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What would the unthinkable in Kenya look like? We must prepare

Monday December 12 2016

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Last week, Safaricom and Strathmore University privileged me with an invitation to an event mainly for chief executive officers dubbed "Transformational Leadership for Sustainability".   

Other sponsors were the Capital Markets Authority and the Nairobi Stock Exchange.

The class is part of a wider plan to sensitise the public around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted at the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. 

Whilst modern corporations strive to improve shareholder value and maximise profit, the social good narrative is becoming increasingly sexy, and the 17 goals and 169 objectives provide a mining ground to do good.

The keynote speaker, former British Broadcasting Corporation presenter Nik Gowing, started his presentation with a red blank slide, warning us that it was a red alert and that we should think the unthinkable in the emerging new world order. 

With Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, anything can happen. By the time he was through with his presentation, he’d already sent shivers down our spines. 

The world is changing fast, he said. He added that at the rate things are happening, we might not have the 14 years we need to achieve the SDGs goals.

Gowing thinks we should smartly prepare for the unthinkable. He was right and had data to prove his points. 

Before Russia took over Crimea, it had been in talks with the EU, which blindly believed nothing drastic would happen. There was no worst-case scenario analysis and when it happened, there was no response. 

He then contextualised this blind belief on a local issue – the unemployment crisis in Kenya – noting that it will never be the same throughout if something drastic is not done.

A continued state of denial often leads to social instability in an era that Gowing referred to as de-responsiblisation, a state where no one takes any responsibility anymore. 

By the time we discussed most of the SDGs, including poverty, education, climate change, water and several others, Gowing had made his point.

VICTORY OVER CAPITALISM

We must, he said, disrupt current practices, including groupthink, fear of making career-limiting moves, risk aversion, institutional conformity and cognitive dissonance, among others.

Earlier, Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore, had shown a video of Frans de Waal's Ted Talk based on research about monkeys demonstrating fairness.

As the video shows, even monkeys detest inequality. He concluded that we cannot continue to ignore inequality in society. At some point, it will lead to social instability.

The gathering emphasised that we must begin to work like the worst would indeed happen and start looking for solutions.  We cannot just sit and keep on whining about poor leadership without putting in efforts to propose new solutions. 

There are lessons we can learn from the Arab Spring and how blindly leaders there thought it wouldn’t happen. Instability, as the monkeys demonstrated, is inevitable if inequality persists. 

Many of us blindly think it won't happen here, just like Americans thought Trump wouldn't win because he was considered a fringe candidate. Little did people know the electorate were fed up and wanted a “bad boy”.  

There are new theories which suggest that after years of enduring capitalist victory following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communists changed tack and have slowly been working on strategies for a comeback. 

They’ve been noting that the inequalities narrative will invariably lead to a discussion on sharing national resources, and saying they will eventually declare victory over capitalism. One useful strategy would be to disrupt media and muscle people into consuming propaganda.

We still don’t understand why Donald Trump was warming up to Vladimir Putin, but going by his abrupt announcement that he was open to closing the internet in some countries, we may begin to understand the broader dynamics and prepare accordingly.

Resisting won’t be easy, but if we ever accede to internet shutdowns at the whims of heads of state, it would be the end of free speech.

FILTERING CONTENT

Let me dedicate a little more space on internet because it is the most remarkable thing to come out of the United States.

In my view, internet is a human right. It is a remover of inequalities and has, more importantly, become a tool for innovation.  It has given voice to the voiceless, driven efficiency and more important, enabled economic growth for many countries.

Where would we be without online transactions? Think mobile money!

Whilst I am fully aware that the internet has been used by terrorists to recruit and plan atrocities, the same internet has enabled security agents to prevent many incidents that would have destroyed humanity. 

The fact remains that it is not Isis that would suffer more from its partial closure. Rather, many ordinary folks around the world, where governments will use the pretext of terror threats to shut down the internet to innocent users, would be at risk. 

There are many reasons why this could happen, even in more democratic countries. It has already happened in Africa and other countries, when the government shuts down social media for “security reasons.” 

Providers could use the opportunity to discriminate against users. Filtering content will become normal. Any form of internet manipulation will lead to higher cost and the poor will not afford it anymore.

Lest we forget, in spite of an avalanche of hate messages in the lead up to election violence in 2007, it is the non-interference with communication systems that saved many lives. 

Some victims of the violence crawled away into forests only to be saved by a simple text message. Others reported violent incidents that emboldened the founders of Ushahidi to develop a new open-source platform that mapped violence.

The platform saved many would-be-victims of violence and has since been used as a crowdsourcing tool to magnify many other voices.

OPEN AND FREE

In a flash, the gains we have made with respect to the freedom of media could be wiped out and our privacy infringed on, all in the name of security. 

Imagine a one-day shutdown of online banking or mobile money. The cost in terms of reverting to manual systems would run into the billions since many people use these tools without thinking how indispensable they have become to our everyday life. 

The internet will continue to drive productivity growth in any economy. From poor farmers waiting for price guidelines to optimise on their output, to rich farmers waiting for a model to predict rainfall patterns, virtually everybody is leveraging the internet to become more productive.

Unthinkable things are happening. We must work smart to bring order and avoid willful blindness, which is costly in the long run. 

When a country starts any form of control, the boundaries of freedom get blurred. Many innocent people end up suffering from the arbitrary decisions state bureaucrats make. 

Just leave the internet open and free. It will help us fight some of the emerging unthinkables.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. @bantigito