This was due to be the last in a series of four articles on the Kenyan general elections of 2017. The first three looked at the campaign, the state of play between the main alliances and the capabilities and activities of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission and made a series of predictions about the likely results of the 8 August poll at presidential, gubernatorial and parliamentary levels. This article looks at what happened next: the results, where those predictions were right and wrong, what we can deduce about the conduct of the electoral process in the light of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the presidential poll on 1 September and what lessons there may be in the first presidential poll for the second.
The Presidential Results
In the Presidency, as predicted in all three articles, according to the Form 34Bs which record the 290 constituency results, Uhuru Kenyatta won a clear victory; winning 54% of the vote to 45% for his main challenger Raila Odinga. This was the result of an electoral process which initially pleased almost everyone. The procedures on polling day worked well, the electronic voter identification and tallying systems mostly functioned as intended (or at least as predicted), there was no military intervention, no mass failure of the electronic voter verification system and counting at the polling stations was mostly uneventful. The presidential results were (mostly) logical and consistent with previous elections and with the parallel elections taking place and there were no excesses of votes in the Presidency compared to the other polls. The overall process was given the support both of domestic and international observers (with qualifications as the results had not yet been declared at that point).
For now, this analysis is based on the opinion – which I hope to explain – that while there were material administrative issues sufficient in the minds of the Supreme Court to invalidate the election, the evidence strongly suggests that the presidential results announced by IEBC were not “cooked” or “computer generated”.
That is not the view of a large number of Kenyans who supported the NASA coalition however, nor of the Supreme Court, and we will look in more detail at their concerns later. For now, this analysis is based on the opinion – which I hope to explain – that while there were material administrative issues sufficient in the minds of the Supreme Court to invalidate the election, the evidence strongly suggests that the presidential results announced by IEBC were not “cooked” or “computer generated”. Many of the complaints raised relate to the IEBC’s partial migration to an electronic tallying system, which as predicted was a key source of confusion.
Overall, the IEBC results showed that Kenyatta and William Ruto had won a decisive victory, by a greater margin than most had predicted. They won 26 counties to Odinga’s 21. Uhuru won three counties I thought he would lose – Garissa, Narok and Nyamira – and lost one, Tana River.
I got closest in my article in June, which predicted a 55-45% victory, In fact, the closer to the election we got and the more information I acquired, the less accurate my predictions were. In fact, I had begun to doubt my own numbers and modified my eve-of-poll prediction from 53-47% (which the spreadsheet suggested) to 52% to 48%. I left however the predicted votes for each candidate the same, and there I was pretty close: the official constituency Form 34Bs show that Kenyatta beat Odinga by 8.2 million to 6.8 million votes, compared to which I had predicted 8 million to 7 million.
Regionally, Kenyatta and Odinga (and their respective Vice Presidential candidates William Ruto and Kalonzo Musyoka) won all their Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo and Kamba “heartlands” as expected, and by huge margins. The two internal “insurgencies” in Bomet (Isaac Ruto for NASA) and Machakos (Alfred Mutua for Jubilee) both had little impact on the presidential votes. I had expected Ruto to bring more voters to Odinga than he in fact did. Little will change here in a rerun. As predicted, Kenyatta won most of the north and North east, Odinga most of the Coast and Western. Nairobi (on the far left of the chart below) was narrowly pro-Odinga (51% to 48%), much closer that opinion polls had predicted, a source of some surprise. Ipsos for example had run a survey in Nairobi just pre-poll which predicted a 56% Odinga vote with a margin of error of +-2.7%. The Kisii and Nyamira result (on the far right) were also a surprise, as most commentators, myself included, had given the region to NASA as in 2013. Explanations given afterwards included the heavy investment Jubilee had made in the region, the defection of virtually all ODM MPs to Jubilee and the influence of Fred Matiang’i as cabinet secretary.
Note: Orange throughout is NASA or Odinga; Blue throughout is Jubilee or Kenyatta. I use blue rather than red, the “Jubilee colour”, because red and orange look similar in some display formats, and because blue is a more “conservative” colour in most political systems than red, which tends to be associated with socialism and communism, and Jubilee is definitely a more conservative alliance.
As expected, all the other candidates were irrelevant, except for Joseph Nyagah (small spread votes) and Mohammed Dida (in green above), who polled creditably in the north and north east. Rejected and otherwise inadmissible votes were reasonable, down on 2013 at 0.5% overall (based on the Form 34Bs).
When I summed them manually, the 34Bs added up to almost exactly the same results as IEBC had announced around 8pm on 11 August (which they had done with a couple of seats still missing, as they were entitled to do).
These Presidential results are taken directly myself from the 34Bs, when they were published in a repository by IEBC, which were the only formal and legal basis for announcing a result. When I summed them manually, the 34Bs added up to almost exactly the same results as IEBC had announced around 8pm on 11 August (which they had done with a couple of seats still missing, as they were entitled to do). There were three Form 34Bs missing from the Forms repository (a different result had been uploaded instead), so I used the 34C national summary for them. The results in the IEBC real time portal (initially fed by the KIEMS system and then corrected and topped up later manually with missing results) were similar, though not identical, with the main difference being the spoilt votes, where – as in 2013 – there appeared to be an glitch which led the number of rejected, disputed and objected votes to be far larger electronically than in fact it turned out to be (something the IEBC has never explained).
Comparing the now invalidated presidential results against those for 2013 (easy with the same constituencies and candidates) we can see clear trends. Kenyatta did better in most areas, picking up votes especially in the north and North East, the Coast, Western and Kisii/Nyamira. Odinga did better in Bomet, some northern Kalenjin seats, most of Western (where he took the majority of Mudavadi’s 2013 vote) and Meru.
Turnout was substantially down on 2013. This was as predicted: the 2013 election had been fought on a new register, which had been only incrementally and partially updated since then, leaving at least a million dead voters still registered, so turnouts were inevitably going to be lower. In addition, the electronic voter identification system, with id cards, photographs and fingerprints combined, and (uneditable) tallies of voters maintained electronically by the KIEMS systems, deterred or prevented some “top up voting“ (officials voting for missing voters at the end of the day) which occurred in 2013.
In summary, if the Presidential result was substantively rigged or the result otherwise affected by the issues found, it is near certain that all the other elections must have been rigged or affected in the same way, as they involved the same voters, method for voting, technology for voter identification and results transmission (KIEMS), the same real-time results display portal, the same voting and counting processes, the same election officials and almost the same end results.
The turnout pattern (in black below) matched very closely that of previous polls, highest in the Luo and Kikuyu homelands, lowest on the coast. Turnouts exceeded 85% in 35 mostly Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin constituencies, a sign of some forced voting, top ups or stuffing, but exceeded 90% nowhere, and nationwide were a very reasonable 78% (compared to the 76% that a long-term weighted average of the last five elections suggested). The change in turnout on 2013 (in green below) was mostly consistent, as would be expected if dead voters were the main reason. Turnouts rose slightly in a couple of Kilifi seats where they had been depressed by the Mombasa Republican Council violence in 2013, and in Tharaka in Tharaka-Nithi (unexplained so far).
In the 47 gubernatorial races, the results followed a similar pattern to those for the Presidency. Again, Jubilee won decisively, by a greater margin than predicted. Here too, I underestimated the scale of Jubilee’s victory (though I got the winner right in 40 of 47). I predicted that Jubilee and their KANU, MCC, FAP, PNU, DP, NARC-Kenya and independent allies would win 21-28 Governorships, but they ended up with 29. As expected, they won their homelands, and Mike Sonko won Nairobi. Jubilee also won four counties where I had them as marginals (Narok, Kwale, Lamu and Wajir) and four (Garissa, Kajiado, Bomet and Machakos) which I had given to NASA. Across the nation, only 21 of the 47 incumbent governors returned to office.
New Governors included three Kenyatta first-term cabinet secretaries, all dropped from their posts for various alleged misdeeds: Anne Waiguru in Kirinyaga, Joseph ole Lenku in Kajiado and Charity Ngilu in Kitui – plus retired Kibaki-era Secretary to the Cabinet Francis Kimemia. This reaffirmed the illusory nature of the distinction between senior non-partisan state officials and politicians. If they were not in active politics when they entered office, they certainly were by the time they left.
For many Kenyans, the local races for MP and MCA were just as important as those for the President and Governor. There too, the same pattern was seen – Jubilee successes across the board.
NASA did not petition the governorship elections collectively, though they made allegations that some results were “computer generated” and initially, nor did most losing gubernatorial candidates. There seemed a general assumption that the non-presidential polls were not systematically rigged until the Supreme Court’s judgement, which immediately opened the floodgates for petitions by defeated candidates, including losing gubernatorial candidates, in Embu, Siaya, Kirinyaga and Machakos, with more to come.
The Parliamentary Races
For many Kenyans, the local races for MP and MCA were just as important as those for the President and Governor. There too, the same pattern was seen – Jubilee successes across the board. In the National Assembly, for the 290 constituency MPs my prediction of a 54% pro-Jubilee to 46% pro-NASA win turned out again to be a slight underestimate of the size of Jubilee’s victory. In fact, Jubilee and allies won roughly 60% to just under 40% for NASA. Jubilee did well in Bungoma and Kakamega (where ex-New FORD Kenya members formed the core of their victors), Kisii and Maasailand, and even won a couple of seats in Kitui and Machakos. ODM swept Luo areas and most of the Coast and Wiper most of Ukambani, while Mudavadi’s ANC, FORD-Kenya and ODM competed for the non-Jubilee western seats. Nairobi split 9 seats to Jubilee to 8 to NASA. The majority of MPs were newcomers, with voters clearly demanding change at the local level, particularly in the Kikuyu and Luo homelands, where few incumbents were re-elected.
The pattern was similar amongst the elected county Women’s MPs (with 31 for Jubilee and its allies versus 16 NASA and one independent) and in the Senate, where Jubilee and allies won 27 elected seats to NASAs 20). Overall, Jubilee won (initially) the presidency, the National Assembly, the Senate and most of the Governorships, the most decisive victory since the NARC wave of 2002.
Contrasting Perspectives and NASA’s Concerns
In general, the elections appeared to have been smoothly run, the results consistent, the electronic portal reporting convincing and the IEBC appeared comfortable in delivering its mandate. Observers commended the process as “peaceful, fair, and transparent”. Believing it had lost its ability to validate and correct constituency errors after the Maina Kiai et al case, IEBC headquarters limited itself – for the presidential election victory announcement – to a process of extraction, verification and entry of the 290 constituency Form 34B returns, the summing of these results and the announcement of the winner. As there remains dispute on this, the key decision summary is reproduced here from the Kiai judgement (http://kenyalaw.org/caselaw/cases/view/133874/):
The results Chebukati announced from the 34Bs (acknowledged by all to be without a complete set of 40,000 matching polling station Form 34As) matched closely with the parallel returns coming from the polling stations via the electronic KIEMS system in real-time to Bomas. From close of poll on the 8th, the parallel result stream from KIEMS soon showed a lead for Kenyatta and that lead grew over the next 48 hours as more and more of the electronic kits reported in.
The independent Parallel Vote Tabulation conducted by the ELOG domestic observer network and announced on 12 August validated the results almost precisely (its sample-based prediction gave 54% for Kenyatta to 45% to Odinga with a 1.9% margin of error). This was crucial because it provided independent verification to observers and the media that their perception of a well-run election was matched by independent assessment. Of course, this could have been faked, but there is no evidence yet offered that it was.
A macro-level comparison of voters cast and results between elections in fact shows that Odinga did better presidentially than his candidates in general. A re-tallying of the 15.3 million gubernatorial votes by constituency gives 5.7 million votes to ODM, Wiper, CCM, ANC, FORD–Kenya and allied candidates, far less than Odinga’s 6.8 million (in red). Thus Odinga did better in the cancelled presidential elections than did his gubernatorial candidates. The same pattern is seen in Parliament – again, Jubilee candidates polled more than 2 million more than NASA, though results are incomplete become 18 seats still don’t have full results on the Portal (https://public.rts.iebc.or.ke).
Jubilee = Jubilee + KANU + FAP + MCC + EFP + DP + PNU + NARC-Kenya plus defectors from the above after losing primaries, where known
NASA = ODM + Wiper + CCM +ANC + FORD-K + CCU + NARC plus defectors from the above after losing primaries, where known
Jubilee’s victories in the annulled presidency matched well with its victories in parliament and the Governorships. Comparing the Presidential, Gubernatorial, Senate and Women’s Representative results against each other by winner, in only nine counties did voters switch tickets: Nairobi, Machakos, Lamu, Tana River, Kwale, Taita-Taveta, Turkana, Narok, Trans-Nzoia and Nyamira.
Of those, Odinga won every one except Nyamira. In summary, if the Presidential result was substantively rigged or the result otherwise affected by the issues found, it is near certain that all the other elections must have been rigged or affected in the same way, as they involved the same voters, method for voting, technology for voter identification and results transmission (KIEMS), the same real-time results display portal, the same voting and counting processes, the same election officials and almost the same end results.
Rather than conceding once the trend was clear, Odinga rejected the presidential results outright (though not the other results) and accused the IEBC of a “complete fraud”. NASA’s impassioned follow up allegations were more specific, claiming form substitution, un-gazetted polling stations and administrative chaos in the IEBC and castigating the IEBC for releasing the presidential results without all the Form 34As. The sometimes-contradictory and implausible hacking claims made by senior politicians including Odinga, James Orengo and Mudavadi on 9-10 August raised the political temperature sharply, as intended, but also distracted attention for a while from real issues which were emerging relating to the IEBCs handing of the Form 34As. Despite widespread scepticism and challenge from the international observers, who had all judged the polls so far (before results had been announced) to be free and fair, NASA’s leaders refused to accept the results, claiming they were “cooked” or “faked” and demanded – even before all form 34B were in – that IEBC declare Raila as President (at one point using a faked NASA parallel count document as supporting evidence).
Unexpectedly abandoned by the international observers, who they had previously seen as allies, they lashed out at them as well. A few NGOs including the Kenya Human Rights Commission backed up NASA’s allegations to varying degrees, which then raised further fears of state repression (and generated further bad press internationally) when the state briefly tried to shut them down immediately the result was announced.
However, Odinga and the other NASA principles came under intense domestic and international pressure to take the constitutional path, as their ambivalent, partial move to “the streets” to protest during Wednesday 9th – Sunday 13th August was escalating and several people (probably at least 28) had been killed, mostly by the security forces.
NASA followed up their allegations with a petition against the presidential election, filed just within the one-week deadline on 18 August. Until the 16th, they had told Kenyans that “filing a petition at the Supreme Court to challenge the results was out of the question” because of CORD’s difficult experience in 2013 in crafting a case in one week, and the high burden of proof then demanded. However, Odinga and the other NASA principles came under intense domestic and international pressure to take the constitutional path, as their ambivalent, partial move to “the streets” to protest during Wednesday 9th – Sunday 13th August was escalating and several people (probably at least 28) had been killed, mostly by the security forces. Fears of broader communal violence in Nairobi were growing, fuelled by a series of fake media photographs, pretending to be current and of Kenya, designed to incite hatred. The decision to petition offered a temporary release for that tension.
For just one week (extraordinarily brief because of the two-week end to end deadline for concluding presidential cases, which the judiciary had already asked unsuccessfully to be extended) the Supreme Court heard the NASA case and responses from the IEBCs lawyers and other interested parties, with the verdict announced 1 September. NASA’s case focussed on five main areas – the electronic vote transmission system and its potential hacking (with the extraordinary claim that the portal results were a mathematical calculation unrelated to the actual votes cast); the missing form 34As and whether some were invalid or had been faked or substituted and errors in the KIEMS data entry which sent some of the results to the tallying centres; whether the IEBC Chairman should have declared without all the form 34As in his possession; examples of tallying errors between form 34As and Bs and possible malpractice in particular constituencies; and the pre-poll electoral environment including campaigning by Cabinet Secretaries for the ruling alliance.
The two dissenting judges’ Ndung’u and Ojwang’s opinions on the case were brutal – that the petition was without merit, devoid of evidence and that any transmission irregularities did not and could not have affected the outcome of the actual election at the polling stations or the count at constituency tallying centres.
To some surprise, by a 4-2 majority verdict the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Maraga nullified Kenyatta’s re-election, because the poll was “not conducted in accordance with the Constitution”, and specifically the IEBC had “committed irregularities and illegalities inter alia, in the transmission of results”. The detailed grounds for that decision are not yet known, as the formally argued verdict will only be issued in 21 days (as it was “not humanly possible” in the words of the CJ to prepare the report in the time available). The court found no evidence of misconduct by Kenyatta (which had been one of Odinga’s petition grounds), though again we do not yet know their reasoning. It ordered another “fresh” presidential poll to be held in 60 days.
The two dissenting judges’ Ndung’u and Ojwang’s opinions on the case were brutal – that the petition was without merit, devoid of evidence and that any transmission irregularities did not and could not have affected the outcome of the actual election at the polling stations or the count at constituency tallying centres. Justice Ojwang argued that “there is not an iota of merit in invalidating the clear expression of the Kenyan people”. Kenyatta’s lawyers were furious, with one calling it “a political decision that is absolutely devoid of an iota of legal reasoning”, but the Supreme Court is Kenya’s final court and there is no further appeal.
Where were the Real Issues?
The single most vexed element of the whole election proved to be the electronic vote tallying and reporting, which had been introduced in the 2016 and 2017 Elections Act amendments. The unsolved murder of the IEBC expert responsible for KIEMS just before polling day (the reasons for which have still not been explained, though at least one person is still in custody) added fear and uncertainty to an already confusing situation. Most of this was unnecessary, as the election results used to calculate the Presidential winner should always and only have been those from the form 34Bs. The electronic results which came direct from the 40,833 polling stations to the portal were unofficial, incomplete (because they would and could never get 100% electronic results in a country so large and diverse economically as Kenya) and would inevitably differ (as they in fact did) from the 34Bs prepared at constituency level (mostly due to data entry errors into KIEMS by officials when transcribing manually from the completed forms). Repeated NASA allegations of hacking of the central IEBC server did not make great sense once it was clear that the central IEBC system was only being used for parallel presentation of polling station results from KIEMS. The actual presidential result came from the 290 constituency Form 34Bs. And the allegedly hacked portal had almost exactly the same result (8.2 m to 6.8 m) as that produced by adding the Form 34Bs.
The second significant concern was the delays in obtaining and then displaying the form 34As in IEBC headquarters. These were not (in the IEBC’s view) required for the central presidential announcement, but were still essential in order to determine whether the overall election was free and fair. No constituency RO should have announced their winners without all their form 34As, yet a week after they had finished, thousands were missing. The IEBC originally promised that “The results for the presidential election will be transmitted together with an image of the polling station tally sheet”. Then two days before polling, they announced what had already been widely suspected – that 11,000 polling stations did not have sufficient wireless network coverage – so the results from KIEMS would either come later or minus the scanned Form 34A copy. The whereabouts of these 11,000 forms became a huge problem. The IEBC was ambivalent and even misleading at times in its reporting. It seems they had not initially realised that the ‘one-time use’ model for KIEMS devices meant that for the polling stations where the system could not send the image but could send the results online, the scan of the form 34A would have to be provided much later by other means. These trickled in over the next 1-2 weeks, electronically or by hand. The IECB’s ambiguity over the 34As and the portal cost them dearly in perceptions of their competence and credibility.
Their failure to provide a display portal for the Form 34As and Bs was a mistake which was rectified, quickly for the Form 34As, and then grudgingly, a week after the vote, for the 34Bs. However, once done, it exposed gap between image and reality, when huge swathes of form 34As were found to be missing and some to be illegible. Those which were in the system matched well with the results in the online portal, but some were unsigned, unstamped or in a different format, and no-one knew what had happened to those which were missing. Some reports suggested the gaps were politically material (e.g. disproportionately from Odinga’s homelands).
It now appears that some media houses were ordered not to report on constituency contests, which might lead to suspicion that something deeper was amiss.
This linked to a more systemic concern – the back office operation of IEBC headquarters. While on the face of it, Wafula Chebukati, Ezra Chiloba and other commissioners maintained a relaxed face, and the portal and forms systems worked well, exactly where the portal results were coming from and why so few Form 34As were available has never been fully explained. It seems that administratively things were far from smooth in the back office. Basic security controls were lax, with IEBC staff frantically updating systems with whatever data they could get using various userids, some of their much vaunted document security features were invalid, key constituency documents were duplicated or unsigned and some officials were not even gazetted. There are still no published results apart from those on the portal for any of the other elections – no Form 35,36 ,37 and 38 for the parliamentary, gubernatorial, women representative or senatorial results have been published anywhere. The IEBC portal has results, but they are still incomplete nearly a month after the election, and differ from the (fragmentary) official results gazetted by IEBC on 18 August. In general, the results reporting and display process was unclear and IEBC did not always follow the procedures it had promised pre-election to ensure transparency and build confidence. The evidence from NASA’s petition showed numerous data and quality integrities, which while they were modest in individual impact and probably affected all candidates (and therefore would have limited material effect on the election result) certainly led many to question what was happening behind the scenes.
Another concern (less widely known) is the way in which the Kenyan media focused entirely on the electronic portal for their results, making no effort to report the actual constituency results. No independent tally was maintained and for the first time ever the press did not report any Constituency presidential, parliamentary or other results as announced. Initially I has thought that was simply practical laziness – since the portal was available and online – but it seemed inexplicable that the media were not reporting any of the announcements at all. It now appears that some media houses were ordered not to report on constituency contests, which might lead to suspicion that something deeper was amiss.
Still more concerns existed as to how individual presiding and returning officers behaved during their counting and tallying. Some Presiding Officers (for example in Mandera) were replaced the night before polling for unclear reasons. In some stations in pro-Jubilee homelands, NASA agents were not admitted and there was evidence in some stations of “top up” marking of unused ballots after polls closed. Many of the Form 34As had arithmetical issues or were not appropriately signed. It seems from NASA’s petition that some 34As may have been substituted with new (fake) documents or amended after counts finished (though KIEMS should prevent that, KEIMS didn’t work everywhere). In 13 per cent of polling stations, ELOG reported that Form 34A results were not displayed publicly as required by law. Some Form 34Bs show basic mathematical errors. There is also statistical evidence that (as in previous polls) presidential tallies were somehow inflated in the homelands (though there were few public protests at the time). For example, work in progress by Raiya Huru looking at the statistical distribution of Form 34A numbers suggests that in Murang’a, Nyeri, Nyandarua, Siaya, Kisumu and Homa Bay, the polling station results had been tampered with by someone (http://raiyahuru.com/Analysis.pdf). This matched well the NASA petition analyst’s view that something was amiss statistically with many of the results. The IEBC admitted that there were errors in the forms, but claimed they were not substantial enough to affect the outcome of the election.
The Presidential Election Part II
As the petition proceeded, life had begun to return to normal. The new MPs had been sworn in, governors had mostly completed their handovers, and for most Kenyans, the lengthy, expensive, diverting election was becoming a thing of the past. However, with the Court’s announcement we are now in uncharted waters, with the IEBC required to rerun the presidential poll within 60 days, for reasons which are not yet clear.
The IEBC should have been prepared for a runoff, so in theory all should be ready for a rerun. However, whether the IEBC can put together the temporary staff, the KIEMS devices, the logistics and the ballot papers in time for 17 October we do not yet know, especially as the IEBC itself is now under threat. So far Chebukati is staying put rather than resigning, but Chiloba has been side-lined entirely, as have several other officials (putting further stress on those who remain). But NASA is already objecting to the Supreme Court’s order that IEBC conduct a fresh poll in 60 days (because IEBC must be reconstituted), and IEBC has already decided not to conduct a full presidential poll anyway but only a second round runoff, based on the judgement in the 2013 petition [para 291] that “If the petitioner was only one of the candidates, and who had taken the second position in vote-tally to the President-elect, then the “fresh election” will, in law, be confined to the petitioner and the President-elect.”. And the precedent set in the Presidential petition would appear to allow every loser in the other five elections to annul every winner’s election on the same basis, if they can file a petition in time. So, more court cases loom while time runs out.
How effectively the two alliances will respond – without much time to raise money – to the need to do it all again no-one knows, but Jubilee are now grim, angry and spoiling for a rematch, which may well be dirtier than the first. My first guess would be that the result of the second election, if actually held, will be similar to that in the last, and in all the other “down ballot” elections, but until we know the real reasons why the Court annulled the vote, we do not know how much impact the irregularities they found may have had on the first presidential result. Victory in the courts may give the NASA camp fresh impetus and mitigate the pro-Jubilee bandwagon effect of incumbency, but Jubilee have a huge regional advantage (as they always did), more money and no intention of losing.
I had thought this would be my last piece, but perhaps we will need one more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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