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FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT: Nonviolent Options and Just Peace

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(Keynote Address delivered to the University of San Diego Conference: The Catholic Church Moves Towards Nonviolence? Just Peace Just War in Dialogue on October 6, 2107)

Thank you. I’m honored to be amongst so many great scholars, theologians (including Cardinal Turkson and Bishop McElroy) activists, peacebuilders, policymakers and military officers. Thank you to University of San Diego, the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, and the Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture for organizing this conference on Just War Just Peace in Dialogue – I can’t think of a better topic for a civil-military conversation. I would like to applaud the members the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative – there are many in this room – for helping to bolster the Church’s thought leadership and practical investment in alternatives to war and violence. Special thanks to Cardinal Turkson for presiding over last April’s Rome conference on Nonviolence and Just Peace, and for being such a tireless proponent of human rights, dignity, and a world without violence.

Tonight I will focus on the power and potential of nonviolent options to prevent, mitigate, and transform violent conflict and advance sustainable peace. I will offer evidence backing the efficacy of these nonviolent options and offer some practical ways the Catholic Church, along with its governmental, military, inter-faith, and non-governmental allies, can strengthen them.

But first, let me share a couple of stories about what brought me to this work and has kept me inspired and hopeful ever since.

Pope John VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

I grew up in southern Vermont and my family often attended mass at the Weston Priory, where a hearty group of Benedictine monks live, farm, sing and celebrate the Gospel. Masses take place in a barn overlooking the Green Mountains. The monks welcome everyone – from all faiths, religions, and walks of life – to join in the celebration. The Priory has a great gift shop. After mass I would make a beeline for the books section, which is where I began to collect biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day, along with books about nonviolent resistance and radical peacemaking. These books introduced me to Oscar Romero, Dolores Huerta, and the Catholic Workers, who became my s/heroes. Somehow my Mom always ended up paying for the books.

Pope John VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

After high school I was involved in grassroots restorative justice work. I lived and worked at the Rutland Dismas House, a transitional home for former prisoners and college students. The Dismas motto, “reconciling former prisoners with society and society with former prisoners”, is animated by a community support structure for those transitioning from prison. I observed how members of the community – including those who had initially opposed Dismas House being in their back yard – mobilized to provide home-cooked meals to the residents, offered them jobs, and gave them support. Dismas House has been highly successful: my Dad tells me that the recidivism rate for its residents is about 15 percent, compared to 70 percent nationally – and at less than a third of the cost of incarceration.

Later I had my first rendezvous with the Jesuits at Boston College, where “service to others” is a campus creed. I studied political science and lived in France and Germany while researching European integration, one of the world’s greatest peacebuilding projects. After starting grad school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, I attended a Boston film screening of A Force More Powerful, a documentary film about six highly consequential nonviolent struggles. The film highlighted how unarmed civilians stared down the British empire in India, confronted Nazis in Denmark, fought apartheid in South Africa, removed dictators in Chile and Poland, and dismantled Jim Crow in the US using strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of nonviolent direct action.

The film was inspiring. I decided to focus my PhD research on the strategic dimensions of nonviolent resistance in self-determination movements. The International Security Studies departments at Fletcher and the Harvard Belfer Center were my strongest backers. Meanwhile, West Point and the Army, Navy, and Air Force war colleges invited me to come talk about civil resistance as a form of nonviolent power and a functional alternative to violence. I attended the Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategies (aka “war camp”) and was that “interesting” person talking about people power.

In 2006 while working at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, I met Erica Chenoweth – a fellow political scientist and quantitative guru – at a conference in Colorado. She was skeptical about the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. So were a lot of people, who insisted that nonviolent resistance could “work” but only under certain favorable conditions. In tough contexts, like violent dictatorships, the prevailing wisdom was that violence stood a better chance. Erica and I decided to test these assumptions, by systematically comparing the effectiveness of violent and nonviolent resistance. For the next couple of years we collected data on all known major violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900-2006. These were campaigns challenging incumbent regimes and vying for territorial self-determination.

During this book-writing time I was in Kabul, Afghanistan with the State Department, at the peak period of insurgency. Occasionally, on nights and Sundays while chapter editing in my hootch, a “duck and cover” siren, signaling incoming rockets or mortar, would interrupt the effort.

After collecting data on 323 major violent and nonviolent campaigns, each with at least 1000 observed participants, we arrived at a surprising conclusion. The nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as armed insurgencies. They achieved their goals 53% of the time compared to 26% for violent campaigns, a percentage that has remained basically the same through 2015. (“Success” was defined as removal of the incumbent regime or territorial independence.) While there has been a slight dip in the overall effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns recently, violent insurgencies have become even less effective.

Why has civil resistance so dramatically out-performed armed struggle? We found that the most important variable determining the outcome was the size and diversity of participation. Nonviolent campaigns attract on average 11 times the level of participants as the average violent campaign. The moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent resistance compared to armed struggle. Whereas armed insurgencies often rely on a relatively small group of young, able-bodied men, nonviolent campaigns attract women and men, youth and elderly, able-bodied and disabled, rich and poor.

She was skeptical about the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. So were a lot of people, who insisted that nonviolent resistance could “work” but only under certain favorable conditions. In tough contexts, like violent dictatorships, the prevailing wisdom was that violence stood a better chance.

One reason is that the number and range of tactics available to nonviolent resistors is huge. Gene Sharp catalogued 198 methods of nonviolent action in 1973. That number has vastly expanded as the creative limits of the imagination have expanded. Power is fluid and ultimately flows from the consent and cooperation of ordinary people. When large and diverse groups of people remove their consent and cooperation from an oppressive regime or system of power using tactics like boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience, no ruler, no matter how brutal, can stay in power. Members of security forces (army and police) are also significantly more likely to defect, or to disobey regime orders to use repression, when confronted with large numbers of nonviolent resistors, compared to armed insurgents. When security forces defect, as they did in the Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, and Tunisia, this is often a decisive variable.

We found that the chances of success are higher when groups maintain nonviolent discipline in the face of repression, when they creatively alternate between methods of concentration (like sit-ins and demonstrations) and methods of dispersion (like consumer boycotts and stayaways) and when they invest in decentralized leadership.

Nonviolent campaigns also contribute to more democratic and peaceful societies. Less than 4 percent of armed rebel victories result in a country becoming democratic within five years. A Congolese bishop reinforced that point to me recently. He counted off the number of insurgent leaders in his country and across the continent who had led successful armed struggles, then became even more tyrannical than their predecessors. On the other hand, the skills associated with nonviolent organizing, negotiating differences, building coalitions, and collective action reinforce democratic norms and behaviors. And they tend to produce more peaceful societies.

Nonviolent civil resistance, then, is a functional alternative to violence with both short and longer-term positive effects. It is a particularly powerful nonviolent channel for marginalized or oppressed people to challenge systems of power – whether they are exploitative corporations, dictatorships, or institutionalized racism – and build more inclusive, just societies.

Pope Francis, in his 2017 World Day of Peace address, a monumental document, noted that “momentous change in the lives of people, nations and states had come about ‘by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice.”

The Church has played a pivotal role in some of the most significant nonviolent struggles in history. Many will recall the iconic image of the Filipino religious sisters, confronting military forces and a kleptocratic Marcos dictatorship in prayerful resistance during the 1986 “people power” revolution. Across the Philippines priests and nuns, in partnership with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, trained their communities in nonviolence and nonviolent action. Cardinal Jamie Sin attended one of these workshops. He later joined the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in calling for a “nonviolent struggle for justice”, using Radio Veritas to amplify the message. This preparation, combined with an election-monitoring mission led by local religious leaders, paved the way to Marcos’ nonviolent ouster. Today, Filipino religious leaders, facing another violent dictator, are once again engaged in nonviolent activism.

The nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as armed insurgencies. They achieved their goals 53% of the time compared to 26% for violent campaigns, a percentage that has remained basically the same through 2015.

During the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980s, Pope John Paul II, with local priests and nuns, famously stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the worker-led movement that challenged Communist tyranny with nonviolent resistance. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was martyred for showing solidarity with campesinos and other victims of junta brutality. In the US, 4 feisty religious women have taken to the buses and streets to give voice to the poor and undocumented; they have animated Laudato Si through direct action to protect the environment.

I am often asked: what about cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or violent extremism? What about protecting innocent people? What are the nonviolent options in these cases?

First, I don’t come at this topic from a pacifist perspective. I’m the first to admit that nonviolent action has not always worked. At the same time, there is little evidence to suggest that armed resistance would have done any better in places where nonviolent resistance failed. Military interventions on humanitarian grounds, as in cases like Rwanda or the protection of Yazidis in Iraq, may save lives in certain cases. But, practically speaking, mustering the political will to support military intervention on Responsibility to Protect (R2P) grounds has become so difficult that it is strategically imperative to develop alternatives.

The second point is that most mass atrocities historically have occurred in the context of armed struggles and civil wars. Very rarely are large numbers of unarmed civilians killed while engaged in mass nonviolent campaigns. New research by Erica Chenoweth and Evan Perkoski found that nonviolent resistance can even decrease the likelihood of mass atrocities. Not surprisingly, armed movements with foreign support are much more likely to elicit mass killings.

It is also worth mentioning that while the WWII ultimately brought the end to the Nazi regime, civil resistance and nonviolent noncooperation saved thousands of lives. Jacques Semelin, in his book, Unarmed Against Hitler, chronicles a number of these examples, including the case of German Aryan women who protected their Jewish husbands from concentration camps through sustained protests outside the SS headquarters in Berlin.

Power is fluid and ultimately flows from the consent and cooperation of ordinary people. When large and diverse groups of people remove their consent and cooperation from an oppressive regime or system of power using tactics like boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience, no ruler, no matter how brutal, can stay in power.

Nonviolent protests and other forms of collective action have won tactical concessions from extremist groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria and al Shabaab in East Africa. For example, women’s led protests outside an ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, led to the release of political activists in 2014. Two years ago in northeastern Kenya, fighters from the al-Shabaab terrorist group ambushed a bus filled with women. The fighters demanded that the Muslim and Christian women separate, a tactic they’d used in the past before slaughtering the Christians. The Muslim women refused to separate, and shielded the Christian women. They said: “You will kill us all or leave us alone.” Their collective stubbornness worked – the al Shabaab fighters left without anyone on the bus being killed.

Oliver Kaplan recently released a book, Resisting War: How Civilians Protect Themselves, which analyzes how unarmed civilians have influenced the behaviors of state and non-state armed groups in civil war contexts. He examines cases in Colombia, with extensions to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and the Philippines. The study shows how unarmed civilians self-organized and created autonomous, resilient institutions. They carved out peace zones, prevented extra-judicial killings, and deterred violence targeting civilians.

These findings have important implications for the Church and other external actors seeking to prevent mass atrocities. They suggest that supporting local self-organizing and collective action in the midst of violent conflict can help save lives.

There are other ways to deter violence and human rights abuses in conflict zones. Unarmed civilian protection, which is the use of unarmed civilians to do ‘peacekeeping’, has had 5 demonstrable successes. Nonviolent Peaceforce, Christian Peacemakers Teams, Peace Brigades International and Operation Dove have led civilian peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, Indonesia, Israel-Palestine, and elsewhere. Evaluations of unarmed civilian protection reveal that this activity has saved lives, changed the behavior of armed groups, and made local peace and human rights work more possible.

The UN High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations stated: “unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of UN efforts to protect civilians.” Strategically it makes sense for major military powers, including the United States, to invest in UCP programs as an effective and less costly form of peacekeeping.

Of course, it goes without saying that if you want to prevent mass atrocities, you prevent war. Prevention demands investment, and right now the levels of US and global investment in violence prevention are infinitesimally small compared to the sums dedicated to war fighting. Practically, prevention means supporting inclusive and participatory economic and political processes (recall that institutionalized discrimination against Iraqi Sunnis contributed to the rise and spread of ISIS). It means fostering dialogue and trust between communities and police (justice and security dialogues have done just that in Nepal and Burkina Faso). It means using diplomatic, military, and trade levers to challenge crackdowns on civic space and human rights violations (security force abuses in northern Nigeria fueled the rise of Boko Haram).

Nonviolent campaigns also contribute to more democratic and peaceful societies. Less than 4% of armed rebel victories result in a country becoming democratic within five years.

In the area of violence prevention, our U.S. military colleagues can make particularly valuable contributions. When military leaders, who have been strong proponents of the work of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), demand greater investment in non-military solutions, when they point out the gross under-resourcing of diplomacy and development – when compared to military hardware and train-and-equip programs – it makes a difference. Military advocacy on Capitol Hill and in the private sector for massively increased investment in violence prevention and peacebuilding is a concrete way to advance just peace around the world.

Relatedly, enlightened military leadership understands that corrupt, undisciplined, rights-violating security forces are unreliable partners. Their practices fuel insurgencies and violent extremism. There is a smart guide written by Admiral Dennis Blair, called Military Engagement: How Armed Forces Can Support Democratic Transitions Worldwide. It instructs on how military relationships and security partnerships can incentivize democratic norms and behaviors and deter security force crackdowns on peaceful opposition. I hope that this guide might one day be fully integrated in military education and training in the US and around the world.

So far I’ve focused a great deal on civil resistance and nonviolent collective action. But we know that this is one set of tools in a much broader nonviolent arsenal. Transforming violent conflict and dissolving its root causes requires a combination of people power and peacebuilding. That means linking nonviolent resistance, which intentionally escalates conflict, and traditional peacebuilding tools like negotiation, dialogue, and mediation, which de-escalate it.

The theory here is that in conflicts marked by great power asymmetries, where groups are intentionally marginalized or excluded from political processes, power needs to shift and an unjust status quo disrupted before conflict resolution become possible. In other words, nonviolent action is often necessary to “ripen” the situation for resolution. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963:

“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

The Polish Solidarity movement combined Gdansk shipyard strikes with formal roundtable negotiations. The Liberian civil war came to end because the government and rebels were pressured – in part by a women’s-led sex strike – to reach a settlement. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Nepal was reached when popular nonviolent resistance shifted the power dynamics and incentivized meaningful peace talks. Veronique Dudouet highlights these and other examples in an excellent report, “Powering to Peace: Integrated Civil Resistance and Peacebuilding Strategies”. Anthony Wanis-St. John and Noah Rosen focus on the importance of negotiation in nonviolent resistance in a recently published USIP Peaceworks report.

I am often asked: what about cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or violent extremism? What about protecting innocent people? What are the nonviolent options in these cases?

Using and sequencing these dialogical and direct action techniques is both an art and a science. USIP is currently developing a practical guide, called “Synergizing Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding” (SNAP), which is intended to inform field-based trainings on how, practically, these nonviolent approaches can be used together. We hope that this action guide might be helpful for organizations like Pax Christi, Mercy Corps, Caritas International, Catholic Relief Services, and members of the Alliance for Peacebuilding whose work is grounded in conflict affected communities.

So we know that nonviolent resistance is important in negotiating a sustainable and just peace. This aligns with the fact that, historically, the most durable peace processes and national dialogues have been inclusive and participatory. Desiree Nilsson’s study of all peace agreements reached in the post-Cold War period found that the involvement of civil society reduced the risk of failure by 64%. Peace accords that include civil society actors – including religious groups, women’s groups, and human rights organizations – are more likely to see peace prevail. The Colombia peace process, which culminated in a landmark peace accord last year, featured the active involvement of victim’s groups, women’s groups, and other civic actors. Other research has found that the presence of skilled negotiators and facilitators at the local level contributed to the success of national dialogue processes. Training mattered.

Women’s participation merits special focus. Multiple studies have found that women’s inclusion in peace processes correlates significantly with their success – Northern Ireland and Liberia are classic examples. Women bring unique identities, perspectives, and a sense of urgency to peace processes. While women often need to fight for a place at the table, it stands to reason that unlocking the leadership potential of women at all levels of an organization or institution, including the Catholic Church, would strengthen its ability to forge peace.

Another nonviolent tool, mediation, has helped resolve some of the most intractable violent conflicts, including the civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Northern Ireland, and Colombia. The Catholic Church, often in partnership with other faith groups, has often been a key mediator. We know the critical role that the Vatican and Pope Francis played in mediating an end to Colombia’s civil war. The Catholic Lay Community of Sant’Egidio played a vital role in ending the devastating Mozambique civil war (1975-1990). Sant’Egidio, a Rome-based organization with some serious mediation skills and a biblical commitment to service, compassion, and peace, developed strong relationships with the two conflict parties, the ruling Frelimo party and 7 RENAMO rebels. It brought them together in Rome for meetings over 2 years that culminated in the signing of the Rome General Peace Accords in 1992.

In northern Uganda, which has endured nearly 3 decades of civil war between the government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu and his Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace initiative, an inter-faith conflict transformation organization, has won the trust of all sides, allowing him to carve out spaces for peace. Odama, who I was honored to meet in Rome, has facilitated years of dialogue between government and LRA forces. He famously says, “As long as there is an opportunity for peace talks, I shall pursue it.” While a comprehensive peace settlement in Uganda remains elusive, and the government is currently cracking down hard against nonviolent civic groups, perhaps one day, religiously mediated dialogue combined with citizen-led collective action will achieve a breakthrough.

Transforming violent conflict and dissolving its root causes requires a combination of people power and peacebuilding. That means linking nonviolent resistance, which intentionally escalates conflict, and traditional peacebuilding tools like negotiation, dialogue, and mediation, which de-escalate it.

Similarly, in South Sudan, where post-independence civil war and dictatorship have created a terrible humanitarian crisis, the inter-denominational South Sudan Council of Churches, one of the strongest civil society groups in the young country, has issued an Action Plan for Peace (APP) focused on dialogue and reconciliation. There is also a budding youth-led nonviolent movement in the country, called Ana Taban (“I am tired”) that is using the arts to build bridges, call out abuses on all sides, and mobilize people for peace. Hopefully the wisdom of the elders and youth energy will creatively combine to bring sustained peace to South Sudan.

A core tenet of just peacemaking is addressing and overcoming legacies of gross human rights violations and other historical injustices. Faith groups have historically contributed in significant ways to transitional justice and reconciliation. There are multiple models of truth-telling and reconciliation. In Guatemala, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Bishop Juan Gerardi, helped initiate, organize, and execute the successful national truth commission, the Recovery of Historical Memory Project, in the mid-1990s. In Chile, the Catholic Church advocated for the country’s Commission on Truth and Reconciliation following Pinochet’s removal from power in 1990 – a core component of that country’s transition to democracy. The Chilean commission helped inspire the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission shepherded by Archbishop Tutu.

Getting Practical

The effectiveness of all these nonviolent techniques – including civil resistance, dialogue, mediation, negotiation, unarmed civilian protection, trauma healing, and transitional justice – are grounded in the skills and legitimacy of those using them. An important role the Church (and all of us) can play in advancing just peace globally is building strategic and tactical bridges between the techniques of grassroots nonviolent action and peacebuilding and investing in them.

Practically, this can be done via education and training, through the diplomatic and policy influencing arms of the Church, through inter-religious initiatives and through field-based programming with conflict-affected communities.

  • Catholic universities around the world can educate and train youth and communities in the full menu of nonviolent options and their practical, strategic applications; they can support cutting-edge research on conflict analysis and just peace approaches.
  • Catholic leadership from the parish level on up can help integrate just peace and conflict transformation teachings into religious trainings, lay formation, homilies and sermons.
  • They can draw on research, films, and training materials on nonviolent action (many translated into dozens of languages) developed by USIP, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Pace-e-Bene, Rhize, and other organizations.
  • The Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue can continue to promote just peace approaches that draw on all the religious traditions.
  • Church leaders can communicate with government officials and security forces to deter violent crackdowns against peaceful activists.
  • They can take diplomatic action when state/non-state actors are engaged in systematic human rights abuses, high-level corruption and exclusionary policies that fuel violence, and show solidarity with nonviolent activists and peacebuilders on the front lines.
  • The Vatican Secretary of State and Holy See missions in NY and Geneva can use existing initiatives, like the UN Sustaining Peace Resolution and the Sustainable Development Goals, to advance just peace approaches and tools.

Logistically, the Church can also provide safe spaces in places like the DRC, South Sudan, Venezuela, and Cambodia, where activists and peacebuilders can meet, strategize, and plan actions. It can offer small resources and transportation support for those forced to operate in restrictive environments, often with little or no money. It can work with Catholic and other private foundations to support grant-giving that aligns with just peace objectives.

I mentioned the military’s role in advocating for greater investment in nonviolent alternatives and peacebuilding. The Church could work with the military to support unarmed peacekeeping pilot initiatives in places like Syria and South Sudan. And encourage it to use military-to-military levers (training, funding, education) to strengthen governance in partner defense institutions, and deter repression and human rights abuses.

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

At least one national government, Lithuania, has made civilian-based defense, which involves the use of mass civil resistance and noncooperation to deter and repel foreign attacks, a core component of its national defense strategy. Building up the nonviolent resistance and peacebuilding skills and capacities of citizens, in schools and communities, is a great investment in national and international security. Of course, a papal encyclical on nonviolent action and just peace would help focus Church energy and resources on all of these options. Perhaps one day.

I have a special place in my heart for nonviolent organizers and the work they do – Dorothy Day is atop the list. Let me end with her pragmatically hopeful words:

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

May this conference create ripples that spread in all directions and inform how we all, individually and collectively, civilian and military, doctrinally and practically, can bolster nonviolent options to advance a more just and peaceful world. Thank you.

By Maria J. Stephan
Maria J. Stephan directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which focuses on applied research, training and education and informing policies and practice related to civil resistance, nonviolent action and their roles in transforming violent conflict and advancing just peace. Her Twitter is @MariaJStephan

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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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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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