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What new human development data means for Kenya

By Prof Michael Chege | March 4th 2021

The report is not opposed to equitable rapid growth in poor countries as long as it avoids the destruction of nature in net terms. [Elvis [Ogina, Standard]

A few days ago, Bill Gates warned that the looming climate change disaster will exceed Covid-19, and Africa will suffer disproportionately from it. Because it originated from a zoonotic pathogen, one that crossed from animals to humans, the Covid-19 tragedy has sparked renewed interest on how the damage we have wrought our natural heritage in the quest for economic growth has blown up in our faces.

The idea of growing GDP without accounting for the harm done to the environment has received escalated attacks. On February 2, the UK Treasury released its blue-ribbon report on the subject, warning of impending peril and stating: ”We are part of nature, not separate from it.”

At the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York, 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg brought the world’s heads of state to shame for their glib “fairy tales of eternal money and economic growth while entire ecosystems are collapsing”. “You have stolen my childhood with your empty words,” she told them. “How dare you?”

The UNDP 2020 Human Development Report (HDR), recently released in Nairobi, is partly an answer to her.

Its theme is that human evolution has entered a new age – “the Age of Humans” or “the Athropocene” – in which the punch of our collective initiative alone will determine if humanity will prosper with equality in a safe environment, or ruin the planet by destroying our common natural heritage on the land, the seas and the biosphere in the search for wealth. 

It calls for “bold new development paths” that ease pressure on the environment, especially by rich and emerging economies, and rails against staggering poverty and inequality.

“The Covid-19 pandemic,” the 2020 HDR estimates, “may have pushed some 100 million people into extreme poverty, the worst setback in a generation.”

Current Indian Ocean tides during the day in Mombasa County on Tuesday, August 18, 2020. This could be due to the current climatic changes in the coast region. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

For that reason, the report is not opposed to equitable rapid growth in poor countries as long as it avoids the destruction of nature in net terms.

Grow the pie

The pie needs to grow to feed more, it says metaphorically, but we must also worry about “the overheating oven” that is our planet due to the rising global carbon footprint, climate change and eroded biodiversity.

It bears remarking in surprise that this historic 400-page 2020 UNDP HDR on humanity and the environment in our age has now been published without a single reference to Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, the spectacular greening Kisumu City under Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o, or ecotourism with Jake Grieves-Cook.

Despite this gratuitous slight on Africa, however, we could distil valuable information from it for our policy initiatives, its copious data being one of these.

Since the 2009 publication of the report Mismeasuring Ourselves by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, which made the case for a superior measure of human welfare compared to GDP, the world, with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at the lead, has struggled with suitable alternatives - a ‘green GDP’ and with inbuilt equity norms.

One of the most significant achievements of the 2020 HDR is the introduction of a new Human Development Index (HDI) adjusted for environmental harm or help. (The standard HDI enumerates education levels, health and income, but leaves out environmental effects). The environment-adjusted HDI is now titled the Planetary-Pressures Adjusted Human Development Indicator (PPAHDI), a tongue-twister for sure, but one the world needs.

In normal circumstances, no company would present its annual balance sheet, showing its profitability without accounting for the depreciation of its most valuable assets. When the environment criterion is introduced, more than 50 countries (among them Australia and Kuwait) drop from the UNDP’s ‘Very High Human Development’ category due to their prodigious use of fossil fuels, while some 30 others (including Costa Rica and Panama) move upward.

To its credit, Kenya, due to its growing reliance on renewable energy (70 per cent) and ban on reusable plastics, has moved up six ranks globally compared to its position in the regular HDI, putting us ahead in East Africa.

But Kenya could have done a better job still, simultaneously raising human development and avoiding greenhouse emissions like Vietnam has done.

Like Kenya, Vietnam, the green energy leader in East Asia, has moved six positions higher on the environment-adjusted HDI. And as the graph shows, Kenya and Vietnam were at the same human development level in 1990.  There the comparison ends.

In 2019, Vietnam’s human development index was 15 per cent higher than Kenya, and its GDP per capita in purchasing power parity terms ($8,397) twice that of Kenya, with a poverty ratio of just 5 per cent, compared to Kenya’s 36 per cent. 

All this is due to sensible macroeconomic management by Hanoi, high human investment, productive smallholder capitalist agriculture and a spectacular rise in manufacturing for export by Japanese, Korean, Singaporean and Chinese multinationals – the sort of idea Kenya planners had in the President Mwai Kibaki years.

Kenya’s lag is more disconcerting considering that Vietnam hired Kenyan coffee experts to boost its coffee output to the second-highest in the world after Brazil, while Kenya’s production dropped. Vietnam’s is good practice in rapid human development growth with rising green energy input.    

The body of the 2020 HDR, however, is devoted not so much to practical examples like this, but to two huge policy issues: how to galvanise human beings in truly massive numbers to care and sacrifice for the environment; and secondly, how to shape fiscal and regulatory incentives to bring private costs closer to social costs – in plain terms, ensuring one pays for the environmental harm they pass on to their neighbours and to posterity.


What of Africa?

A survey in the report says while 78 per cent of the global population worries about the environment, only 50 per cent are willing to act on it. After devoting considerable space to how the global public can be energised to adopt environment-enhancing habits, the report doubles down in favour of “a turning point” to be brought about by critical and diverse activism at all levels.

A lot of these are first world concerns. What of Africa? The continent contributes a mere 4 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, but is expected to suffer some of the most devastating consequences from climate change, varying by region. 

Already in Nairobi, it rained in February, which is normally a dry month, and some Rift Valley lakes have filled beyond the brim, drowning old human settlements on the shoreline. The Unep estimates that climate change mitigation in Africa will rise to about $50 billion (Sh5.5 trillion) a year by 2050. If the recommendations in the 2020 HDR are to have effect, the earth’s most prodigious polluters should pay for this – a case that Africa should make at the November UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

But there is an even more important responsibility Africa should take in its own interest and dignity. By 2100, says the UN, Africa will host 41 per cent of the world’s population of 10.96 billion, and by 2030, says the World Bank, 90 per cent of the world’s poor will live in Africa. Its unplanned and polluted urban growth is now the world’s fastest.

These realities, not industrial pollution, is how Africa will bring pressure on the global environment – that is, forest depletion for cooking fuel, effluent in rivers, cultivation of marginal land – all of which result in higher carbon emissions.

With the benefit of educated youth, however, Africa could use the “demographic dividend” to leverage labour-intensive export production for “tradables” in processed agricultural goods and services – like cut flowers, tea, tourism, ICT – that mimic East Asian manufacturing, whose days may be over given the rise in Western protectionism and automation.

John Page, who spoke about this in Nairobi last year, refers to these as “industries without smoke stakes”.  Combined with a rising share of renewable sources in the national energy mix, we should be thinking of an African strategy paper that addresses the issues raised but not addressed in the 2020 HDR: a rapid rise in Africa’s HDI (and PPAHDI) driven by reforms by the wealthy polluters and those of our own to start with.

As the global headquarters of the Unep, let us start by cleaning the stinking Nairobi River instead of rewarding the city legislators responsible with millions of shillings to buy polluting cars. Greta Thunberg would have shamed them. So would have Maathai.

Prof Chege was a discussant at the Nairobi launch of the 2020 UNDP Human Development Report. He is the board chairman of the Kenya New Partnership for African Development and a board member at KIPPRA.

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