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REFORMERS vs. THE STATUS QUO: Is it possible to have free and fair polls?

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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.

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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

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

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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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