled human civilization. Mesopotamia, the Indus-Gangetic Valley, the Nile Valley, were all organised with an aim of improving food production so as to free up talent for other more meaningful human endeavors. Africa, nearly 12,000 years later, still cannot afford to feed its own people. It is not a question of land or water. The great lakes regions can feed the entire continent and still have a surplus. With the exception of the South West African countries and the Sahelian states, all of Sub-Saharan African countries ought to be food-secure. The fact that they are not is simply and squarely because of poor leadership.

And now these same inadequate leaders want to sell the land to foreigners. I am assuming that when foreign governments buy land they’ll treat it like they do with their embassies – provide their own security and run the show by their own rules. I wonder how different this will be from an outright recolonization of the African continent by more developed and better run countries.

We are still in the woods. And we are screwed for the foreseeable future. Like it is not even funny anymore. Our Mugabes, Obiangs and Zenawis continue to fail us big time. How hard can it be to run a country? Like seriously.

thoughts on africa’s population figures

The other day I came across some stats that got me thinking. It is apparent that at the current rate of population growth, Africa’s population will double in the next half century (Even after having discounted for malaria and – according to the Economist – the over-estimated AIDS figures). This can either be a blessing or a curse.

It could be a blessing due to the fact the non-viability of some African states is because they are too sparsely populated and do not have big enough internal markets to support robust economies or generate enough revenue in terms of taxes to pay for effective government. Therefore, a big population would bring more good than harm. I am not saying that the solution to Africa’s poverty and lack of development is a higher population growth; I am just making the observation that populous Ethiopia is more viable as a sovereign state than huge but thinly populated Chad or Niger.

The negative effects, however, are more real and immediate. As it stands, Africa cannot feed its entire population – hence its current reliance on food imports and relief to meet the balance. Furthermore, due to rather dismal economic performance over the last four decades, the population growth rate has far outstripped economic growth. As a consequence, Africa is the only region in the world where per capita incomes have declined since the seventies. The ideal solution to this problem would be to simply increase the rate of economic growth to surpass that of population, but this cannot just be made possible with a magic wand. It will take time.

The situation therefore calls for a clear and well formulated population policy. If Africa is to take off economically and improve its deplorable average living standards, it has to arrest the high rate of population growth (continental average fertility is more than 5 children per woman, the world average is below 3). This need not be some China-like thing, I believe that with the right incentives to families and insistence on longer and better education of girls the situation can be changed. Studies have shown that, on average, better educated women tend to have fewer, healthier and better educated children.

In the future though, with proper planning, I think it is in the continent’s best interest to have a big population. By some estimates, Africa can support upwards of 1.5 billion people with its 28% arable land (China has 13%). A big and economically vibrant population will not only be invaluable in reducing the continent’s over-reliance on foreign trade (internal trade accounts for paltry 10%) but also for strategic security purposes.

global warming, africa cannot afford passivism

Climate change is increasingly becoming an issue in African states as more and more of them get exposed to the effects of global warming – the glaciers are disappearing from the top of Mt. Kirinyaga (Mt. Kenya) and Mt. Kilimanjaro and the sea level off Africa’s coasts continues to rise. On this issue, African countries like most developing countries, find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand there is a need to cut green house gas emissions in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences that will befall the planet, but on the other hand these same countries need to industrialise using cheap means that may not necessarily be green. Green technology in its current rudimentary state simply cannot power industries.

Global warming is real, but at the same time it would be morally unacceptable to continue delaying poor countries’ development by forcing them to go green in this stage of their economic development. For instance countries in Africa contribute only 2.5% of the total global green house gas emissions. Currently green energy is expensive and cannot be used in an industrial scale. This does not give poor countries a carte blanche to pollute as much as they want as they continue to industrialise. Industrialisation should go on under strict regulation in order to keep the pollution levels to a minimum.

Africa also needs to seriously plan for the consequences of having a warmer planet. Some countries like Niger and the Central African Republic have made great strides in trying to stop the spread of the Sahara by having successful tree growing programmes even with their rather meagre resources. The AU should learn from these two countries and take up a leading role in campaigning for a green (or just about as green as can be done) industrial revolution on the continent, devoid of the wastefulness that continues to characterize modern living in cities around the world. The Kofi Anan headed Alliance for Green Revolution, I believe, is a step in the right direction and will play a vital role in providing food security for the continent’s peoples when the going gets tough due to global warming induced famines.

Climate change is a global problem and needs to be tackled through a coordinated effort by all players – underdeveloped and developed alike. Indeed it is the developing countries that should be most voluble in this campaign because as the earth warms up and the frequency of droughts increase, the hardest hit will not be the owners fossil energy guzzlers in the developed countries but hapless farmers somewhere in the global south countryside who have never owned a motor car or a CFC emitting gadget.