Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Predestination & Free Will

It's been a while since I've written anything, and for that I apologize. Mayhaps I took a long break to get a new perspective on things, especially with regards to the current topic at hand. I spent a lot of time on the "predestination pages" of Facebook and anything that I could find on Google, and a lot of that searching led me to one conclusion: people are LOST when it comes to understanding predestination. Throw in "Free Will" and things only get more confusing; then people start to claim that Free Will and Predestination are mutually exclusive, i.e. both cannot exist together.

My take on the matter is simply this: "Predestination" & "Free Will" do exist in close union. They are literally different sides of the same coin. It is one of life's mysteries, and as such it doesn't totally have to 'make sense' (to us), but this does not invalidate the mystery's truth, and neither does it mean that it is illogical.

In order to start to understand this mystery, people first need to have the correct basis. In my reading, I find that all the misconceptions tied to this topic stem from a flawed understanding that is simply a consequence of a 'foundational' flaw. Free Will is actually not that hard to understand (fathoming its inherent beauty is the main problem people face); Predestination is the main problem, so that's where I'll begin.

So first, let's set the ground for predestination; it is a whole lot easier to believe in it if you believe in God (A Supreme monotheistic Benevolent God works best). The opposite of this would be to turn "Fate" into the ultimate force that runs your life, and, understandably, Fate does not have to work towards your self-interest. This easily turns into a Fatalist view, and I'm sure it's what scares a lot of people who as yet don't believe in God from discussing Predestination.

The second part is to understand who your God actually is and what His relationship is to you. The main question to ask is this: "Why did God make me?"

It would seem to be an easy enough question to answer, but this is by far the biggest stumbling block for people who already believe in God. And here is a short list of some of the misconceptions that have cropped up in relation to understanding & answering this question.

1. "God created us to worship Him." Yes indeed, the Father created us, but not essentially to worship Him. The whole creation gives praise to God just by its MERE existence, the intricacy that keeps it running & its inherent beauty. And, if we were meant chiefly for worship, wouldn't the Father have crafted us in the manner of the 4 living creatures before God's throne (Rev 4:8) who worship Him without ceasing?

But humans are indeed a different case from the rest of the creation; sure enough, our mere presence automatically gives God praise (for His excellent work), but also, with our Free Will, we WILLINGLY give praise to the Father

Note that the Father does not need us to worship Him (contrary to what Psalm 30:9 might imply), for remember that even if we deny Him praise, the rest of the creation will rightly give Him what is already His. Better yet, even when we do praise Him, we should be humble enough to remember that we are only giving back what is already His (1 Chronicles 29:14).

2. "God is glorified through us." This is true, but note that even without us He is still glorified. The worst form in which this could be misconstrued was a simple declaration that I once read online which basically sounded something like this:

Before the universe was even created, we know that God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit were there always. Now, even after the creation of Adam and Eve, Christ and the Holy Spirit still didn't have a purpose. Man, thus, had to sin so that Christ would provide a way to atone for Man's sins & the Holy Spirit would regenerate and fill certain hearts...and in this way, they would be GLORIFIED.

This is dangerous thinking to say the least. But to draw one back to the logical basis, one need only be reminded of the scheme of things as they were laid out in John 1:1-3:

"Through Him (Christ) all things were made; without Him, nothing was made that has been made."

3. "God was obligated to create us." This one is not entirely different from the above position. Some of the religious would argue thus: God planned to create us, but God, All-Knowing as He is, surely knew that we would betray Him by sinning. However, since He already had it in His mind to create us, He had no choice but to make us.

This ends up being carried to other extremes, especially when people try to correlate Predestination with the presence of sin in the world. The more common one would read like this:
"Since God created us knowing that we would sin, Christ was thus obligated to come die for our sins so that we might be saved."

People would argue that they still believe God is sovereign, but the downside of this manner of thinking is that we confine God to His act of creation. He is bound by it as if it is something that He has to do; He is trapped by obligation - a condition that would never exist for a truly sovereign God. A position that is similar in relation to this is the "God as the first cause of everything" stance.

4. "God as the first cause of everything." Truththfully, God did create this world and everything in it; and honestly, no one could do it better. But in trying to give praise to God, some people go the extra mile and add things to His plate that probably do Him a disservice; these things are none other than Sin and Suffering. Of course they would state that nothing happens without God willing it, and nothing can occur outside of God's will - hence, God wills sin and suffering into existence.
People hindered by this view would further use the defense that

"We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)."

The problem here is two-fold: confusion concerning God's sovereignty & a misunderstanding of the world we live in. Now, by all means, we know that the world we live in is only a shell of what God originally meant it to be; it was a frustration of His original perfect plan brought about by man's sin. Therefore, one cannot understand God's perfect plan if they only restrict themselves to this 'frustrated imperfect reality' that we find ourselves in. Sin and suffering were not in the original plan, but they are something we have to deal with in this, our flawed reality.

Also, God's sovereignty is where a lot of people miss the point. They act as if there is a way in which God's sovereignty can actually be diminished; hence, He has to control everything so tightly. God goes from being "The Benevolent Father" to "The Overbearing Father". Sure enough, someone can believe that He's working for their good...but never has a smothering parent been considered a good thing, even if they have our best interests at heart.

But our Father is indeed Benevolent. And, just as God IS, so is His sovereignity. NOTHING any of us will ever do can ever change God's sovereignity. He, thus, isn't OBLIGATED to control things ("strong-arm") as tightly as some people would have us believe. But mind you, He is always in control!!!

5. "God created us for His pleasure." Very true; however, if this sentiment goes hand-in-hand with the feeling that God is a harsh vindictive Father, then it leads people down a desperate path.

"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. (Romans 9:14-15)"

This is a beautiful verse because it shows us that God really does have the final say. However, if people are burdened by this view that God abitrarily chooses whom to show compassion, then they can't really reflect on the beauty of the above reading, and this way they never really know what God is playing at. You end up with people convinced that they are called to a supreme fate, and, on the flipside, others who've been summarily neglected.

6. "God as a vending machine" This is the mindset behind any kind of "Works" system; you see it in many forms these days whereby people believe that the blessings in their lives have to mirror how much devotion they show to God. It is the basis for the Prosperity Gospel, and even much earlier than that (for it is quite an old mindset), it was the same standard that people used to condemn Job for his afflictions.

I do not have to mention the obvious - "GOD IS NOT A VENDING MACHINE".

7. "God as a drama-queen." This is a combination of various mindsets, and it is a logical outcome if we believe that God is vindictive, created us for His pleasure, and treats us as pawns in this game of life that He constructed simply to frustrate us. Surely, why else would evil men triumph so much and good men suffer?

People need to remember that God is Benevolent, even in those times when it's hard to see it. People should also remember that the Father will set things straight. This lifetime is but a mist that passes by quickly, but the Lord will certainly balance all accounts when the time is right; and only then will people realize the benefit of living a 'good' life. This stuff is not just "a pie in the sky."

These are a just a few of the ways in which people go wrong with regards to Predestination. What is does show is that one misunderstanding of even those truths that have already been plainly revealed to us really mars one's view of Predestination; fortunately, the ultimate basis for why God created us is easy enough to understand: it's HIS LOVE; it has nothing to do with what we did, or anything we will ever do.

"We Love because He first Loved us... (1 John 4:19) "

And this is why God ALLOWS you to share His vast bounty.

There is a third step though. It is not enough to know that God loves us. A basic misunderstanding always happens when people start to believe that the Lord loves them more than others. One show of this misconception that I read centered on Malachi 1:5 ("Jacob Loved, Esau Hated"). People mistakenly reflect this back to Genesis 25:23 where God basically states that "the older will serve the younger sibling," and they try to correlate this with the 'Love/Hate' spoken of in Malachi's verse.

But, this is not a curse! With Joseph's 2 sons - Ephraim and Manasseh - didn't the same exact situation play out (Genesis 48:12-20)? And what then would people say of God's decision to have Solomon construct the Temple, and NOT David, though David was unquestionably capable, willing & Loved by the Father (1 Chronicles 28:1-7)?

This was not God saying that He loved anyone less; He just had a different plan for the people involved. God is not a "vending machine" such that He will bless you according to how much He loves you.

[NOTE that Malachi 1:1-5 is a different context altogether; there was ample reason for God to be annoyed with Esau based on his actions, particularly forsaking his birth-right and the women he chose to marry]

Everytime I come across people who claim that they are "chosen" and "loved more than others", I find that they cannot conclusively answer why they were chosen as opposed to other people. They do agree that it wasn't based on anything they did or could ever do; there is nothing different about them than other people because each human being is a unique entity crafted by God so that no two will ever be alike.

Hence, there is no basis for assuming that God loves some people more than others. God loves US ALL EQUALLY. God is not Random!

From this, we can go on to the last and probably most important point of Predestination - How we actually see Predestination in our lives. Whenever I broach this topic with Christians I am likely to be referred to the Predestination Chapter (Romans 8:29-30):

"For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified."

My main problem with this portion of scripture is the manner in which it comes out of Paul's mouth; the tense seems to be all wrong. As a believer in He Who Is, what exactly would this sound like coming from God Himself?

Since time is a 'weird' concept when we deal with The Almighty, the only tense that actually makes the most sense with regard to God is the Present Tense. So, if Romans 8:29-30 were uttered by GOD HIMSELF, what exactly would it sound like. (Some conjecture here please)

"For those I know I also destine to conform to the image of My Son, so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those I destine I also call; and those I call I also justify; and those I justify I also glorify."

Note my changes
*With God there really isn't foreknowledge, it is knowledge (He knows); it only becomes foreknowledge when compared to what Humanity sees.
*And all the past perfect tense...well, it had to be made present tense, in view of God's unique nature.

Now, the problem we have here is that everytime people wax lyrical on Predestination, they use that 'Past Perfect Tense', which makes sense only to the Almighty because He's the ONLY ONE sitting outside of time. Humanity, however, cannot try to claim such a position; for us this is literally still a continuing work, and because we are temporal beings, we actually have to live out our whole lives and then reflect on the past to know whether our destiny was fulfilled. Alas, most people are confused when it comes down to assessing Time in relation to a God that is not bound by it.

My take on things is a bit different. I believe that according to God's original plan we were all predestined for Heaven - EVERYONE! A Benevolent Maker who made a GOOD creation only intended good things for that creation. The current reality that we live in is in fact merely a shell of the original plan. But we still know that God loves us and does not mean for any one of us to be lost (Matthew 18:10-14); He that loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us (And NOT ONLY "the Elect" as some people try to make it seem these days).

When a lot of people look to find something in our lives that speaks of Predestination, they focus on a future that has not happened; a future that only The Maker is privy to. But I see Predestination in our lives everyday. The TALENTS are the clearest example of humanity's predestination. There will only ever be one you! The combination of talents (& temperament) that you experience is UNIQUE; it is your soul's fingerprint; there will never be another like you. This is a reality for every human being on the face of this earth.

There is of course a reason for being unique - we are NOT "unique for uniqueness sake". Every human brings something to the great puzzle of life. Everyone fulfils a special niche, and each niche is useful for the building of God's Kingdom on earth. These very talents wil help lead us and others to our proper destiny: Heaven; and what this basically means is that EVERYONE on this earth (for Better or Worse) is IMPORTANT.

However, people should remember that receiving these talents was not something random: just like the 3 servants in the parable (Matthew 25), something is expected of us.

"To those whom a lot has been entrusted, a lot will be expected" (Matthew 12:47-48).

And this is where Free Will comes in; however, there is a need to clear up a misconception going around that's still being thrown around lately and it involves 3 concepts: Free Will, Freedom & Liberty.

"Freedom" (ref. Galatians 5:13-14), is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude. Note also the words of 1 Corinthians 6:12 -

"Everything is permissible for me - but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me - but I will not be mastered by anything."

Now...that is true freedom!!!

"Liberty", is "doing what you please because you can". This notion is what has been mistaken for "freedom" in society today. [I actually feel that Liberty as understood nowadays more closely mirrors "Permissiveness".]

"Free Will" is what you actually choose (by use of reason, or lack of it) to do.

By this definition, I'd argue that a Hedonist is the most LIBERAL of human beings, but doesn't have the most FREEDOM. A person who is a slave to his own passions, wants and whims, can certainly never claim to be FREE.If we looked at it from a Temperate point of view, the spectrum would be something like:Legalism (one extreme) : Freedom (Median) : Liberty (another extreme) And one of these positions shapes how we end up exercising our Free Will.

The big question is whether we can do what we please with our "Free Will"?
*Well, of course we can!
But then, if "Free Will" were considered one of our 'rights', does it then follow that there are
responsibilities' tied to those rights?
*Rights & Responsibilities always go hand-in-hand, so yes, we have responsibilities!
Lastly, and most importantly, are there penalties to pay for not honouring our responsibilities?
* There most certainly are, the most scary of which is Hell!

So, we are free to do with our talents what we choose...however, there is HELL to pay (literally) for not using them in a manner pleasing to the Father.

I said earlier that people understand "Free Will", but for the most part they do not understand how great a gift it really is; mayhaps, this is why a lot of people blame God for their suffering as if He was somehow behind their suffering.

One reality I've become increasingly aware of in this life is this:

"Most people will suffer for the mistakes of another."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in every war-torn country where the selfish leaders have confined the innocent to a life of squalor; also, everytime the wicked take advantage of the weak and dependent it's the same old story; there are of course, less dramatic examples of misuse of power in our everyday lives, and it is these that probably constitute the majority. Such is the power tied to Free Will: other have been entrusted with (huge) responsibilities and they forget that it was given to them by Another. No matter though, for in the end God squares all His accounts.

Forgive the Pragmatist in me, but I feel better highlighting humanity's faults first. Now, in much the same way, we have a great potential to do good in this world. In a previous posting I tried to answer why it is that we do good in this world; what it is that makes this world go round. And I find myself faced with an even deeper answer these days – It is because this was how our Father intended for things to be. Ephesians 2:9-10:

"...We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do"

What is so special about anything truly Good that is done in this world? Isn't it just something that God expected of us from the beginning?To be merciful, to show respect, to honour our parents, to fend for the weak, caring for the sick, comforting the sorrowful.....This world can only survive if people do good; it was what was always expected of us, and it was the way it was meant to be.

I have come across Christians who feel that it is only Christians who do 'true good' in this world because they do it in honour of their Father. Now, besides the millions of occasions when misguided Christians have devoted utter foolish acts 'to the glory of God', Christ's words warn me to think otherwise - Luke 17:7-10

"When you have done all you have been commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do."

Good works do not exist for Goodness' sake - they exist because of God's plan. There is NO good work that can be divorced from God. None! Done in selfishness or in submission to the Father, none of the good works is ever separated from Him. Every Good Work draw its beauty, its very nature from God - Our Beatitude, Our Ultimate Good; Good Itself, for that matter.

Christ alluded to this when He exhorted His followers to love their enemies. Matthew 5:43-48

"...If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

I can give you another example. When Christians spread out into new lands and colonized them, one of the things they did was convert the natives and then proceeded to ravage the lands and their resources. Now, the natives, who tended to commune with nature (in some cases even worship it) already understood the importance of taking care of the environment. So, we now live in an age where (Environmental) "Stewardship" is all the rave with Christians. I would pose this question - Was environmental stewardship any less godly when a lowly native already understood it eons ago, ungodly as he/she was?

Certainly not! We are called to do good, there should be no doubt about that; but not matter how much good we do,we should remember that we are only giving back the Father what is already His. (1 Chronicles 29:14). The Good works are basically the tools that He gave us.

And as we strive to do good, we must remember that the two things God values above sacrifice are Obedience & Mercy (Hosea 6:6). In fact, I find that by extension, the practise of these 2 qualities is the fulfilment of the 2 greatest Commandments (Mark 12:33). The greatest thing we will ever be called to do is to Love our God, and after that our neighbour. How then do we show love for our Father? By obeying His commandments. And how then do we show love for our neighbour? By being merciful to him/her (sharing with them the mercy that we have already received in great measure from our Father).

Another problem stems from the whole Faith/Works mystery. (Surely, any mention of the Good Works is sure to bring out an antagonist who argues for a mere Fatih system). I am not trying to give people the impression here that they are "working" their way into Heaven...but as was said before, " those whom a lot has been entrusted, a lot will be expected" (Matthew 12:47-48).
It is no mistake that one of the most common forms of imagery used in the Bible is that of "The Fruit & The Vine", which was especially well laid out in John 15:1, 4-5:

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman...Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing."

The Faith binds us to the Vine, but the Works show forth what being grafted to the Vine spells for us.

One last problem that I can anticipate with regards to my views will be that some people will aruge that I place too much emphasis on how much control we humans have over our lives. At one point I was accused of reducing God to a "Mutable Contingent" God (Ok..He was really powerful and compassionate), but it was still a demotion.

And this is a really important juncture for us to appreciate the power of Free Will. It is a gift. God gives you the opportunity, the circumstance (casts a new light on what should be considered coincidence!) and He gives you the talent. How you use it is really up to you.
Now...for most people, especially those who see God as the First Cause of Everything, this sounds like mere nonsense; after all, God has arranged our paths from start to finish. How could we possibly be free to run around with the chance of messing up those things that He has already planned for us?

Honestly, I would counter that we are dealing with He who holds Eternity in the palm of His hand; He who is in control of all the "webs" that connect everyone scattered throughout this world. How much can we really change His plans? Could a drop of water alter the course of the Ocean? But then, if I say that God has this much control, am I contradicting myself by asserting that we have so much freedom?
I am not! The way I see it, God puts us in the right places, gives us the right opportunities, and actually does help us to develop those same gifts that He blessed us with. Honestly, who would know how to better maximize our potential other than He who intricately understands and 'authored' the gifts?
This is why I find, with the talents in particular, that probably the most important thing we could ever do is to ask God to 'Order Our Steps', for He in fact gave us these talents & knows the best way in which they can be used. And even if you make missteps, the Lord can still guide you back to your rightful path. How much you're willing to let Him guide you determines how close you get to what is your rightful path.

Also, I feel I need to answer the issue about a Contingent God. Honestly, people have the misconception that:
A Contingent God = A Mutable God = A Permissive God.

Honestly, a God that reacts to His creatures, where on earth could I have pulled that one from? Whenever I reflect on God's Mercy, without which I stand condemned, then I am thankful that He sonner reaches for His Mercy than for His Justice. And what does the Lord say of such things? Well...

1. The Lord's Prayer - Forgive us our tresspasses, as we forgive those who tresspass against us (Matt 6:12 & Mark 6:14)
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (goes hand in hand with the above example) - Matt 18:21-35 * special emphasis on Verse 35
2. ...Then your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (Matt 6:1-4, 6:5-7 & 6:16-18)
3. Judging others - Matt 7:1-2
4. Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers...Matt 25:31-46

The Lord actually does react to what you give Him. This does not mean that you have some form of control over Him; rather, it means He gives you the chance to be in a genuine relationship with Him; one in which you have a CHOICE.

But remember that you will be judged based on those choices; if someone can do good with their choices, then the reverse is also true. And just as in this reality, we know that we have to be able to answer for every choice that we make.
Remember still that your choices cannot, in the greater scheme of things, interfere with God's plans - He's just giving you the chance to be a part of His plan.
'Either you submit to His plan, and He lets you be a part of it; or, you can be swept up by His Plan, which has to come to pass.'
(Reference the Book of Jonah for more on this idea).

So, there you have it. I tried to answer a lot of questions within this piece, but all that would have been useless if I distract you from the main point of it all. So, this was the list for understanding Predestination & Free Will:

1. God
2. Love
3. Equal Love for All
4. The Talents
5. Using those talents, in conjunction with our Free Will.

There may be other way to understand Predestination & its relation to Free Will...but as a starter, this hierarchy is a lot less troublesome.

God Bless.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

When Good People Do Bad Things...

"...If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Finding this quote buried in a friend's profile was a Godsend. It ties in a whole lot of analytical questions that I've had to ask myself since mid last year. It is actually an expansion of the sentiment that " always hurt the ones that you love."

I think most of us wish life was simple - that things were black or white, and we had a simple way of knowing those who would cause us so much pain and sorrow. It would definitely make things a lot easier if we could see such people coming from a mile away, if they had special markings and so on....OR WOULD IT???
Truthfully, life has taught me that it's usually the unanticipated things that cause us the most pain. If I knew someone was evil to begin with, I'd probably steer clear of them; and in any case, if they did do wrong by me anyway...well, I didn't expect anything better from them in the first place.

So, the real people to really be wary of are those for whom we hold the deepest of reverence in our hearts; those that we let close, those that make us vulnerable precisely because we allow them to see us in our most vulnerable of states. No wound cuts deeper than that delivered by those whom we love for this exact reason.

I'm not writing this post to give the impression that "Trust" is over-rated; rather I'm writing this as an answer for all those occasions when we find that those close to us have let us down. When the only question on our mind is "WHY?"
.....Why did they do it? Why didn't I see it coming? Was it something that I did? Was there something that I could have done? Why should I have to suffer if it wasn't my fault? How could someone so good do something so bad? Why did I let that person get in so deep?

We need to ask those questions to make sense of everything; to at least get as close to a semblance of "closure" as the situation would allow. Some people will be lucky enough to have the offending party talk to them and try to explain things as best as they can, which is about the most mature thing that occur under the circumstances. But going by humanity's dastardly record, I sense that most of us have had the hit-and-run experience where someone doesn't give us an adequate explanation; the task of understanding events and achieving closure is totally left up to us. Therefore, what my experience has taught me is that, of all the aforementioned questions already posed, the best question to personally answer is

"How could someone so good do something so bad?"

I will not turn this into a religious debate about good and evil just because I needn't go that far. Such a question simply borders on our free will and what we're willing to do with it. Few of us would ever doubt that our human nature is flawed, so it isn't really ridiculous to assume that, as humans, we are going to do a few thing unbecoming towards each other (especially those closest to us). But I think that we humans, religious or otherwise, have the capacity to know the difference between right and wrong even though it may not have been spelled out to us in the most obvious ways growing up; or at least, we can 'tell' when we're doing something wrong.

One of the most pivotal lines for this argument came from Al Pacino in the movie "Scent of a Woman:

"...Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew, but I never took it. You know why ? It was too damn hard."

I think, universally, across the board, we all know what the right thing is to do. Those people who hurt us or betray us, they know what needs to be done; they know that they need to dig in, apologize and try to make things right. But...what they "know" and what they "choose to do" is where the conflict comes in; and this again sets the stage for one of life's more obvious lessons,

"...All that is necessary for bad things to happen is that good people do nothing."

Everyone knows that it's easier for bad things to happen in this world; we actually have to work extra just to make sure that good things come our way, and to ensure that the few ruffians around us don't drive the rest of this world into anarchy. It's hard to be good in a world that usually won't reward you for it. But I sense that most people would choose 'good' any day over the alternative; it is the ideal way to live after all (...and you don't have to be religious to understand that!)

I spend even less time these days looking for the definitions of a bad person, because truthfully, some bad people do good things for those close to them. Rather, I just understand "bad" in terms of a 'lack of good', or 'a failed understanding of what good actually is'. But I have also come to believe in the redemptive power of apologies and forgiveness. We expect those close to us to be perfect, but that is usually a pipe-dream; what we truly expect, however, is that they would be wise enough to offer us an apology and try to make things right once the wrong has been committed.

Now, people have hounded me from time to time concerning how effective an apology actually is considering the fact that it might not even be "genuine"; and after all, it doesn't exactly fix anything, anyway. But I would counter that it takes great strength to apologize for something that we have done; it is an exercise in self-control to get over your ego, set aside your pride and try to make things right; (probably the best image for this would be Christ's challenge of 'dying to oneself'). And what you show the offended party is that though the bad deed can't be undone, at least you're sorry and you're willing to try to fix things. This then makes forgiveness somewhat easier.

Unfortunately, for those who never get the apology, it's still in your best interest to forgive the offending party. Believe me, I do not say this lightly because it is hard as hell, and it hurts like hell too. Being the 'bigger person' in the situation is extremely hard to bear for someone who doesn't even care enough to put your mind at ease in the first place. But, in my experience, holding onto all that bile, anger, disgust and hate just imprisons you; worse, it allows the offending party to exert a strength over your life by turning you into a bitter person. So, by all means, forgive the person.

...BUT DO NOT SELL YOURSELF OUT BY LETTING THEM OCCUPY THEIR PREVIOUS POSITION IN YOUR LIFE WITHOUT SOME FORM OF A DECENT APOLOGY. Forgiveness and an offer of friendship is humane, but a position within your 'inner circle' is always EARNED.

God Bless.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shell-Shocked Africans!

It's been quite a while since I did some "blogging", and when a good friend gets on your case about, you know it's finally time to put in some work.

This is my first real blog since I got to China, so in some ways it feels real special. Things are making more sense (out here) these days, and I appreciate that I'll have the chance to grow in a different way. Perhaps I'll find life's missing piece of the puzzle that eluded me both in Kenya and in the US. Every little piece of knowledge counts, and since no culture is perfect, we'd do best to adopt those beneficial portions of other cultures.

One thing that I constantly have to remind people (whenever I find myself in a foreign land for the purpose of study) is that I am not running away from home. Just because I chose to study outside doesn't mean I've abandoned my home-country forthwith; it's just my way of getting my act together before I return home. Anyone who remembers the independent research I did knows the problems I had to deal with in getting "Phytoremediation" accepted as something plausible in Kenya. So, in reality, me being in the US (or China) to better follow that path definitely makes more sense. as much as I'm not running away from home, there are probably a lot more people that actually ARE RUNNING AWAY! And since I've never been one to back down from a conversation about development, I usually talk to such people to peel away the layers of what is so bad about their home countries (especially the Africans). And it seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same: consistently, people from different countries seem to have the same answers.

"...the government is bad; misuses people's funds."
"...I want to live in this foreign land because they know how to put money to good use. Development like this can't be found in my country, and it won't be coming anytime soon..."
"....better I put my money into this foreign least it'll go towards good use...."

Sadly, the list goes on and on. Now I know a lot of places have been through really bad times (especially in the case of Africa), and yes, even in those countries where things should have progressed at a much faster pace things may be lagging a bit. True, it is sad; but surely, there are definitely great things in our future.

I think that one of the biggest problems with looking outwards for answers to development is that we only see what we want to see: the beautiful exterior. Lord knows how they arrived at that beautiful exterior! No truly beautiful thing is ever achieved without great sacrifice and effort. Most of the development we see today, in some cases, is simply the result of TIME; some people (like the Chinese or the North Americans) have simply been around longer and had more time to get things right. It also counts if there's less in-fighting in the whole situation. Some people just had more mineral resources, and some people just learned to get by with the little they had (Japan, Netherlands). All these have made these people who they are.

But I still insist to people that there's more to it than just the beautiful exterior. Good sacrifices have been made....but some useful cultural norms have been lost at the 'expense of development'; and in some places serious (perhaps irreparable) damage has been done to the environment in which subsequent generations of people will be forced to live in.

I look to the underdevelopment in some parts of Africa right now, and sometimes it seems like a blessing in disguise. Like maybe, just maybe, we were required to wait for just such a time as this when we can develop our industries along 'greener' lines; a time when we can profit from all the research and the previous mistakes of those who have come before us; a time when any serious person should realize that running a country is a lot like running a good business:

"It is better for the whole country as a whole when everyone profits; not just a select few"

All the lessons have been laid down; we have all that we need. But there are a few habits that we (especially Africans) are gonna have to scrape away.

1. Blaming past oppressors for every ill under the sun. We know they did us wrong, but that is spilt milk. We have to make due with what we've been given, lest we end up like those people that Jesus spoke of "..even the little that they have will be taken away."

2. Excessive politicking - It's understandable that we strive for the Great Democracy that is espoused by the Developed countries, but I think that Democracy is truly a misnomer. Real political wisdom consists in knowing that in life there are some things that are not democratic at all. We cannot squeeze in the notion of Democracy into every little thing under the sun (for example, the recent bid to interpret what constitutes MARRIAGE in many western countries is just one such mistake!)

I am not making a plea towards tyranny or communism......but people need to understand that a healthy balance is what is needed in life. Unbridled democracy will be the end of us all. Endless politicking does us more harm than good.

3. Bad Blood - we have no time to be at each other's throats. No real distinctions based on ethnicity (or any other factor) exist in this world. There is usually only one true distinction and that's WEALTH (Those who have, Those who have little, & Those who have nothing). The sooner people realize this, the better.

As I've suggested, especially with regards to Africa, we aren't really that far behind. All that has to happen is that a series of small steps have to be taken; the PROBLEM is that these small steps have to be taken by EVERYONE. Getting a whole bunch of heterogenous people (even within a single country) to do something as ONE is the real task.

We need to be united first, and then after that, we need to make the great sacrifices that will be required of us. I have suggested before to people that Kenya, on its own, requires about "one generation" worth of sacrifice to get to where it needs to be.

I feel dismayed when I look at other African countries and see them boast of the success of China & the Asian Tiger (as if that's going to mean that there'll be more people to loan us money). Can't they see that in fact that might just be an even bigger hurdle that we'll have to contend with in the long run? That perhaps, we are placing too much trust in the perceived 'goodness' of someone else.....a costly mistake that we've already made many times before.

Bottomline, it'll be up to us to fix things! And we're going to need everyone: the hopeful, hopeless, lukewarm, shell-shocked, pragmatists, optimists and pessimists. I just pray that there isn't too large a mess left to fix when we finally have our chance to change things. But if you're with me in this, I can guarantee you that it's a worthwhile venture (devoid of instant reward), but the very stuff that GREATNESS is made of.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Prosperity Gospel: My Thoughts

Where on earth did we go wrong? How could such a misleading doctrine have found its way into our Church’s teachings? Do people actually equate ‘personal wealth’ with true greatness in this day and age? Of all the people that ever lived, none was ever as deserving of having lived in wealth and splendour as our Lord Jesus Christ, and yet He chose to be born into a relatively humble life – might He have been trying to prove a point?

This issue really disturbs me because it portrays a watering-down of the Christian Faith. It is to tell people that they will principally know that they find favour in God’s eyes according to the material blessings that will be bestowed upon them in their lives. Are we supposed to give a lot so that we can receive a lot (a ‘reciprocity’ of sorts)? Is this the station that we have demoted our Heavenly Father to?

I believe that it is very useful to reflect on the very prayer that the Lord Himself gave us.

- Our Father who art in Heaven
1. Hallowed be Thy name
2. Thy Kingdom come
3. Thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven
4. Give us this day our daily bread
5. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us
6. And lead us not into temptation
7. But deliver us from Evil
- For the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory are Yours, now and forever. Amen.

Simple formula for a prayer actually: a salutation, 7 requests and an ending. What is most revealing about this prayer is that one request, above all others, unifies all parts of the prayer - request no. 3: “Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven”

The whole prayer, as with all prayers (though it might not be explicitly stated) rests on God’s Will. There is no need for reciprocity because this 3rd request in a prayer that many of us have prayed since our childhood is actually us submitting ourselves to our Father’s Will. This means that some of us will receive great material blessings in this life and others will not, but it does not imply that our Father loves us any less; it simply means that our path in life will have to be different. In fact, for those who will be very “blessed” a note of caution has to be exercised, for “With great power comes great responsibility.”

That last line might resonate with ardent followers of the Spiderman franchise; however, almost 2000 years ago someone came up with another way of stating the same exact thing:

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)

This puts things in context: to receive more in terms of blessings, wealth or talent implies that a whole lot is also expected of us; a greater lot, in fact, than from those without. It is thus unfortunate for me to hear my fellow people “beating others over the head” with their blessings. None of us chooses the situation into which we are born, the families we find ourselves amongst, or to some extent the opportunities that fall into our laps. Put in another way, as beings bound by time & space, we need to realize that if God were to shift the delicate threads of time & space around us, He could actually change everything in our lives that we take for granted. All our “blessings” could be gone and the dynamics of our lives could drastically change for the worse. Hence, no matter what station we find ourselves in life, we have to HUMBLY acknowledge both our fragile existence in this world, and the fact that circumstance plays a big role in who we are.

I do not adhere to the notion that it is sinful for people to be rich, and poverty is the right option; neither do I uphold that poverty is punishment and ‘prosperity’ is the true sign of blessing. In line with the virtue of Temperance, I believe that most things (which are not inherently evil), within their proper setting and undertaken in moderation, are in line with God’s will. Hence, the riches in our life, to whatever extent we will experience them, are good so long as they take their rightful places in our lives – subjugated by our religious thought. To place both these issues at par basically entails elevating ‘material wealth’ and desecrating ‘religious thought’.

The extent to which the notions of ‘material wealth’ and ‘religious thought’ ends up being blended is precisely the reason why I understand more concretely that our Lord’s words will come to pass: “The first will be last, and the last will be first”. People throughout the ages have made the mistake of equating ‘wealth’ and ‘religion’; it is the same mistake that characterized the tribulations of Job, and it is the same mistake that Christ tried to rectify during His mission here on earth. I believe it was Christ’s very intention to correct this misconception by the life He lived, and true to this, the bulk of His life was spent as a lowly carpenter.

His example shows that everyone – from the heights of royalty to the lowest of the low – has a role to play in this world; that there is just as much Greatness to be found in ordinary daily tasks as there is in the miracles that He performed; that Greatness comes from WITHIN and not from WITHOUT.

In truth, I think the word ‘prosperity’ needs to be redefined (within the religious context) because that is where most people miss the point. If we choose to define it according to the Fads that characterize our changing lifestyle, then prosperity could come to represent the latest gadgets, cars, rims, fashions, mansions (you name it). This of course is a twisted way of going about things because a few centuries ago one was considered rather prosperous, say, if they took more than two baths a week in England. No one today would really go about judging prosperity in the same way.

If we truly believe that our religion is timeless, then we definitely require timeless markers by which to gauge the ‘prosperity’ in our faith; ‘Everlasting values’ so to speak. And these ‘Everlasting Values’ are numerous, and they remain as potent today as they’ve ever been; things like ‘showing gratitude’, ‘caring for the less fortunate’, ‘taking time to listen and counsel those who have problems’, ‘protecting the weak’, ‘encouraging others’, ‘correcting those who have erred’, ‘showing mercy to others’, ‘bringing a smile to someone else’s face’ and so on. I dare say that as a janitor in college I witnessed these values in my supervisors and fellow workmates, and I am a better person for it. Some of these affiliates of mine will never know anything more than a simple life; some of them will never share the podium with the ruling elite; some will never directly influence more than the handful of the people in their spheres of interaction; but in the grand scheme of things, that is alright because they are making the most of what’s been given to them. Their Greatness may not have a far-reaching global effect, but it will mean the world to those who encounter them. And for this, they will earn their Blessing in full measure; (a measure that could very well outweigh that of more famous individuals).

A friend of mine (who is currently courting the notion of Solipsism) recently asked me why it is that I choose to do good in this world. Is it, perhaps, because I expect a reward from God - after all, that is why a lot of Christians do it, right?

I was taken aback because it truly is one of those hard questions to answer. But, the answer to his question can be revealed by sifting through the answer to yet another age-old question: “What is it that makes this world go round?”

People have answered this question many ways from time to time, but the answer that rings true to me in this situation is “PEOPLE” (or even more critically, “PEOPLE’S GOOD DEEDS”). Consider that for a world where it is easier to let things run amok, where entropy rules, where unjust people prosper much faster than the just, where it takes communities of people working together to bring about good versus one misguided fool with a bomb to put all that hard work asunder. Consider that with all the negatives seeming to be heaped against us, we are still doing pretty well for a world.

We survive because of all the good that people do; the good that is done free-of-charge, without the expectation of a reward; the good that people will do for other people who neglect them, despise them or even cause them harm. One of Christianity’s crowning moments – Christ’s crucifixion - is testament to this type of good; that the greatest being who ever lived would still die for those very lowly people who betrayed Him, who cursed, taunted and mocked Him is indeed true Greatness. In fact, this type of Greatness – these good deeds – is the only way we can function optimally. And I think having the world running optimally would be a good enough reward for those of us who live in it. However, because our free will is a blessing, which we can use in any way we deem fit, to use it in a manner that is in league with God’s Will earns us God’s Blessing, perhaps not in this world, but in the One to come.

If we agree to submit ourselves to God’s Will, then we have to acknowledge that He might say NO! (Remember King David’s request to build the Temple). It is pretty strange that some people cannot wrap their minds around such a simple fact since the ‘Language of No’ is the first language you really learnt from your parents. Initially, we just understood it to mean that we were not meant to do things because our parents said no. Eventually, however, as we mature, we learn the justification behind our parents’ prohibition. And, since God is the Ultimate Parent, I can’t help but feel that sometimes He will keep us from receiving certain blessings that we desperately want in our lives. But our Father is NOT malicious, and I believe with prayer, maturity and hindsight He will eventually reveal to us the reasoning behind His NO! (Remember this!!!)

Essentially, it all boils down to the fact that true ‘prosperity’ comes from within. No appendages, addendums or cosmetics on the outside can ever make up for something that is missing on the inside. Remember that God’s Will bodes well for you too and may God Bless you no matter what your station is in life.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Floods

The rains have arrived, and not a moment too soon either. The famine was one experience that most Kenyans are not likely to forget in a hurry. However, during the course of the famine, when the clamor for the rains had reached a fever-pitch, the ‘pessimistic’ (read ‘pragmatic’) Kenyans were quick to note that
“…during times of drought Kenyans starve, yet even when the rains come Kenyans will still be starving.”

Despite our prayers for rain to ease the current hardship, it is a very well known fact that too much rain (as has assaulted us recently) can be just as bad as lack of it. Whereas lack of rain might stunt plant growth, a deluge of it is likely to kill or simply wash away growing crops. This is the nature of the double-edged sword that is “rain”. However, since we are not exactly privy to being able to control the manner in which rain falls, we do at least have a duty to modify our environment in such a way that the rain causes as few problems as possible.
This is particularly the case in urbanized areas. By their very nature, the developments characterizing urban areas – roads, buildings, walkways and such – give rise to impermeable surfaces that hinder the extent to which the rainwater can infiltrate into the ground. Any responsible urban planning must thus entail an efficient drainage system. 

With all the recent development going on in Nairobi, I wonder if the developers have tallied the exact effect that they will wreak on our city’s drainage capabilities. Needless to say, the drainage needs to be improved, and sometimes the best way to determine what needs to be done is to troubleshoot to find out where the drainage system is failing. For our current situation, such faults can immediately be assessed in terms of things like flooded residential areas and roadways, clogged ditches and waterlogged fields. With the knowledge incurred from this troubleshooting, the relevant official bodies would at least know where to start fixing the problems once the drier season prevails.

The drainage issues in the rural areas pose another problem; this is because they arise from a different set of circumstances. The environment in these areas are less likely to be fitted for flood alleviation, people are more likely to live in the vicinity of rivers, and things as simple as clearing forests and leaving the land bare serve to exacerbate the situation of flooding. In one sense, flooding can be partially be reduced by directly combating these aforementioned causes. However, another potential solution can be found in floodwater harvesting; firstly, rural runoff tends to be relatively less polluted than urban runoff, and if it could be adequately harvested and stored, it could be a vital resource for easing the water shortage issues (particularly considering the fact that this same water can be used - without any treatment - for growing plants). Perhaps, this is the very venue by which a greater majority of Kenyan farmers can be allowed access to water for irrigation.

The whole notion of floodwater harvesting can actually be applied to both urban and rural settings. However, urban usage presents a more complicated problem because a larger amount of toxins are present within the runoff, and this water would require specialized treatment before it could be used for the more delicate forms of human consumption. However, with some minimal treatment, it can still be used for toilet flushing, hot water systems; watering lawns, gardens and playing fields; car washing, fire extinguishing systems and even creating artificial lakes, ponds and other wetlands.

Floodwater harvesting might appear to be an expensive venture initially, but in light of the expenses that end up being incurred due to our failure to preempt the destructive effects of excessive rainfall, it might actually be cheaper in the long run to actually initiate floodwater harvesting practices. It is no easy task to perform, particularly because it is a multidisciplinary approach that will require the input of various professionals. However, we are fortunate enough that some of the initial inexpensive groundwork can be laid at such an opportune time as this. Using Nairobi’s city centre as a pilot test for starters, scientists (or even fledgling scientists in the form of university students) can map out portions of the city and choose specific locations in which to sample and carry out tests on the quality of the water runoff and the variance of its quality within the stages of a storm event; further, they could also investigate the quality of the water left in stagnant pools around the city. If this data is published, it will provide an ideal source of information concerning the level of toxins in the water, which in turn would allow urban planners to specify an appropriate form of remediation to enable the water to be recycled.

It would be wise of us to follow the example of a country like Australia, which is already investing its resources into researching and implementing floodwater harvesting as a means to recycle an important resource as well as to reduce the environmental hazard posed by the discharge of floodwater directly into rivers and other receiving water bodies. I am not insinuating that Kenya’s development is exactly at par with Australia’s; I am, however, suggesting that our development does not have to be at par with a developed country for us to adopt an obviously wise idea that is within our reach. Learning to store water (particularly in cisterns), remediating it and putting it to use are measures that we should look into for our own sakes, and for those who are to come after us.

Everything's in a name

I would like to take this opportunity to poke (already) obvious holes into the flawed essay (“What’s in a name”) written by one Peter Mwaura (Saturday Nation – Jan 7th 2006). First off, he makes the assumption that grabbing names for some material advantage is common the world over; this is sheer lunacy by all means because it is tantamount to claiming that a reprehensible business ethic is allowable as long as “everyone else is doing it.” Next, he proceeds to congratulate the ODM “name thieves” for their entrepreneurial vision – to boldly find a business opportunity where no man has ever found one before. (Sheer lunacy!) The author might argue that the words “orange”, “democratic” and “movement” are ordinary words that are individually restricted from copyright protection, but it is the conglomeration of the words that is indeed something unique; in fact, it is so unique that people imagine a sort of “inspiration” is what drives a person to concoct a particular name from a set of seemingly benign words. Therefore, in direct contravention of another assumption the author had put forward, the Registrar of Societies is DUTY-BOUND to inquire as to which “inspired” individual(s) birthed the creature known as the ODM. In all honesty, if this notion of inspiration was posed by the Registrar to the “name thieves”, it is doubtful that any of them would be able to show any inspiration preceding the runaway success of the Orange team in the constitutional referendum that was responsible for turning the ODM into such a lucrative acronym/name.

As if this wasn’t enough, we are reminded that “name theft” is extremely extensive business – practically global in fact, thanks to the internet; after all, neither President Kibaki nor Mr. Raila Odinga can lay claim to their own domain names. The current law may say that the people who poached these domain names were acting within their legal rights, but I believe it is time for every sane man and woman to stand up and call them out for what they really are: a sad bunch of vultures and hyenas. You do not congratulate such people: YOU PITY THEM!

The “name thieves” may not have broken any laws (in the legal sense), but morally, they broke one of the oldest laws humankind has ever had – that of “reaping where they have not sown”. Instead of Mr. Mwaura advising the ODM politicians to negotiate with the new name owners, he should be advising the infamous trio to negotiate for the use of the name, which already comes heavy-laden with millions of shillings in terms of a countrywide load of advertising and support-raising that they would probably never be able to rack up on their own.

I suppose the greatest damnation for Mr. Mwaura current train of thought should be placed on his blind “adherence” to the law. The law is an explicit guideline for acceptable behaviour that is expected from members of society. However, try as it might, no law can ever completely explicate acceptable behaviour (call to mind the disturbing breadth of the Wako Draft), and this is where, pray, the mature conscience of the members of society fills in the gaps; hence, you should be able to count on people to refrain from committing offences because “it is the right thing to do” and not only because “the law says so”. In fact, when it comes to the internet, it would be rather expedient for Mr. Mwaura to distance himself from that selfsame “righteous” piece of law which allows spammers to fill your inboxes daily with depraved ads for every piece of trash under the sun.

Further, I would like to place another fallacy from Mr. Mwaura on the stake - “…You cannot kill a movement by stealing its name.” You may not kill the movement, but you definitely put a big dent in its integrity. Case in point, the brand name now belovedly known to all as SONY went through a tumultuous battle with regards to its identity when it was but a fledgling company; this was simply because as soon as the SONY name began to gain popularity, there were people waiting on the wayside to cash in on its popularity – in this specific case, it was a food company. In response to this, SONY co-founder Akio Morita (in his book, “Made in Japan”) had this to say,

“A trademark and a company name are not just clever gimmicks – they carry responsibility and guarantee the quality of the product. If someone tries to get a free ride on the reputation and ability of another who has worked to build up public trust, it is nothing short of THIEVERY.”

Fortunately, the Japanese courts voted in SONY’s favour, and the SONY brand today is a hallmark of professionalism. In this case, someone could have argued, like Mr. Mwaura, that the letters “S”, “O”, “N” and “Y” are ordinary letters that people cannot copyright, and neither was the acronym SONY creative; however, the only precedent with regards to the use of the name had been set by Akio Morita, and it wholeheartedly belonged to him and his business partners. Yes indeed, a name matters!

Another of Mr. Mwaura’s faux pas was his decision to paint the splinter group from KANU as “…equally enterprising people”. One does not have to sink to the level of politics to assess this situation – it can be done using common sense, and common sense dictates that you should not lay claim to trademarks of a party that are obviously not yours. The sheer length of the symbols’ use (42 years) totally excludes such an option, not to mention the obvious fact that a splinter group by all means should seek to carve out its own separate individuality. Just look at the case of Ariel Sharon – himself a co-founder of the Likud Party; when he decided to part ways with that party, he did not resort to haggling for scraps of the very party that he helped to build; rather, he sought a new identity for his Kadima Party, which, against all odds, has received an overwhelming amount of support from the Israelis. If our luminaries from the New KANU alliance aim to show us that they are ready to lead this country, then they had better start off by emulating good leadership and not showing us how shrewd and calculating they can be – the “magic” is not in the symbols; it’s in the heart of the party.

The lesson to be learned here for everyone at large is that the higher standard expected of our actions isn’t that they simply follow the law; they must be infused with honour and morality, particularly if they are meant for public consumption. I guess the biggest test for us would be whether we could wholeheartedly and unashamedly teach our own children – in the manner espoused by Mr. Mwaura: that we are within our rights to do things as long as the law does not explicitly proscribe it. God help us all!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Better Earth Essay 2006 Contest (My Response)

Question: How are economic development and environmental quality related? What institutional frameworks will allow individuals in the developing world to solve environmental problems and eradicate poverty?

The clearest relationship between economic development and environmental quality appears to correspond to an inverted U-shaped curve known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This basically stipulates that in the initial stages of development of any economy - that is, the initiation of industrialization – the environmental is likely to be impacted negatively. In fact, this negative impact is such an anticipated factor on the path towards development, such that it steadily rises, achieving a climax, which marks a turning point. The turning point is precipitated by the notion that eventually within the developmental path of the economy, an increase in the per capita income will lead to the reversal of the damage that had previously been meted out on the environment.

Though the concept of the environmental Kuznet curves appears to have gained credence around 1991, its conclusion seems to echo a very basic tenet of capitalism: basically, that social ills (more pertinently in this case, “environmental ills”) will eventually be addresses by ‘marketing forces’, which will seek to put things in working order. However, in its defense, the concept tries to show that the improvement phase in this relationship between economic development and environmental quality is not merely a direct correlation; rather, the improvement in environmental quality is more realistically the result of synergy between raised per capita incomes, the formulation of appropriate policy and the creation of institutions to enforce those policies.

Proponents of capitalism’s ability to bring about positive social change probably viewed humankind’s effect on the surrounding environment as a mere extension of which “class” of the people’s needs was being met according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In this sense, you cannot expect someone struggling to meet the very basic provisions of daily food rations to care enough about their environment. Environmental consideration does not factor into their mindsets in the daily scheme of things. However, once people are able to make enough money to afford healthy and nutritious meals for their family, enough to house their dependents, and perhaps enough to educate their dependents with enough left over as some form of savings, then they might be more appreciative of environmental considerations. However, in any such simplification of reality, gross underestimations are usually made, and the biggest factor that is underestimated in such an idyllic supposition is the potential for man’s greed. At its best it is quenchable, and at its worst it is simply insatiable. Thus, it is this greed, the need to maximize profit to the detriment of others (and the environment) that has to be seriously hemmed in by appropriate legislation and enforcement bodies. And, if these measures ‘pan out’, then we are able to realize an improvement in the state of the environment.

At this point, it becomes wise to reflect on the state of things on the ground. Despite the accurate theorizing of the Environmental Kuznet Curve, a vast number of developing nations do not appear to be progressing fast enough towards being able to eradicate the poverty that plagues a vast majority of their masses. In fact, some of this stagnation comes in the wake of various enthusiastic initiatives that have been put in place by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that are based in developed countries; the failure of these projects is a frustration that does not augur well for the fate of these countries. The best remedy at this point would be to examine the failures and to determine their underlying causes. I would postulate that some of these failures have resulted from these NGOs trying to apply salve-measures that have worked in other countries, with the impression that they are universal and will record similar successes if they were to use them in other developing countries. One thing is evident though – the levels of poverty might appear similar when dealing with developing countries across the board, but the underlying causes that maintain the vicious cycle of poverty are diverse and hence different scenarios call for different remedies.

One of the problems that is still quite a reality to developing nations is the issue of landlessness. In the article Population & Development, Ronald Demos Lee suggests that the issue of the economic importance of land in the developed world has reduced with the advent of new inputs that have boosted the productivity of the land. The developing world, on the other hand, had not been able to realize these same rates of productivity. In fact, the poverty-stricken masses of these countries tend to place an unusually high economic value on land. To some extent, this problem can be blamed on the unjust system of colonialism whereby the colonialists apportioned the prize lands for themselves at the extent of the locals. Therefore, in this day and age, decades after most developing countries were able to achieve independence from their colonial powers, the issue of land is still very explosive. However, there really is no simple way to fix these problems associated with land. One might argue that re-distribution of the land is the way to go; in fact, this is the very same mistake that Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, made. This is because when it comes down to it, most of the locals to whom the land was distributed turned huge tracts of economically viable land into subsistence land. Without the binding idea of a “captured peasantry”, whereby the locals understand that the productivity of the land exists for the benefit of more people than just themselves, simple re-distribution is bound to be a failure.

Stemming from this issue of landlessness, the issue of land degradation comes into play. This is because so long as people hold a really high value for land and remain locked out of viable ways to acquire it, important resources such as forests and wetlands become fair game; and this is where the Tragedy of the Commons arises. These people convert these precious resources into subsistence land, unaware of the fact that these changes in the ecology diminish the stabilizing effects that the forests and wetlands have on the entire country. The effects that follow, such as eutrophication of water bodies, increased incidences of drought, soil degradation and the reduction of water catchment areas, effectively serve to reduce the value of the land around the forests and wetlands, and even in areas located further away from the immediate sites of degradation.

One might argue that the only long-term plan for dealing with a situation such as this is the education of the people. If, perhaps, they were taught to appreciate the importance of these natural resources to everyone in the country, and the vicious cycles that arise from their destruction, then they might be mindful of the way they use these resources. However, in the short-term, there needs to be a direct economic incentive for them to perceive, such that they would feel the need to protect their environment. An example of this can be seen in the case of how Kenya dealt with the dreaded water hyacinth weed. This weed choked up vast tracts of the Lake Victoria, and because it impeded boating it wreaked havoc on the fishing industry. However, in spite of all this, some innovative people found ways of using the weed to make paper, office ware and household accessories. Unfortunately for these innovators, the introduction of the weevil species, Neochetina eichhorniae and N. bruchi, effectively served to reduce the water hyacinth populations. However, the realization that the water hyacinth weed could also be a money maker is making innovators come up with new ways of putting it to use. One of the most important uses involves the notion of Phytoremediation, whereby the weed is able to accumulate, within its biomass, the vast nutrients and heavy metals available within polluted water bodies. Hence, if this were to be coupled with an appropriate harvesting schedule, this very weed could be used to conserve the environment, and at the same time provide an essential raw material for craftsmen. This is an example of economic empowerment working in tandem with environmental conservation.

It is easier to understand this notion of land degradation when the focus group is poor landless individuals. However, yet another focus group exists when it comes to the issue of land degradation: politically-connected individuals. Early on in the development of developing countries, land settlement schemes were usually set up to address the issue of landlessness. However, sadly, some politically-connected individuals were able to have this land allocated to themselves. Some individuals were also able to degazette forest land, such that they could allocate vast swathes of the natural resource to themselves. This is the case in a country such as Kenya. This, perhaps, is an even harder problem to deal with, because it is usually believed that affluent people who do not have to toil incessantly for their daily needs are likely to be the most educated; and hence, the most likely to be appreciative of environmental conservation. What this shows is that education can give us the ‘chance’ to be appreciative of our environment, but sadly, it might be a chance that some of us refuse to accept. The only remedy for a situation like this is that independent institutions be put in place to check the greed of our fellowmen.

All in all, the enabling environment that will ensure the education of the citizens and will build upon their innovative nature has to be put in place by the government. A lot of the problems suffered in developing countries are very deep-rooted in nature, and it will take a deep-seated political will to fix them. In her treatise, Institutions Matter, Laura Phillips rightfully suggests that, “Many developing countries do not have good institutions, but rather they have predatory ones that increase uncertainty and limit exchange.” The citizens of these developed countries may complain about these very institutions, but they understand that the institutional rot is tied up in political power. Hence, if the political class forgets the fact that it is there to serve its people, this will very well be reflected in its institutional deficiencies. A cultural universal that tends to be displayed by developing countries is the fact that they have very powerful political classes; this allows the people in power to rule with impunity, to the detriment of the very people who put them in power. As these countries continue to develop, I believe their hope lies in the notion that their institutions can be divorced from the current political class of the day. Setting up strong institutions, which are independent of political machinations, will ensure that these institutions can run effectively regardless of political transitions or shake-ups, and this stability would enable them to decrease uncertainty.

In this very same manner, the political systems of these developing countries need to shed the role of managing institutions that they have apportioned to themselves. They need to understand that their biggest task is that of formulating the overarching policy that will ensure that their countries inch closer towards self-sufficiency. A lot of developing nations are playing a deadly game of “catch-up” as they try to formulate policies based on worldwide initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals, which may not appear feasible in the long run. Just like the initiatives set up by NGOs in these countries, such measures are usually doomed to fail because they do not adequately appreciate the situation on the ground. To get these developed countries going in the right direction, their political elite have to commit themselves to a master-plan that is entirely home-grown, with a set number of short term goals and long term goals that they can hold themselves to. The investment of the national resources in these ventures would then be expected to proportionally reflect the political will to bring about this change. One thing that citizens of developing countries consistently call out for is development. They want to have better roads and infrastructure, perceptible results for the vast amounts of money that they pay in form of taxes and a vision of where the country is headed – basically, they want a system that works; and they are more likely to vote into power those individuals that they feel can make this a reality for them. Practically all the wars for independence were fought on grounds of social inequality, and thus far the people in developing countries are still waiting for these problems to be addressed. They want their politicians to prove to them that they can act better than their former colonial masters, and answer the people’s calls of socialism. In this case, the self-interest suggested by Max Borders in his article, Public Choice Theory, will have to be fairly diminished because it is something that the people are already tired of. These people are waiting to see an equitable trickling down of the national resources, as this is the only justification of the huge investment that they put into the country.

The need for homegrown solutions becomes particularly important in the face of globalization that is currently underway. These developing countries will be pitted against their developed counterparts, and without adequate measures put in place to protect them, they will suffer from unfair competition. For these developing countries to expect that their developed counterparts will institute policies to protect them is indeed a “pipe dream”, because these countries aim to maximize their profit. Sometimes this profit-making might very well occur to the detriment of the fledgling industries of the developing countries, most of which are agriculturally based, and which operate more expensively because they use older forms of technology for production. Thus far, it appears that developing countries will not be able to resist being swept up by the wave of globalization, but before that happens, they have a duty to prepare themselves as much as possible. One way in which this can be done is by maximizing the profitability of their industries; these governments should ensure that their people have access to the latest forms of production technology, as well as being able to benefit from the government’s extension services, and be able to acquire loans and benefit from inputs.

In conclusion, poverty eradication can only be brought about via a concerted political will. If people are economically empowered to the extent that they can actually have a stake in nation-building, then there will be a drastic reduction in the rates of poverty that we witness today. The citizenry of developing countries are a useful resource, and if an enabling environment exists to tap into this resource, the gains realized will be massive. I also tend to think that since we can reflect on the examples of developed countries, the developing countries can use these opportunities to steer clear of the very mistakes that these countries made with regard to their environments; hence saving themselves a whole host of environmental problems.

Are there any freebies in life?

I believe in life that there is at least a chance to raise the standard of EVERY individual within that society. This, no doubt, reflects the fact that my outlook on the world is more socialist (African socialist to be precise) than capitalistic. The tenets of capitalism would have us believe that capitalism, as a way of life, will eventually be able to address social ills (mainly poverty) because that is an area that its ‘marketing forces’ cannot overlook; no doubt its founders underestimated the great extent to which profit would be pursued (as an end) by entrepreneurs for generations to come. Therefore, addressing social ills from a capitalistic position has had to take a back seat.

Communism does not offer adequate solutions to the problem either, because it unfairly limits people’s ability to profit from their individual hard labour simply because it tries to place everyone at exactly the same level in life.

African Socialism is the only true way by which poverty eradication (aka wealth creation) can be achieved at the broadest level; this is because it is the median position between communism and capitalism – first and foremost, it seeks out the wellbeing of the people, yet also allows them the freedom to reap the benefits of their hard labor. Once people understand this, as pertains especially to Kenya, leaders and policy makers will understand that it is essential that development be spread out throughout the country such that even villagers are not isolated from its reach. This is the best way to battle congestion in the cities; rural-urban migrations are driven by people’s perceived notions that life in the city is a panacea that will somehow deliver them from the unemployment and levels of destitution experienced throughout the country. What usually follows, however, is the discovery of a severely strained job market that offers few, if any, possibilities; these people find themselves stranded in the city, where they lack even the chance to grow their own food (something that they took for granted in the villages), and without any money to provide themselves with decent living conditions. The culmination of this frustration is the development of slums and similarly affiliated problems (prostitution, increased incidences of crime, environmental degradation and outbreaks of disease).

At least in the aforementioned case, a viable solution still exists. It would involve decentralization of industry, wise development of housing schemes outside city limits (taking care to minimize the usu. skirmishes) and a large amount of pro bono work. This would not all be done for free because in this case we are presented with a bunch of individuals who can reciprocate the gesture by working to “pay back” the generosity they have received; this would be in line with the type of sponsorship whereby someone foots your bills for your further education, knowing that you will eventually work for his company. There is another case that is worth mentioning, however: those people who could have no possible way of paying back the money you would invest in them. People such as severely mentally handicapped individuals, autistic people, the disabled (particularly those that are very old and cannot be taught useful skills)…

If “market forces” were anything to go by, it does not appear feasible to help such people. There is no way to adequately recoup the large amount of funds that would have to be spent on these disadvantaged groups (even the free PR stemming from “Corporate Social responsibility” might not be enough incentive). And in all cases, since these people have probably never put down money in form of social security, all this money would have to be brought in externally. The only outlook that could adequately address such a situation is that of African Socialism; the saying “I am because we are” could never be elucidated much clearer. Stemming from this, the solution appears to be that a lot of this work would have to be done pro bono – for no profit at all – but done for the good of the members in society.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The [Kenyan] Law Process

In these past few weeks, we have witnessed attempts, by all manner of government organs, to bring to book people that are directly responsible for pilfering the public coffers. Had it not been for Kenyans’ experience with previous such failed “attempts”, we might actually have sat down to applaud the newfound fervor with which past crimes are being tackled. 

Experience has taught us that naming a few individuals does not mean that they might necessarily be charged for their crimes. I am not trying to imply that every “mentioned” person is essentially guilty of a crime; in fact, the very task of the law courts is to deliberate over the merit of their cases and submit an equitable judgment. At least, that is how the system is supposed to work.

However, no one ever said the system is perfect. The majority of us laymen would assume that justice would be allowed to take its course, but that frequently is not the case. The lawyers and their clients treat us to a host of legal tricks – injunctions, countersuits, appeals et al. - that serve to unnecessarily slow down and frustrate an already slow process. For the sake of justice, the law process has to be slightly slow to enable adequate time for the preparation of good defense and prosecution strategies; the law, after all, tries to give everyone the benefit of the doubt for us as the old saying goes, “better to set free a dozen criminals, than to send one innocent person to jail”. It is, however, a mockery of the law to slow this ‘sympathetic’ process down even further without just cause. The increased costs and damage to the reputation of the legal system are simply not justifiable.

Many classes of corruption have been brought before the courts recently, but I have chosen to focus only on the class of grand corruption concerning looting of public funds specifically because it presents, perhaps, the best instance in which a quick remedy can be used to alleviate its ailments. Because the use of these public funds is placed in the trust of the people in power by the citizenry, any contravention of this trust should be treated as a gravely unique crime; the rules of simple theft do not apply to it, and as such a new set of extra-judicial rules and mechanisms should be used to combat it. As a first rule, the corruption case, once presented before the courts, should supersede all other pending criminal cases leveled against the defendant. This is naturally in order because the case that bears the greatest impact on the citizenry should be dealt with first. In a nutshell, this would wash away the myriad of useless injunctions that lawyers use to shield their clients from prosecution under the guise of pending cases.

Yet another rule would be that anyone being prosecuted for such crimes should be subject to a mandatory full wealth disclosure. Some believe that this might expose people’s wealth sources and put them at risk of harm from unscrupulous individuals. An amicable solution to this might be that the wealth declaration be made before independently constituted civil society boards; further background searches can be carried out into the lives of the board members to ensure that they do not harbor any vested interests in the defendant’s sources of wealth. This measure would alleviate the current stalemate posed by a case like Dr. Chris Murungaru’s in which a defendant feels he can dictate which sources of his wealth he can disclose. As a public figure granted public trust, should the public feel betrayed, then it is up to that public figure to regain that trust only through a full measure of transparency.

Perhaps, central to this whole notion, since we have identified this as a more serious form of crime, then perhaps we will require a whole new special branch of courts to deal with these cases. This would ease a bottleneck by freeing up the ordinary courts to deal with other less-complicated cases. However, because of the time it would take to set up whole new courts that are strictly dedicated to corruption, this should be pursued as an ideal for implementation later.

These are just a few measures that might prove useful to the already strained legal system. I am sure there is more that can be added to the list, but, as a start, these measures would no doubt show any laymen that the government and the law society are in fact serious about bringing an end to grand larceny. If these measures (and more) are not put in place, then pursuing these cases becomes yet another liability to the public because more tax money is spent than can ever hope to be recovered.


Why is a political leadership role such a thankless position?

One of the reasons for this is the fact that no one ever realizes how good things are until they get worse. Take for instance the case of the Israelites – under both Kings David and Solomon, they experienced a Golden age of sorts; However, they probably only fully realised this after they suffered extreme misery at the hands of successive rulers.

Bringing this context closer to home, we find an ideal parallel in the current Kenyan government. Even in this era, in which people might argue that the current regime-in-power is better than its predecessor, it is not enough for the regime to be “a lesser evil” than its predecessor; inevitably, a more progressive attitude and display of composure is expected from it. Hence, despite the newly-granted freedoms and reforms in policy, sentiments of anger continue to be expressed by the general public.

Some of the expectations may be a tad exaggerated, and yet others are also justified, because people would agree that any regime that takes over from another has the valuable tool of Retrospect at its disposal. Therefore, the follies of a previous administration need not be revisited upon the innocent citizens; if mistakes have to be made, as undoubtedly they will, let them be new mistakes that we can store in our catalogue of “things that shouldn’t be attempted.” Despite how rarely we take advantage of it, history is a good teacher, and a swift rebuke lies in wait for anyone who tries to disregard the painful lessons that have already been spelled out in humankind’s long history.

Expectation is therefore the bane of the existence for any regime, and generally (apart from a few rare instances) regimes can never fully expect to achieve all that is expected of them. However, knowing that you cannot totally fulfil your obligations is not an impetus to slack off. It would be better for someone to heed the advice of the old saying:

“When you come upon a new place, either leave it better off than you found it or at least preserve it in its original condition.”

However, particularly in the case of Kenya, it is not enough for its leaders to maintain the country in its “original condition.” Kenyans want development and a refinement of the country, for this is the only way in which we can catch up with a global village that will not wait patiently as we try to get our act together.

Therefore, anybody who feels the urge to take up a leadership role should remember that there will always be vicious criticism and there will always be complaints. But, in the long term, if that person has the will to succeed, the necessary vision, and the machinery to bring that vision to fruition, then this nation might one day look upon a glorious past and recognize that person as the hallmark of its golden age.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Matatus: Let’s Stop These Cat-and-Mouse Games

The recent matatu crackdown has been a bumbling debacle. Truly, in light of all the recent accidents that have involved matatus, and their belligerent rule flouting, we understand that stern measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of all road users. But then again, crisis can never be considered an excuse for using irrational behaviour to solve the crisis. What we need is level-headedness, particularly from the authorities, to come up with adequate solutions.

The matatu industry has been quite a thorn in the side of many Kenyans for quite some time chiefly because it is so unregulated; fares are arbitrary, matatus change/shorten routes at their own convenience (goodness! Nowadays, matatus, like 111s can no longer pass for Ngong-City Centre matatus because their itinerary has been shortened to Karen – Prestige Plaza), and this basically opens the common mwananchi to exploitation because, like it or not, they eventually have to take a matatu because they cannot be too choosy – lest they spend a whole night in the city centre.

The games of cat-and-mouse between the police and the matatus are not helping us either. On the one hand, it is totally ridiculous for the police to paralyze the transport industry in this manner (when will Kenyans ever realize that “time is money”?), and on the other, it is ridiculous for matatus to flout rules on a regular basis because they risk the lives of their customers just as much as they do their very own. One would wonder why it would actually seem more convenient for matatus to operate outside of the law; it is a foregone conclusion that their services are needed (and that they will never lack customers), so shouldn’t they at least try to invest something into their customer service? The rudeness that characterizes the customer service in this industry is a testament to the poor business ethic that has been allowed to fester in this country.

Fortunately, a few measures can be put in place to fix some of these problems. One of them would be a lessening of police responsibility with regards to policing matatus. Reflecting on the recent flops of Alcoblow and the speed gun (particularly the rather public fiasco involving The World Bank’s Mr. Colin Bruce), it is clear that it is futile, perhaps even dangerous, to render unto the police a task that they are ill-equipped to handle. What is needed is the development of independent service stations that can service and then certify these matatus as being roadworthy, as per a certain number of parameters specified by a governing vehicle authority. This would also achieve the goal of reducing bribery because the inspection certificate issued would also hold the service station liable to explain any problems that would appear to have been overlooked during any inspection period, particularly if that oversight leads to an accident. Because of the nature of the matatu industry, I believe that at least 2 inspections should be scheduled per year to ensure that the vehicles (and subsequently the passengers) are in good condition.

Now, one might wonder how you would force matatus to go for these inspections, seeing as some owners are content just leaving their vehicles at home to avoid the police crackdowns. This is simple: every matatu plying our roads is already a registered vehicle, meaning that all its details and its owner’s particulars are already contained within a (computerized) government database. Using this information, and a randomized scheduling process, these matatu owners can be served with notices requiring them to have their vehicles inspected, certified, and evidence of this certification sent to the relevant government office in charge of these vehicles. Failure to remit this evidence of certification within a set grace period would hence lead to a speedy (hefty) fine and immediate impounding of the vehicle either if it is found on the road, or wherever it is stored (whichever proves to be the best deterrent).

There are more things that need to be fixed, particularly a regulation and demystification of matatu fares (will definitely require stakeholder - government, matatu associations and common wananchi – input) and a stern enforcement of their routes, but let us deal with one crisis at a time. And speaking of other issues that just irk the common mwananchi, it would be wise for the government to conduct a feasibility study to test whether the seat-belts within 14-seater matatus are actually helpful. I hypothesize that they are an encumbrance, of little use, and might actually preclude the chance of an easy escape for passengers if these vehicles were to be involved in accidents; can someone please prove me wrong!