africa’s population – the economist’s view

The Economist has two interesting pieces on the demographic trends in Africa. The first article notes that the fertility rates on the continent are finally beginning to come down. The second one discusses the chances that Africa will take advantage of the democratic dividend and execute its own green revolution.

As I have argued before, there is a great deal of economic sense in bringing population growth on the Continent under control – at least until people’s life options have been increased enough so that they can make well informed choices on the number of offspring to have. The usual critics of family planning measures – the Church and conspiracy theorists – should take some time to visit slums or rural homes in which overburdened, dis-empowered daughters of the Continent with little or no economic wherewithal run

will agriculture save africa?

The Atlantic Monthly has a piece on the looming global food crisis – the world population is set to hit over 9 billion by 2050 while grain yields have not been increasing at the rates they used to in the latter decades of the 20th century (Will Malthus ever be right? God forbid!).

The article posits that Africa, with its rather dismal performance in the agricultural sector, presents a good opportunity for the increase in grain yields to add to the global food basket.

check out the short piece here.

edward kennedy, 77, passes on

America has lost one of its most illustrious sons. Ted Kennedy, brother to assassinated president John F. Kennedy, died Tuesday night at home in Massachusetts. Kennedy’s passing on comes at a time when the Democrats are battling to pass comprehensive reforms of America’s healthcare system. The late Ted Kennedy had for long championed the cause of giving affordable healthcare coverage to all Americans.

excellent books

The long silence, dear readers, is because I actually got work to do at my internship over the last few days. That and my brief trip to Zanzibar and the rather unreliable internet we have at the office thanks to our ISP (name withheld).

But while I was away I started reading three excellent books: Wangari Maathai’s The Challenge for Africa, Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat and Jean Oi’s Rural China Takes Off. I like Maathai’s frank take on the many challenges facing the African continent. I wish she were as involved these days on advocacy issues as she was back in the day – but may be even firebrands like this one get jaded after some point. Wrong’s book is a reminder to all who want to change Africa and Africans that it takes more than idealism to do the job. I am loving it. Oi’s book is about how local governments in China managed to break the cycle of underdevelopment to engineer the economic miracle that is the Asian giant.

I have a little over a week at my internship and will soon be posting a piece on my take on the state of the civil society movement in Kenya.

development issues

My promise to write a post on African development is almost becoming like Dr. Dre’s promise to release the Detox album. I promise it will come soon, after I settle on an opinion that is robust enough to withstand more than a few critiques.

For now we should be content listening to much wiser development experts – like Blattman, TN Srinivasan (the man who taught me intermediate microeconomics) and cynic in chief Bill Easterly.

A few years ago I used to conflate economic development with modernization. I thought that all it took to make vibrant economies in the global south was the importation of technology, material goods and ideas of governance from the more developed parts of the globe. But time has taught me that historical lock-in effects matter. The global south’s geography, historical poverty and social structures have created path dependencies that will take a lot of time to undo. This is not to say that we should give up on the idea of accelerated development. What I am suggesting is that as we do this we should have it in mind that certain things take time to change and that short-term failures disappear when you look at the long-term picture.

In other news, the conflict in Darfur has become less sexy and so it is no longer all over the news. But Darfurians are still suffering. The same applies to the Congo. Here is yet another reminder that the madness in the land of Mobutu continues unabated.

a most sickening story

The Post has a story on the worsening state of the rape epidemic in eastern DRC. A government operation in the area designed to alleviate the suffering of eastern Congolese in the hands of a myriad rebel movements went awry when the same soldiers entrusted with the task of protecting civilians started running around raping women and girls. The story quotes a local who said that over 90% of the rape cases can be attributed to government soldiers.

The US foreign minister, Hillary Clinton, is scheduled to visit the region today (Tuesday) and has expressed her government’s commitment to fight against sexual violence in the DRC, especially in the eastern provinces. The conflicts in the Congo have been the deadliest since WW II, with an estimated 5.4 million deaths as of 2008.

In other news, Uganda is facing a public health nightmare with the emergent of the strange nodding disease. Read more on this here.

links that I liked

The East African, my favorited regional weekly, this week has a few interesting pieces. Of course there are the regulars – Wanyeki and Charles Onyango-Obbo.  There was also this one that mentioned in passing Kenya’s insouciant approach to threats to its territorial integrity.

Wronging rights has a thing on some crazy Chechen and a tiger.

And please read AfricanLoft, if you haven’t yet today.

how hard can it be?

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continues to run amok in the great lakes region, killing, maiming and abducting civilians at will. The governments of Uganda, The DRC, Central African Republic and Southern Sudan have proven unable to provide a solution to the LRA problem once and for all. A joint military operation by the governments of Uganda and the DRC early this year only served to fuel further attacks from the rebel movement – leading to 500 deaths, according to a UN report.

All this makes one wonder: How hard can it be to conclusively deal with the LRA? They need not be completely routed. The huge UN peacekeeping force in the DRC and the very active Ugandan military must be capable of reducing the human toll from the operations of LRA. And more importantly, isn’t it time that Uganda made up its mind on whether it wants to negotiate or pursue a military solution to the conflict with Kony and his murderous gang? Kampala’s indecision continues to cause hundreds of deaths in the wider great lakes region. Museveni should either agree to talk with Kony or take the fight to him (conclusively – and this can be done, with proper planning and commitment. The LRA is not al-Qaeda or al-Shabab). Fighting a war of attrition with a rebel movement whose MO is to maim and abduct young children is simply not an option.

the au should get serious on somalia

The international community has neglected the people of Somalia for almost two decades. Throughout this period the country has been ruled by a bunch of thuggish clan-based warlords. Nobody really knows the exact death toll of the mess the country descended into after the ouster of strongman Siad Barre in the early 1990s. The only time the country came close to be governed by one central government was when Islamists under the Islamic Courts Union ruled large swathes of the country for most of 2006. However, the ICU’s links with Al Qaeda earned them the wrath of the US, which asked Ethiopia to invade and chase away the Islamists.

Now the country has an interim government that spends most of its time dodging militants and shifting from town to town. Somalia’s troubles are rapidly being transferred to the wider Eastern African region. Already the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is stretched to three times its capacity, putting enormous strain on the Kenyan government and relief agencies. Piracy off the Somali coast is yet another direct result of the anarchy within Somalia. And perhaps most worrisome of all, the threat of terrorist attacks on capitals in the region –  by al-Shabab – is causing many security agents in the region sleepless nights.

It is time the African Union took the Somali peace initiative more seriously. For starters it should urge Eritrea to stop funding the Islamists and then step up its own peacekeeping operations in the country (by sending in more troops). After security – or some semblance of security – has been restored then it should aggressively pursue a pragmatic solution to the country’s conflicts, even if it means splitting it into two like those in Somaliland will most likely want.

some practice in bad statistics

I just read a piece in the technology section of the Times which made me wish I had taken more statistics classes in college  (beyond the requirements for my econ degree). I think it is a good thing that the field is gaining prominence and I hope that it will spur an interest among governments the world over in scientific governance – a deliberate effort by governments to know the wants and needs of their populace and to respond to the same, of course toned with the occasional nudge in the right direction (I am a believer in soft paternalism, just fyi).

I also read a piece by my favorite Thursday columnist, Onyango-Obbo, of the Daily Nation. One of the points raised in the piece is that more urbanite and educated Kenyans are more likely to be “tribal” than rural folk. This is based on a study done some years back that showed that educated Kenyans in the towns and cities were more likely to be conscious of their ethnic identities than poor farmers and fishermen. Mr. Onyango-Obbo’s conclusion was therefore that education and exposure to other cultural communities does not help the anti-tribalism fight on the Continent.

I beg to differ. Educated people, and those exposed to other ethnic groups, are obviously more aware of their ethnicity. I became more aware of my being African when I arrived in New Haven, CT than when growing up in Kenya. Being exposed to “others” gets you thinking about your own identity. The question should be whether this emergent tribalism among educated Kenyan urbanites was negative or benign (like the kind of drive that made me read Ogot’s History of the Southern Luo for the first time in college). On this score my gut instinct tells me that the more exposed and well educated Kenyans are less likely to kill their neighbors simply because they speaks a different language. On the contrary, it is the rural folk who still imagine people from other parts of the country to be evil barbarians and intruders. Just look back to Kenya’s post-election violence of early 2008. Bloodshed occurred most prominently among the less educated and provincial Kenyans while well to do middle class Nairobians watched it all in shock on the BBC.

AGOA, African trade and development

Nairobi is currently playing host to delegates from all over the Continent and the US attending the 8th AGOA conference. I had time yesterday to listen to Sec. Clinton’s and President Kibaki’s speeches (President Kibaki, please fire your speech writers and hire a speech therapist). Despite the embarrassing delivery, President Kibaki’s speech struck the right tone. The US should open up more to African business and Kenyans (and Africans in general) should be quick to take advantage of the existing trade opportunities – even as they continue to tackle governance problems (which, contrary to Premier Odinga’s comments, is a major road block to African development).

I felt like Clinton’s comments were a bit too vague. It is high time the US stopped treating trade with Africa as  something that only happens at the pleasure of Washington (for more on this see Aid Watch). The one thing that hit home in the speech was the call for an increase in intra-continental trade. The last time I checked this accounted for a paltry 10% of all trade on the Continent. Poor transcom infrastructure is to blame. But political risk (read deplorable governance) is also to blame. I hope the many African delegates present took this point seriously.

I don’t know what deliverables come out of such AGOA gatherings so I will wait till the end of the conference to comment on its relevance. For now I am happy that United Parcel Services (UPS) has pledged to buy staff uniforms from the Kenyan market.

time to get serious on the contraception debate

Kenya is a country of duplicitous people. It is a country in which the masses have been bullied into pretending that they do not have sex outside of marriage and therefore do not need contraceptives – condoms included. But sex-related statistics continue to expose them for who they are. The country has an AIDS infection rate of almost six percent. Unintended pregnancies account for 45% of total pregnancies, at least according to the ministry of medical services (someone tell me, what is the difference between this ministry and that of health?). Further evidence of the enormity of the problem comes from recent news reports that women are using unverified herbal contraceptives – mainly out of ignorance because the concept of contraception is not yet mainstream – that have left some of them and/or their children permanently deformed.

Meanwhile, the church in Kenya continues to be an ostrich – and I have complained about this before. Despite the overwhelming evidence of a sexually active populace in need of a less closed-minded approach to contraception, the only advice coming from the pulpits is that abortion is immoral and evil and that nobody should be having sex until they get married.

I am not saying that liberal sexual attitudes should be forced on Kenyans. I personally believe that cultural changes should be incremental and reflective of the will of the people. But we cannot hide from the evils of non-contraception. Illegal abortions kill countless women every year. And a lack of family planning is a direct contributor to economic hardship for many Kenyan families. I am reminded of a comment made by a close friend of mine who is working with communities in Manyatta (an informal settlement in Kisumu)  that one of the things she noticed about the place was that there were masses of children everywhere. I can bet that a good chunk of these kids will not get enough food, clothing or education in their lifetimes. A horrifying percentage of Kenyan kids do not make it to five. A little birth control would free up resources to ensure that Kenyan children have a better chance in life – beginning with the chance to stay alive into old age.

Now do not get me wrong. I am not for reducing Kenya’s population figures. As I have stated before, I believe that Africa – as a continent – is woefully underpopulated. That said, I think that the Continent’s – and in particular Kenya’s – population expansion should be better managed. It is time we stopped burdening the daughters of the continent with, on average, almost one and a half decades of childbearing. It is time the government acted on the need to better educate Kenyan families on the means of contraception. And about the church, they should get real.

well said, Wanyeki

Muthoni Wanyeki is my favorite weekly columnist with the East African, a regional weekly. This week she wrote a piece on the Kenyan government’s reluctance to prosecute perpetrators of the post-election violence of early 2008.