Month: February 2014

Are Regional Blocs the Future for Africa’s Relevance in the World Market?

The East African Community (EAC) is made up of 5 member nations – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.  South Sudan has submitted an application to join.  The EAC, like other trading blocs around the world such as MERCOSUR (Latin America), ECOWAS (West Africa), and of course, the well-known European Union (EU), tries to leverage the individual strengths and resources of member countries by creating a united front in global competition while also facilitating member-to-member trade.

Lately, the EAC has been making some meaningful progress in terms of implementing its mandate.  Three of its members, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, have taken the lead in the use of national identity cards, student ID cards, and voters cards as official documents of travel among the member states.  In fact, for a summit being held in Uganda this month, both President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, for the first time, called attention to this progress when they used their national identity cards for travel. This is significant because it paves the way for many other features of the EAC community, some of which may be controversial.

According to the EAC’s Common Market Protocol, the member states aim to develop a regional bloc that, in function, is similar to the EU through the “removal of restrictions on the movement of goods, persons, labour, services and capital, and the rights of establishment and residence.” Tourists and other foreign visitors will only pay for one single visa to travel among the EAC member nations; students will easily enroll in universities outside their country through “learning mobility”; and merchants and business services will access a wider customer base through the free flow of goods.

The provision of the EAC protocol that will be very interesting to watch is the free flow of labor.  As it stands, the Protocol specifically delineates “high skilled” professionals (managers and executives) as the labor category being granted access to work freely within the EAC borders.

But how will this impact the members with a smaller pool of “high skilled” professionals?  As I have written about in previous entries, the economic prospects of East Africa are quite promising and the level of foreign direct investment (FDI) will likely speed up.  Will we see EAC states with weaker pools of talent lose out to those slightly more advanced?  Will the influx of professionals from neighboring countries lead to a public backlash or will it translate to meaningful investment in human capital development in the home country?  Perhaps a member’s disadvantage in human capital will be balanced by the access to better education the Protocol affords its citizens.

If the EAC can put aside political motivations, it could become a strong negotiating power to counter the influence of foreign and corporate interests…thereby delivering maximum benefits for the citizens of its member countries.

If It Happens In The US Then It Happens In Africa

On January 9, 2014, a potentially dangerous chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane (MCHM) (MCHM is used in processing coal) spilled out of 17 storage tanks into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia (USA), just under 2 miles from the city’s only fresh water intake.


An estimated 10,000 gallons of MCHM leaked into the river causing 300,000 residents of the area to go without water for over a month.  President Obama declared this a federal emergency and US National Guard troops delivered bottled water to residents to sustain them through the rest of the clean up.

Bloomberg Businessweek has an excellent account of the event along with the background of corporate negligence and lack of regulatory oversight that contributed to yet another environmental disaster.

Although chemical spills happen every day (literally…last year we had 3,885 self-reported spills from 76 different publicly traded companies in the US), when one of this magnitude happens, I can’t help but think about what may be happening outside the public’s view in places less accustomed to 24-7 media and accountability.

I make the connection to the energy sector in Africa.

The oil & gas industry is heavily dependent on chemicals through all stages, using and processing compounds that aid in drilling, cementing, completion, and production.  An article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a federally funded research foundation) notes that “the occupational hazards of exposure to [oil & gas chemicals] has received little attention.”

This is in the US where we have a well-developed environmental protection and public health research framework.  It is no revelation that environmental regulation in resource rich African nations is often unable to match the political clout and professional credibility of the energy industry.  This translates to double standards and unhindered negligent (sometimes criminal) behavior on the part of companies.

Some years ago, I worked as an environmental consultant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and I remember talking with a manager of the Environmental Protection Authority who was frustrated by the lack of capacity within his organization.  He told me it was like fighting a battle with one hand tied behind his back.  This is a tough fight no matter whom you face; but particularly when dealing with the well-resourced energy sector.

East Africa is the next big focus for the oil and gas industry.  Significant deposits have been discovered in countries like Tanzania and Uganda.  The concern of the “resource curse” notwithstanding, many people believe that this industry will pay off for the region.  And I agree; I believe it SHOULD pay off!  But, as highlighted, there are characteristics of this industry that can have a negative bearing on the population.

Oil & gas and other resource extraction industries are by no means the only sources of environmental concern. But their contribution to the issue points to a desperate need that countries have to develop their environmental regulation capacities to proactively guide the sustainable development of the extractive industries.

This is the reason I feel very strongly about human capital development on the African continent.  It is the most critical component of Africa’s development process.  Of course, a competitive and well-developed labor pool is central for economic development.  But in the context of sustainability and resource protection, it will help ensure that there is capacity, in organizations like Ethiopia’s EPA, to guard against intended and unintended impacts of an ineffectively regulated private sector.

How Coca-Cola’s Controversial Super Bowl Ad Affected Me

When my family came to the US as refugees back in the late 1980’s, we were one of several families sponsored by a small Episcopalian church in Durham, North Carolina.  In hindsight, it is quite remarkable that that small church with about 50 members was able to support multiple families like ours.  They provided places to live, cars for families to commute to and from work, assistance with enrollment of government programs like food stamps, and many other refugee relocation services, all through the efforts of the members of the church.

After we were settled and my siblings and I were enrolled in our respective schools and we all began to get acclimated to the culture, a family “controversy” erupted.  There were different opinions regarding whether or not we should continue to attend the Episcopal church on Sundays…the same church that sponsored us.  We were brought up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian tradition and the Episcopal tradition was new to us.  Those in the family who were proposing NOT continuing attendance made their argument by pointing to examples of other refugee families who were sponsored like we were but had long ago stopped attending the church.

In reality, there was no real “controversy” as there was one person who made ALL decisions in the household – our father.  Our father made it very clear from the moment the question came up that we would all continue to attend the church.  That was the edict and there was no appeal granted.  I remember his argument vividly because it has helped to shape my own personal principles: The members of the church were incredibly generous and kind in what they did for our family.  How could we not show gratitude for their sacrifice by at least accepting their invitation to fellowship with them?

In my experience, this type of gratitude and appreciation is a common sentiment among the vast majority of refugee families and other immigrants to the US.  For many, America represents an opportunity to restart; a respite from turmoil; a protection from injustice.  What starts out as a sentiment of relief transforms to love, appreciation, and pride at being part of the American story.  And then comes the ultimate goal: an invitation to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and become a United States citizen.  That invitation is not only a privilege, but also an obligation.  An obligation that starts with a simple act but translates to a long-term and meaningful engagement as part of a family.  Much in the same way that our attendance at the Episcopal church led to the development of true friendships and bonds that lasted way beyond our time in Durham, North Carolina.

So when I heard about the controversy surrounding the now infamous Coca-Cola commercial during the Super Bowl, it surprised me.  Coca-Cola ran a one-minute commercial where the patriotic “America The Beautiful” was sung in 7 different languages.  The singing of the song in any language other than English has apparently upset a lot of people who feel it devalues our American culture and takes away from the true definition of what being an American is all about.

In my opinion, the commercial in itself was not too remarkable.  But since a critical mass of people have decided otherwise, I add my commentary into the mix only because this is a topic that directly relates to my story as an African immigrant to the US.

The commercial was a simple display of unity; not an affront to American-ness.  To those who feel that the definition of “America” has been bastardized, I would simply say that the multi-lingual singing of “America The Beautiful” is not symbolic of the disappearance of American culture.  It is a confirmation of its makeup. 

There was nothing sinister or threatening in the message behind the message.  Every year during the Super Bowl, the spirit of American-ness is predictably teased out and Coca-Cola tried to tap into it to sell some Coke.  I imagine the marketing folks at Coca-Cola are quite pleased with the attention their work has received.  Everyone else, on both sides of this surprising debate, feels pretty bad about this.  I know I do.

I don’t know what to call it.  Is it racism?  Is it xenophobia?  Is it a misunderstanding?  Whatever it is, I get the impression that my story as an African immigrant is a source of derision for some and it makes me wonder what our dear friends at the Episcopal church in Durham would think about all this.  Our successful resettlement in the US became their mission and we repaid their devotion by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and, most importantly, taking up our responsibility as American citizens.

As far as I am concerned, that is how we “pay it forward”.  That and turning around and helping the next family that comes in looking for refuge.

And if someone recites America The Beautiful in their mother tongue…in a consumer product commercial!…it is not a sign of disrespect or subversion or the beginning of the end for the “American way”.  It’s just gratitude communicated by people like me for the countless good people of this country who supported us during a difficult transition period.

Keep Calm…

A Surprising Link Between U.S. Military Drone Attacks and Africa’s Unemployed Youth

According to a Stanford-NYU joint report entitled Living Under Drones, the United States military has been using unmanned and remotely controlled aerial vehicles (drones) for targeted killings since 2004.

droneThese drones are a component of the US military’s fight against extremism and terrorism around the world, particularly in terrorist “hot spots” like northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.  Despite objections to their use due to numerous killings of innocent civilians, there is no indication that the US will abandon drones as a strategic weapon against violent radicals around the world…at least not anytime soon.

In January 2012, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) held a conference in Kigali, Rwanda called Preventing Youth Radicalization in East Africa.  The conference brought together representatives from 11 East African countries as well as the US and the UK to discuss strategies to mitigate the impact of violent extremist organizations in the region.  The region is facing what some politicians have called “a ticking time bomb” in that as high as 60% of the population is under the age of 25 and as much as 75% of these young are unemployed.  That is a significant and troubling statistic to contend with.  Troubling for East Africa’s growth prospects, for sure.  But what about spill over?  27_1_youth_opp_3Many other African nations contend with high youth unemployment, lack of opportunities, and large numbers of educated young people who find their toil in the secondary and tertiary educational systems unrewarded.  According to McKinsey Global Institute, by 2040, Africa will be home to the largest working age population in the world – over 1.1 billion!

Being of “working age” and, yet…not working.  And then we have a continually widening income gap.  The African Development Bank’s Briefing Note on Income Inequality (2012) and a Business Insider article both indicate that the top 6 most unequal countries in the world are in Africa.380_76799682income-inequality

It’s easy to see how there is concern within governments and among external observers that these indicators could lead to widespread discontent among disaffected young Africans who may become targets for terrorist and extremist ideologies proclaimed by organizations known to be hostile to the United States.

And if history is an indication, the brand of terrorism that invites the full might and power of the US military is one with overt anti-American ideologies.  What we might see in the coming decades is a slight shift in counter-terrorism efforts, such as drone strikes, from the well-known hotspots (mentioned earlier) to the African continent.  This has already started to happen in Somalia against groups like Al-Shabab.  Unfortunately, this may translate to terrible collateral damage and an all too familiar cycle:


To be clear, I am not trying to be an alarmist…just laying out logical potential situations based on current events and trends.

But the reality is that the future for Africa does not have to be this morbid.  The large and expanding population of youth should be looked at as an opportunity for a transformation, not an invitation for military conflict.  In fact, this demographic trend could usher in the type of advancement we have seen in Asian countries.


The demographic dividend.  In a later post, I will talk about how African countries are urgently trying to realize the continent’s potential demographic dividend to ensure a better tomorrow.

Pay attention to the bottom line: Developing and providing opportunities for Africa’s human capital, particularly the youth population, is a high stakes affair.  It is on the top of the priority lists of just about every government and external stakeholder…the US included…

My own passion is to contribute in the effort to develop Africa’s “Youth Capital”.

I hope to work with many others of like mind.