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Reformers vs. The Status Quo: Is It Possible to Have Free and Fair Polls?

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It is about the status quo, or those in power, ceasing their manipulation of electoral processes and allowing independent institutions do their work, and for every vote to count.

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The 8 August 2017 general election in Kenya was like no other. On 1 September, the Supreme Court of Kenya nullified the presidential election that saw President Uhuru Kenyatta obtain the majority of the votes. This was his nemesis Raila Odinga’s second petition, having challenged Uhuru’s first victory in 2013. It was the first time a presidential election had ever been invalidated in Africa, and it left Kenya adrift in unchartered waters.

On 30 October, when announcing the presidential results for the subsequent repeat poll on 26 October, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)’s chairman Wafula Chebukati noted the importance of asking key questions and comparing Kenya’s electoral process to those of other African countries. “We need to pause and ask ourselves why the Kenyan presidential election is so competitive, what the roots of popularisation in such elections are and why IEBC is never perceived as a fair umpire,” he stated.

He was obviously addressing the political stalemate that the country finds itself in today, as well as past post-election standoffs, key among them being the 2007-08 violence that followed the hotly contested presidential race between Raila and then incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki.

One of the key highlights of the 2013 petition was the rejection of Raila’s 800-page affidavit, which detailed evidence of alleged rigging. Some senior jurists, including the former Law Society of Kenya boss Apollo Mboya, believe that had the affidavit been admitted, it would have changed the Supreme Court’s reasoning when preparing its final verdict. Justice Mohammed Ibrahim, who sat in on the case, was later reported to have said that with more time than the 14 days that the Constitution allows for the hearing of petitions, the court might have come to a different decision. Uhuru’s lawyer in both petitions, Ahmednasir Abdullahi, is on record saying that the 2013 case was stronger than the 2017 one.

Other than the 2002 general election that brought the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) to power, all the other six presidential elections held in the multiparty era have been challenged in courts.

Soon after the nullification of the August 8 election, Raila vowed that there would be no election if the IEBC did not make changes to address the “illegalities and irregularities” cited by the Supreme Court. On September 17, Raila, together with his National Super Alliance (NASA) co-principals Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Senator Moses Wetang’ula, announced what they called “irreducible minimums”.

Among their demands was the removal of the IEBC’s CEO Ezra Chiloba and some commissioners before the fresh presidential election. When these changes were not forthcoming, Raila “withdrew” from the race.

History of election petitions

However, Raila is not the first candidate to petition against a controversial election. Other than the 2002 general election that brought the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) to power, all the other six presidential elections held in the multiparty era have been challenged in courts. In fact, elections have been a source of controversy pretty much since the establishment of the Kenya colony in 1920. In fact, since 2017 we have consistently changed our electoral laws under the Legislative Council, or Legco as it was known.

The Kenya National Assembly’s official record, The Hansard of October 24, 1917, notes that the Legco sat on February 12 and created a Special Committee on Elective Representation to consider “the question of elective representation”. The committee was to look into steps to consider to provide for the election by the public of the European non-official members of the LegCo, and specifically on the qualifications of the electors. It unanimously passed that not everyone could vote. Only European male adults would qualify to vote in the first election in 1920. By 1924 suffrage had been extended to Indians, with five seats in the Legislative Council, and to the Arabs who got one seat.

However, whilst all adult Indian residents were given the right to vote, in the Arab community only men literate in Arabic or Kiswahili and resident in the country for two years were enfranchised, as the community had requested that women not be given the right to vote. The African majority, whilst not entitled to vote, had one member appointed to represent them.

The electoral process has been a victim of state capture, a type of systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage.

Despite this, the Indians demanded equal representation with the Europeans and when this demand was not met, they boycotted that year’s poll altogether. This was also the case in the 1927 poll, which only saw a single Indian candidate stand.

In 1944, colonial secretary Oliver Lyttelton effected some electoral reforms to allow an African representative in the LegCo. His name was Eliud Mathu.

The Open Society’s comparative study on the contribution of electoral commissions to strengthening democracy, reviewed by AfriMAP, indicates that in 1956, the Legislative Council (African Representation) Act, 1956 (No. 10) was passed, providing for the first six African elected members.

With multiparty politics in the offing, establishing an autonomous body became inevitable and led to the Election Laws Amendment Act, 1991, the study notes. The Act abolished the position of Supervisor of Elections, as it was then known, and reinvested all election management powers in the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) as we knew it until 2008, when it was disbanded.

And still, despite consistent elections every five [or four years in pre-colonial era] since 1920, the country has not found a way of solving any contentious election-related issues. This has resulted in attacks on the electoral management body and its officials, in approaches that Wetang’ula in 2016 referred to as extra-legal means. It is now clear it matters not how many time we change the commissioners or make laws because electoral reforms are more than just that.

As historian Godfrey Sang notes, “We have found ourselves changing election rules every so often as well as the electoral commission and its officers. We keep changing the laws to suit emerging situations, but for how long and at what cost? … A high turnover of laws or personnel weakens institutions, destroys traditions, stifles growth or continuity and obliterates institutional memory.”

Chebukati himself narrated how politicians found a punching bag in him in this electoral process. While some quarters complained how a weak chairman he was, those in the commission claimed that he was principled couldn’t be influenced. He said he couldn’t please everyone.

And this is an experience shared by his predecessor Isaack Hassan.

State capture

In sections of his forthcoming memoirs released during the Sixteenth Cambridge Conference on Electoral Democracy in the Commonwealth in Cambridge, England, and published in part by The Star newspaper in August this year, Isaack Hassan expressed how Raila frustrated him after the disputed 2013 general election. Since then, Hassan said, every step the IEBC undertook was castigated to portray it as incompetent and “in bed with the governing party”.

Following the ruling, and in sentiments that would be echoed by NASA two decades later, Kibaki declared, “Moi would still be a fraudulent president. He won’t be genuine because he rigged his way to that position … He will not have any moral authority over the citizens if he was to rule them by force.”

“In a country with no culture of conceding electoral defeat, three-and-a-half years were spent by these opposition leaders honing a sense of victimhood to the effect that the presidential elections were rigged,” Hassan added.

But does this mean that elections have not been rigged in this country? Is Hassan insinuating that the election management body has not in the past been influenced by the incumbents or by the status quo? I think otherwise. In fact, I would say that electoral management bodies have been the source of electoral thuggery and authoritarianism in this country, which has resulted in violent polls. The electoral process has been a victim of state capture, a type of systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage.

Aziz Rana, in an article headlined “Against Second Rate Democracy in Kenya” published in the Boston Review on 12 October 2017, stated, “Kenya’s ruling elites have been modelling an increasingly sophisticated version of electoral authoritarianism over the last decade. For them, elections are merely a tool for maintaining power rather than for presenting a real opportunity to transfer authority.”

Electoral authoritarian regimes hold regular multiparty elections for parliamentary, presidential and other positions but still violate liberal-democratic minimum standards of freedom, fairness and integrity in systematic ways as to render elections instruments of authoritarian rule, rather than instruments of democracy.

This is particularly discernible in Kenya in the multiparty era. Against the backdrop of the Mlolongo voting system in 1988, the opposition was not taking any chances in 1992, when the country was scheduled to have its first multiparty elections since 1966. Babior Newton in Raila Conspiracy: The Secrets Behind Denying Him the Kenyan Presidency, captures a moment when Raila was asked at a press conference whether he advocated guerrilla welfare. His response was “positive NO”, adding, “Violence breeds violence”. He explained that people would not accept rigged results and, if they lost confidence in the ballot, they might feel justified in seeking alternative means of change, just as the African National Congress in South Africa had done against apartheid. This line of reasoning seems to be behind the recent formation of the Raila-led National Resistance Movement, a wing within NASA, to fight “electoral injustices”.

In December 1992, Newton notes, Raila, doubting the credibility of the polls, threatened a boycott. He said, “We have told [Electoral Commission of Kenya chairman Justice Zacchaeus] Chesoni that unless these cases are dealt with and corrected as soon as possible, we shall be forced to reconsider our participation in an election that has been rigged from start to finish”.

Raila, then the Vice Chairman of the General Purposes Committee of the Forum for Restoration of Democracy, led by his father Jaramogi Oginga Oinga, was referring to a 13-point proposal on how to conduct free and fair elections presented to the ECK by opposition parties. The document was signed by Waruru Kanja, Uhuru’s uncle George Muhoho, Mukaru Ng’ang’a and Mohamed Akram on behalf of Kibaki’s Democratic Party, Kenda, Ford K, and the Liberal Democratic Party. George Anyona, the Kenya Social Congress candidate, who had been released from prison that year, had in November moved to the High Court seeking to block the general election until the ECK had complied with the provisions of the National Assembly and Presidential Elections Act, and listed 32 grounds to support his application.

Electoral reforms

One of the key reforms effected by Chesoni was that the chairman inform the nation that the provincial administration would have no role in the 1992 election. The ECK had recruited and trained returning officers, who would declare the results “at the constituency level”. Before then, it was district officers who acted as returning officers.

One of the main reasons why Moi chose Uhuru was because he wanted someone to watch over his interests when he retired.

Despite this push, the divided opposition lost the election to the incumbent, President Daniel arap Moi, and to the governing Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, which scooped 100 out of the 188 parliamentary seats. However, the results were marred by allegations of ballot-box stuffing and government-sponsored targeted ethnic violence in the Rift Valley. Kenneth Matiba of Ford Asili, who had finished second, petitioned the outcome in the courts but in February 1994, the petition was dismissed because Matiba, who had suffered a stroke in detention before the elections and was paralysed in both hands, had not personally signed the election petition papers.

Matiba had filed two petitions against Moi’s election. The first one was because Moi had already served two terms and was, therefore, ineligible for a third term. The court struck out this petition in May 1993 since he was already pursuing another petition.

In the 1997 general election, the opposition was more vocal in calling for the removal of Chesoni as the ECK chairman. Chesoni left and his deputy, Samuel Kivuitu, took over. I should mention that before the election, Paul Muite, Matiba and one of the so-called “seven bearded sisters”, James Orengo, had warned of a civil disobedience campaign if the government didn’t effect constitutional reforms, which were a key agenda leading to the polls.

Raila, then the chair of the National Development Party (NDP), was also more concerned with the process as he was making his first stab at the presidency. At a press conference at Chester House in Nairobi, he had said that there was a need for “rapid institutional reforms prior to and after the election”. In a precursor to his demand twenty years later, he insisted on what he called “six minimum but sacred constitutional reforms”. If these reforms were not effected, NDP would join all other democratic forces to ensure that there were no elections. This tied in to the campaign of “No Reforms, No Elections” pioneered by civil society organisations that had adopted an agenda for constitutional reform to be implemented prior to the election and instituted a campaign of civil disobedience and public protests to pressure the government.

However, as articulated by Joel Barkan and Njuguna Ng’ethe in their paper “Kenya Tries Again”, under pressure, Moi changed tactics. “For the first time, he agreed to negotiate with the opposition, albeit on a highly circumscribed basis. First, talks would be limited to the crafting of ‘minimal’ reforms i.e. those demanded by the opposition to create a ‘level playing field’ for the elections and guarantee their participation.” Importantly, negotiations would take place within parliament via the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG), which played to the interests of opposition politicians but excluded the activists who demanded more fundamental and comprehensive change.

Having so gutted – at least temporarily – the momentum for reform, Moi went on to win the December 1997 election with 40.4 per cent of the vote. Mwai Kibaki got 30.8 per cent while Raila managed 10.8 per cent. Others in the race were Kijana Wamalwa and Charity Ngilu. Raila, who had opposed the IPPG talks, acknowledging in Parliament that they were “meant to hijack the reform process and sabotage it”, later himself had a change of heart and eventually dissolved the NDP into Moi’s KANU.

In 1998, Kibaki petitioned against Moi’s win by publishing the notice of the petition in the Kenya Gazette. The Democratic Party presidential candidate alleged that the ECK had conspired with Smith and Ouzman, the British firm that printed the ballot papers, to print two sets of papers to facilitate massive rigging. (The same firm was later implicated in the 2013 “Chickengate” scandal that led its top officials to be charged and jailed in the UK.)

However, based on another technicality, judges Emmanuel O’Kubasu, Mbogholi Msagha and Moijo ole Keiwua ruled that Kibaki should have served Moi and Kivuitu with the petition personally. That ruling was upheld in 1999 at the Court of Appeal by judges Riaga Omolo, Chief Justice Bernard Chunga, A.B. Shah, A.A. Lakha and Owuor J.J.

Following the ruling, and in sentiments that would be echoed by NASA two decades later, Kibaki declared, “Moi would still be a fraudulent president. He won’t be genuine because he rigged his way to that position … He will not have any moral authority over the citizens if he was to rule them by force.”

2002 and after

Unlike in the previous two elections, Moi was not on the ballot in 2002 and his preferred heir, Uhuru Kenyatta, faced a united opposition under the NARC Coalition. The coalition eventually brought together Kibaki, the presidential candidate, Raila, Ngilu and Kalonzo. Soon after it became clear that Kibaki was going to win the election, Uhuru conceded defeat and Moi offered a smooth transition.

But it is what made Moi go against the likes of Raila, Kalonzo and Mudavadi in his preference for Uhuru as his successor that provides a clue as to why the presidency is so hotly contested. Newton notes that by forcing his close aide, Mark Too, to give up his seat as nominated MP in 2001, which paved the way for Moi to nominate Uhuru to parliament and make him Local Government minister, the president was preparing the young Kenyatta to take over the reins of power. One of the main reasons why Moi chose Uhuru was because he wanted someone to watch over his interests when he retired. It is widely known that Moi’s predecessor and Uhuru’s dad, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, had amassed a vast estate, much of it through questionable means. Throughout his 24-year presidency, Moi had turned a blind eye to this and had not sought to punish the Kenyatta family. He evidently believed Uhuru would return the favour as it is well known that Moi’s regime was itself steeped in corruption and other dirty deals.

This private arrangement demonstrates that the quest for power is largely driven by the desire of a small group of powerful elites to maintain, rather than reform, the extractive state.

In 2007, electoral thuggery under Kibaki and his Mt. Kenya Mafia clique – who used state machinery to campaign, influence and rig the election – set alight the tinderbox created by a history of land-related problems, marginalisation and injustices. More than 1,300 people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced after the disputed 2007 election. Just like in 1992 and 1997, politicians again fanned militia and state violence in the service of personal ambition, with the presidency, and the control of the state, being the prize. The violence and the political crisis it generated gave added impetus to the constitutional reform agenda, which Kibaki, like Moi before him, had attempted to bastardise. This resulted ultimately in the promulgation of the new 2010 Constitution. And although this constitution was, at least in theory, designed to curtail the powers and appeal of the presidency, the current crisis demonstrates that this vision is yet to be realised.

The infamous Madimoni moment in the run-up to the 2013 election serves as an illustration of the behind-the-scene deals that seek to maintain the status quo. As the Nation reported, powerful men in the Kibaki administration were not comfortable with either Raila or Uhuru taking over because “they never really belonged to the system”.

“Most senior civil servants felt that the dramatic ways of Odinga and Kenyatta could lead to the reorganisation of the public service in ways that could render them jobless. Their only bet? Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi,” stated the Nation report.

Uhuru and his running mate, William Ruto, secretly entered into an agreement with Mudavadi so that the latter would stand in the elections. In this arrangement, Uhuru would drop out of the race in favour of Mudavadi. Cabinet slots would be shared out, with Uhuru’s The National Alliance getting the lion’s share of 45 per cent, Ruto’s United Republican Party getting 35 per cent while Mudavadi’s United Democratic Front would have the remaining 20 per cent. It was a boardroom arrangement, similar to the one that had allowed Kibaki to ascend to the presidency at the head of a united opposition a decade before.

This private arrangement (which never materialised) demonstrates that the quest for power is largely driven by the desire of a small group of powerful elites to maintain, rather than reform, the extractive state. Newton quotes Jaramogi as having said in 1968, “The movement for political freedom usually has two sets of leaders. One group is the self-centred opportunist and selfish persons, who see independence as an opportunity to take over the privileges and exploiting the role of the departing colonialists. The second group is the nationalist leaders concerned about the low standards of living of their people to achieve independence so that it could be used to bring about change for the better to all as quickly as possible.”

This situation remains today. Raila has framed his struggle as one between the pro-status quo and the reformer. Kenya’s current political crisis is only the most recent manifestation of a battle that has its roots in the colonial state. The country’s politics has been largely dominated by a clique of individuals, which includes Raila himself, fighting over the control of that state and frustrating the effort to reform it.

Kenya’s current political crisis is only the most recent manifestation of a battle that has its roots in the colonial state. The country’s politics has been largely dominated by a clique of individuals, which includes Raila himself, fighting over the control of that state and frustrating the effort to reform it.

As Rana recommends, there is only one path forward for Kenya and that is to implement a genuinely transparent and broadly legitimate election process and let the will of the people be heard without intimidation. This would be in keeping with the principles of the Supreme Court’s judgment and the Constitution, and would ensure the right of all groups in Kenya to participate meaningfully in politics.

It is about the status quo, or those in power, ceasing their manipulation of electoral processes and allowing independent institutions do their work, and for every vote to count.

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Eliud Kibii is a sub-editor with The Star newspaper and writes on international relations, security and electoral processes.

Politics

The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration

The responses to the information disorder adopted in Kenya have been largely ineffective. Multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively stand a higher chance of success and will result in a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.

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The information disorder (i.e., mis- and disinformation) pervasive on social media has arguably interfered with democratic processes across the world. As public authorities and political actors continue to embrace social media as a broadcast and civic engagement tool, the potency of manipulated narratives online is further entrenched. This is debatably truer in electoral contexts where issues are perhaps more emotive and divisive. For example, in the run-up to Kenya’s general elections, a notable amount of mis- and disinformation on social media was observable. As Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal noted, doctored images of crowds during political rallies, mild deepfake videos, doctored photos, and fake accounts passing off as political actors or mainstream media were just some of the categories of mis- and disinformation observable on social media. These observations tie in with earlier research by Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo, highlighting the practice of using bloggers for disinformation campaigns. During the actual elections, the EU Election Observer Mission also observed “manufactured amplification and coordination of messages online by fake accounts and malicious, bot-driven activity in support of the presidential candidates”.

The impact of the information disorder on democracies has been extensively discussed and will not be the subject of this article. Instead, this article focuses on the diverse responses which have been mooted and implemented in Kenya by policy makers, media, civil society, and social media platforms in response to the information disorder. In particular, this article argues that these responses are largely ineffective when used in isolation and suggests that collectives comprised of a broad range of multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively are likely to have a higher chance at success. One such collective, Fumbua, was established in the run-up to the 2022 general elections in Kenya, and this article argues that the frameworks for collaboration it established can be repurposed to address the information disorder in numerous contexts.

Contextualizing the information disorder on social media

The proliferation of mis- and disinformation on social media is made easier by the fact that such platforms, by nature, enable peer-to-peer engagement with little to no gatekeeping. While this characteristic has also meant that these platforms have served to create room for civic engagement and act as an equalizer, such civic engagement is often undermined by the harmful content that is prevalent. In recognition of the potential for harm their platforms pose to democratic processes, numerous social media platforms have adopted policies and tools specifically designed to address election-related mis-and disinformation. Comparatively, the content moderation tools applied in the Global South have arguably been scant. For example, in Brazil, the individuals tasked with enforcing Twitter’s policies during the presidential election only got access to the necessary internal tools a day prior to the election, and only in a limited capacity. Twitter allegedly utilized automatic enforcement technology and third-party service providers. According to numerous commentators, it is not uncommon for content moderation efforts in the Global South to be below par. From automatic enforcement tools trained on datasets lacking in local context, to human content moderators facing the same challenge, these platforms’ efforts to curb the information disorder are handicapped from the outset. These challenges are exacerbated in electoral contexts. Recent developments have shown that it sometimes takes third parties such as researchers or civil society pointing out harmful content for platforms to act.

It is generally agreed that mis-and disinformation was prevalent on social media during Kenya’s August 2022 general election. For example, the EU Election Observer Mission indicated in its report that it had identified hundreds of misleading Facebook and Twitter profiles. Platforms triggered their civic integrity policies a few weeks prior to the election and set up information centres and moderately labelled misleading content. However, these labels were not consistently applied and were in fact only deployed during the election tallying process. Stakeholders seemingly lacked a clear solution to address the information disorder on social media. The lack of sustainable and scalable solutions is not unique to Kenya and the region. It is certainly a global problem and a key step in the right direction is securing more transparency from platforms in relation to their enforcement processes as this will enable stakeholders to co-create solutions. However, in the interim, the information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed. One way to accomplish this is through multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua.

Addressing the information disorder

Fumbua is a collective of media and media-related organisations which came together in the run-up of the 2022 general election with a view to addressing the information disorder as it relates to political campaigning. The efforts to address the information disorder in Kenya’s 2022 general election can largely be categorized into actions taken in anticipation of the mis- and disinformation (pre-emptive measures) and actions taken in response to the information disorder (reactive measures). Fumbua brought together organisations involved in both areas, such as fact checkers, “pre-bunkers” and traditional media. Both these reactive and pre-emptive measures are discussed below.

The information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed.

Mis- and disinformation has reportedly featured in Kenyan elections since 2013. Consequently, with each passing cycle, stakeholders have been able to understand its nature and develop solutions which are alive to Kenya’s specific context. Unfortunately, due to the rapidly evolving nature of mis- and disinformation practices, the solutions developed have often been reactive in that they seek to get rid of such harmful content or undo its effects after the fact. For example, by criminalizing false content through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, by fact checking such content, by using labels to warn audiences of the nature of the content, and by obtaining the takedown of such content from social media sites.

Fact checking has perhaps been the most prevalent or visible response to the information disorder. It essentially entails systematically breaking down the validity of claims made by public officials, institutions, and political actors with a view to identifying whether the claim is factual or not. In Kenya’s elections, various fact-checkers were active. These included independent media, the fact-checking desks of mainstream media, and collectives or associations. To name a few, Africa Check, Africa Uncensored, Pesa Check, Media Council of Kenya, Kenya Editors Guild and The Star were involved in fact-checking claims made during the Kenyan elections. While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder, especially when empirical evidence on the subject is divided. In highly politicized environments, it is unlikely that being exposed to verification of claims will affect an audience’s world view. This is more so the case where the objectivity and impartiality of the fact-checkers are in question. Fact-checkers often must compete with an audience’s confirmation bias and their credibility is often questioned due to the conflict their narrative poses to the world view of some audiences. This is not made easier by the fact that fact-checking is a difficult, time-consuming, and labour-intensive process which cannot compete with the speed at which false information is spread through social media. Add in the fact that false information more easily captures attention due to its ability to trigger negative emotions and one can understand why the utility and efficacy of fact-checking is limited. Fact-checking claims made through social media have also been especially difficult in Kenya due to the minimal and often performative support given to fact-checkers by social media platforms.

For fact-checking to be effective, it must offer an alternative narrative to that which it is disputing. The challenge is that such a narrative must exist in the first place and must be capable of being accepted by an audience. Where such a narrative exists, there is a risk that it may come with “political baggage” and as such be difficult to accept. In such cases, the efficacy of fact-checking is limited, and this is essentially the challenge faced by fact-checkers – purveyors of false information are not bound by the same rules. Despite all this, fact-checking has been found to positively affect audience beliefs notwithstanding pre-existing beliefs and whether an alternative narrative was presented. However, these credentials are limited as the effects on belief are weak and gradually becoming negligible. Additionally, they do not always translate to downstream effects (i.e., changing of votes).

For a long time, stakeholders seeking to curb the information disorder have found themselves on the back-foot, always responding after the fact. By the time interventions such as fact-checks, social media takedowns, and flags are deployed, harmful content has likely taken root. With this in mind, some pre-emptive solutions have been contemplated and used by stakeholders. These are discussed below.

While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder.

As discussed earlier in this article, fact-checkers often face the challenge of having to overcome an audience’s inherent biases and the political baggage accompanying the alternative narratives they seek to put forth. In seeking to overcome this reactionary approach, Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden argue that it may be more effective to inoculate audiences against harmful content by priming their minds to anticipate it. This has come to be referred to as prebunking, and it essentially entails exposing audiences to watered down versions of false or misleading content with a view to highlighting the tactics used by purveyors of such content. Prebunking efforts recognize that the information disorder may not necessarily be solved by disseminating more accurate information given that harmful content is often consumed in highly politicized contexts. Instead, these efforts seek to redesign information architecture through behavioural interventions (i.e., changing how audiences consume information). In Kenya, Stop Reflect Verify was the first publicly documented election-related prebunking program. It offered a misinformation quiz focused on the Kenyan elections.

While prebunking seemingly promises to reduce the reactionary nature of stakeholder efforts, there is insufficient proof that skills learned in prebunking programmes are applied in practical situations. Counterfactual thinking may be a useful strategy to incorporate into prebunking efforts. Counterfactual thinking involves stimulating an audience’s mind to consider alternative facts and hypotheses when presented with information in a bid to logically deduce the likely truth. The lack of consensus on the utility and efficacy of prebunking as an alternative to fact-checking points to the need for the deployment of multiple interventions in a coordinated fashion, and this is where multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua come in.

Building in sustainability 

Periodically, civil society, media practitioners, and the donor community focus their efforts on election-related programmes in a collaborative manner (for example the media’s collaboration during presidential debates). In most cases, the collaboration does not survive the post-election period. As a result, these election stakeholders have to start anew during each election. A considerable amount of time and resources are dedicated to establishing the frameworks for collaboration, taking away from the potential impact these programmes may have. With collectives such as Fumbua, stakeholders are able to repurpose the goodwill that fostered collaboration during elections to continue to address the information disorder in other contexts. By sustaining the collaboration, stakeholders would be able to leverage on incremental gains and make a more impactful change. In relation to the information disorder, they would be better able to move towards how media is generated and consumed. The effect of this would be a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.

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Politics

The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy

Crisis is the new constant and advocacy efforts should seek ways of growing public awareness through civic education.

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Are East African countries ready to face the next crisis or are they simply keen to go back to how things were? What does a new normal mean when speaking about public finance management (PFM)?

In continuing the struggle for structural transformation, economic justice efforts must work towards developing a new citizen and preparing for unpredictable or unforeseen events, more so those with extreme socio-economic and political consequences.

This is because, besides known challenges posed by existing inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out how “unusual circumstances such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes, disease outbreaks and warfare … depress the ability of citizens to engage in economic activity and pay taxes as well as that of governments [capacity] to collect revenue [or] provide services”.

Such circumstances therefore demand more inclusion of human rights-based approaches in economic justice efforts to champion greater fairness within existing financial architecture.

Disasters should, therefore, not obliterate human rights but should heighten the need to respect, protection, and fulfilment of obligations through prioritizing expenditure on service delivery, as well as all elements of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) to “boost the capacity of residents to withstand shocks” by improving coping mechanisms.

Promotion of fair taxes among other broader economic justice initiatives within PFM should consequently adapt towards championing ESCRS within the context of more disruptive and unexpected incidents. Crisis is constant in the new normal.

Fiscal democracy and civil protection: Recovery, resilience, and transformation

Currently, conversations on recovery are focused on tackling reduced tax collection; slowed growth; depressed formal or informal productivity; exploding unemployment; diminished remittances; persistent poverty; decline in energy access; and escalating food insecurity.

This emphasis seeks to reverse the effects of various lockdown policies that placed restrictions on businesses, mobility, movement within and across international borders, [plus] public gatherings. However, it speaks mostly of a desire to return to pre-COVID levels of economic activity while vital systems in tackling the next crisis such as water, education, or health remain unaddressed.

Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda. This will then speak to the resilience, and transformation needed to ensure PFM works for Africans in good times or bad.

Understanding fiscal democracy takes the form of better prioritization, response to problems, and improved sanctions for mistakes in the revenue cycle.

Advocacy for increased domestic opportunities, promotion of childhood development, enhanced socio-economic mobility, support for workers, motivation of local entrepreneurship, diversification of public infrastructure from mega projects, as well as increased innovation through subsidized research and development should be at the heart of economic justice efforts.

Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda.

Civil protection gives a new framework of planning by envisioning contexts or processes in which a series of unfortunate events can emerge, thus providing adequate responses without breaking the social contract.

Transformation therefore occurs when both go hand in hand so that public facilities are not overstretched in the event of crisis. Hence, in looking at the impact of Covid-19, across the East Africa region, we must ask ourselves: How transformative are the current recovery efforts underway? Will they offer a new resilience?

The salvage job: Economic sustainability through reliefs, guarantees, subsidies, and funds

Responses have clearly been driven by the urgency to overcome the pandemic and the need to forestall outright disaster or collapse. The “short-term rescue mode” has seen efforts to ensure vaccine access and bolstering of public health systems.

On the economic front governments “Have sought debt relief, implemented corporate tax deferrals plus exemptions, made direct citizen transfers and interest rate adjustments. [They have also] implemented guarantees and subsidies, liquidity support and food relief … [with] examples of support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Cash transfers and other safety nets for poor and vulnerable populations are critical for an integrated … response. While not transformational, they are building blocks for a basic level of resilience to external shocks.”

The fact that these efforts are not transformational must motivate the infusion of a justice quotient in recovery efforts. This will enable a movement beyond an emergency-oriented recovery that recognizes existing modern challenges such as climate change, population growth, scarce resources, man-made or natural calamities.

In the case of tax justice, to make the linkages that will establish economic sustainability in East Africa, it is important to understand the effect of recovery efforts in relation to public debt; the tax burden on individuals or households; illicit financial flows; harmful tax practices; economic growth; and resource distribution.

Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities. Concerns were looming over the fact that 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan African countries were in or at high risk of debt distress. Between 2010 and 2018, public debt in East Africa grew rapidly as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – National Debt to GDP Ratio

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

In this time, East African Community (EAC) governments failed to mobilize sufficient revenue despite an overall increase in taxes. The situation was therefore exacerbated by COVID-19, the consequence being that these countries are now stuck in a situation where they must tax more to bridge revenue gaps.

Basically this, first and foremost, creates a context of unfair tax policies in the region that burden their respective citizens, does not enhance service delivery, and is exclusionary in how debt repayment strategies are developed.

Lack of open debate about a country’s fiscal priorities within the existing PFM system neglects the needs of youth who constitute the majority of the population among other segments of society, curtails ideas on how to increase resources needed to provide for new economic opportunity(ies) and respond to the next emergency.

Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities.

Secondly, an environment or ecosystem of illicit financial flows (IFFs) that constitutes the formation of International Financial Centres (IFCs) in Kigali and Nairobi plus the signing of numerous Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) continues to perpetuate itself thereby providing loopholes within the tax architecture that undermine efforts at domestic revenue mobilization (DRM) because the monies going out of countries are so massive, outweighing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).

This is thanks to “Constitutionalism [among other legal questions] plus demands to implement new public finance management principles, growth in trade and services across countries in the region or with other countries across the globe, and discovery of natural resources requiring more inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI).”

On average IFFs accounts form 6.1 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) thereby impeding economic development and sustainability. For instance, since 2011, Kenya is estimated to lose KSh40 billion annually “as government, local firms and multinationals engage in fraudulent schemes to avoid tax payments”. As of 2021, The State of Tax Justice Report indicates this has grown to an estimated KSh69 billion annually at current exchange rates.

Third, growing account deficits and rising external debt are heavily limiting to economic growth. Increased spending on debt repayment is restricting prioritization on essential public goods and services while borrowing remains one of the key sources of budget financing.

In as much as Kenya cancelled its recent pursuit of another Eurobond, the about-turn towards borrowing domestically following a surge in yields within international markets because of the Russia-Ukraine war is still going to punish the country’s citizens by squeezing them out of access to credit.

Lastly, the debt burden is disempowering the citizen. Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable. This is further worsened by limited access to information on debt or public spending. Moreover, there is weak oversight by parliaments as executives take full control of processes.

Policy-making processes during cascading crises: Fiscal Consolidation, Special Drawing Rights, and Open Government

By understanding that crisis is constant, and that it is likely to manifest as confluence events — merging risks of mitigatable disaster(s) — or major confluence events, that is, the combination of potentially unmitigated risk(s) at any one point in time, how does policy making at such a time help to prepare for the emergency next time?

For example, what does Kenya’s fiscal consolidation programme — which comprises of reforms to improve oversight, monitoring, and governance of state-owned enterprises; improved transparency of fiscal reporting; and comprehensive information of public tenders awarded including beneficial ownership information of awarded entities — have to do with preparing for the next series of cascading crises?

Several emergency relief funds have been established to address the impact of COVID-19, such as the Rapid Credit Facility, the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, and the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).

However, these efforts are not likely to unlock the existing “trilemma” of solving the health plus economic crisis and meeting development targets while dealing with a tightening fiscal space. This is because they are stuck in the present circumstances with no consciousness of how much the challenge is likely to prevail into the future.

East African Community governments, in this time, failed to mobilize sufficient revenue, despite an overall increase in taxes.

Adopting fiscal democracy not only provides a new agenda determining organizing principles, but it has the potential for establishing a new citizenship through further entrenchment of human rights-based approaches in economic justice, and commitment to open government principles.

It will also anticipate and prevent the disaster capitalism witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many African countries seem to be in a constant state of crisis, thus allowing for IFFs through PFM malfeasance that locks corruption and fraud into procurement through bid rigging or collusion.

Principals of public participation, demands for accountability, championing non-discrimination, advocacy for empowering programing, and legitimacy through the rule of law should set standards on beneficial ownership while open contracting, open data for development, legislative openness, improving service delivery, access to information, and access to justice will help build resilience in government.

A call to civic education: Revenue rights and obligations

Somewhere along the way, capacity building and training programming took prominence over civic education. Advocacy efforts should look for ways to bring back more popular public awareness. Denial of resources for these kinds of activities has been a major blow for PFM advocacy among other activist efforts.

Civic education will re-establish links between individual claims to service delivery and assigned duties in the fulfilment of public demands. Citizens will be able to identify how the problem manifests and engage on the immediate, underlying or root causes of an issue.

Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable.

It will also allow them to establish the patterns of relationships which may result in the non-fulfilment of rights or absconding of obligations. This will enable them to assign appropriate responsibility by identifying the relevant authorities. It will keep an eye on resources through participating in decision making.

Governments and political leadership should therefore work to improve their communication capabilities in engaging the public so that once this new citizenry is involved, they can work together to achieve representative priorities for action.

This article is based on a presentation and comments made at the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Debt Conference, Towards strengthening accountability and transparency around public debt management and the use of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in Eastern and Southern Africa, 20–21 June 2022, Nairobi, Kenya.

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‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’

Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.

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‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
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Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.

Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.

The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.

Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.

On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.

Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.

Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.

This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.

Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.

It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.

At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.

A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.

More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.

Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.

Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.

Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?

***

The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.

Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.

“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.

A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.

At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.

None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.

***

The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.

My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.

Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.

In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.

Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.

A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.

***

As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?

None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.

To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?

Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.

For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.

Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).

What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.

Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.

Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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