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Kenya’s Secession Non-Debate and the Shape of Things to Come

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Operation Cessation
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Time is an important part of indigenous conflict management processes. The Meru Njuri Ncheke, for example, would often send the disputing parties away, sometimes repeatedly, in order to force them to further review their case. This encouraged the parties to eventually sort out their problems by themselves, thus sparing the elders of the need to take sides in the argument.

When the issues at stake do not go away and the passage of time fail to dissipate the grounds for dispute, then we are forced to concede that there is some substance to the complaint. This indeed is the case in the recurring issue of secession, which keeps resurfacing in Africa, a continent that boasts the lion’s share of the sixty active secession movements worldwide.

The number of secessionist movements in Africa is on the rise, even if many appear to lack substance or are difficult to accurately classify. Historically, the movements have included destructive and unsuccessful gambits, such as the unilateral declarations of independence by Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in the Congo. Then there are the opportunistic political movements that benefitted from conditions, like those that allowed Eritrea and Somaliland to demand autonomy due to crises overtaking Ethiopia and Somalia, and minor but potentially disruptive subnationalists like FLEC – the partisans of Cabinda independence who had faded from view before launching an attack on the Togolese national team en route to the World Cup in 2010.

There are two versions of Ndii’s argument: the first one, which appeared in his Saturday Nation column on March 16, 2016, argued that Kenyans needed to consider “divorce” as an alternative to living in a failed marriage. His second foray into this nebulous zone shifted the focus of the narrative from secession to self-determination in the aftermath of the controversial August 8th national elections.

Some of these movements are still active but off the radar, like Polisario, which for decades has waged a freedom campaign against the former Spanish Sahara. Others are long-gestating insurgencies that have been waiting in the wings, like the multinational movement for Tuareg self-determination that rapidly moved to carve out the state of Azawad in northern Mali following the collapse of Muammar Gadaffi’s government in Libya. Many have waxed and waned over time, like the Casamance dissidents in Senegal, the Rif nationalists of Morocco, whose campaign dates back to the 1920s, and the Bakassi freedom fighters of northern Cameroon. Others are predicated on dynastic traditions, like the Kingdom of Lunda-Tchokwe and Lozi revivalists. Some are the gambits of plucky contrarians, like the diminutive Bubi community behind the Movement for the Emancipation of Bioko Island in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

Such variegated secessionist phenomena may highlight separatist forces embedded within Africa’s political landscape, but they are hardly limited to the African continent. Longstanding aspirations for self-rule elsewhere have opted for the kind of legal/constitutional pathways adopted by movements in Catalonia, Quebec, and Scotland. Even in an integrated and stable polity like the United States, relatively minor developments, like the election of a polarising president and a local resource boom generated by the shale oil bonanza, have reactivated separatist conversations in California and Texas.

The idea of secession is not going away, and the universality of the concept provides the backdrop for David Ndii’s recent arguments that have activated a new secession debate in Kenya. There are two versions of Ndii’s argument: the first one, which appeared in his Saturday Nation column on March 16, 2016, argued that Kenyans needed to consider “divorce” as an alternative to living in a failed marriage. His second foray into this nebulous zone shifted the focus of the narrative from secession to self-determination in the aftermath of the controversial August 8th national elections.

The latter polemic, broadcast through the economist’s provocative NTV interview two weeks after the polls, ignited a Twitterstorm that spawned hashtags (like #democracyorsecession and #LetsTalkSecession), which attracted a steady stream of supporting comments with the usual dissenting or disparaging remarks.

Ndii noted that the discourse on separation is a normal contribution to an ongoing conversation, observing that, “we sanitise our political debates but people speak about these things in their vernaculars all the time.” The post-election violence of 2008 was one manifestation of such conversations, and the issues run deeper than the opposition’s present disenchantment with electoral politics.

A petition directed at the African Union was launched around the same time. The petition got a modicum of traction initially, although it remains far short of its target of 1.5 million signatories. Not surprisingly, the chatter has subsided since the nullification of the presidential polls by the Supreme Court.

In his 2016 article arguing the case for “divorce”, Professor Ndii cited literature that explains nationhood as a social construct based on a shared sense of “connectedness”. While the institutions created by a state sustain governments, nationhood is ultimately a function of the sense of being connected to the myriad other individuals who will never know or meet each other. This acceptance of membership in a wider polity is the essence of Benedict Anderson’s oft-cited treatise on imagined communities.

Ndii contests the reality of this cognitive connectivity in Kenya, and invokes the eminent historian Bethwel Ogot, who declared that the “Kenya Project” was dead. This is one way to look at it, especially when many states are facing a similar failure of imagination.

The political undead and the zombie state

Ndii’s unhappy marriage essay in the Saturday Nation for the most part presented a positive vision for the viability of the country’s individual units. For example, a revitalised Coast with its unifying Kiswahili language, long history, and shared way of life could survive by using its resources to diversify using its Indian Ocean trade links. The ten Mount Kenya counties could become the region’s Switzerland, which although landlocked, is still Europe’s most prosperous nation.

On a less positive note, Ndii observed that other regions, like Nyanza and Northeastern, have sacrificed and suffered for Kenya’s nationhood without getting much in return: “if the Luo Nation channeled its considerable human capital and political energy to the development of Luoland, it will without doubt be an enviable nation and economic powerhouse in no time.”

These are credible scenarios, at least for the sake of counterfactual arguments about self-determination. In the NTV interview, Ndii noted that the discourse on separation is a normal contribution to an ongoing conversation, observing that, “we sanitise our political debates but people speak about these things in their vernaculars all the time.” The post-election violence of 2008 was one manifestation of such conversations, and the issues run deeper than the opposition’s present disenchantment with electoral politics.

In theory, the unhappy marriage and failure of imagination driving Ndii’s narrative reduces millions of those Kenyans who are disillusioned by the outcomes of the past three elections or whose regions were deliberately neglected by the 1965 Sessional Paper No. 10 to politically undead citizens living in a zombie state. This imagined variation on the anti-nation may not figure in Benedict Anderson’s definition of national communities based on a “deep horizontal comradeship,” but it is a logical extension of the concept. The idea of nationhood may be abstract but the ramifications on the ground are concrete.

In most disaffected areas, governments actively suppress secessionists and defectors, while in some regions the large tracts of near-stateless territory and weak state administration deem the issue moot. In other areas, including large swathes of the Horn of Africa, transactional arrangements between state actors and factions on the periphery now provide an alternative to the use of force.

This is why Mwalimu Julius Nyerere recognised the importance of grounding his newly independent Tanzanian government in a strong ideological commitment to nationhood while forging a unitary Tanzanian identity. Ndii documents how in Kenya the post-independence governments of the day have faced multiple opportunities to put the nation on the same footing but in each instance instead chose to reinforce the entrenched status quo.

Comparative perspectives on the contours of the African State

Identity politics is commonly perceived to be the common culprit bedeviling the problems of governance in Kenya and many other African countries. Negative ethnicity is exacerbated by three other basic constraints inhibiting state consolidation: the size of countries; the location of borders; and the internal composition of a country’s different communities.

Although many analyses focus on the latter two factors, the issue of size is an interesting variable insofar as it largely dilutes horizontal connectivity by increasing the tendency to strengthen the centre. As the political scientist Ian Spears noted in a 2004 article on the secession debate, “many early European states were not so different from African ones in terms of ethnic and linguistic diversity,” qualifying the observation by noting that African countries are on average more than twice the size of European nations – Western Europe can fit into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola is larger than the six eastern European nations whose political transformations ended the Cold War.

The influence of size is compounded in large territories that have poor infrastructure. A viable nation-state is in theory more likely to emerge out of diverse but geographically circumscribed collectives than it is by forcefully unifying relatively homogeneous populations scattered over a large territory. The nation-state took off in Europe in part because population densities were high and economies did not have to contend with the spatial and environmental barriers, the climatic vagaries, and the poor infrastructure that foster the physical and psychological isolation that still characterises many African regions.

Even so, the map of Europe has been in a near-constant state of flux since the fall of Rome. The Treaty of Westphalia laid the foundations of the modern state system in in 1648. For the next three hundred years, the continent’s aristocrats, generals, and charismatic ethnic champions engaged in a succession of often overlapping inter-state wars that established the political template for modern Europe.

During the mid-19th century, a new phase powered by demographic surplus and economic expansion was underway. The Industrial Revolution fueled the 19th century consolidation of territories under Russia, the Austrian-Hungary Empire and greater Prussia by absorbing polities on their eastern periphery. Circumscribed Western European states like Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom extended their hegemony by establishing overseas colonies.

The competition among the crown heads of Europe that generated the modern map of Africa culminated in World War I. The “war to end of all wars” went a long way towards establishing today’s European borders, including settling many of the disputed boundaries in the Balkan region formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire. World War II initiated a similar sorting out for most of the protagonists’ overseas possessions.

It is an evolutionary truism that every kingdom, sultanate, empire, and state started small. In most regions, exchange relations and demographic pressures prompted neighbouring polities to link up and form larger unions, either through conquest or by coming together in order to resist the same. Sometimes they ended up where they started. The city of Venice controlled an Italy-sized state before Italy came into existence only to end up as a mid-sized municipality. Tiny Lithuania was a large country that briefly swallowed Poland. Pate dominated the East African littoral from Mogadishu to Kilwa but today it is a small village of 2,000 people living in 18th century stone houses.

The United States of America followed a pathway similar to the free-scale networks reconfiguring our current world through social media and other non-digital linkages. Just as free-scale networks begin small and grow exponentially, the nation began as a cluster of socio-culturally similar units and grew by integrating a diversity of human immigrants and mainly larger territorial units as they reached a certain threshold of internal governance capacity.

The pursuit of Jefferson’s Manifest Destiny allowed the nation to achieve a workable balance of centralisation and local autonomy, albeit it also entailed the reduction of indigenous Americans and other racial categories to the status of quasi-citizens along the way. That battle for equality is still being fought.

Historical scholarship, including the seminal contributions of Professor Ogot, indicate that precolonial Kenya’s complex mix of fuzzy-edged communities were more connected through trade, intermarriage, resource sharing agreements, risk-spreading mechanisms and cultural syntheses during the late 19th century than they are now. Colonialism replaced the rapidly evolving developments on the ground with a new kind of regional political economy based on class, race and power concentrated in the State.

These complicated historical trajectories contrast with the case of sub-Saharan Africa, where low population densities and group mobility inhibited the emergence of states in many areas of the continent. External intervention replaced the accelerating processes of local state formation and reconfigured the continent’s national units according to the logic of imperial expansion.

Political independence initiated the movement towards self-determination, but the consensus endorsing the policy of preserving colonial boundaries preempted the process. The policy reflected two lines of thought. The first was predicated on the developmental aspirations of independence movements; almost everyone agreed that the new governments were better off investing their energies and resources in developing their nations rather than in negotiating the inherently contentious issue of sorting out the problems of their artificial boundaries.

The second derived from the pan-African predilections of the new leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, who saw the Organization of African Unity as the first step towards a United States of Africa. The eruption of internal conspiracies/insurgencies and military coups extinguished this vision before the 1960s decade had run its course; a pattern of patrimonial governance, corruption and cross-border insurgencies prevailed in its place.

In practice, the preservation of borders principle also included direct interference in a country’s internal affairs. It still occurred, but most of the mischief involved indirect methods. Neighbouring governments often supported the various insurgents, secessionists and rebels across their borders, not because they subscribed to the principle of self-determination, but to sustain what one scholar has termed the politics of reciprocal destabilisation.

The remarkable fact of the matter is that despite decades of such stratagems in the presence of endemic frictions, revolts and militarisation of ethnic militias, the continent’s map remained intact until Eritrea separated from Ethiopia in 1993 and when, after a protracted struggle, South Sudan became independent in 2011. (Somaliland declared itself independent and reverted to its pre-unification status following the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, but is still not recognised internationally.) The general resistance these precedents encountered does not diminish the fact they have not uncorked the bottled-up forces of secession across the continent.

The independence of South Sudan raised the number of independent countries from 92 after World War II to 195. The number of independent breakaway nations will continue to grow as both constitutional and violent processes of redefining international borders run their course. We can expect that the forces contributing to this will eventually give rise to a number of new nations in Africa as well. These expectations do not square up with the fact that by international standards, the relatively small alterations in Africa’s political borders are an anomaly.

Several explanations account for the current state of affairs. The African Union and the international club of nation-states are rigid proponents of the cartographic status quo, as unrecognised Somaliland can attest to. In most disaffected areas, governments actively suppress secessionists and defectors, while in some regions the large tracts of near-stateless territory and weak state administration deem the issue moot. In other areas, including large swathes of the Horn of Africa, transactional arrangements between state actors and factions on the periphery now provide an alternative to the use of force.

Despite the logic of scholarly analyses, a country’s size, borders and internal diversity may not be the independent drivers of discord we have long assumed they are. Rather, most movements reflect a situation-specific mix of common internal factors, including social exclusion, concentrations of mineral wealth, the dominance of ethnic cartels, alienation of land and natural resources, institutional failure, chronic human rights abuses and generations of unresolved communal grievances.

These issues, not colonial borders, make it difficult to dismiss the likelihood that the map of Africa will look different in the not too distant future. The number of active secessionist movements, opportunistic external sponsors operating behind the scenes and the formation of bodies like the Organization of Emerging African Nations and the Federation of Free States of Africa are proof that the secession narrative in Africa is not going away.

On their websites, most members of these organisations state that they are committed to pursuing self-determination by peaceful means. None of the violent insurgencies in Africa in the last twenty years, including the rebellions in Darfur, were fought to advance a separatist agenda. Hopefully, Africa will not need a hundred years of internecine wars to sort out the self-determination problem. But don’t expect to see the Free State of Kasai lining up to play against the Republic of the Caprivi Strip in the African Cup of Nations any time soon.

Deconstructing the secession narrative in Kenya

Historical scholarship, including the seminal contributions of Professor Ogot, indicate that precolonial Kenya’s complex mix of fuzzy-edged communities were more connected through trade, intermarriage, resource sharing agreements, risk-spreading mechanisms and cultural syntheses during the late 19th century than they are now. Colonialism replaced the rapidly evolving developments on the ground with a new kind of regional political economy based on class, race and power concentrated in the State. Ownership replaced the institutionalised culture of rights and reciprocity. At the same time, arrangements were being made to redistribute settler-owned land to a carefully calibrated set of elites and yeomen. Meanwhile, peasant farmers and communities on the coast, Maasailand and northern Kenya were incorporated into the new order without their consent.

Analyses of the post-colonial order, including David Ndii’s critique of Kenya’s unhappy marriage, have consistently suffered obfuscation by those who deploy the language of economic nationalism to divert attention from the real questions, like why economic inequality in Kenya continues to increase, who decides that the country’s constitutionally recognised historical injustices are no longer an issue, and how to cope with the political amnesia that, as Ndii inferred during his NTV interview, returns whenever the excesses of the ruling elite are challenged.

The rulers of independent Kenya extended the contradictions of independence and ownership of the State to the periphery; the natives became restless and some fought back, but then new cracks began opening up closer to the centres of power.

The idea of secession in Kenya was floated by Rift Valley hardliners in the Moi government during the transition to multiparty politics. It resurfaced after the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) kicked off the debate in the coastal region of Kenya in 2010. The MRC’s strategy focused on pursuing self-determination through legal advocacy. They were scapegoated by the Provincial Administration for a series of relatively minor incidents of violence, and were consistently demonised in the press. Even though their leadership council has intentionally eschewed violent methods and repeatedly issued statements denying the charges levelled against them, including the violent Tana Delta attacks of 2012, many Kenyans still assume they are a militant organisation.

Although the historical arguments supporting their “Pwani si Kenya,” (Coast is not Kenya) campaign came to define public perceptions of the MRC, in my discussions with their leadership and rank and file members, the repeated declaration “Tumechoka na ahadi” (We are tired of promises) was the more prominent mantra cited to justify their social movement. The discourse they instigated among marginalised minorities likewise focused more on the same “unfulfilled promises” of the post-colonial political order than the notion that it is time to actively pursue the separatist alternative.

In a review of the legal options facing the Mombasa Republican Council, Okiya Umtata Okoiti reviewed the substance of the relevant constitutional articles (255, 256, 257) and concluded that the MRC, or other similarly inclined organisations, “cannot secede unilaterally without the consent of, or negotiation with, the remaining Kenyan State.” Based on historical evidence, any unilateral assertion of independence, he observed, is tantamount to a declaration of war.

While legal pathways for self-determination do technically exist, they require near impossible conditions, ranging from gaining the consent of 24 county assemblies to passing a constitutional amendment in Parliament that must be ratified by a national referendum. The Constitution does, by the same measure, guarantee avenues for the free and open discussion of secession and other issues of national sovereignty. On this score, David Ndii is correct to state that it is healthy to conduct the debate in the open.

But while secession remains a controversial subject in Kenya and most other African countries, it is toxic for many of the elites at the apex of the post-independence food chain. When the MRC tried to discuss their agenda in public, they were attacked and harassed by the security forces. After the Supreme Court lifted the ban that erroneously grouped the MRC with real armed groups like the Mungiki, the Provincial Administration used the police and lower courts to crack down on its members with renewed vigour.

The MRC affair did not end violently, as NTV anchor Larry Madowo noted in his interview with Ndii. Although the leadership is bogged down fighting their court cases and things have moved on, the movement succeeded in many ways: their campaign stimulated coastals to reimagine their future, and the wake-up call resonated across and beyond the region. Even coastals who did not agree with the call for secession opined that the MRC was the “best thing to happen on the coast since independence”.

The idea of self-rule can be seductive and its advocates typically indulge in unrealistic expectations. Supporters of the Republic of Mthwakazi (i.e. Matabeleland), for example, claim “she will be a leading torch bearer in all democratic practices that will be adored by other nations.” Post-secession realities in this region offer some decidedly different cautionary lessons. Eritrea descended into a police state, the economy stagnated, and five thousand Eritreans are fleeing abroad every month. The brutal new civil war that erupted in South Sudan suggests that the regional autonomy guaranteed by the 1972 Addis Ababa Accords was in hindsight the better solution. The long national discussions preceding the restoration of the nation-state in Somaliland, in contrast, represents a useful model for bottom-up governance and the integration of marginalised minorities—with the caveat that the country narrowly averted its own clan-driven conflagration following the unilateral declaration of independence.

The sum of these perspectives help explain why our Oxford-educated economist couched his polemic in abstract terms like connectivity, imagined communities and learned opinions on the state of the “Kenya Project”. His arguments were analytically robust, sober and addressed deep-seated fissures in the body politic; the responses from the other side tended to be rude, ad hominem and shallow in comparison.

Analyses of the post-colonial order, including David Ndii’s critique of Kenya’s unhappy marriage, have consistently suffered obfuscation by those who deploy the language of economic nationalism to divert attention from the real questions, like why economic inequality in Kenya continues to increase, who decides that the country’s constitutionally recognised historical injustices are no longer an issue, and how to cope with the political amnesia that, as Ndii inferred during his NTV interview, returns whenever the excesses of the ruling elite are challenged.

Secession is only one of the options available when a nation’s disenchanted citizens choose to opt out. At the moment, the discussion is for the most part academic, conjectural and more about methods forcing improvements in governance than actual separation. This can change quickly if one day a number of Kenya’s less connected communities decide to act at the same time.

Time will tell if the contested process of structural reform and devolution will deliver the outcomes that will put these questions to rest. The clock is ticking.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

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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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