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TANZANIA: Corruption, Democracy And The Strange Case Of John Pombe Magufuli

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President Maghufuli
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Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – THE STRATEGY: CHANGING HEADS

JPM’s key policy concerns are tackling official waste and corruption, enhancing tax compliance, and creating large numbers of jobs through industrialisation. In the past 12 months, he has dismissed numerous senior officials in central and local government and state corporations for suspected corruption or poor performance, removed thousands of ghost workers from the government payroll, slashed unnecessary spending on out-of-office meetings, foreign travel, and official functions, increased tax compliance, and declared war on corruption and waste in the ruling party and, for good measure, the East African Community!

JPM’s strategy sees corruption as a matter of personal shortcomings rather than a systemic institutional problem. The solution is replacing corrupt with honest officials. As opposition legislator Zitto Kabwe puts it: ‘Changing heads alone means that the president is more interested in perfecting the existing system than overhauling it.’[1]

In our view, continuity rather than change characterises the engagement of the new government with rent-seeking behaviour of all kinds. The current government has moved to reduce the space for party political debate and action, passed legislation on access to information, cybercrime, and, most recently, the media, which may be enforced to limit access to information, and private freedoms.[2] Bloggers and Facebook users have been arrested for expressing ‘treasonable’ views or insulting the president. Here it is argued that moves to limit transparency and accountability predate the arrival of JPM.

CAPACITY TO DELIVER: SELECTIVE CONTROL

Opposition parties describe JPM’s governance style as ‘authoritarian.’ Impatient with due process, the president and Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa have issued countless decrees, not all of which are congruent with official policy, spending priorities, or due process. Though suspicious of the integrity of the courts, JPM still relies on the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau (PCCB) to investigate and prosecute grand corruption cases. In January, JPM dismissed Dr Edward Hosea, the Director General of the Bureau, ostensibly for ignoring major corruption in the port and the Tanzania Revenue Authority. His removal was supposed to clear the way for PCCB to bring some major corruption cases to court.[3] PCCB’s problem is that political pressures prevent certain cases from being investigated or prosecuted, and the most corrupt politicians and businessmen are simply untouchable. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) routinely returns files to PCCB citing ‘inadequate evidence’ to bring a case to court.

Tanzania’s longest-lasting and most ruinous corruption case, the infamous Independent Power Tanzania Ltd (IPTL) power plant and the plunder of the Tegeta Escrow Account in the Bank of Tanzania in 2013, was thoroughly investigated by PCCB but no charges were ever brought. President Magufuli has complained bitterly about the cost of procuring power from private producers such as IPTL, vowing to put an end to corrupt public-private partnerships (PPP).[4] When asked why the IPTL case was not being prosecuted, Hosea’s replacement, Valentino Mlowola, said the case was ‘still active.’

If Magufuli wanted to make an example of IPTL he would simply order Mlowola to bring charges immediately. But against whom? The Kikwete government was heavily implicated in the escrow scam, as were other ‘untouchables’ including Andrew Chenge, one of IPTL’s key supporters for two decades, and James Rugemalira, who owned the minority 30 per cent of the power plant.[5]

One of the heads that rolled as a result of the investigation of IPTL/Escrow by the Public Accounts Committee in 2014 was that of Prof Sospeter Muhongo, Kikwete’s minister of energy and minerals. Magufuli’s reappointment of Muhongo to the same ministry in December sent out the message that is was business as usual in the power sector, and IPTL, under its new owner Harbinder Singh Sethi, continues to supply overpriced electricity to power utility Tanesco, despite Magufuli’s strictures on the subject. Other examples could be cited that suggest a selective approach to corruption control.

On becoming Tanzania’s fifth post-Independence president just over a year ago, John Pombe Magufuli (JPM, aka ‘The Bulldozer’) wasted no time in attacking tax-evasion by big business and waste, corruption and laxity in government, earning him plaudits both at home and abroad. Given the entrenched cronyism in business-government relations and pervasive rent-seeking within the state apparatus, can he succeed where so many African leaders before him have failed? To succeed, Magufuli needs a clear strategy, the capacity to deliver, and sustained support from both inside and outside parliament. All are problematic

To deal with the rapidly growing number of corruption cases, the government has set up the Economic, Corruption and Organised Crime Court, which has just begun operations. Time will tell whether the ECOCC has more teeth than Tanzania’s existing courts, which are routinely manipulated by the wealthy and the corrupt to make sure that justice is rarely if ever done in prosecuting major scams such as IPTL/Escrow.

POLITICAL SUPPORT: RESORT TO ‘DIRECT’ RULE

One of JPM’s self-declared strengths is that he is not beholden to any network (mtandao) of wealthy businessmen and political brokers within the current ruling elite. This is at once a strength and a weakness. It is reasonable to suspect that the majority of Tanzanian politicians are uneasy with the Magufuli strategy as it threatens their own rent-seeking activities. This is also the case for many lower level central and local government officials for whom ‘rent-scraping’ assures a significant proportion of their livelihoods. JPM has also declared his intention to clean up CCM.[6] Anecdotal evidence suggests that the wheels of the bureaucracy are turning even slower than usual as senior officials try to remain under the State House radar.

JPM aspires to marginalise opposition parties and to eliminate party politics in local government. There are stories of virtual ‘direct rule’ by Regional and District Commissioners in opposition-run councils. Many new District Development Directors are said to have been recruited from among CCM cadres and ‘operatives.’ Both CCM and opposition MPs have complained about their ‘incompetence’ and the powers usurped by the new DCs and RCs, many of whom are retired army officers.[7]

Magufuli has confounded those critics who expected a much messier transition from Phase 4 to Phase 5. Still, it remains unclear how he can maintain his anti-corruption momentum in the absence of a solid base of support both inside and outside parliament and the ruling party.

BUSINESS SUPPORT: FOLLOW THE SUGAR

JPM has expressed his dislike of companies that practise state capture and tax evasion. One of his first moves was to trace more than 300 containers to inland depots that had been cleared at Dar es Salaam port without paying duty. One of the depots and some of the containers belonged to Said Bakhresa, founder of the Azam group of companies, who also had a consignment of sugar impounded.

For year, sugar imports have been a contentious issue. The local sugar industry was almost bankrupted by massive sugar imports and smuggling during 2012-13. In February this year, the government announced the suspension of sugar imports so that local producers could market unsold stocks. It was announced that further import licences would only be granted by State House. Sugar prices shot up to over Tsh2,000 (about one US dollar) a kilo, compared with the government’s ‘indicative price’ of Tsh1,800. Local importers were blamed for creating artificial shortages to sabotage the president’s initiative. The stand-off lasted until May.

JPM’s stand-off with segments of the Asian and Arab business community over smuggling and tax evasion was resolved in October, when he opened a fruit canning factory near

Dares Salaam built by Azam’s Bakhresa. His consignment of sugar was also released from the port, and JPM promised to allot him land to set up a large sugar estate.[8] Asian and Arab conglomerates are key players in Tanzania’s ambitious industrialisation plans, an issue requiring separate coverage.

POPULAR SUPPORT: SCRATCH MY BACK…

The Tanzanian voter is generally characterised as a potential ally in the fight against corruption. Certainly, polls suggest that JPM’s anti-waste and graft project has really impressed many people, after years of poor governance. But we should be wary of assuming too much. There is a widespread popular view that a politician or official who fails to ‘eat’ when the opportunity arises (or is created) is a fool who will die poor after retirement for failing to abuse his or her public office.’[9] In a 2014 Afrobarometer survey, respondents were asked: ‘In your opinion, what are the most important problems facing this country that the government should address?’ The main problem areas mentioned were health, education, agriculture, water, infrastructure/roads. Corruption ranked 7th, equal with fighting poverty.[10] In a more recent survey, Tanzanians aged 18-35 were asked whether they would be prepared to give or take a bribe: Some 44% said they would; 58% agreed that ‘It doesn’t matter how you make money as long as you don’t end up in jail’; and 39% said they would only vote for a candidate who bribed them. Finally, three-quarters said that they were ‘afraid to stand up for what is right for fear of retribution.’[11]

Though numerous NGOs have a mandate to promote transparent and accountable government, Tanzanian civil society has generally not (with a few notable exceptions) played a major role in fighting corruption, even though many ‘governance’-oriented organisations exist. The Legal and Human Rights Centre has consistently challenged JPM’s governance practices, but there has not been a popular mobilisation of support for his anti-corruption policies or against his human-rights record.

It is quite unclear how Tanzanian voters assess corruption in politics. Systemic rent-seeking in the CCM government was the main opposition political platform prior to the 2015 elections. One prime target was Monduli MP Edward Lowassa, who was forced to resign as prime minister over the Richmond power scandal during Kikwete’s first term. Nevertheless, Lowassa was by far the most popular candidate vying for the CCM nomination, perceived as a man of the people who was generous in rewarding his supporters out of his considerable fortune, however acquired. After being rejected by CCM’s Ethics Committee during the vetting process for the CCM candidature, Lowassa defected to Chadema and promptly became the opposition alliance’s[12] joint candidate for the presidency! This suggests that Lowassa’s image as a man of the people carried more weight than his reputation for corruption. He took his wealth and popularity to the opposition camp, and the opposition quickly forgot about his corruption.[13]

While polls suggest that Tanzanians are highly supportive of Magufuli’s policies to date, it is unlikely that the war on corruption will assure continued mass popular support in the absence of more material benefits to ordinary people.[14]

DEVELOPMENT PARTNERS… AND CHINA

The traditional multilateral and bilateral donors are hamstrung when it comes to engaging with what they see as the authoritarian JPM approach to fighting corruption and waste. Still heavily influenced by the proposition that democracy=development, many ‘development partners’[15] continue to finance programmes and projects designed to enhance transparent and accountable government. There is a strong case to be made that donor-inspired economic and political liberalisation since the mid-1980s have contributed to the competitive money politics that characterises the current political settlement. Arguably, JPM is right to discredit oppositionist politics: Prom a developmental point of view, party politics is a costly and often frivolous distraction of no obvious public utility. Whether it is JPM’s right to decide on the issue is another matter altogether.[16]

While the influence of established donors on policy has declined significantly since the beginning of this century, the influence of China as a major trade and ‘development partner’ has increased. Unlike OECD donors, the Chinese government deals exclusively with the central government and its agencies, and does not tie aid to concerns with human rights or ‘good governance,’ JPM recently signed off on a $7.6 billion soft loan to build a new standard gauge railway (SGR) to replace the existing Central Line. This and other projects bypass public procurement laws and regulations and parliamentary perusal. Projects such as the SGR have been criticised for their cost and their economic rationale. Magufuli’s infrastructural ambitions are again a subject for another day.

Many aid agencies continue to employ a normative approach to corruption. The notion that corruption is the result of personal ethical shortcomings is implicit in the widely used definition of corruption as the abuse of official position for personal gain.[17] Defining petty corruption in terms of ‘need’ and grand corruption in terms of ‘greed’ is equally normative and judgmental. Arguably, ‘corruption’ of all kinds is largely the consequence of competitive clientelism, or patronage, where inter-personal trust is lacking and formal institutions are weak. The widespread failure of traditional ‘supply-side’ approaches to corruption control through institution and capacity building, and on the ‘demand-side’ through ‘empowering’ citizens, civil society and the media is testimony to how difficult donors find it to go beyond the ‘good governance’ paradigm.

Unfortunately, JPM’s equally normative approach to governance is unlikely to work unless it can change the underlying incentive structure governing intra-state and state-business relations. Without massive popular support and a change in the way politics is done (the ‘political settlement’), the Magufuli approach to fighting corruption is likely to disappoint its supporters. As President Obama put it: ‘Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.’[18]

REGIONAL SUPPORT: BUILDING BRIDGES

Space prevents a full treatment of this dimension of ‘Magufulism,’ but East African regional relations have been changing rapidly since JPM came to power. In particular, JPM has built bridges with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, whose relationship with the previous Tanzanian regime was particularly testy. Observers note the parallels between Kagame’s and Magufuli’s undemocratic governance styles. Those who see human rights as the basis for sound development strategies cannot accept that Kagame and Magufuli are potentially more ‘developmental’ than their fellow presidents in the region. The intricacies of inter-EAC relations are a subject for future reflection.

THE LIMITS OF THE POSSIBLE?

What some see as an apparent resort to authoritarianism continues a recent trend to unwind governance gains achieved during the Kikwete administration that had allowed parliament inter alia to address the Escrow scandal and for the Constitutional Reform Commission to produce a new draft constitution with stronger controls on executive power.[19]After the Escrow debacle in 2014, conservative elements within CCM decided that the open government business had gone far enough, and took steps to reinforce executive power at the expense of parliament. In this respect, Magufuli can be seen as part of an underlying trend to shore up the ruling elite against its opponents, including the political opposition, and the traditional and social media. The 2016-17 budget saw a 50 per cent cut in the budget of the Controller and Auditor General (CAG), whose reports were frequently used by parliamentary committees to make life uncomfortable for certain senior officials.[20]

President Magufuli bears comparison with Tanzania’s first president of the competitive era, Benjamin Mkapa (1995-2005). Like Mkapa, Magufuli was a compromise candidate, not the frontrunner. Both he and Mkapa were ‘selected’ by the incumbent president to prevent other contenders from acceding to the presidency.[21] Though both were seasoned politicians, neither was particularly well-known by the public or highly networked within the ruling party. Mkapa was under pressure to clean up the mess left by his predecessor Ali Hassan Mwinyi’s casual approach to governance, just as JPM is doing in relation to Kikwete.

But there the comparison ends. Mkapa’s anti-corruption policies were strongly influenced by donors, and the path-breaking Warioba Report (1996) on the state of corruption in the country was never implemented with any conviction. By contrast, JPM hit the ground running, and has kept running, with homegrown rather than donor-driven momentum. Many of his ‘governance’ initiatives are clear indictments of his predecessor’s performance, yet there is no evidence of serious friction between the two.[22] JPM’s selective approach to anti-corruption may help explain why.

[1]Zitto Kabwe 2016. ‘Will the real opposition emerge under Magufuli’s presidency?’ Citizen on Sunday, August 7.

[2] Stakeholders are urging the president not to sign the Media Bill.

[3]PCCB prosecutes very few large corruption cases and loses most of the cases it initiates, including the small ones, which are the majority. See www.policyforum.or.tz for details.

[4] PPP has also been dubbed ‘Personal and Political Preferences’. The PPP model is uncritically embraced by most policymakers. IPTL was one of Tanzania’s first PPPs.

[5]In late 2014, Mr Rugemalira received $70m (in local currency) for his company’s 30 per cent share in IPTL. See: http://www.policyforum-tz.org/sites/default/files/TGR2014OnlineVersion.pdffor details.

[6]Polycarp Machira 2016. ‘JPM now to cleanse CCM’, Guardian on Sunday, Dar es Salaam, 24 July.

[7]Athuman Mtulya 2016. ‘Lawmakers criticise ’incompetent’ DEDs’, Citizen, Dar es Salaam, 11 November.

[8]Mohamed Enterprises, another Asian conglomerate, has also announced plans to open a large sugar estate.

[9]Mwassa Jingi 2016. ‘Setting leadership integrity pace’, Citizen, 24 January.

[10]REPOA interviewed a nationally representative, random, stratified probability sample of 2,386 respondents. The question cited was open-ended. Respondents were asked to list three problem areas. All three responses were weighted equally in calculating the ranking. See: afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/…/tan_r6_sor_en.pdf.

[11]Aga Khan University 2016.‘The Tanzania Youth Survey Report’ October. Only a third of 18-35 year olds (34%) thought it was important to pay taxes.

[12] The UKAWA/Umoja alliance was made up of four opposition parties, the most important being Chadema and CUF.

[13] Rumours that Lowassa bought the opposition candidature are circumstantial, though figures for who got how much are bandied about in social media. Only two senior opposition leaders resigned on principle upon Lowassa’s move to the opposition, Chadema’s Dr Wilbrod Slaa and CUF’s Prof Ibrahim Lipumba, both former presidential candidates.

[14]A recent Twaweza poll revealed that 58% of respondents did not consider Magufuli a dictator, while 60% supported the ban on political rallies. See: http://twaweza.org/uploads/files/DemonstrationsFinal-EN-web.pdf

[15] Including UN agencies, the IFIs, the EU, other multilateral and bilateral donors, international NGOs, presidential/state initiatives (Feed the Future, PEPFAR, Power Africa), private foundations (Gates, Soros, Aga Khan), and others.

[16]Many criticised the termination of full-time coverage of parliamentary sessions as undemocratic.

[17]This definition has been used by Transparency International, the World Bank, and many other international development agencies for the past two decades.

[18]http://www.sundaytimes.lk/090712/International/sundaytimesinternational-03.html

[19]See Policy Forum 2016. ‘Tanzania Governance Review 2014: the Year of Escrow’, July, Chapter 1.

[20] Some committee members abused their oversight role and accepted or demanded bribes. Rosina John 2016. ‘3 MPs arraigned over Tsh30m bribe request’, Citizen, Dar es Salaam, 1 April.

[21]Nyerere thought Mkapa was the least bad of a rather mediocre group of candidates. Kikwete was bent on preventing his former prime minister from replacing him, preferring his minister of foreign affairs, Bernard Membe, for the job. Kikwete had to sacrifice Membe in order to block Lowassa.

[22]JPM’s accession to the CCM Chairmanship in July took place without incident.

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Mr Sarokin is an independent researcher based in Arusha, Tanzania.

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.

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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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