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THE NUMBERS GAME: Predicting Winners and Losers in the August 2017 Poll

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Back in September 2016, I published a piece on Facebook that suggested, based on recent party dissolutions and mergers into Jubilee and the accompanying defections by numerous politicians, that – barring discontinuous events, such as the death of a senior leader – the August 2017 general elections in Kenya were already almost over and that Jubilee’s victory seemed assured. The key data I used was the publicly declared political affiliations of each incumbent constituency MP and governor. At the time, the Jubilee bandwagon looked near unstoppable, with two-thirds of the elected constituency incumbents then in their camp (compared to only half after the 2013 elections). Nine months have passed since then. With hindsight, how accurate does that prediction look today?

What follows is an independent, unpaid analysis. It is not sponsored or supported by any political party, and it makes no attempt to argue right or wrong, or to favour one alliance over the other; it is purely to assess the current situation and to make an educated guess as to the likely outcomes. As it contains predictions about the unknowable future, it will of course be wrong in many details. But Kenyan election results are far from random; they follow regular patterns and rarely exhibit discontinuous changes, and it is possible to make educated guesses about what will happen based on previous experience. This piece of crystal ball gazing assumes no sudden deaths or disbarments amongst senior leaders, and it doesn’t suggest these results are immutable. Most voters are pretty clearly spoken for, but there is still a sufficiently large “floating vote” to change the result.

Reading the Kenyan media, the answer to my question would seem to be “no”: my 2016 prediction of a Jubilee victory doesn’t look good at all. The opposition NASA has had an excellent 2017. Since the start of the year, it has formally brought Musalia Mudavadi’s Amani National Congress (ANC) and Isaac Ruto’s Chama Cha Mashinani (CCM) into the CORD alliance of ODM, Wiper and FORD-Kenya, creating NASA (The National Super Alliance). Its aim was to emulate the national alliance that created the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), which defeated Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002 (and to respond to the creation of the Jubilee Alliance Party itself). It has also chosen its presidential and vice presidential candidates without mass defections among those who lost out. Energised by numerous real or imagined corruption scandals and by the recent food crisis, Jubilee has been on the defensive throughout. For example, the opposition took good advantage of the grand opening of the Standard Gauge Railway between Nairobi and Mombasa, intended to be a “signature” Jubilee achievement, by focusing on alleged corruption in its procurement, leaving Jubilee’s claims of service delivery looking hollow and unconvincing.

NASA’s choice of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka as presidential and vice presidential candidate, respectively, was both logical and predictable, but also a conservative strategy that set the two candidates up for an exact reprise of 2013, with the same two frontmen on both sides.

However, a strong performance doesn’t yet mean victory. There are several reasons why my prediction back in September 2016 of a 55-45 victory for Kenyatta over the (yet to be chosen at that time) opposition candidate remains plausible.

Firstly, the opposition shunned the chance to play a different game, and faced up to Jubilee with exactly the same lead players as had fought and lost in 2013. NASA’s choice of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka as presidential and vice presidential candidate, respectively, was both logical and predictable, but also a conservative strategy that set the two alliances up for an exact reprise of 2013, with the same two frontmen on both sides. On that basis, it is hard to see the result being materially different. For NASA, the opportunity to improve on their 42% performance in 2013 lies with the incorporation of much of Mudavadi’s vote (4% nationwide, mostly in western Kenya) into NASA. For Jubilee to improve on their 50% performance in 2013, it needs to leverage the power of incumbency, its deeper pockets, the resources it has allocated to specific communities, and the positive messages (hard to sell as they are proving) about their delivery to Kenyans during 2013-17.

Secondly, Jubilee is only just beginning to start campaigning in earnest, and has substantial resources in reserve. Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are now touring nationwide, leading public rallies with exhortations to support Jubilee because of the (state) resources they have directed to local communities and the (state) jobs they have given to local elites in classic KANU-era style. At the moment they appear strangely uncertain and unconvincing in their message. But elections are not won on the campaign dais. There is much more work which can and will be done at the grassroots in parallel to target specific swing groups and persuade voters in those regions to stay with the “devil they know”. Jubilee is significantly wealthier than NASA, with a more unitary command structure and better campaign technical support. It has barely started to attack Odinga and Musyoka personally, and there is a huge amount of mud which could – and probably will be – thrown at NASA between now and August.

Third, Jubilee went into the primaries with the support of even more MPs than it had in 2016. Rather than mass defections to NASA, the stream has continued to flow (though more slowly) to Jubilee. Individual politicians can be both “leading” and “lagging” indicators, either encouraging their constituents to change course or responding to a disquiet already felt at the grassroots. But they rarely make a change without expectations of at least a chance of electoral victory.

The attached images show where the 290 elected constituency MPs stood at the beginning of the party primaries, viewed by county, and each sized according to the number of seats in that county.

This is a new view of Kenya by constituency, organised according to the 47 counties. One square is one parliamentary constituency, whatever its geographical size or population. Rough geographical similarity is preserved, but it is only rough.

Opinion polls show the gap between the alliances narrowing, but Jubilee is still ahead. The end-May Ipsos poll after Odinga and Musyoka were declared as the presidential candidates showed a 47%-42% lead for Jubilee, but with 10% of those polled undecided or unwilling to answer. With so many successful or near-successful insurgent political campaigns over the last 18 months (Brexit, Trump, Macron, Le Pen, and most recently, Corbyn) nothing is certain. But most of those undecided/unwilling voters will go with one or the other alliance in the end. If simplistically, one split the “undecided/unwilling” down the middle, the result from this poll would be a 52-47 victory for Jubilee. In practice, the undecideds will probably fall – if lessons can be learned from other recent elections – slightly in favour of the more conservative option (here, the incumbent). No poll at any point has yet suggested a NASA victory.

Although a mess, the April-May 2017 party primaries were probably better run than ever before, despite the ensuing complaints, cancellations and court cases. Apart from rotating and refreshing ethno-regional political elites, however, they changed little at the national level. Party-hopping after losing has been banned, but it has been replaced this time round by a plethora of newly-independent candidates. However, these politicians are not truly independent; they are simply allies of one national faction or other who were unsuccessful in the primaries. Virtually none have changed their underlying allegiance. With so many independents, the main parties do risk splitting their vote in some marginal seats. Both alliances have this problem, though Jubilee’s is more severe. But NASA has an even more serious difficulty – their Wiper, ODM and ANC candidates are standing against each other without any pre-election deal in many parliamentary, senate and gubernatorial seats, including in Kakamega, Vihiga, Kisii, Mombasa and Taita-Taveta counties. If some cannot be persuaded to stand down, they will split their votes and may allow Jubilee candidates to slip through. This is only a problem at lower levels in the political structure though. Although eight presidential candidates have been cleared, the national race is effectively a two-horse one and a second round is very unlikely (in contrast to 2013, when Mudavadi was running as a third force and the runoff chance was much higher).

Party-hopping after losing has been banned, but it has been replaced this time round by a plethora of newly-independent candidates. However, these politicians are not truly independent; they are simply allies of one national faction or other who were unsuccessful in the primaries, and virtually none have changed their underlying allegiance.

Next, democracy is a numbers game. The “tyranny of numbers”, has become a curious point of contention in Kenya over the last decade. But much depends on how you present the concept. The “tyranny of numbers” is also “one man, one vote”: electoral democracy where all are equal and no-one’s vote is more important than any other’s. As long as that widely supported and widely praised system is in use in Kenya, victory comes with winning the support of most voting adults, not of most clans, ethnic groups or counties. So, to understand where Kenya stands, we need to look at two key numbers: the number of registered voters in each county and their propensity to turn out for their favoured candidates, and to combine these with a model of voting preference amongst the people in those counties. And, like it or not, the majority of Kenyans (probably two-thirds) can have their political alliances predicted with a high degree of confidence based on their ethnicity. This heuristic can be confirmed (or challenged) by examining where key politicians are standing in each community, the number of voters turning out in the various party primaries, fighting and complaints of intimidation by weaker parties, and whether the other “side” can even find a candidate willing to risk standing for them in some seats.

We now have provisional and unaudited registration results from February 2017 which show that 3.5 million voters were added in the last three months, with the growth fastest in the Coast and North-Eastern regions and in Nairobi. There are no obvious signs so far of structural pro-government bias in the allocation of voter registration kits or in these unaudited results. These numbers give us a strong (though unvalidated) baseline to work predictively. Next, we need to estimate the turnout figures in each county. 2013’s numbers are a solid basis for this, though turnouts will probably be a little lower across the board this time than last. Some of the turnouts last time (such as in Mandera) were very suspect and this analysis assumes – for now – that these exceptions return to the norm.

Finally, we need to make a judgement about how each county and each community within that county is likely to vote, based on previous experience, but adjusted for events and changing alliances since 2013, and the influence of major regional political figures. So, let us run through the old provinces or regions and the 47 counties one by one, to set the basis for that prediction.

Since 2016, the generally pro-CORD/ODM Mijikenda coast (Kilifi, Kwale and parts of Mombasa) has once more solidified for NASA. Many of the MPs who defected with pomp and pride to Jubilee in 2016 now look very vulnerable and Jubilee’s inroads in 2016 seem to have been reversed. Despite misgivings about the regional dominance of the controversial Hassan Joho and the Arab/Swahili community, NASA will win almost all the Coast, except Tana River, Lamu and perhaps one seat in Taita Taveta. In Nyanza, Odinga will get virtually every Luo vote, his support as solid as ever, and a plurality (perhaps 70%) of Gusii votes, where again the 2016 defectors to Jubilee look to be falling en masse.

Western Province now seems solidly for NASA too. But the result nationwide will hinge on how well Mudavadi, Moses Wetangula and others can turn out the Luhya for NASA (with no “horse in the race” now and relatively low registration in Mudavadi’s home Vihiga). Through ex-New FORD-Kenya recruits, Jubilee still has a position of sorts among the Bukusu of Bungoma and Trans-Nzoia. But I suspect Jubilee is going to poll no more than 10-15% of the vote in Western overall, even including their majority support amongst the Iteso of Busia and Kalenjin of Mount Elgon.

In contrast, Nairobi seems to be firming up narrowly for Jubilee, especially in the governorship, where Mike Sonko’s spectacular campaign is overwhelming ODM incumbent Evans Kidero’s low profile and modest legacy. A 50-50 split looks plausible at the moment, though this may change. This assumes that pro-Jubilee independent Peter Kenneth will not materially split the Jubilee vote or create a cross-party movement and that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) does not disbar Sonko or Kidero or both.

As in 2013, Central Province will vote entirely for Jubilee. NASA has no candidates and no prospect of support here, the homeland of the Kikuyu community that is still numerically the largest in the country. Apart from the ethnically mixed peri-urban areas of southern Kiambu, more than 95% of voters in the province will back “their President”.

Despite misgivings about the regional dominance of the controversial Hassan Joho and the Arab/Swahili community, NASA will win almost all the Coast, except Tana River, Lamu and perhaps one seat in Taita Taveta. In Nyanza, Odinga will get virtually every Luo vote, his support as solid as ever, and a plurality (perhaps 70%) of Gusii votes, where again the 2016 defectors to Jubilee look to be falling en masse. The Somali North-East, in contrast, is stronger for the ruling Jubilee party than in 2013. Mandera was already wholly Jubilee in 2013 and remains so, and Wajir has been moving steadily towards Jubilee during Kenyatta’s term.

Jubilee will also win almost all the Kalenjin voters in the Rift Valley, bar the Kipsigis of Kericho, Bomet, western Nakuru and northern Narok. The alliance between Ruto and Kenyatta remains deep and strong. Despite doubts about whether the Kikuyu will really hand over the presidency to William Ruto in 2022, regional support for “their man” and for the power-sharing deal remains firm. The support for maverick Kipsigis Governor Isaac Ruto is the key variable here. With strong support in Bomet, he has the potential to fracture the southern Kalenjin vote and bring a material chunk to NASA. But I suspect that many of his supporters will vote for him for governor and Uhuru and Ruto for the presidency. Trans-Nzoia will split but probably favour NASA, Laikipia will favour Jubilee, while Nakuru will be a solid Jubilee zone.

The Somali North-East, in contrast, is stronger for the ruling alliance than in 2013. Mandera was already wholly Jubilee in 2013 and remains so, and Wajir has been moving steadily towards Jubilee during Kenyatta’s term. The incumbents have worked hard among the Somali and now only Garissa remains a battleground. The mostly pastoralist non-Somali northerners (the Samburu, Turkana, Borana, Gabbra, Rendille, Orma, Burji and Wardei) of the Rift, North of Eastern and Tana River will vote mostly Jubilee or allied parties. However there will be a few constituencies where those alliances reverse and Samburu and Turkana might still vote ODM. Among the southern communities, the Kuria will remain Jubilee, but the larger and politically significant Maasai will again split their affections. With Jubilee having made several missteps and put forward a lacklustre set of candidates, NASA will do better here than in 2013, and will probably win Narok, while Kajiado might go NASA at governor level but Uhuru for president.

In the southern half of the old Eastern province, the densely populated Embu and Meru are solidly for Jubilee (despite Odinga’s efforts) and will vote more than 90% for Kenyatta and Ruto. The key question in Eastern is how well NASA will do in Ukambani. It will win a majority in all three counties, to be sure, but their support appears weaker than in 2013. Then, Musyoka delivered 85% of the vote in Ukambani for Raila, with a turnout of 84%, not a census vote but a strong performance. Now, however, he is struggling, even after his selection as NASA’s vice presidential candidate. He has lost nearly half of his Ukambani MPs (10 out of 23) who have gradually defected to Jubilee, while recent internal disputes within Wiper and his estrangement with two of his most senior and experienced allies (Machakos Senator Johnstone Muthama and Kitui Governor David Musila) leaves him vulnerable. He also faces an insurgency of unknown power in Machakos led by influential Governor Alfred Mutua, whose “Maendeleo Chap Chap” party is allied with Jubilee. I suspect, based on current knowledge, that Jubilee will poll 20-30% of the Kamba vote.

Jubilee will also win almost all the Kalenjin voters in the Rift Valley, bar the Kipsigis of Kericho, Bomet, western Nakuru and northern Narok. The alliance between Ruto and Kenyatta remains deep and strong, and despite doubts about whether the Kikuyu will really hand over the presidency to William Ruto in 2022, support for “their man” and for the power-sharing deal remains firm.

Applying this analysis at the county level gives us the following prediction for winning candidates at the presidential and county levels: 17 counties are solid for NASA, 22 for Jubilee and eight are still – in my view – in play.

June 2017 predictions of winning presidential and gubernatorial candidates

*In this image, one square is one county, whatever its size or population.

While the presidency remains the most coveted job, experience since 2013 has shown that governorships are extremely lucrative and politically rewarding roles, with MPs coming third, senators and the reserved seats for women in the house next, and county assembly members (MCAs) last (even though county assembly members are the closest to the grassroots and most likely to be known personally to voters).

As in 2013, all six contests will tend to follow a similar pattern, with most (though not all) voters voting the same way for the presidency, senator, governor and women’s representative, with more variability at parliamentary and MCA levels. I predict that Jubilee will win 23-26 governorships and NASA 21-24. The symbolically important Senate – created in the 2010 Constitution to enshrine a US-style division of legislative powers – has proved of limited effectiveness, and is likely to be abolished in the next Parliament (as its predecessor was in 1966-7).

The heavy legacy of “Chickengate” makes the IEBC extremely vulnerable to campaigns by NASA (or indeed by Jubilee, if needed) alleging its systematic incompetence and corruption, and therefore bias. That has not started yet in earnest, but the groundwork is being laid to undermine the credibility of the commission by election day, if NASA believes it will lose and that Jubilee will cheat to win.

Nationally, the combination of registration numbers, turnout and an ethnically and historically voting-based preference model still predicts a first round win for Uhuru and Ruto, by 53% to 46% (with a maximum of 1% of votes to other candidates). It suggests Kenyatta and Ruto will get roughly 8.5 million votes (of which more than 5 million will come from the Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities) while Odinga and Musyoka will poll 7.5 million, of which approximately 3 million will come from Luo and Kamba voters. This would be on a national turnout of 83%, with a regional variation from 90% in Central and Luo Nyanza to 65% in Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale. Turnout is one of the great imponderables, however, and elections can be won or lost on the day based on successes or failures at the grassroots level in turning out supporters. Historically, Jubilee and its predecessor alliances have been slightly better than NASA and its predecessors at this, but in this election, Jubilee may have less of an advantage here.

Finally, let us turn to the referee and organiser of the upcoming contest, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The IEBC, after an appalling 2016, seems to have stabilised under its new lower-profile leadership. It appears to be trying to keep its head down and focus on technical delivery of its mandate, while trying to cope with a stream of complaints and allegations of bias. It has had good success in ending party hopping, but it has so far failed to exercise its authority over the integrity issues raised about a number of high profile candidates, and has not yet responded to evidence of salaried civil servants campaigning for Jubilee. In fact, it is struggling to match its duties and obligations to the timelines allocated and seems unable to proceed whilst following competitive procurement procedures, with its every decision contested in the courts. The heavy legacy of “Chickengate” makes the IEBC extremely vulnerable to campaigns by NASA (or indeed by Jubilee, if needed) alleging its systematic incompetence and corruption, and therefore bias. That has not started yet in earnest, but the groundwork is being laid to undermine the credibility of the commission by election day, if NASA believes it will lose and that Jubilee will cheat to win.

Will there be post-election violence? Personally, I believe the experience of 2007-8 was so appalling and salutary for Kenyans that any trouble will be localised, unless the electoral abuses are gross.

Whether Jubilee could and would in fact cheat to win if necessary – in a way the IEBC could either not prevent or in which it was complicit – is a hypothetical question with strong judgemental implications. Both sides cheated last time, to varying degrees (local stuffing, forced voting and voting dead voters in their homelands). There is a strong suspicion that Kenyatta’s presidential numbers were topped up at some point in the counting process to push him over the 50%+1 threshold, which probably didn’t change the final result but finished it on the first round rather than in a runoff. The recent court case (strongly backed by NASA) to ensure that the results announced by constituency returning officers are final and cannot be corrected at the IEBC-controlled national tallying centre, even if obviously arithmetically incorrect, is designed to address this most contentious part of the whole election: the critical and semi-opaque presidential count at the national tallying centre. But whatever the outcome of that case, the presidential count will be a key flashpoint after polling day.

The recent focus on electronic transmission of the results – which so spectacularly failed in 2013 – as safer and more reliable than stamped and attested paper forms, is a potentially dangerous misunderstanding. In truth, the speed, independence and impartiality of an electronic system relies entirely on the competence, neutrality and independence of the small number of technical staff managing the IEBC’s databases and servers (who could be personally subjected to very strong pressures to “lose” passwords or make adjustments themselves to numbers) and on the ability of those teams to protect their IT systems from external hacking attempts, which the IEBC now admits happened in 2013. In fact, subtle manipulation is easier to carry out and much harder to spot electronically than with paper forms.

Will NASA and its leadership cry foul if they lose or if they think they are losing? Yes, of course they will, as they and their predecessors did in 2007 (with good reason) and 2013 (less certainly). Whether there will be any basis for this is, of course, unknowable in advance, but what is clear from 2013 is that the presidential election petition rules are so restrictive and time-bound that a successful presidential petition remains extremely unlikely under those rules. Will there be post-election violence? Personally, I believe the experience of 2007-8 was so appalling and salutary for Kenyans that any trouble will be localised, unless the electoral abuses are gross. But that still depends on how things work out over the next eight weeks. And some observers are predicting more serious trouble in specific counties.

But whatever the final outcome, it is clear that Kenya remains polarised and dangerously divided, almost down the middle, and that there is little trust or goodwill between the two major parties to work with each other in whatever political settlement that will follow the August elections.

So, the champion’s and the challenger’s players are on the pitch, the game is under way and the substitute referee’s whistle has blown. Inevitably, things will change and these predictions will need updating. I hope to do that periodically during the campaign and to “call” the result on election night. On 3 March 2013, I predicted a 50% vote for Uhuru, 42% for Odinga, with all others getting 8%. Excluding spoilt ballots, the actuals were 50.5% Kenyatta, 43.8% Odinga and 6% for the others. I’m unlikely to get it so close again.

But whatever the final outcome, it is clear that Kenya remains polarised and dangerously divided, almost down the middle, and that there is little trust or goodwill between the two major parties to work with each other in whatever political settlement follows the August elections.


Editors Comment: This article was written on the 16th of June 2017

Kenya: A History Since Independence

Charles Hornsby is the author of Kenya: A History since Independence.
He lives in Ireland.

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Charles Hornsby is the author of Kenya; A History since Independence and lives in Ireland.

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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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