Connect with us

Politics

SEE NO EVIL: How international election observers lost credibility during the August elections

Published

on

The peeping game
Download PDFPrint Article

The August 8, 2017 Kenyan presidential election, which was invalidated and nullified by the Supreme Court of Kenya on September 1, 2017, not only led to a flurry of hastily cobbled up contrite statements by international observer missions and some Western-based media houses, but also opened up a Pandora’s box that critically questioned the role of international observer missions.

The election, which pitted for the second-time President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta against Raila Amolo Odinga, was declared “null and void” by Chief Justice David Maraga on account of electronic and technological malpractices. A fresh election is slated for October 17, 2017.

Just two days after the voting had ended, the international observer missions that had come to monitor the elections had already written their preliminary reports certifying the general election as largely free, fair and peaceful. About 400 international observers had been deployed to watch the polls.

The missions included, among others, the African Union (AU), led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, the Carter Center, whose chief election observer was John Kerry, the former US secretary of state who lost the 2004 US presidential election to George W. Bush, and the European Commission (EU), under the leadership of the Dutch politician Marietje Schaake.

While the EU observer mission, in its preliminary report, did cite problems to do with the lack of preparedness within the electoral process, the lack of applicable campaign finance legislation and unreliable transmission, it was only after the Supreme Court ruling that the EU and other missions realised that they had completely missed the mark – they were forced to concede that there were massive electoral malpractices in the electronic transmission of the results.

Kerry, who had certified the elections as “free, fair and credible” despite “little aberrations here and there”, even felt the need to expiate his “sins of omission” in a New York Times op-ed article on September 14, 2017. The long and short of his opinion was to shift the blame to the media – local and international – by subtly accusing them of misquoting what the international observers had meant by “free, fair and credible elections.”

Schaake, the EU’s chief election observer was later quoted saying: “At times, expectations of us observers are greater than our mandate allows us to do. Kenya’s electoral process relied heavily on technology and observers did not have access to the backend of the system.”

Caught completely unaware by the Supreme Court judgement, Schaake beat a hasty retreat by justifying and mitigating the ineptitude of the international observers. So did the Carter Center, which said that it would reevaluate its observer mission to Kenya and find out from Kerry exactly what had transpired within the team that he had led.

Characteristically, the AU mission has kept a studious silence: It has not said anything about the nullification of the presidential election, nor has it explained the rationale behind the mission’s certification of the election as successful.

It used to be said that the precursor to the AU, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), was a presidents’ club, where one of the unwritten rules was never to interfere with the “internal affairs” of a brother president’s country. It seems to me that that rule has never been done away with, even after the OAU was baptised the AU, insofar as election observation by the AU is concerned.

Removing “egg on the face”

After more soul-searching and hoping to erase “egg on the face”, on September 14, 2017 Schaake seemingly talked tough and called for “thorough investigations of alleged electoral offences in order to promote representations where warranted, including of IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] staff. There have to date not been any investigations against senior public officers who have reportedly breached the law.”

Harping on the theme of accountability and thorough investigations, Schaake said that “fast, comprehensive and effective investigations are needed so that there is individual accountability for actions taken.” Seemingly striking an impartial balance, she mildly criticised both the Jubilee and Nasa coalitions for their “apparent insubordination” of the IEBC and the Judiciary after the Supreme Court ruling. “Since the elections, Nasa and Jubilee have at times been undermining the IEBC and the Judiciary respectively.”

After the Supreme Court judgement, the New York Times was forced to reconsider its earlier position. An editorial published on September 3, 2017 stated: “The ruling was a rebuke to international monitors and diplomats – and this page – who were too quick to dismiss charges of irregularities, largely out of relief that the August 8 voting had been mainly peaceful and in the hope that disappointment with the results would not lead to the sort of violence that had erupted after the disputed 2007 election, in which hundreds of people were killed.”

Kerry, who had certified the elections as “free, fair and credible” despite “little aberrations here and there”, even felt the need to expiate his “sins of omission” in a New York Times op-ed article on September 14, 2017. The long and short of his opinion was to shift the blame to the media – local and international – by subtly accusing them of misquoting what the international observers had meant by “free, fair and credible elections.”

“Multiple media reports suggested inaccurately that we and other international observers had declared the election free and fair,” wrote Kerry. “Although our observers had noted isolated instances of procedural irregularities in voting and counting, these did not appear to affect the integrity of those processes which had functioned smoothly.”

Kerry, like every politician, had no qualms about speaking from both sides of his mouth. He shifted blame and made sure he was not “caught with his pants down”. So he unabashedly wrote, “The court ruling didn’t contradict the reports of the Carter Center, whose team we led, or those of other observer missions, including the European Union and the African Union, whose findings were broadly similar.”

Not to be left out during confession time was the United States embassy in Nairobi. US ambassador Robert F. Godec and the heads of other diplomatic missions issued a statement on September 7, 2017 clarifying their unconsidered judgement on the August 8, 2017 elections. “The court’s decision was a strong call to everyone, including the international community, to reflect on how to make each election better than the last,” said Godec. “As partners, we are doing so and we are ready to assist again.” Sounding somewhat apologetic, Godec, on behalf of other Western countries’ diplomats accredited to Nairobi, hoped to justify their hasty verdict on the election by saying, “Some of our missions have been the subject of fake stories and false attacks in this election period.”

Godec made the point that “our electoral assistance was requested by the government of Kenya and conformed at all times with the Kenyan law.” The US ambassador issued the statement on behalf of 12 diplomatic missions: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The New York Times, one of the most influential newspapers in the world, equally reconsidered its earlier endorsement of Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner of the election after the Supreme Court ordered a fresh presidential poll. In an editorial praising the 8 August election, the New York Times had stated: “Raila Odinga, a perennial loser, began crying foul long before the election commission declared that President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected with 54 percent of the vote to Mr. Odinga’s 45. International monitors from the African Union, the United States and Europe said they witnessed no foul play; former United States secretary of state John Kerry, co-leader of the Carter Center’s mission of election observers, praised Kenya’s election commission for its transparency and diligence.”

After the Supreme Court judgement, the New York Times was forced to reconsider its earlier position. An editorial published on September 3, 2017 stated: “The ruling was a rebuke to international monitors and diplomats – and this page – who were too quick to dismiss charges of irregularities, largely out of relief that the August 8 voting had been mainly peaceful and in the hope that disappointment with the results would not lead to the sort of violence that had erupted after the disputed 2007 election, in which hundreds of people were killed.”

Journalist Sarah Jerving, writing on September 8, 2017 for Devex.Com argued, “The perceived mismatch between the court ruling and international observers’ initial observations has sparked a debate about how such missions operate and what role they play in codifying elections. In Kenya, that discussion is complicated by a history of election violence linked to irregularities.”

The newspaper, realising the folly of its earlier hasty editorial endorsing the electoral process, added, “The fears were real, but the rush to judgment overlooked, among other things, that the supervisor of a new electronic voting system, Christopher Chege Msando, had been murdered and apparently tortured days before the election.”

The Financial Times, like the New York Times, seized the moment to comment on the Supreme Court’s unprecedented judgement, proclaiming the ruling as “the first of its kind in Africa.” Moralising on African dictatorial regimes, the paper declared on September 3, 2017: “The many regimes across the continent who exploit incumbency to perpetuate their rule through patronage, oppression and manipulation of the vote have been put on notice. So too have those international election observers whose formulaic rubber stamping of the results has become increasingly insidious – notably in undermining their own credibility, but also spreading cynicism among the electorate.”

Revisiting the violence that visited Kenya after the bungled election of December 2007, the Financial Times called out the international election observers who seem to be more obsessed with “peace” and “stability” rather than accountability and credibility. “Since 2007, when Kenya went to the brink of civil war in the wake of polls marred by fraud, there has been a tendency among such observers to brush aside all manner of irregularities in the interest of preserving peace.”

Amidst the international election observers “falling over each other” to quickly correct the impression that they had declared the August 8, 2017 elections as credible, one local observer organisation has stood its ground – insisting that the general election was “free and fair”, the Supreme Court’s ruling notwithstanding. The Elections Observation Group (ELOG) has maintained that Uhuru Kenyatta won the election fair and square. On September 4, 2017, Regina Opondo, the chairperson of ELOG’s steering committee (which includes Bishop Alfred Rotich of the Catholic Church) reiterated that Uhuru had won the presidential vote even though Supreme Court had found the process wanting. She said that the observer mission had deployed about 1,700 monitors and more than 5,000 (stationary) observers whose major responsibility was to focus on the results transmission. Her point of departure was that different observer missions had different methodologies which they used to ascertain whether the election had been conducted properly or not.

Journalist Sarah Jerving, writing on September 8, 2017 for Devex.Com, argued, “The perceived mismatch between the court ruling and international observers’ initial observations has sparked a debate about how such missions operate and what role they play in codifying elections. In Kenya, that discussion is complicated by a history of election violence linked to irregularities.” She particularly noted, “Clashes erupted after international observers highlighted irregularities in the 2007 elections, leaving more than 1,300 people dead and 600,000 displaced. Yet, the question now is whether observers have swung too far in the other direction, holding the bar for election too low, examining the wrong components on the side of caution to avoid unrest.”

Jerving poses the question of “whether election monitoring needs a rethink worldwide, particularly as electoral processes digitise, adding that “international observers focused too heavily on the voting process, overlooking critical next steps such as the transmission of the results, which in Kenya’s case was done digitally and with little transparency.”

A short history of election observer missions in Kenya

Election observer missions first became a major feature in Kenyan elections in 1992 after the country returned to multiparty politics in 1991, when former President Daniel arap Moi reluctantly repealed section 2A of the old Lancaster House Constitution. Western countries, led by the United States, spearheaded the multiparty wave in Africa and were particularly keen to witness political change in Kenya.

When Moi called the elections on December 29, 1992, they instantly flew in about 200 international observers These poll watchers were augmented by between 7,000 and 10,000 local monitors who organised themselves under the auspices of the National Election Monitoring Unit (NEMU). NEMU consisted of, among others, the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Kenya), Professional Committee for Democratic Change (PCDC), the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya), the National Ecumenical Civic Education Programme (NECEP), the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC).

With the prospect of facing a sustained serious opposition for the first time, President Moi’s Kanu ancien regime provoked ethnic clashes in the vast Rift Valley Province, especially in the North Rift, where many migrant Kikuyus had lived for many years. These clashes, ostensibly instigated by Kalenjin Kanu party mandarins, led to the death of 1,500 Kenyans and the displacement of 300,000 others, many of whom were Kikuyus living in the Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia districts.

Nobert Braakhuis, a political scientist way back in 1997 would write that oftentimes election observation is usually confined to elections themselves and perhaps a few days just before elections. In his essay “International Election Observation During the 1997 Kenya Elections” published in Out for the Count: The 1997 General Elections and the Prospects for Democracy in Kenya, and edited by Marcel Rutten, Alamin Mazrui and Francois Grignon, Braakhuis noted that “election observation ignores the broader political context and long-term process of which elections form part.”

The international observers accredited to monitor the 1992 general elections, according to Braakhuis, “came on the eve of the elections and once the election was over flew out the same day.” These international monitors were largely drawn from the Commonwealth, the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), Denmark, Egypt, Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

Out of the 7,000 polling stations, the international observers visited only a few stations, and because they came on the eve of polling day, they could not capture any of the irregularities that obviously biased the election results. NEMU, which was funded by Western donor agencies, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Royal Netherlands Embassy, may have captured many of these irregularities, but did not have the international gravitas to broadcast Moi’s underhand tactics.

The then electoral malpractices included Moi’s regime ordering the police to disrupt opposition rallies and meetings, which made it extremely difficult for opposition politicians to register as candidates. Other malpractices included the use of state instruments of violence, namely, the police, the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) and even organised militia, to brutalise opposition figures.

Moi had a whole load of tricks up his sleeve, which ensured that the fledgling opposition was disorganised and scattered. He exclusively “zoned off” certain areas that he claimed were Kanu areas, and the opposition was refused access to these areas. In short, the opposition went to the 1992 general election on a very uneven field.

With the prospect of facing a sustained serious opposition for the first time, President Moi’s Kanu ancien regime provoked ethnic clashes in the vast Rift Valley Province, especially in the North Rift, where many migrant Kikuyus had lived for many years. These clashes, ostensibly instigated by Kalenjin Kanu party mandarins, led to the death of 1,500 Kenyans and the displacement of 300,000 others, many of whom were Kikuyus living in the Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia districts.

Apart from these “tribal clashes”, Moi’s government also harassed the media so much that news organisations were afraid of reporting Kanu’s political excesses. In the lead-up to the 1992 elections, there was only one national radio broadcasting station, the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), which could not broadcast news about the opposition’, let alone reports about the orchestrated killings of one ethnic community in the Rift Valley.

With all these disadvantages poised against a fragile and nascent opposition, “national and international observers, embassies and the like, were simply not prepared to oppose the salami tactics that increasingly reduced the chances of the opposition to win the elections by introducing uneven electoral conditions,” wrote Braakhuis.

Many keen observers of the 1992 multiparty general election noted that the international observers had been to Kenya on “election tourism”, suggesting that they were in the country to have a good time rather than to monitor an election. The “election tourism” tag also alluded to the fact that the various international observer missions’ reports were done in haste and without collating the different missions’ assessments.

Given the way that local and international observers had handled the elections – ignoring talk about the clashes and Moi’s gagging of the press – “the international observers came in for serious criticism,” said Braakhuis. The result of this “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” attitude of the international observers was aptly captured by Africa Confidential magazine in 1993 when it wrote: “Neither the foreign nor the local observer groups had the capacity and resources to comprehensively investigate rigging allegations. Consequently, they reported the most blatant and easily verifiable irregularities.”

Many keen observers of the 1992 multiparty general election noted that the international observers had been to Kenya on “election tourism”, suggesting that they were in the country to have a good time rather than to monitor an election. The “election tourism” tag also alluded to the fact that the various international observer missions’ reports were done in haste and without collating the different missions’ assessments.

When the post-election evaluation was done, it was evident that the international observation had been an exercise in futility and that the observer missions had lost their credibility. The missions had totally failed to capture electoral malpractices. This fiasco put the Western world on the spotlight. So, by early 1997, during the second cycle of the multiparty elections, they were already thinking of crafting a new model.

The new model that the international observers envisaged was one that would allow for a comprehensive and in-depth observation of the electoral process that was not limited to a one-day affair. The new model would also enable the observers to stay in the country a while longer, gaining experience and long-term perspective. This would equally allow them to understand the political terrain, including identifying possible tricky manipulations of the electoral process.

Western countries, through their respective embassies, formed the Donor for Development and Democracy Group (DDDG) in 1997 (which was re-named the Democracy Development Group (DDG) the following year). One of the first things DDDG did was to form the Election Observation Centre (EOC), whose members were drawn from diplomatic missions and international experts recommended by DDDG.

The DDDG consisted of 22 diplomatic missions with representation at the European Commission. They were: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States.

The EOC was composed of four coordinators – Dr Judith Geist, (USAID), Prof. Palle Svensson (Denmark – Aarhus University), Dr. David Throup (British Foreign Office) and Dr. Marcel Rutten (The Netherlands).Nonetheless, there was a caveat as to what precisely the EOU would engage in. The EOU was supposed to refrain from making public or press statements and from having any external contacts, except through its president. Canada was in charge of the presidency.

The EOU’s mandate was basically divided into six clear-cut operations:

  1. Registration of voters (which was conducted between May 19 and June 30, 1997)
  2. Designation of candidates within the political parties’ nominations (which took place between late November and early December, 1997)
  3. Official nominations (presidential: December 2–3, councillors and parliamentary: December 8–9, 1997)
  4. Campaign period
  5. Election day, including vote counting (December 29)
  6. Election aftermath

To be better prepared this time, DDDG began having its own meetings as early as May 1997. The move was certainly encouraged by the hastily convened Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms, which somewhat hoped to level the playing field as the country geared towards the December elections. IPPG had been necessitated by the events of the Saba Saba Day (July 7, 1997) and Nane Nane Day (August 8, 1997), during which the police had unleashed unmitigated violence on opposition supporters. With the support of Western countries, they too had pressurised the Kanu government to implement minimalist reforms.

The local observer group for 1997 elections included the Institute for Education in Democracy (IED), Catholic, Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). Together, they deployed about 27,000 poll watchers. This meant that there were at least two observers per polling station.

Two weeks prior to the election, the EOU got into top gear and distributed the Diplomatic Election Observers Field Guide – a self-prepared documentation containing guidelines for observers. Still, the ever cunning and unpredictable Moi jolted the EOU’s preparedness by suddenly transferring the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK)’s chairman Justice Zacchaeus Chesoni to the High Court. This move alone caught the international observers unawares; they did not know what the move portended.

There were glaring irregularities during the 1997 elections that the international observers took note of. “The opening and closing hours of the polling stations varied erratically with voting extending in some places to more than 48 hours,” wrote Braakhuis. “The counting process was equally erratic, sometimes taking a whole week.” There were also many irregularities in the ballot distribution. All these irregularities seemingly happening at the same time confused the observers. In fact, many of the international observers left even before all the voting had been concluded.

The international observers had to deal with a crafty Kanu party machinery that intimidated its opponents using brutal force, stuffing ballot boxes, spoiling ballot papers, introducing unsealed ballot boxes, kidnapping returning officers and handling ballot papers improperly. Yet, with all these irregularities, “the election of Daniel arap Moi as president was accepted,” observed Braakhuis.

According to Kenya’s Hobbled Democracy Revisited: The 1997 General Elections in Retrospect and Prospect by Arne Tostensen, Bard-Anders Andreassen and Kjetil Tronvoll, as far as election observation was concerned, the international element was smaller in 1997 than in 1992. “The international observers under the auspices of the Donors’ Democratic Development Group (DDDG) also assumed a more reticent attitude with respect to passing a judgement over the conduct of the election.”

“The technical limitations are exacerbated by political realities. Clearly, the idea that international observers are a neutral, independent force is a myth. In reality, they are every bit as subject to political pressure as the parties they observe.”

On the third cycle of multiparty elections that took place on December 27, 2002, the international observers would remark that “the 2002 elections mark(ed) an important step forward in the process of democratic development in Kenya.” In particular, the EU Election Observation Mission (EOM), which had been in the country from November 19, 2002 till January 17, 2003, stated that “the overall conduct of the elections constituted an example for other countries in the region, also because the electoral process resulted in the first transfer of power from one political group to another since independence.” The EU EOM waxed lyrical that the transfer of power from the Kanu regime to Mwai Kibaki’s government showed that Kenya had “truly become a multiparty democracy.”

The EU EOM also noted that “the level of violence and intimidation during the pre-election period was significantly below that predicted and below the level of the 1992 and 1997 elections.” In summary, the EU EOM said it was “impressed by the conduct of the 2002 elections.”

What exactly is the role of international observer missions?

What is it that gets an international observer team to get impressed about an election? And what exactly is the primary role of an election observer mission team?

In an article they wrote for Foreign Policy in April 2016, Gabrielle Lynch, Justus Willis and Nic Cheeseman argued that “international election observation missions – when small teams of foreign nationals are sent to watch over elections under the auspices of groups, such as the European Union, the African Union and the Carter Center – are intended to deter foul play and ensure free and fair polls. The trio noted that, “across Africa, international observers have frequently refused to give elections the evaluations they deserve for fear of offending incumbent governments and triggering political instability – and, also, it would seem because they apply lower standards on the continent.”

Are these the “lower standards” that the Financial Times alluded to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” insofar as elections’ monitoring in Africa by international observers are concerned? The newspaper, in reference to Kerry’s praising of the IEBC beforehand for a “job well done”, said that the former US secretary of state “appeared guilty of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’, to borrow from a phrase coined by his own nemesis George W. Bush.”

“The challenges facing election monitors are both political and technical,” stated the Foreign Policy article. “The technical limitations are exacerbated by political realities. Clearly, the idea that international observers are a neutral, independent force is a myth. In reality, they are every bit as subject to political pressure as the parties they observe.” Citing Kenya specifically, the three writers of the article, who have been observing the political situation in the country for some time, noted that “in the 1990s, observers turned a blind eye to deeply flawed elections in Kenya because they were worried that speaking out would trigger civil war and regional instability.”

But it is Judith Kelly of Duke University in the United States who seems to have captured the true essence of international election observers: “[International] monitors are more likely to endorse elections in countries that are major foreign aid recipients. Kenya, one of the US’s closest allies on the [African] continent received more than $500 million in USAID funding last year.”

As if to bolster Kelly’s argument, on September 18, 2017, the US government’s Bureau of African Affairs made it publicly clear that they were keenly monitoring the trajectory leading to the fresh presidential elections slated for October, 17, 2017. “We [the US government] are not going to take our eyes way from Kenya: Kenya matters. If our largest embassy is in Nairobi, Kenya, that means we have a stake in that country, and Africa has a stake, and this government is looking at where the trend will go after October 17,” said the Bureau’s principal deputy assistant secretary Donald Yamamoto.

This sentiment is echoed by Emma Gordon, a senior East African risk analyst based in London, who observes that “for several years, election observers’ main audience has been the international community rather that the population whose election they monitor.”

However, by looking the other way as electoral malpractices are perpetrated by various governments, the international election observers have become, “complicit in the attempts of a brutal authoritarian regime to hold onto power and [in the process] undermined their own reputation.”

The August election in Kenya was a classic case of how international election observers undermined their reputations and credibility by whitewashing or ignoring electoral malpractices in the name of stability and to protect their own national interests.

Avatar
By

Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Continue Reading

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

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

Published

on

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

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.

Published

on

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

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

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.

Published

on

The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

 

 

Continue Reading

Trending