No Child Left Offline

Originally posted on Developed Africa

In his successful run for the presidency of Kenya earlier this year, Uhuru Kenyatta has promised to deliver one laptop per child to those attending primary schools from January 2014. This scheme has been met with some scepticism, not least for the potential cost as this article from one of Kenya’s largest daily newspapers put it,

However, given the cost implications, the ministry has proposed to roll out the project in three phases. According to the estimates tabled by [Education Secretary] Kaimenyi, each laptop will cost Sh28,000, a sum that may be out of reach of many parents in public schools whose children are covered by the project.

There are other criticisms out there. A recent excellent blog post by Will Mutua (co-founder for Nairobi’s Open Academy) summed up the main areas of concern for such a scheme very succinctly,

Lack of Supporting Infrastructure: Many schools in rural areas have no access to electricity, some have dilapidated classrooms and other amenities, not to mention some extreme cases where learning does not even happen inside a classroom. What’s the point of giving these students laptops? Their schools have other more pressing needs.

Lack of Capacity: There are teachers who are computer-illiterate. What happens when computers break down, who will have the technical skills to troubleshoot these laptops?

Timing: It’s just not the right time for such an initiative. There are other pressing matters that can be dealt with instead of ‘throwing away’ money in an impractical project. How about jobs, healthcare etc.? And even if it is a matter of enhancing education – why not first hire more teachers, there’s clearly a shortage of them, or pay teachers better?

It is interesting that such problems have been highlighted for a government project – if you didn’t know what they were about you would be forgiven for guessing that Mutua was criticising a poorly planned charitable project. It lacks sustainability, it lacks a proper appreciation of local context, and seems to seek headlines more than anything else. These are all classic complaints of donor-driven development models.

Promoting computer literacy is a great project, particularly for Kenya as it looks to become the tech hub of Africa. Giving a laptop to every child is something that has been attempted before (see Mutua’s article for some good examples of similar schemes in East Africa in recent years) but often falls on the tertiary aspects of promoting computer literacy – you can’t just give the equipment, you have to support that equipment and its users as well. Governments and NGOs can start projects like this but it is through commercial partnerships that African nations can really build a lasting, economically functioning tech sector. The talent is there, schemes something like Kenyatta’s one laptop per child can open up the opportunity – now it is up to business investors to bring those things together.


Two Criticisms of Human Rights Organisations

Written for Generation C Magazine

I have seen a couple of very different criticisms of Western human rights organisations online recently. First, I read this article by The Independent Editor-in-Chief (and, full disclosure, my former boss). Here is a telling extract [HT @DAWNSDigest]:

Two governments in contemporary Africa have been very successful at an autonomous state building and economic reconstruction project – Rwanda under Paul Kagame and Ethiopia under the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. They have equally been victims of a near-jihad by the human rights police claiming to represent the real interests of their citizens.  Two other countries have been unable to engineer an autonomous project of state and economic reconstruction.  They have instead remained under management by the United Nations – Liberia and Sierra Leone. These are the darlings of the human rights community.

Why are Africa’s most successful governments at state and economic reconstruction vilified while those managed by donors are praised and presented as model examples? The answer is that their leaders take orders from London, Paris and Washington DC. Perhaps I am overstating the case. However, there is reason to believe that some elements in Western society would like to create an Africa that in their own image. Anything that is not a reproduction of Western society is not only seen as abnormal but also a danger to be fought and annihilated.

Notwithstanding the criticism levelled at Mwenda for his seemingly one-eyed defence of the Kagame regime, there are some points in this article that deserve attention. It is an oft-repeated argument that human rights is a distraction, rather than a focus, for developing countries. Here, Mwenda goes further than that, arguing that ‘single issue’ rights groups actively fight against the sovereignty of African governments by launching ‘jihad’ against leaders like Kagame because of relatively small abuses – one general, one opposition politician is arrested while 10 million others receive the benefits of this otherwise enlightened regime. Furthermore, the attacks on a country’s leader damages its image, reducing tourism, trade and ultimately, the lives of the majority who would benefit from such economic advance. Worse, these rights defenders aren’t elected. Worse still, they’re foreigners working in Paris,Washington and London.

Single-issue seems to be the operative term. I am going to breeze past the obvious inaccuracies – Rwandans have very much suffered for speaking out against Kagame, not just ‘Westerners’. Let’s get on to Mwenda’s essentially economic outlook, he is very much a believer in the power of free-markets and their use in Africa. He argues, eloquently and not unjustly, for African institutions to replace the international organisations that dominate the landscape:

…when you visit Africa today, our public policies are designed by the IMF and World Bank, the hungry are fed by World Food Program, the ill are treated by Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, refugees are cared for by UNHCR, those in conflict are “protected” by UN peacekeepers, our Malaria is fought by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, our story is told by The New York Times, our poverty is fought by Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, our crimes are tried by the ICC, our public serves are financed by a generous international aid community, our debts are cancelled, our press freedom is defended by Reporters without Borders and CPJ, our human rights are promoted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

This is a call for institutional growth, ultimately, which presumably comes from economic growth and stability. These are things that several East African governments have already: Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda look fairly set on all fronts. So what’s the hold up? Some, Mwenda included, might argue that aid dependency holds these countries back. This might be partially true. But can it be the whole story?

The is an extract from an article about a speech on poverty given by Lant Prtichett. This speech also focuses on the importance of institutions and the possible negative effects of Western interventions to those institutions:

The typical unskilled laborer in Haiti makes about 80 cents an hour. If that same person moves to the United States, studies show they will earn about $8.50 an hour. So why are Haitians poor? It is not because they are lazy or uneducated, Pritchett said. Haitians are poor because they live in a society that cannot make productive use of their labor.

Pritchett outlined four aspects of society that are different in developed countries. These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law. Digging wells in Haiti might provide a bit of relief to that country’s poor, but it isn’t going to change any of these four things, Pritchett said. In fact, many kinds of humanitarian aid may short-circuit the development, he said. Until a country develops institutions that make productive work possible, its people will remain poor, he added.

It seems to me that the similar worlds of aid, development, humanitarianism and human rights have become overly conflated. What attracted me to human rights work was a number of things: the desire to help the most unfortunate, people like IDP who have been mistreated by the institutions that are meant to protect them; the importance of speaking truth to power (something, amusingly, that made me want seek out work for Andrew Mwenda and The Independent before the more recent criticisms became obvious); and, most importantly, the idea that the power of rights based programming is that it seeks to establish a foundation on which more complex developments can be built. If a government can act with impunity, collecting bribes or mistreating their opposition, they are very unlikely to benefit their population. It is interesting to me that Mwenda would choose to use the word ‘tyranny’ in his title. Tyranny is just what human rights seek to abolish, to undermine for good; this is a historical movement born from WWII, after all.

There is a threat to human rights organisations, which leads me to the second criticism I have seen recently. Please watch the following video [HT @c_hargreaves]:

Here, Chris Hedges warns of the very real danger facing the human rights industry – it has become too popular. Previously, unmentioned in the MDGs, human rights have become huge business and, as such, other parts of the broad church of ‘international affairs workers’ – which I mean to encompass not only development but business, military and politics too – are moving to use the tag of ‘human rights’ to sugar an unpleasant pill – the post-colonial imperialism that Mwenda warns of.

What is very interesting to note is how Hedges identifies this mission drift: it is the mark of “corrosive neo-liberal ideology”. It is this very same ideology that Kagame’s development project is founded on and one that Mwenda, at least in my reading, also embraces. For me, this is another mark of hypocrisy from a man once renowned as a fearless critic of corrupt and dangerous leaders. Conflict of interest and mission creep is something that human rights organisations must be increasingly vigilant against in the post MDG landscape. These two arguments are a useful precursor to this challenge.

Hedges warns of what human rights must not become; Mwenda is an example of the consequences of ignoring that warning.

Distractions, Choices, Questions

Source: birgerking (via flickr)

I’ve started a couple of posts in the last week only to find myself half way through with no obvious end point. I’ll have an idea but no follow through. My thought process goes something like this:

I should do a post about the triumphalist langauge used for Africa at the moment and compare it to similar American writing in the 19th century. Then I can say that this is an indicator of the 21st century being the ‘African’ century. But, no, wait, this is the Chinese century isn’t it? Ok, so maybe the 22nd century will be, but, then again, it would be a pretty ridiculous thing to try to say in less than 1000 words. Hmmm.

So I end up with a bunch of Walt Whitman quotes, vague notes and a missed deadline. Now, this happens to everyone and normally it passes by itself. I always find that reading something new and interesting, relevant or otherwise, can help me focus again. With this in mind, I headed down to the local Nakumatt (large chain supermarket) in search of a book. I didn’t want to go looking for one on my list, I wanted one to jump out at me and pique my interest.

Almost all of them did but for the wrong reason.

My local Nakumatt is a particularly big one. It fills three floors and offers practically everything: from food and drink to solar panels and industrial catering equipment. Next to the magazines and within sight of the music section, there are two rotating book stands – like something you’d get sunglasses on. There are probably more than 150 books there. When I looked, not a single one was by a non-Western writer, let alone a Kenyan author.

There were two auto-biographies of English cricketers on there. Two.

Most of the books were pulp thrillers and crime fiction, like a similar stand in an English supermarket. Exactly like that, in fact, filled with the same authors.

A couple of hours later I read a great post on Kariobangi about ‘African Readers’. It references a great article by Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu who writes about the issues facing African writers,

The truth is that western readers are crucial for any African writer who is looking for success today, and it is inevitable that the west will continue to determine the value and worth of literature from the African continent.

If a Kenyan company as large and successful as Nakumatt offers books in its stores it is not for charity. This must be a product worth carrying, something that benefits them to sell. Do they choose to sell Western writers to African audiences because African writing doesn’t sell? Does the auto-biography of Geoffrey Boycott genuinely make them more profit than, say, the recently released Binyavanga Wainaina memoir?

I should say that these are not the sum of books offered by my local Nakumatt – the second floor has a wider bookstore – but they are the most visible and accessible books, in prime location by the checkout counters. These were featured products.

I hope it was oversight, not business acumen, that filled those book stands.

Seeing them gave me another idea for a blog post but, once again, I find myself with no end result, just questions. Why were these decisions made? What do they mean? Does the source of available culture necessarily do any harm? Maybe Kenyan shoppers should be offered the latest Danielle Steel, not expected to embrace Kenyan writers because of their nationality?

But they are, at least, interesting questions I’d like to hear some response to. And that’ll do for now.

Guest Post: Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands

My friend and colleague, Andrew Smith, recently gained some celebrity for a letter he sent to his MP asking him about his attitude towards gay marriage. Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, responded negatively and became the first cabinet minister to publicly state that he was against marriage equality – a newsworthy statement that has pushed the issue back into the headlines. Here he is:

Andrew at Penn Station

People who wear Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle t-shirts can cause political furores. Believe.

This is a terrific example of how individual advocacy and interest can have big ramifications. For all of you people who care about rights, take the time to send a letter to your MP and ask about their stance on gay marriage or another issue close to your heart.

The following is a blog post Andrew wrote about the incident (originally published on Join The Debate by ARTICLE 19).

I have learnt a number of things already this week. The first is that participating in the UK democratic process is made incredibly easy by A quick email and I was able to ask my MP, Owen Paterson, to make his position on marriage equality clear. The second is that through twitter, it took only a few hours to get my dissatisfaction with the response I received retweeted by the coalition for equal marriage and then picked up by Politics Home.

By the time I finished an ARTICLE 19 training in Nairobi today, Owen Paterson’s opposition to marriage equality (and a quote from me in response) had been reported by the Shropshire Star, the Daily Mail (a life-long personal ambition), the Huffington Post, Pink News, the Torygraph, and the Independent. No.10 Downing Street issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to a vote on marriage equality by the next general election. Apparently Teresa May is doing an “out for marriage” video. It is difficult not to love the right to freedom of expression on days like today.

It brought me back to a point that ARTICLE 19 has stressed recently – that what most commentary on equality measures for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered (LGBT) people seems to miss is that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation silences voices. Prejudice against LGBT people, long manifested in our laws and even more prevalent in our customs, makes people too frightened to express themselves. It forces people to hide a part of their identity that is integral to them, because if it were exposed they fear that stigma would define them and they would lose everything else. It makes others pause before speaking out against homophobic speech, concerned that the same stigma may stick to them too.

When the Civil Partnership bill was being voted on in 2004 I was a closeted teenager in rural Shropshire. I preoccupied myself a great deal with making sure that no one knew my sexual orientation. Despite the progress of civil partnerships sounding like a pretty good idea to me at the time, I didn’t say anything about it. I did not write a letter to Owen Paterson MP in 2004. He voted against the introduction of civil partnerships without ever hearing my views. I had censored myself.

Things have moved on for me personally. I came out. My friends and family were great about it. I realised that civil partnerships aren’t what I want, that “separate but equal” is a maxim that I am not impressed with. I can now write to my MP about equality, tweet about LGBT rights, blog about it, be out at work and email my parents links to the newspaper articles I’m quoted in.

Despite opposing marriage equality, Owen Paterson MP told me that the Government is “rightly committed” to promoting equality for LGBT people around the world. His voting record indicates that he has done everything in his power to be an obstacle to progress. Owen Paterson incongruously applauds the Government’s efforts to promote LGBT rights around the world, while failing to recognise the connection between recognising marriage equality and promoting equality everywhere.

I am currently working with ARTICLE 19 East Africa in Kenya, where sodomy is still a criminal offence as a direct consequence of British Imperialism – and in several neighbouring countries expressing your sexual orientation can get you killed – frequently with indifference from the government and impunity for perpetrators. Google “David Kato”. David Kato was a human rights activist murdered for speaking out for equality – for expressing himself.

Disconnected from marriage equality you might think? No it is not.

I was in a bar in Nairobi a night or two after US President Barack Obama, of Kenyan heritage on his father’s side, came out as a supporter of marriage equality. To the gay men and women I spoke to that night, many of whom live in the kind of fear I’ve been lucky enough to never have experienced, it meant a great deal that a world leader had made such a public statement that nothing – neither religion or tradition – justify discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender. Marriage equality says a whole lot about our values as a whole, including who we allow to express themselves freely.

Legislating for marriage equality in the UK will send people living with the realities of discrimination – whether casual prejudice in Shropshire or threats of murder in Uganda – a clear message that they are not alone and that the tide of change is in their favour. It will provide a bit of self-assurance to people who would rather self-censor. If the UK wishes to play an international role on the promotion of human rights, our moral authority depends on the coherence of this commitment to equality.

I am hopeful that in the coming months the proposals for marriage equality will stimulate dialogue and debate. People will robustly defend their views and attack those of others, as they should. I strongly believe that views underpinned by fear and ignorance will be exposed as such. I hope that everyone who wants to can make their voice heard in the discussion.

London To Nairobi

This is from my column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job.

A view of Nairobi. Image from: olliptkanen via Flickr

For the last 9 months or so I have been discovering and exploring London. I was born in the south London district of Tooting and I spent the first 18 years, give or take the odd holiday, ensconced in a suburb tucked about as far south and west as you can go and still be in the city. From birth to age 18 I lived in four different houses with my family. As the youngest I saw the number of necessary beds drop as we made each move, my siblings going off to University or moving out entirely, off ‘on their travels’.

I grew up doing all the usual things – watching television, bike rides, cinema trips, going to school,  playing football in the street, watching more television, playing computer games endlessly. I knew my suburb very well. The best places to mess around on bikes and skateboards, where to play football, the best shops and cafes, the pubs that served us all just a little before they should have. But ask me to take you around ‘London’ and I would have stared blankly. The inner city, the place with the monuments and famous streets – that was no more familiar to me than any other visitor.

Part of what I have discovered during my placement, then, has been my home city. I know nice pubs and restaurants all over town. If I run out of money on my Oyster card, I can probably walk it. I’m not stranded in the immediate environs of tube or bus stops that I got out of – a very common complaint for us suburban kids. I can actually back up claims like “come down, I can show you around” or “there’s this terrific pierogi place down south, I’ll take you”.

After I left school I moved to Kampala, Uganda, more or less on a whim – more on that here. I spent about a year there and can definitely say that I still know it and my way around it better than the place of my birth. Likewise, the fair city of Bath, where I have spent two happy years, is somewhere I feel, at least geographically, infinitely more confident with. It saddens me that next year will likely be the last I spend amongst all that sandstone and Georgian architecture (although I will not miss the dank, subterranean clubs). Development can take you to work in a multitude of exciting and beautiful places all over the world; I rather suspect that this particular corner of southwest England is not one of them.

The final three months of my placement are to be spent in a new city, Nairobi, capital of Kenya. I have never been, aside from a brief layover, although I have read and heard a lot about it – it’s one of those cities that, at least in the development sector, people end up working in. I’m intrigued to see the bigger, badder, elder sibling of my beloved Kampala. Could it be more exciting? More varied? Even more relentlessly energetic? It is, in all probability, a city I might well end up spending several years in. In East Africa, my region of interest, Nairobi is the biggest hub of international NGOs and, as such, represents the brights lights and the big city; the best place for me to get a job I’d love.

As far as I understand it, Nairobi is new not just to me. It’s a city of roughly 3 million souls and has the highest growth rate of any urban area in Africa according to UN Habitat. In 2010, it had the highest growth rate for luxury housing in the world, 25%, beating out Miami, Singapore and London. A recent article by Basharat Peer – a terrific long read that takes you on the modern and modernising hajj – saw the writer speak to the Saudi novelist Raja Alem on her hometown of Mecca, another city in the midst of a huge building boom,

“I used to know Mecca like the back of my hand,” Alem, who now lives in Paris, told me, “I returned after a five-year absence and didn’t know how to reach the [focal centre of the hajj and the city] Holy Mosque.”

Perhaps my little three months taster session won’t end up being that useful, at least not for my personal geographic knowledge. But it will be an escape from the hell that is commuting. It will be a step closer to my dream career. And, most of all, it will be a chance to get myself some new stories to tell you all when I come back next year and start to corner people in Plug again. Kwaheri until then.