Scarcity of critical thinkers, that’s our biggest problem

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By Shadrack Muyesu

In an article appearing in the Business Daily on 20th December 2017, Let’s optimise Big Data for revenue collection, Dr Bitange Ndemo identified the emergence of sharing economy as posing the greatest challenge to revenue collection. It was his contention, and correctly so, that open source software, though widely used, does not have a designate home where value created can be taxed or recognised by national accounting.

His advice was for government to optimise Big Data for revenue collection. In a subsequent article appearing on Dec 29, he further urged monopolies to share the resource to enable corrective adjustments to GDP so that it can reflect the actual situation on the ground.

The good Doctor’s observations come at a time when government is struggling to meet its financial obligations thanks to huge budget deficits and an increasing reliance on foreign debt. The contention is that if government listened to thinkers like Dr Ndemo, wastage would be minimised and the economic outlook more positive. There have even been calls for Ndemo to be appointed CS.

Yet there is a problem. Whilst correctly identifying the problems, Dr Ndemo, in a majority of his articles, has failed to provide specific, quantifiable and identifiable solutions. The two articles are perfect examples. Since the emergence of Big Data firms such as YouTube and Netflix, the bone of contention has been how to tax them since no one understands their revenue streams. The Doctor merely regurgitates these concerns. He gives advice on what should be done without expressing how – as should be the duty of every technocrat. More so, there is the concern that such ingenuity (at least in identifying the problem in a way most experts so far have failed to) becomes stunted when his likes are appointed to positions of real influence, when politics checks in (his record in public service is open for scrutiny). He only captured the nation’s attention when he retreated to private practice and academia.

Dr Ndemo represents a growing list of Kenyan intellectuals who, in the face of strife and uncertainty, have failed to go beyond arm chair debate to put their ideas to action. Our public intellectuals in the social sciences arena have been reluctant to engage research and attempt innovative, permanent solutions to our problems beyond what we already have. We are stuck in the past, hence the recurrent wave of violence and uncertainty that greets this country every other time elections call: which brings to prominence the words of the great Prof Oluwole Akindale Babatunde Soyinka, that a society that regurgitates principles that have been proven not to work over time is in fact dead.

“Without data you’re just another person with an opinion…”

As the election crisis continues to unravel (though with less fury thanks to the forgetfulness of Kenyans) members of the reform clique from Miguna to Dr Wandia Njoya seem stuck in the revolving door of electoral reform to mean the swearing in of Raila Odinga as the legitimate President. Rarely have the works of perhaps Kenya’s foremost political scientist in the Late Prof Mwangi Samson Kimenyi featured in their political commentary. None has interrogated his extensive research on Identity Politics in Kenya or considered Roxanna Gutierrez Romero on tribe as a commodity, Francis Fukuyama on government and society, Karl Lowenstein on constitutional autochthony, William Hegel on human want, Socrates on the voter mind-set or Ashutosh Varshney on home-made government systems.

To his credit, at least the great NASA dibia, Dr David Ndii has severally sighted Benedict Anderson, even basing his secession call on his widely regarded work, Imagined Communities. Unfortunately, he bypassed more favourable solutions to pick the most dangerous in secession. Ideally, reading Anderson, the solution would have been to create a government system that recognises individual autonomy, accepts the reality of tribalism and guarantees each tribe an opportunity to rule – perhaps in a rotational presidency as I have suggested in previous columns. But no! This is not an option for the intellectuals because they don’t regard the work of others.

Schaeffer Okore, Daisy Amdany, the admirable Miss Nerima Wako et al, for all their eloquence and obvious knowledge on matters many things, consistently commit the blunder of painting a picture of Kenyans that doesn’t exist. Hearing them speak on TV, the assumption is that Kenyans are a politically conscious and rational lot who make all decisions on a logical analysis of utility. Oftentimes the observation is that Kenyan’s have woken up, they are tired of corruption and tribalism. Unfortunately, all elections until now prove that most Kenyans are anything but that. Nevertheless, they keep pushing down our throats the beauties of Liberal Democracy in its purest sense and blaming the system’s failure on bad leadership. In truth, Liberal Democracy is counterproductive in a society like ours – which fact becomes more obvious the more we familiarise ourselves with research.

Bitange Ndemo

In a column in The Standard on January 19th  Why in spite of the new laws we are aggrieved, Prof Kivutha Kibwana made as if to identify ours as a constitutional crisis (and not a political one, an attempt which filled me with so much glee considering my modest push for a similar shift in thought) only to revert to the tired song of “expanding the Executive to enhance inclusivity and making sure that every vote counts”. I cannot stress my disappointment enough.

Then there are those like Peter Kagwanja, Mutahi Ngunyi and Macharia Munene who have simply given themselves over to intellectual adultery. For all their posturing, a keen eye won’t fail to notice the glaring absence of objectivity and innovation in their comments. That they attract following is testament of an intellectually and morally bankrupt society.   

The bigger problem is that ours is a country of online agitators. The experts too, people hardly go beyond expressing their frustrations on social media. A few will go out of their way to implement their ideas yet with little success considering the little innovation in their arguments (their action is based on two wrong assumptions – that most Kenyans are well informed rational beings, and that those who benefit from bad systems will understand the language of reform for the sake of country). Mostly, the best ideas will at best, only end up in journals and newspapers. It’s on this delve that I congratulate Dr Ndii and Miss Wako, however wrong their assumptions may be.

If excellence in mathematical sciences is the visible structure of a progressive society, social sciences are the foundation upon which these structures are erected. Without society, there is no innovation. Though we boast our own share of excellence and innovation (in mathematical sciences), the social arena remains more less a barren wilderness. There is an abundance of informed minds yet a scarcity of creators. And where the creators exist, their effort is often ignored or stifled by the importance we place on seniority and “old tried and tested knowledge”.

Take the law, for instance. The law is alive, with marrow and a conscience. At all times the law must evolve along with changes in science and the society. It’s therefore important that while the law is anchored on precedent, lawyers and judges creatively apply themselves to all issues placed before them. But for the strict application of precedent (never mind the circumstances) the Republic wouldn’t have found itself in the murky waters it now treads. ^

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