Tuesday, August 31, 2010

One last post to sneak in for August...

"Does a higher gini coefficient – more inequality – lead to more aspiration and motivation for self-improvement among people? Or does it engender more resentment and desperation? What do you think?"

I earned this one by poking the economists in the ribs, a little bit. I think... that this is exactly the kind of question that should be addressed in a presidential candidate debate. Especially if His Excellency the Celebrident of Tanzania actually consents to joining in one. I have been watching The West Wing Season Six and it has been very stimulating in light of the coming general election.

The debates: an integral part of representative electoral democracy, if combined with intellectual meritocracy. Certainly a cornerstone of the democratic ideal by being one of the few ways in which the electorate and the candidates might assess each other as equals. I have heard of a couple of initiatives in this direction- i.e. presidential candidate debates and if I hear of more I will let you know.

Couple of things to look at: a succinct description of The Establishment's behavior in an election year.Then, there is this too: perception is so important, what does it say when 1/4 of Americans answering a poll get it totally wrong? ... balaa. This is worth a laugh - just the latest Frankenbaby born from the union of politics and "art." I also stumbled across this here when thinking about blogging and media and accountability. I really like it when Wikipedia tries to be accurate and comprehensive and yet sensitive and precise. Some discussion on Bottom Up Thinking about the age-old Authoritarian Utility question, a recurrent development theme.

On the election front, there have been a lot of messages on the radio. Some news on the TV. Loud entertainment trucks, vuvuzelas and rally promotions. Same old, same old. Waiting for the good stuff.

Politicians and New Media

Popped this one out for the East African recently. Since I haven't figured out how to navigate their website in order to link, here's the article in full. It also means, of course, that this version is blissfully free of editorial interference :)

The Great Plug-In
Elsie Eyakuze
Monday 16th August, 2010

Not all politicians are created equal, and in the Age of Internet there is little that can be done to hide this fact. When news travels at the speed of slightly befuddled light through a testy SeaCom cable, every awful faux-pas and every serendipitous bon-mot can be rendered in pixels for all eternity. There is no better time to learn the careful management of image than now. For a modern politician, what could be deadlier than giving off the scent of staleness?

Tanzania’s state machinery hasn’t been completely oblivious to electronic media. On the side of government a handful of institutions that have done well in terms of procuring some online real-estate. The office of the Controller and Auditor General, for example, has been doing a little posting since 2008, and the Parliament website is a bit of a Nirvana for those who have a love of Hansards and detailed National Budget documents. Most ministries have tried to adopt a website, with varying levels of success.

Political parties have also joined the internet gravy train, and this is where things get interesting. Opposition parties tend to come across as much savvier online than in the print media. It appears that without the mediation of journalists, simple things such as election manifestos and ideological statements can be broadcast with minimum fuss. Opposition parties are also very good at updating their blog-style websites, since they cannot rest on the assumption that they have been around long enough for everyone to know what they are about. For the roughly 8% of us who have electricity, this is a boon.

By comparison, the CCM website does not fare well. It is dignified, staid, routinely neglected. Most of all, it is simply boring. Everything one should aspire to if one wants to appear about as hip as a hip replacement. In a population where nearly all of us are aged 35 or below, this is an unfortunate oversight. The Grand Old Party has usually been quite handy at keeping fresh with the youth, but perhaps the Grand Old Party is getting old.

Still, you can always count on ‘personal brands’ to excel where their organizations could do better. A few weeks ago, perhaps ever so slightly before the official campaign season officially kicked off, Tanzania’s online residents were surprised to find that their President was apparently following them on Twitter. This caused a day of excitement as the political blogs scampered to post something about it and Twitter users asked the account some probing questions. Of course it is being run by a rather cheerful part of the campaign team, and while it would be easy to assume that no President has the time to fiddle around with Twitter accounts, I wouldn’t put it entirely past this one to check in from time to time.

But His Excellency is just one of many- it has become de rigueur for the new class of Tanzanian politician to have a full online suit: Twitter is just the beginning and a wonderful way to get their followers to retweet their 140 characters of propaganda. There is also the all-important Facebook which gives a thin veneer of warmth to their interactions with thousands of ‘friends’ all over the country. The cream of the crop go so far as to run personal blogs outside of their party’s online efforts.

And thus the internet has become a way for young politicians to distinguish themselves in a time when it is absolutely crucial to appear modern, to appear to be a step ahead of the lumbering masses of their colleagues in the race to office. While a number of young opposition politicians of solid ambition have been quick to use this medium to promote their ideas- after all, its not like the traditional media will do it for them- only a handful of their CCM counterparts have been similarly efficient. Doubtless there is some institutional inertia at work here.

Social media are an elite concern at this point in time, limited in their reach and somewhat unsuited for mass political campaigns except through SMS. Still, they are important for convincing the reluctant voters in the Blackberry class that as a tech-savvy politician, you might be someone they would like to do business with.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Public Interest Intellectualism, again.

A Little while back I commented on something Prof. Issa Shivji had said about public intellectuals, trying to connect the idea to what is happening in social media. Thanks to Chambi Chachage connecting us, the conversation went a bit further when Prof. Shivji sent me this:

"Thanks Elsie. I checked out your blog and read your comment. I think the digital divide between generations and that the old guard do not visit blogs etc can only be partial, if at all, an explanation. It is not that public intellectuals (young ones, you meant, I presume) are not visible because the commentator is not aware of the blogs. The question is what goes into these blogs, whether what is discussed etc. qualifies as discourse of and in public interest, meaning altruistic, in the interest of the large toiling majority. Mind you, when one makes such comments as mine, one is really surveying the overall scene and doing it in a historical context, and, therefore periodizing trends. There are always exceptions, there is always a silver lining, lest we would have no hope. And there are blogs and listserves where a very fine public discourse is taking place (although it looks like it is very difficult to sustain such discourses, which is frustrating; I am sure you guys must have noticed it.)

And as Chambi says things are changing. The apparent dominance that the neo-liberal elites, including intellectual elites, appeared to have established during the last two decades, is declining. There is an upsurge of rethinking and revisiting, ironically although understandably, more in the bastions of capitalist neo-liberal centers than in our countries, the peripheries. I say 'ironically but understandably': ironic because it is we, the people - of course the large majority - suffer most under these hegemonies. Understandable because, as has been the case, by definition, in the peripheries our elites simply reproduce the fashions of the North in a caricatured form and take long to discard them even when the master (the originators) have left them behind and moved on. (It was Gordon Browne, the then British Prime Minister, who declared that the Washington Consensus was dead; not an African leader!)

I say this with respect, without wanting to pass any judgment, that there is a lot of caricaturing of the North in the young of neo-liberal elites, much of it utterly absurd. (The Facebook bears me out - you no doubt are likely to be more acquainted with it than me.)

But then there is a silver lining and I believe the silver lining is developing, expanding. There are rumblings of awakening in the youth of our country. Some of their blogs carry very deep thinking, concern and commitment - see wanazuoni, for example. Their commitment to change for the better in the interest of the wanyonge, and wavujajasho and the questioning of wavunajasho, is exemplary and inspiring- witness for example the way the spirit of voluntarism is displayed by JNIF Committees in organising the activities of the Mwalimu Nyerere Chair. And, mind you, unlike my generation which grew up in the context of one of the most revolutionary periods in history - independence and liberation, the Vietnam war, civil rights
movement in the US, the aborted French 'revolution' of 1968 triggered off by university students, a world-wide anti-imperialist movement etc - the present generation has to find its mission and define its vision in a period of the trough of the revolution.

Let me not ramble on ....

Elsie, thanks for provoking this response - the provocation itself is part of the silver lining. Kila la heri."

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Despot Needed, Please Enquire Inside.

So, the people have spoken via a non-scientific blog poll and they have said loud and clear that they aren't too strongly attached to their personal freedoms. 50% of respondents are in favor of a benevolent dictatorship, two people want in on Perfect Steak Quest, two of you don't care how things get done so long as they are done, and one person is actually in favor of democracy (and the sole winner of the Mikocheni Report Virtual Hug Prize).

Seriously? I guess it is a good thing we're not having a referendum about this democracy business.

Still, I think that this year's elections are already proving to be extraordinary because of the heightened focus on the primary stages, the parliamentary candidates and local government elections. We're expanding and improving our democracy even as we express our discontent with it. Typical.

Public Interest Intellectualism

I came across a recent paper by Amb. J.V. Mwapachu on the University of the Future in Africa,* discussing the policy side of tertiary education and the place of academia in development. In it, I found this opinion quoted:
"In his critical paper, 'From Neo Liberalism to Pan Africanism: Towards reconstructing an Easter African Discourse.' Shivji laments, in the context of the impact of neo-liberalism on higher education in Africa, that the "public intellectual, whose vocation is to comment, protest, caricaturise, satirise, analyse, and publicise the life around him or her is rapidly becoming history."
Part of this might be explained by the gap between the analogue and digital generations. Professor, may I introduce you to the blogosphere? Comment, protest, caricature, satire? Check. Analysis, publicizing the life around? Check, check, check. Nonetheless, I think Mzee has highlighted a crucial point- at least one major part of the public intellectual's discourse was the discussion of Ideas.

While I would like to assure Prof. Shivji that there are some young intellectuals working in the sphere of public discourse through various means- newspaper articles, online fora, discussion panels- I don't know that this is necessarily done as frequently in blogging, where we tend to focus on events and people/celebrity. In my experience, the pressure in blogging is to get as close to the event horizon of whatever is current in your areas of interest. This does not leave much room, or sympathy, for broader ruminations.

I have also been struck by the fact that there is a gendered aspect to this field. Surprise! There are just not enough female or feminist intellectuals sticking their oar in the stream of 'hard' public discourse.
But that's a tangent- what I wanted to say is that the above quote does point to a vacuum in our public discourse: the discussion of those Ideas on which our plans and actions are supposedly based. For instance, how do we perceive our practice of democracy today in Tanzania- should we be content with personality politics? Are our gender roles are in keeping with our 'utu' philosophy on the worth of human life? What about the concept of excellence in animal husbandry (small-holding, humane treatment and transport infrastructure) that might result in The Perfect Steak being an exemplary product of Tanzanian agricultural prowess- is that supported by Kilimo Kwanza?

To kick it back to our education system, I haven't really seen much evidence of it being geared towards developing critical thinking and the creativity, independence and daring required to innovate. That might be something to worry about when talking about the University of the Future. Anyways, here's a little treat I found about a different form of intelligence for those of you with an inner geek . Have a thoughtful weekend.

* 'The University of the Future: Perspectives for Tanzania.' Paper presented by Amb. Dr. Juma V. Mwapachu, Secretary General, East African Community, at the Tanzania Higher Education Forum on "Universities for Sustainable Development: Trends, Prospects and Challenges," Arusha, 12th May 2010.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This One Is For the Writers.

Dr. Bob was kind enough to send this article. It's a good piece, so no Original Content in this post, just a little love for those of you who write because you must. Enjoy.

A little birdie told me...

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