Connect with us

Op-Eds

Revisiting the Obama Legacy

His whistle-stop low-key visit to Kogelo may have puzzled some, his rousing speech marking Madiba’s centenary may have been pitch-perfect, but while Obama was a class act (especially when compared to Trump), his capitulation to Wall Street, his foreign policy blunders in Libya and Syria, his drone counter-terrorism and his sustained attack on independent media and whistle-blowers raise disturbing questions about his real legacy. By RASNA WARAH.  

Published

on

Revisiting the Obama Legacy

Unlike his last visit to Kenya in July 2015, when large sections of Nairobi were effectively under lockdown and when the country virtually came to a standstill when the “son of Kogelo” returned to his “homeland”, Barack Obama’s “homecoming” this week did not generate as much excitement or gushing tributes. This was expected, as the former United States president was not in Kenya on an official visit but was here to open a centre for youth in his father’s village, a brainchild of his half-sister Auma Obama. Besides the “welcome home” slogans that usually accompany such visits, Obama’s presence in the country hardly generated the kind of euphoria that was evident the last time he came to Kenya – this time the euphoria was more apparent in South Africa, where Obama delivered an inspiring lecture on the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday after his Kenya visit.

Not to mention that his visit coincided with a highly controversial and embarrassing summit in Helsinki that saw President Donald Trump essentially throw his own intelligence services under the bus in the presence of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who himself spent some time as a KGB intelligence officer. The contrast between the megalomaniacal, misogynistic and fundamentally dishonest Trump and his predecessor – the charismatic, intelligent and eloquent Obama who has rock star appeal – was painfully evident. When Obama works a room, you can be sure he will gain more converts. His messiah-like messages have silenced even his most vocal critics. On the other hand, Trump’s utterances generally elicit shock, followed by a deep sense of trepidation. After that bizarre summit in Helsinki, Americans and the world are grappling with the idea that the US president might have been “captured” by the Russian state.

And unlike Bill Clinton and Trump, there is also no whiff of a sexual scandal surrounding Obama. Obama never really knew his Kenyan father, who abandoned him when he was just a toddler, but this childhood trauma does not seem to have had a damaging effect on his own relationship with his wife Michelle and his two daughters. Everyone knows, and can see, that he is a man who is deeply committed to his family and is not threatened by strong women.

Obama brought a rarefied dignity to the Oval Office. He will be remembered for his reflective leadership style and the seriousness with which he took his responsibilities as leader of the most powerful nation on earth. He has definitely earned a name in the history books for not just being the first black (or rather, mixed race) president of the United States, but also for mending decades-old fences with countries such as Cuba and Iran. He will be remembered, among many of his other accomplishments, for advocating for the rights of all people, be they racial minorities, gays, people with disabilities or women.

Obama never really knew his Kenyan father, who abandoned him when he was just a toddler, but this childhood trauma does not seem to have had a damaging effect on his own relationship with his wife Michelle and his two daughters. Everyone knows, and can see, that he is a man who is deeply committed to his family and is not threatened by strong women.

However, there are many things that Obama failed to accomplish, and many things that he actually made worse. Despite his African heritage, he failed to bridge the racial divide in America; some believe that race relations may have worsened under his tenure, perhaps the result of a backlash against his presidency and against black people’s aspirations for equality. This backlash is probably what got his successor Trump elected. Racism has now become an epidemic in America, and has demolished the myth that the US is a land where everyone – regardless of race – enjoys equal freedoms and rights. While it was not Obama’s job to fix centuries-old prejudices in America, he failed to address the issue of racism in America forcefully.

But it is Obama’s foreign policy that has left many of his supporters puzzled. Obama strengthened Clinton’s “no American boots on the ground” policy in foreign conflicts by intensifying drone attacks in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which are believed to have led to many civilian deaths and which are said to have led to more radicalisation. Most people are not aware of the fact that Obama used more drones against terror suspects than his predecessor George Bush, who was more prone to engage American troops in direct combat in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are many things that Obama failed to accomplish, and many things that he actually made worse. Despite his African heritage, he failed to bridge the racial divide in America; some believe that race relations may have worsened under his tenure, perhaps the result of a backlash against his presidency and against black people’s aspirations for equality. This backlash is probably what got his successor Trump elected. Racism has now become an epidemic in America.

When Barack Obama became president, the American public believed that the US government would focus on the economy and scale down its wars and counterterrorism operations. However, while Obama did bring back troops from Iraq, as he promised, the war on terror became more clandestine. He increased the use of drones that targeted suspected terrorists (which also led to several deaths of innocent civilians, including children) and continued with mass electronic surveillance. Yet despite the billions spent on intelligence and security, groups such as the Islamic State still managed to take root under his watch. And Guantanamo Bay, the US detention facility in Cuba established for terrorist suspects, still remains open, though the number of detainees have fallen significantly from about 700 under George Bush to just 40 today.

A few years ago, The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration had built a “constellation of secret drone bases” in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, including one site in Ethiopia, ostensibly to help the US better able to monitor and control terrorists, and also allow the superpower to gain access to the region’s natural resources. Drone activity in Somalia apparently intensified in the country between June and September 2011, weeks before Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in October 2011. Obama’s supporters may argue that targeted drones are less damaging than direct conflict, but those who have suffered from these attacks do not quite feel the same way.

The Obama administration’s support of opposition groups in Syria has also been criticised for turning what might have been a short civil war into a long-drawn conflict that gave birth to terrorist organisations (which masqueraded as moderate Islamist rebel forces) such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. No one knows yet how or where the chips in Syria will fall, but history may judge Obama harshly for his intervention there.

But perhaps Obama’s most harmful intervention in a foreign country was his decision to support a “regime change” in Libya. While most agree that Muammar Gaddafi was a dictator, under his strong-man leadership style Libya remained a stable and prosperous country. When US, British and French warplanes bombed Libya in the name of defending human rights and when Gaddafi was killed, the country descended into chaos and anarchy as factions fought each other for supremacy, just like what happened in Iraq when George Bush decided to lead a regime change there.

The countries that participated in the Libyan bombings are not likely to admit this but there would be no flood of refugees entering Europe via Libya if Gaddafi was still in charge. His regime kept Europe safe from human traffickers who are now exploiting vulnerable Syrians and poor Africans and making a fortune in the process. I am sure this uncomfortable truth doesn’t sit well in Obama’s conscience and will haunt him for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Obama’s decision to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Could it be that this killing was extra-judicial? Bin Laden’s sons have accused Obama of violating basic legal principles by killing an unarmed man, shooting his family and disposing the body in the sea. Bin Laden’s son Omar, who has publicly denounced violence of all kinds, has raised the question of why his father was not arrested and tried in a court of law, but his voice was muted by the self-congratulatory stance of the Obama administration and its cheerleaders who viewed the killing as justified in line with the US government’s war against terror.

Critics of Obama also point out that press freedom worsened under his leadership and whistleblowers were unfairly vilified – despite Obama’s stated commitment to protect freedom of expression. Salon.com commentator Glenn Greenwald has said that the Obama administration launched a broad (and possibly unprecedented) war on whistleblowers and investigative journalists, including harassing WikiLeaks supporters by detaining them at airports and seizing their laptops without warrants.

Former New York Times reporter David Shipler has chronicled the many ways the Obama administration created an atmosphere of fear among journalists and ordinary citizens, including by renewing the notorious Patriot Act that enhanced the US government’s surveillance powers and gave security agents authority to comb databases and emails of suspected criminals and terrorists. Shipler claims that press freedom weakened under Obama and that the US president allowed draconian search-and-seizure methods used by the very dictators he often denounced.

“The most odious aspect of this Climate of Fear is that it fundamentally changes how the citizenry thinks of itself and its relationship to the Government. A state can offer all the theoretical guarantees of freedom in the world, but those become meaningless if citizens are afraid to exercise them. In that climate, the Government need not even act to abridge rights; a fearful populace will voluntarily refrain on its own from exercising those rights,” said Greenwald, who gained notoriety after his disclosures of classified documents by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden that were published in The Guardian newspaper in 2013.

Former New York Times reporter David Shipler has chronicled the many ways the Obama administration created an atmosphere of fear among journalists and ordinary citizens, including by renewing the notorious Patriot Act that enhanced the US government’s surveillance powers and gave security agents authority to comb databases and emails of suspected criminals and terrorists. Shipler claims that press freedom weakened under Obama and that the US president allowed draconian search-and-seizure methods used by the very dictators he often denounced.

Meanwhile, Snowden is still holed up in Russia because he fears he will be arrested if he returns to the United States. Snowden revealed to the world how the terrorist bogeyman has been used to conduct mass surveillance and to spy on civilians through mobile phones and the Internet. These activities are clearly unconstitutional and violate the US Bill of Rights, but they are tolerated because the American public has been made to feel sufficiently afraid to not ask too many questions.

In The Rise of the American Corporate Security State, Beatrice Edwards, the Executive Director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, shows how the withdrawal of Americans’ rights, including their right to privacy, has been accomplished because Americans have been repeatedly told that they are facing imminent danger. Americans have thus willingly surrendered their civil rights because they are frightened. This clampdown on civil rights intensified during George W. Bush’s administration but became more secretive under Obama’s.

The nexus between government and big corporations has also been strengthened. The war on terror has been extremely lucrative for private corporations providing security and intelligence services. Edwards believes that clandestine electronic warfare is not going to go away any time soon, as the business of intelligence has proved to be extremely profitable for certain corporations. US corporations and the US intelligence agencies are bedfellows in the deal. What’s worse, because this war is silent and invisible, Americans don’t know where or when it is being waged. This is a truly chilling scenario.

Since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence, of which 70 per cent is spent on contracts with private corporations. And because security contracts are deemed to be “secret” in the interest of national security, no one knows what the money is spent on. Edwards shows how increasing budgets for security and intelligence agencies have coincided with greater protection for rogue bankers and financial institutions, as happened during the 2008 financial crisis when Obama bailed out the very institutions that created the crisis in the first place. While Al Qaeda leaders became the targets of intense manhunts, illegal detention and execution, the millionaires who made thousands of people homeless and crashed the economy got away scot-free. Meanwhile, whistleblowers such as Snowden were deemed traitors for exposing unconstitutional and illegal surveillance of civilians around the world.

Edwards admits that Obama is not entirely to blame for this state of affairs because every US president is hostage to the big corporations and to what she calls “the Deep State”, a rogue branch of the US government that does not respond to the president, Congress or the courts. (Trump has given the Deep State a new meaning by referring to all those opposed to his policies as belonging to it.)

Since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence, of which 70 per cent is spent on contracts with private corporations. And because security contracts are deemed to be “secret” in the interest of national security, no one knows what the money is spent on […]increasing budgets for security and intelligence agencies have coincided with greater protection for rogue bankers and financial institutions, as happened during the 2008 financial crisis when Obama bailed out the very institutions that created the crisis in the first place. While Al Qaeda leaders became the targets of intense manhunts, illegal detention and execution, the billionaires who made thousands of people homeless and crashed the economy got away scot-free.

Apologists for Obama claim that he is a pragmatist and could only do so much in a country where partisan politics and Congress determine government policy. Others say that Obama is just an American liberal, not the revolutionary that so many imagined him to be, and so cannot be judged for the radical reforms he failed to bring about but who can be credited for maintaining the model of freedom and democracy that is cherished by the majority of Americans.

The real struggle that Americans and the world faces is not about privacy versus security but about democracy versus tyranny. When large numbers of people around the world willingly give up their rights and freedoms in the name of counterterrorism, they create the perfect conditions for the emergence of dictatorship.

However, Edwards says that the real struggle that Americans and the world faces is not about privacy versus security but about democracy versus tyranny. When large numbers of people around the world willingly give up their rights and freedoms in the name of counterterrorism, they create the perfect conditions for the emergence of dictatorship.

This dictatorship has now manifested itself in the Donald Trump presidency – which may lead future historians to ponder whether Obama’s presidency set the stage for this alarming state of affairs. Obama is no doubt a wiser and much more intelligent president than Trump, but he did not manage to reverse or extinguish the dystopian ideology that led to the rise of Trumpism and its tendencies towards fascism that the world is now witnessing.

See all comments
Rasna Warah

Ms Warah, the author of War Crimes, a sweeping indictment of foreign meddling in Somalia, and A Triple Heritage, among several other books, is also a freelance journalist based in Malindi, Kenya.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Sanitising Moi in the Age of Kenyatta, and the heroics of official revisionism

The revival of Moi Day marks a high point in Jubilee’s rehabilitation of the retired autocrat. Refashioned as a kindly, old gentleman who held the nation together in trying times, for Mzee Moi’s victims the latest attempt to celebrate official criminality is testimony of who exactly Mr Kenyatta sides with. By RASNA WARAH.

Published

on

Sanitising Moi in the Age of Kenyatta, and the heroics of official revisionism

Sometime in the early 1980s, my father, who owned a photo studio on Moi Avenue in Nairobi, became a life member of the KANU party. The 1000-shilling membership came with a certificate and pins, the kind worn on coat lapels, with Mtukufu Rais Moi’s image on them. My father dutifully framed the certificate and hung it strategically in his studio where his customers could see it. In the studio’s window, he placed a large photo of His Excellency sitting at his desk in State House – a photo he had taken shortly after Moi’s inauguration in 1978.

At that time, many Kenyan Asian businessmen became life members of Kenya’s ruling (and only) political party. It was a way of showing loyalty to a president who was becoming increasingly insecure about his grip on power. For Kenyan Asians, who have always been uncertain about their citizenship, and who have on occasion been threatened with expulsion, demonstrating loyalty to Moi was a kind of insurance, a survival tactic.

In those days, the overriding concern among Kenya’s Asian minority was that Kenya could go the way of its neighbours, such as Somalia and Uganda, and become a military dictatorship. The abortive coup staged by the Kenya Air Force on 1 August 1982 had left Asians fearful; many Asian-owned shops had been looted on that day and some of the poorer Asians living in neighbourhoods like Ngara and Pangani had been robbed and physically assaulted by looters who had taken advantage of the chaotic situation.

Barely ten years before the coup attempt, in August 1972, President Idi Amin had expelled 70,000 Asians from Uganda. There were fears then that Kenya might also “do an Amin” and get rid of its economically prosperous Asian community. So when the coup in 1982 failed, Kenya’s Asians were more than relieved. For them, Moi had averted an economic and political catastrophe that could have adversely affected their business interests, and they were grateful to him for that.

Because Moi had entrenched a patronage system where sycophancy was encouraged, wealthy Kenyan Asian businessmen and industrialists made it a habit of visiting State House and making donations to Moi’s favourite causes. This financial support was often rewarded with government tenders or with assurances that the donors’ economic interests would be protected.

The devastating consequence of this system was that it enabled corruption among some unscrupulous members of Kenya’s Asian community, who began using their close connections to Moi and senior government officials to enrich themselves and their benefactors by using dubious means. Crooked Asian tycoons, like the Goldenberg scandal’s architect, Kamlesh Pattni, and Ketan Somaia (who is currently serving a jail sentence in the UK for fraud) flourished during this period.

Because Moi had entrenched a patronage system where sycophancy was encouraged, wealthy Kenyan Asian businessmen and industrialists made it a habit of visiting State House and making donations to Moi’s favourite causes. This financial support was often rewarded with government tenders or with assurances that the donors’ economic interests would be protected.

It was, therefore, not surprising that when it became clear that Moi’s reign was coming to an end, a panic set in among many Kenyan Asians. What kind of future would they have in a post-Moi era? Would the new rulers punish them for their past crimes? How would they secure their business interests? Would the whole community pay the price for the economic crimes of a few? (They needn’t have worried: corruption had by then become a way of life in Kenya, and members of the Mwai Kibaki administration, like those in Moi’s government, were adept at using Asian businessmen as front men to carry out its own grand corruption schemes, such as Anglo Leasing.)

When it became clear that Moi’s reign was coming to an end, a panic set in among many Kenyan Asians. What kind of future would they have in a post-Moi era?

After a brief venting period, where Kenyans were allowed to express their anger at what Moi had allowed the country to become, a process of sanitising Moi began. The historical revisionism argued that while Moi had proved to be a dictator, he had in fact been a benevolent one, one who supplied primary school students with free “Nyayo” milk, the one who brokered peace deals with troublesome neighbouring countries, the one who ensured that Kenya remained an “island of tranquility” in a strife-torn region – a line of reasoning that Kenya’s Asian business community had also adopted to explain why they supported Moi.

This process of sanitising Moi has been escalating since Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto (both protégés of Moi), assumed power in 2013. President Uhuru makes regular visits to his political godfather in his Kabarak home, and images of the man who held an iron grip over the country for 24 years have begun appearing more frequently in the media. Moi is increasingly being portrayed as a kindly old man who once held the country together. His prophecy that Kenya would disintegrate into tribal factions under multipartyism even appeared to come true after the 2007 elections when the country appeared to be on the verge of civil war. Twelve years after KANU was ousted, on Moi’s 90th birthday in September 2014, local newspapers carried glowing tributes to the aging dictator, prompting Daily Nation columnist Macharia Gaitho to wonder whether about the shortness of Kenyan memories.

After a brief venting period, where Kenyans were allowed to express their anger at what Moi had allowed the country to become, a process of sanitising Moi began… This proces…has been escalating since Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto (both protégés of Moi), assumed power in 2013… It reached a crescendo this month when Moi Day was celebrated. The official reason given was that the day had not been de-gazetted…

This whitewashing reached a crescendo this month when Moi Day was celebrated, albeit amid controversy. The day has not been observed since the new constitution was promulgated in 2010. (The constitution does not recognise Moi Day as a public holiday.) The official reason given for its return was that the day had not been de-gazetted and so technically and legally, Kenyans had no choice but to recognise it. So, millions of Kenyans who had planned to be at work or school on 10 October had to stay at home because the government ordered them to. Many wondered: of all the public holidays that this government chose to recognise, why would it choose the one that brought back painful memories for so many Kenyans?

Younger Kenyans who came of age in the Kibaki era have little recollection of the Moi days and the retrogressive policies that stunted the country’s economic growth and development by several decades. I once asked a 30-something what he remembered most about Moi, and his answer was simple: the free milk his school got every Tuesday and Thursday, thanks to Baba Moi. He seemed vaguely aware that Moi had done some bad things, but he was not exactly sure what those things were.

While it is true that Moi allocated a large chunk of the national budget to education, and schools bearing his name flourished, he also entrenched mediocrity and corruption within the civil service that allowed the country’s institutions to decay. The “Kalenjinisation” of all arms of government, the wanton grabbing of public land, the siphoning of public funds through friends and cronies, the looting of Kenya’s treasury and other forms of economic sabotage became endemic during his tenure. Moi also oversaw austerity measures imposed by the World Bank and the IMF in the 1990s that led to the deterioration of public services, such as health. By the time Moi left office in 2002, the country was virtually on its knees.

For the people who paid a heavy price for opposing the Moi regime, the declaration of Moi Day as a public holiday was like a slap in the face. Some of these people, like the environmentalist Wangari Maathai (who defied his regime and was beaten black and blue for opposing the construction of a tower at Uhuru Park), my journalist friend, Wahome Mutahi (who spent one year in jail on trumped-up charges of sedition), and opposition leader Kenneth Matiba (who was arrested and tortured and developed a debilitating illness as a result) are now dead, but among the living, there are still those who bear the wounds Moi’s government inflicted on them. I am thinking in particular of the thousands of Kenyans who were tortured or illegally detained by Moi’s men because they were suspected of being dissidents belonging to underground movements like Mwakenya or because they resisted Moi’s authoritarian regime.

For the people who paid a heavy price for opposing the Moi regime, the declaration of Moi Day as a public holiday was like a slap in the face.

The genius of the Moi system is that it normalised everything. Nyayo House, which housed both the Immigration Department and Kenya’s slick new TV channel, KTN, was a site of unspeakable torture. In the torture chambers in the basement, Special Branch officers worked on the detainees. The most dreaded of them was James Opiyo. His name still sends shudders through his victims’ spines. Upstairs, people formed orderly queues for new passports on the ground floor, or read the news on the top floor. They were aware of what was happening in the basement. No one mentioned it or thought it was weird.

‘The Nyayo House basement was no ordinary police cell. In the water-logged rooms detainees stood naked for hours on end. One victim, George Odido, told the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission that he was left submerged in one foot of water for three days without food, and in total silence. Because of the fear of drowning, the detainees did not sleep. Many were crippled for life or suffered severe psychological trauma. Some of these detainees’ fake trials took place in the middle of the night, where compromised judges would hand them harsh jail sentences for crimes that they had not committed.

The genius of Moi was that he made everything look normal even when it was not. He turned Nyayo House, which housed both the Immigration Department and Kenya’s slickest new TV channel, KTN, into a site of unspeakable torture. In the basement of detainees Special Branch officers worked on them. Those applying for passports or reading the news were aware people being tortured downstairs…no one mentioned it or thought it was weird.

We must also remember than it was during Moi’s tenure that the Wagalla massacre in Wajir took place, a shameful “security operation” that resulted in the death of an estimated 4,000 ethnic Somalis in Kenya’s north-east. Moi was president when Foreign Affairs minister, Robert Ouko, was assassinated. And despite his rhetoric of ethnic harmony, his leadership saw the killing and expulsion of thousands of Kikuyus in Rift Valley Province prior to the 1992 and 1997 elections. Not to mention the many anti-government protestors who lost their lives at the hands of the police during demonstrations, such as Saba Saba.

There was also collateral damage. There were the mysterious deaths of people linked to Ouko’s death, including that of Hezekiah Oyugi, the head of Internal Security and one of the main suspects in Ouko’s murder, and Philip Kilonzo, who was the Commissioner of Police when Ouko was killed. One does wonder: if Moi’s government was capable of orchestrating the deaths of his own people, people who were loyal to him, then how many of his opponents were also made to “disappear”?

The Nyayo House basement was no ordinary police cell. In the water-logged rooms detainees stood naked for hours on end. One victim, George Odido, told the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission that he was left submerged in one foot of water for three days without food, and in total silence. Because of the fear of drowning, the detainees did not sleep.

For all those who suffered physical or emotional torture, illegal detention or financial ruin at the hands of Moi, the reinstatement of Moi Day is a painful reminder of not just what they lost during his rule, but also of how his shadow still lurks over Kenya.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Knowledge and Growth: What Paul Romer’s Economics Nobel Prize says about Africa’s infrastructure obsession

If knowledge and human capital are the engines of economic growth, what is the role of the foreign investment and infrastructure edifices that our governments are obsessed with? By DAVID NDII.

Published

on

Knowledge and Growth: What Paul Romer’s Economics Nobel Prize says about Africa’s infrastructure obsession.

The Nobel Prize season is one of the things I look forward to, not least because there is a prize in economics. But the more important reason is that it is always a welcome reminder that humanity’s most important work is not done by the powerful, the moneyed and the celebrities that hog the daily limelight, but by the people of ideas and ideals. And in these dog days of an apocalyptic time, it could not come often enough.

This year’s economics Nobel Prize was shared by William Nordhaus and Paul Romer for contributions to natural resource economics and economic growth respectively. The commonality between their work is rather technical and I shall not go into it, but it has to do with developing methods of analyzing the interaction of the economy with complex phenomena — in Nordhaus case, climate, and in Romer’s, knowledge. The latter is the subject of this column.

Romer pioneered what is now known as new or endogenous growth theory. Hitherto, economists treated knowledge and technical progress as “exogenous”, that is, something that occurred outside the economic system. This was quite awkward since it was quite obvious that research and innovation were fundamental elements of the economic system.

This year’s economics Nobel Prize was shared by William Nordhaus and Paul Romer for contributions to natural resource economics and economic growth respectively. The commonality between their work…has to do with developing methods of analyzing the interaction of the economy with complex phenomena — in Nordhaus case, climate, and in Romer’s, knowledge.

Another seminal contribution was made by Robert Lucas, the 1989 Nobel Laureate. There is an interesting backstory to his prize. Seven years before, his ex-wife had inserted a clause in their divorce settlement that entitled her to half the prize money if he won it. The prize came 21 days before the provision lapsed. Romer’s prize has an interesting backstory too: he is the second chief economist of the World Bank to leave the institution acrimoniously only to be awarded the Nobel Prize shortly thereafter— the other one is Joseph Stiglitz.

Paul Romer’s model emphasizes the role of knowledge in long run economic growth; Lucas model emphasizes human capital. The two are intimately related but are not the same thing, although many people, including economists, often conflate them. Let me illustrate.

I came across a trending story—about a young Philippino inventor who had just successfully tested his passenger drone in the provincial city of Batangas, Watching the video, his geek-in-a garage drone is as good as those that have been showcased by tech companies with lots of venture capital money. In fact, it looked more fun to fly than the ones I have seen before. And the guy is not even an engineer. And he built it in a garage. An Australian company was sufficiently impressed to propose a commercial partnership. It was then brought to my attention, pleasantly so, that a young Kenyan, Morris Mbetsa, has built and tested one—he tweeted me video footage.

“How to build a passenger drone” i.e. the science and engineering is knowledge—that’s Romer.. The ability of a geek in a garage in Batangas and Ong’ata Rongai to use that knowledge to build a drone in a garage in Banda is human capital— that’s Lucas. One can think of Romer’s model as explaining how the world becomes more prosperous; Lucas’ as explaining why we see developing countries catching up with rich countries. When the Wright brothers made their maiden flight in 1903, it was hard to imagine a native in the colonies somewhere in Africa or Asia making a viable attempt to manufacture an aircraft. A couple of decades ago it took an entire national industrial project to make “Nyayo Pioneer”, the ill-fated contraption that stalled on the track in Kasarani stadium on the occasion of its launch. All the same, from the look of things your future personal transportation could well be made in Kariobangi.

How to build a passenger drone’ i.e. the science and engineering is knowledge—that’s Romer.. The ability of a geek in a garage in Batangas OR Ong’ata Rongai to use that knowledge to build a drone in a garage in Banda is human capital— that’s Lucas.

If knowledge and human capital are the engines of economic growth, what is the role of the foreign investment and infrastructure edifices that our governments are obsessed with?

The title of one of Lucas’s less well known papers on the subject, published in the 1990 edition of the American Economic Review, poses the following question: Why doesn’t capital flow from rich to poor countries? The article links investment, human capital and growth in a simple and intuitive manner. Suppose there are only two countries, a rich and a poor one – let’s call them America and Bangladesh. Average monthly factory wages in the two countries are $1800 and $60 respectively – that is, wage in America is 30 times more than in Bangladesh. At first, they do not trade. Each country makes its own clothes. Suppose they decide to trade?

Let us say it takes a worker one hour to stitch together a pair of jeans. In America, the labour cost for this is $11.25. In Bangladesh, it would cost $0.325. Even if productivity in Bangladesh was only a third of America, it would still cost a dollar to stitch the pair of jeans in Bangladesh. Let us say Made in America sold for $50. The retailers could sell Made in Bangladesh jeans at $45 dollars and still make $5 more. Off-shoring garment factories to Bangladesh would be very profitable. This would continue until Bangladeshi wages rise to the point where cost of production is the same in both countries. As it happens, the wage figures cited are quite close to what the actual wage costs in America and Bangladesh are. And indeed Bangladesh is now second to China in garment exports, earning US$ 28 billion last year, and employing over four million people.

The garment making industry makes a good example because it is a very basic skill that we can reasonably expect people with little or no education to learn quickly and do as well as better educated ones. Using similar analogy with US and India, but with more sophisticated data and mathematics, Lucas demonstrated that at the time he was writing, the return on capital in India would have been 58 times more than in the US. This then begs the question: with profitable opportunities of this magnitude why are poor countries not inundated with investment?

But once you move from low tech manufacturing like stitching garments, offshoring becomes a little more challenging. It takes armies of engineers and techies to manufacture commercial jetliners and all manner of scientists to do pharmaceutical research. Using very basic measures of education attainment, Lucas’ model demonstrates that once differences in human resource base are taken into account the potential returns to capital in India reduce to just 4% above the US.

In a previous column, I used similar data to show how initial differences in human capital may give answers to the questions that can’t seem to stop Africans from scratching heads: how it is that countries we are told we were “at par” with at or shortly after independence took off, and we did not. In 1970, the Kenyan workforce had an average of two years of education per person, and was the highest in the region. South Korea’s had six, Singapore five and Malaysia four years per person. In fact, South Korea’s education attainment was higher than several European countries including Portugal (3), France (4.8), Spain (5.6) and Italy (5.6) years per person. South Asia by contrast was in the same league with Africa—India (1.6), Pakistan (1.6) and Bangladesh (1.4). Sri Lanka is an outlier with 6.4.

Education attainment data provide only a rough approximation of human capital, even though the data have proved to be quite robust in economic research. The World Bank has recently published its latest national wealth accounts, in a report titled The Changing Wealth of Nations. National wealth accounting is a new statistical initiative that responds to the shortcomings of gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of economic performance. As many readers will know, GDP and its derivatives are measures of production and expenditure, which in business accounts correspond roughly to annual turnover. As currently constructed, national economic accounting does not produce the equivalent of balance sheets, that is, the assets and liabilities of a business. To illustrate, the Jubilee administration has borrowed KSh 3.5 trillion but there is no account where we have recorded the value of assets acquired with these loans. One of the assets financed, the SGR railway, has cut through the Nairobi National Park. We ought to be able to revalue the park to reflect the loss of both economic and ecological value caused by the railway, but there is no way of doing that in the GDP system. This is what national wealth accounting seeks to remedy.

This latest version, which provides wealth accounts for the year 2014 has what the Bank says is the “first sound estimates of human capital”. With wealth accounts we are able to compare the relative importance of different assets in a nation’s wealth directly. What do they tell us? First, that human capital accounts for two-thirds of the world’s wealth. Second, the wealthier the country the higher the proportion of human capital in its wealth portfolio. It ranges from 40 percent in low income countries, to 70 percent in the high-income OECD countries (See chart below). In the wealthiest region, North America, human capital accounts for 77 percent of total wealth, compared to half of national wealth in Sub-Sahara and South Asia. The Middle East/North Africa is an outlier with only a third of its wealth in human capital on account of the region’s unusually high oil wealth.

National Wealth, 2014 US$ Per Person

National investment rates in most developing countries are between 15 to 25 percent of GDP while expenditures on education and health (both public and private) are between 5 and 10 percent of GDP. Roughly, this suggests that a dollar invested in people generates five times as much wealth as a dollar investment in other assets. This should not surprise—think of a million shillings invested in an engineering degree against the same amount invested in a rental apartment.

Human capital accounts for two-thirds of the world’s wealth. […] the wealthier the country the higher the proportion of human capital in its wealth portfolio. It ranges from 40 percent in low income countries, to 70 percent in the high-income OECD countries… In the wealthiest region, North America, human capital accounts for 77 percent of total wealth, compared to half of national wealth in Sub-Sahara and South Asia. The Middle East/North Africa is an outlier with only a third of its wealth in human capital on account of the region’s unusually high oil wealth.

Eight years ago, the African Development Bank (AfDB) published a report in which it estimated that Africa has an infrastructure financing requirement of US$ 93 billion a year to the year 2020. The figure was subsequently adjusted upwards to $120 billion a year— a cumulative figure of 1.2 trillion dollars. Consequently, less than two decades after the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) debt forgiveness initiative many African countries are now hurtling towards a second debt crisis.

It is stated in the AfDB report that the purpose of building on this scale is to crowd in the investment to create jobs. Texas Instruments was the first Western company to invest in Bangalore. I came across a photograph of the first equipment Texas Instruments delivered to its first facility, in a bullock cart. Texas Instruments was attracted by Indian workers, not its roads. In fact, there is no account of India’s tech boom that does not mention the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). It is now said that IIT graduates are now India’s leading export to the US.

Eight years ago, the African Development Bank (AfDB) published a report in which it estimated that Africa has an infrastructure financing requirement of US$ 93 billion a year to the year 2020…The figure was subsequently adjusted upwards to $120 billion a year— a cumulative figure of 1.2 trillion dollars. Consequently, less than two decades after the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) initiative many African countries are now hurtling towards a second debt crisis.

In all the documents and discussions I have encountered, there is no acknowledgement that Africa does not have the skills—the engineers, architects and builders—to scale up building on anything close to this scale of investment, and to maintain it subsequently. Let us do the math. An engineering degree on the continent is at most $25000. The $120 billion annual “infrastructure deficit” budget works out to six million engineers. That is a whole passenger drone industry right there. And of course, once we are zipping in drones, we will not be needing so many roads.

In all the documents and discussions I have encountered, there is no acknowledgement that Africa does not have the skills—the engineers, architects and builders—to scale up building on anything close to this scale of investment, and to maintain it subsequently.

There is no evidence in economics that infrastructure investment contributes to economic growth.

This conclusion by the Asian Development Bank is typical:

“The main conclusion is that a number of countries in developing Asia have significantly improved their basic infrastructure endowments in the recent past, and this appears to correlate significantly with good growth performances. However, the evidence seems to indicate that this is mostly the result of factor accumulation (a direct effect), while the impact on productivity is inconclusive.” – Stéphane Straub and Akiko Terada-Hagiwara (2010) “Infrastructure and Growth in Developing Asia” ADB Economics Working Paper Series No. 231.

Mwalimu Nyerere: Development which is not development of the people may be of interest to historians in the year 3000. It is irrelevant to the kind of future which is created. Thus, for example, the pyramids of Egypt and the Roman roads of Europe, were material developments which still excite our amazement. But because they were only buildings and the people of those times were not developed, the empires, the cultures, of which they were a part have long ago collapsed. The Egyptian culture of those days—with all the knowledge and wisdom which it possessed—was quickly overthrown by foreign invaders because it was a culture of a few; the masses were slaves who simply suffered because of the demands of this material development, and did not benefit from it.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

#MeToo: Memories of Sexual Assault are NOT a Figment of Women’s Imagination

Listening to Christine Blasey Ford’s heart-rending testimony before the US Senate triggers traumatic memories for RASNA WARAH.

Published

on

#MeToo: Memories of Sexual Assault are NOT a Figment of Women’s Imagination

The claim by President Donald Trump and others supporting the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court that it is impossible for a woman to remember every detail of a sexual assault that occurred more than 30 years ago cannot go unchallenged. Every woman who has experienced a sexual assault of any kind remembers every detail of the encounter. She may not remember the day it took place, or what she was wearing or even the exact location, but details of the assault itself usually remain indelibly etched in her memory.

Women watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford recounting the details of what she claims was a sexual assault by Judge Kavanaugh when they were both teenagers were warned that watching her speak at a US Senate hearing might trigger their own memories of similar incidents. Indeed that is what happened to me. As I watched Ford give her testimony, I found myself recalling events that I had long buried somewhere in my mind.

I remembered 1985, when I was a university student in the United States. I had just got off the bus and was walking to my apartment in Quincy town on the outskirts of Boston when I noticed a black sports car parked next to a curb and the white man in it jerking himself off while looking at me with a grin on his face. Having never been “flashed” before, I found myself paralysed and unable to move. I did eventually muster my legs to run to my apartment. I do not remember the exact day or time this happened, but I do remember the man’s face. He must have been in his 30s or 40s and had dark wavy hair and small beady eyes. I never told anyone about this incident (until now) because I dismissed it as one of those things that deranged men do to frighten or intimidate women.

Women watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford recounting the details of what she claims was a sexual assault by Judge Kavanaugh when they were both teenagers were warned that watching her speak at a US Senate hearing might trigger their own memories of similar incidents. Indeed that is what happened to me.

A year or so before, I had almost been raped by a man who was driving me home from a party. I didn’t know the guy very well, as I had only met him for the first time at the party. On the way back to my dorm in Boston, he stopped at an empty parking lot and proceeded to unzip his trousers. He then took out his penis and ordered me to suck it. I said no, and then lit a cigarette and threatened to burn his penis with it. I think I managed to scare him. He quickly dropped me off on a street that was nowhere near my dorm, yelling obscenities and calling me a tease. I didn’t tell anyone about this incident either because I blamed myself for allowing a man I barely knew to drive me home. But for years afterwards, I did wonder if my lighter and cigarettes had helped me ward off a rape.

I remembered 1985, when I was a university student in the United States…a black sports car parked next to a curb, the white man in it jerking himself off while looking at me with a grin on his face…I never told anyone about this incident (until now)… I dismissed it as one of those things that deranged men do…

In those days, the term “date rape” had not been popularised in American college campuses, and so not much was said when we learnt that a college-mate had been sexually assaulted, or even possibly gang-raped, at a college frat party in an elite university in Boston. I remember one instance vividly. My dorm mate, who happened to be a devout Catholic, asked me to wait in the reception for her while she went upstairs with a male student she had just met. I didn’t think much of the dangers that she might be exposing herself to at the time. (In US college campuses in those pre-HIV/AIDS days, it was quite normal for students to engage in casual sex.) When she didn’t return hours later, I decided to go back to my dorm, thinking that perhaps she had decided to spend the night with her new friend.

The next day, she returned to the dorm, visibly bruised and traumatised. It was obvious that she had been raped. She did not say what happened to her, but her demeanor suggested that she had been through something physically and emotionally painful. Her mental condition deteriorated to the point where her parents had to be called to pick her up and take her home. She never returned to college.

And no one in the college administration tried to identify the boys who had done this to her or to charge them with sexual assault. It was just not the done thing in those days. She probably blamed herself for the “sin” she had allowed to be committed against her, and being a Catholic, she probably even forgave her attacker/s. This is the thing that people don’t get about sexual assault – the victims always feel a sense of shame and guilt, and this is what often prevents them from coming forward. Worse, they are made to feel that the assault was just a figment of their imagination. Yet, as data shows, almost every woman in the world will experience or has experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment in her lifetime. So why is it so hard for people, especially men, to believe that this is happening?

A year or so before, I had almost been raped by a man who was driving me home from a party.

But was the reality TV-type US Senate hearing of Ford’s claims really necessary? I don’t think so. In my opinion, Ford should not have agreed to present her case in public on camera in front of the whole world, especially considering that she had previously requested to remain anonymous, and also because women who come forward publicly with such charges are often ridiculed, and made to feel bad all over again.

And indeed that is exactly what happened. A few days after the hearing, Ford was mocked and made fun of by none other than the President of the United States who suggested that she had made up the whole story at the behest of his political opponents. The laughter that echoed at the Mississippi rally where Donald Trump derided Ford probably brought back memories of the “uproarious laughter” that she says she remembers most about the sexual assault incident in 1982. For those who watched the rally on television, the most shocking scenes were those of women in the crowd laughing and jeering.

Until the #MeToo movement gained momentum, most victims of sexual assault or harassment believed that they were to blame for what happened to them. What the #MeToo movement has done is shift the blame to the perpetrators, thereby liberating women (and men) to speak openly about the trauma they suffered. It is likely that the recent barrage of revelations about Catholic priests in the United States and Australia molesting or raping boys may have remained a secret if these boys (who are now middle-aged men) had not been emboldened by the #Me Too movement. For the first time in a long time, it has become okay for women and men to say they were raped or sexually harassed without feeling that they will be put on the dock and not be believed.

But, as the Senate hearing has shown, despite the #MeToo movement, it is still difficult for sexual assault victims to be believed. And when they do come out, all kinds of questions are raised about their mental health, rather than the mental health of the perpetrators even though during most of the hearing, it was Ford who appeared coherent (though visibly flustered) while the man she was accusing appeared hysterical and overly defensive. Kavanaugh even managed to paint himself as a victim of a left-wing conspiracy. And despite his repeated declarations about how much he liked beer, none of the members of the male-dominated Senate accused him of having a drinking problem.

Until the #MeToo movement gained momentum, most victims of sexual assault or harassment believed that they were to blame for what happened to them.

In 1991, Anita Hill, a bright young black lawyer, accused Clarence Thomas (another US Supreme Court nominee) of sexual harassment, and she was not believed. She was vilified and accused of being a “man-eating professional” who was just seeking attention. To see this happen now, once again, 27 years later, is discouraging.

Some feminists like Germaine Greer have even stated that women who claim to have been sexually harassed or assaulted by powerful men might have willingly agreed to have sex with these men. Of the Hollywood actresses who have accused movie moguls of sexual assault or harassment, she had this to say: “If you spread your legs because he said ‘be nice to me or and I’ll give you a job in a movie’ then I’m afraid that’s tantamount to consent, and it’s too late now to start whingeing about that.” It is disheartening to hear these sentiments expressed by someone who has spent a lifetime examining male-female relations and how they impact sexuality.

Greer, of all people, should know that rape and other types of sexual assault or harassment are political issues – because they are the result of skewed power relations between men and women. When the man raping or sexually harassing a woman has the power to make or break her career, the issue of consent becomes murky and blurred. What does consent mean in this context?

And it really doesn’t matter if the assault was a rape or a groping of groins while fully clothed; the impact on women and girls is the same. (I still remember to this day when a big burly man came up behind me, fondled my buttocks and let out a great big guffaw as I was walking to school from my home in Nairobi. Like Ford, it is the laughter I remember most about that incident. That happened more than 40 years ago, when I was around 10-years-old, but I am still wary of walking alone on lonely lanes.)

Recently the Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta stated that the “casting couch” is alive and well in Bollywood and that leading male actors routinely ask their female co-stars to have sex with them before they approve them for a role. (Apparently, the casting of leading ladies in Bollywood happens in actors’ trailers and hotel rooms, not in the offices of casting directors). Dutta has not had a leading role in a Bollywood movie since she accused a much-respected male co-star of sexually harassing her. This shows that when a woman comes out and accuses her boss or colleague of sexual harassment, she is likely to be committing career suicide. She will be ridiculed, not believed, and most likely fired. Which woman would risk facing all this?

It really doesn’t matter if the assault was a rape or a groping of groins while fully clothed; the impact on women and girls is the same.

So when a woman does come forward, chances are that she has either calculated the risks in her mind and has decided to do what is right no matter what. Some argue that women who come out years after being sexually assaulted – when both they and the accused have got married, had children and moved on with their lives – are not doing anyone a favour as many lives and reputations are destroyed. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the perpetrator has stopped attacking women now that he is happily married with children. As the Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump cases have shown, men do not stop grabbing p….. just because they have a beautiful wife and children home. Men who commit such crimes or misdemeanors – and constantly get away with them – are likely to continue committing them unless they are made to account for their actions.

All the men and women who support abusive men should know that sexual crimes have no expiry date and that if this culture of misogyny and male entitlement continues, it is their daughters who will one day pay the price.

The Women for Trump brigade and all the men and women who support abusive men should know that sexual crimes have no expiry date and that if this culture of misogyny and male entitlement continues, it is their daughters who will one day pay the price, if they are not paying it already.

Continue Reading

Trending

Copyright © 2018 The Elephant. All Rights Reserved.