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The Trouble With South Sudan: A Revolution That Ate Its Own Children

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The highly hyped youngest country in the world has aged so fast that it now lies on the region’s sick bed in the hope that the High-Level Revitalisation Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which convened on February 5th 2018, will salvage something from its nearly five years of civil war.

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THE TROUBLE WITH SOUTH SUDAN: A revolution that ate its own children
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The highly hyped youngest country in the world has aged so fast that it now lies on the region’s sick bed in the hope that the High-Level Revitalisation Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which convened on February 5th 2018, will salvage something from its nearly five years of civil war. “Did South Sudan start to walk prematurely before teething and crawling like other human toddlers, or receiving sufficient and timely immunisation against the post-independence ailments that afflicted most sub-Saharan African countries?” a passer-by asked in astonishment. The truth is that for historic reasons South Sudan does not fit comfortably where it situates politically, economically and diplomatically as a sovereign nation.

“History does not repeat itself”, was Marx’s repudiation of Hegel’s metaphysics: “It occurs as a tragedy, and then a farce.” The Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) successfully midwifed the (1994-2005) peace talks that led to the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The CPA provided the people of southern Sudan the inalienable right to self-determination. When the time for a referendum came on 9 January 2011, the people of southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly (98.3%) for independence and the Republic of South Sudan was born on 9 July 2011. That was the tragedy. Who could imagine that a country that was barely three years-old and that was emerging from twenty-one years of a devastating war of national liberation could get embroiled in another war?

The roots of the civil war locate in the internal political contradictions in the SPLM, which is linked to the failure of the SPLM leaders to address the fundamental issues of socio-economic and cultural backwardness of the people that underpinned the war of national liberation. This is reflected in the abject poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and superstition prevalent in the new nation, which submerge their consciousness and prevents them from correctly gauging their reality.

“Did South Sudan start to walk prematurely before teething and crawling like other human toddlers, or receiving sufficient and timely immunisation against the post-independence ailments that afflicted most sub-Saharan African countries?”

The reasons for South Sudan’s failure are simple: The SPLM leaders spearheaded the war of national liberation without an ideology; they never envisaged or envisioned the state and society they desired and hence lack – or could not marry – the theory and practice of liberation. Moreover, their refusal to politically educate and organise their people entrenched an ethnic-based ideology that expunged progressive thinking among the combatants and the masses of the people. The absence of democratic institutions and instruments of power resulted in the personification, rather than the institutionalisation, of the SPLM’s authority. The linkage between state power and ethnic hubris rolled into an explosive alloy driving the ethnicised power politics.

The internal SPLM contradictions were nothing more than a power struggle within its top echelon. This had been the cause of its splits and internecine fighting since the SPLA/M inception in 1983. These contradictions were not ideological but political in character, revolving around personalities rather than issues. Sometimes they permeated into ethnic and provincial domains where they became violent and susceptible to exploitation by the common enemy feeding into its proxy wars of counterinsurgency.

The death of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, the SPLM Chairman, the SPLA Commander-in- Chief, the first Vice President of the Republic of the Sudan and the President of the Government of Southern Sudan, in a tragic helicopter crash on 30 July 2005 deprived the SPLM and the people of southern Sudan of a moderate voice that could prevent the escalation of internal feuds. The new leadership of South Sudan, comprising two incompatible and uncompromising leaders, quickly sent the people of South Sudan into war. This erupted on 15 December 2013 and continues unabated except for a break following the IGAD-mediated peace agreement on resolution of the conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) in August 2015.

What is the problem?

Many people, especially the so-called international development partners, erroneously believe that the problem is a personal rift between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy in the leadership of the SPLM and the Government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon. This could not be much further from the reality. Although, the two leaders indeed are factors at the secondary and tertiary levels of the contradiction, the fundamental contradiction underpinning the war in South Sudan is the centuries’ old condition of socio-economic and cultural backwardness of its people. Failure to address that fundamental contradiction was the driver of the southern Sudan people’s struggle against the different regimes that came and went in Khartoum since Sudan’s independence in 1956, including the war of national liberation spearheaded by the SPLM/A.

The independence of South Sudan did not change the nature of the contradiction, particularly following the paradigm shift the SPLM leadership undertook from revolution to right-wing neoliberalism in the dying days of the Cold War and the superpower rivalry in the Horn of Africa. The shift transformed the SPLM leaders into an elitist class completely alienated from the masses of the people. This facilitated and accelerated the consummation of the liberal peace agreement with the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum in 2005, giving the SPLM full control of the subnational entity known as the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS). The SPLM leaders had no programme or strategy for managing the unfamiliar ground the CPA lobbed them onto i.e. to run the government and the state.

Many people, especially the so-called international development partners, erroneously believe that the problem is a personal rift between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy in the leadership of the SPLM and the Government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon.

GoSS had an annual budget of between five and six billion US dollars from its share of the oil revenues. However, the SPLM, the dominant and leading political party in GoSS, did not have a programme for addressing the social and economic development of South Sudan. The political, military and burgeoning commercial/business elite that evolved in the context of the war economy plaited into a parasitic capitalist class; parasitic in that it did not command any means of production but derived its wealth consequent to its control of the state and its resources through the agency of corruption and outright theft from state coffers. Instead of providing development and social services, the members of this class dolled themselves in self-aggrandisement that they christened ‘payback time’ in a political patronage system suggesting that the war of national liberation was about nothing but rent-seeking.

The SPLM leaders jettisoned the liberation era pledge to construct a society based on freedom, justice, fraternity and prosperity for all. Thus, corruption, tribalism, nepotism, impunity, insecurity and ethnic conflicts were the characteristic features of the interim period between 9 January 2005 and 9 July 2011 and only the general and genuine desire by the people for the successful implementation of the referendum on self-determination constituted the constraint that prevented an all-out eruption of violence. The political environment was tense and gearing towards a totalitarian dictatorship as President Salva Kiir erected oppressive tools in the SPLM system, exploiting people’s patience as they waited to vote for independence.

A provision in the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan (ICSS, 2005) stated that should the result of the referendum be in favour of independence, the ICSS would become the transitional constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, with amendments relevant to the changed status of South Sudan. Instead of following that provision, President Kiir ordered for the crafting of a completely new constitution that gave him excessive powers, making him an imperial president. Thus, South Sudan became independent on an undemocratic and oppressive transitional constitution in which power was concentrated in the presidency. President Kiir particularly liked the provision that he could fire his deputy, which was done specifically with the incumbent, Machar, in mind. The transitional constitution eroded all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the interim constitution. This marked the beginning of South Sudan’s political troubles.

This development coincided with the upsurge of Dinka (Jieng) ethnic nationalism, with its ideology of hegemony and domination. The Dinka is the single largest nationality in South Sudan. The formation of the Jieng Council of Elders (JCE) – representing the social, economic and political interests of the Dinka people – as a power broker around Kiir’s presidency was part of engineering a totalitarian political dispensation in the young republic. President Kiir used his executive powers in the JCE to paralyse the political functions of the SPLM, shifting power from the SPLM General-Secretariat through the office of the president (OP) to the JCE, which now evolved into a quasi-state institution.

At the economic level, the parasitic capitalist class in control of the state and its resources allied with East Africa’s parasitic and global comprador capitalist class to extract and plunder South Sudan’s natural resources, especially oil, gold and timber. This alliance witnessed massive capital flight from South Sudan to Kenya and Uganda and via these countries to Western financial houses, leaving the country in abject poverty. The South Sudan Pound lost value against foreign currencies from 2.5 to the US dollar in 2011 to 250 in 2018. The negative social and economic indices inspired political protests, demonstrations and opposition to the regime’s oppressive policies in different parts of South Sudan. This raised the political temperatures within the top leadership of the SPLM, fuelling the power struggle between President Kiir and Vice President Machar, which reached a crisis point in July 2013 when the President dismissed his deputy.

IGAD mediation

In an extraordinary assembly of IGAD Heads of State and Government in Nairobi on 27 December 2013, the region decided to intervene to resolve the conflict in South Sudan. Unfortunately, unlike its experience of mediating the conflict between the Sudan and the SPLM, which ushered in the CPA, the region this time round shot itself in the foot. The four countries involved in the mediation (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Sudan) each had their respective national economic, security and political interests in South Sudan. Uganda had the UPDF and Air Forces involved in the war on the side of Kiir’s government. Sudan had its SPLM/A–North and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels operating from South Sudan with the support of Uganda. The Sudan also had its commercial interests as oil from South Sudan still transits through the Sudan to international markets.

The respective security, economic and political interests of these countries created an environment of competition among them and therefore interfered in their collective efforts to resolve the conflict. The regional mediation of the South Sudan conflict was flawed in many aspects. The negotiation modality involved many stakeholders on the principle of inclusivity when only two parties, namely the SPLM in government and the SPLM/A in the opposition, were fighting the war. The mediation advanced the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) before sealing the agreement. This introduced the issue of power sharing, which was like placing the cart before the horse. After sixteen months of intermittent negotiation, there was an Agreement on the Resolution of Crisis in South Sudan (ARCISS), which the SPLM/A (IO) and other parties signed on 17 August, and which Salva Kiir reluctantly signed on 26 August.

At the economic level, the parasitic capitalist class in control of the state and its resources allied with East Africa’s parasitic and global comprador capitalist class to extract and plunder South Sudan’s natural resources, especially oil, gold and timber. This alliance witnessed massive capital flight from South Sudan to Kenya and Uganda and via these countries to Western financial houses, leaving the country in abject poverty.

The agreement provided for power sharing between the SPLM in government (Kiir, 53%), the SPLM/A in the opposition (Machar, 33%), the SPLM political leaders or individual arrested and detained in the wake of the violence on 15 December 2013 (7%) and the other 18 registered political parties (7%). It took eight months before the parties started implementing the peace agreement. This was partly due to the government’s reluctance and intransigence and partly due to the weakness demonstrated by the mediators, the peace guarantors and the international community to bring pressure to bear on President Kiir to enable the operationalisation of ARCISS instruments. The body formed to oversee and supervise the implementation, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) chaired by former Botswana President Festus Mogae, proved ineffective in the face of procrastination, bullying and outright defiance by government functionaries. The transitional government of national unity (TGoNU) was formed on 29 April 2016 before the amended constitution incorporating ARCISS was promulgated, rendering it difficult to operationalise.

In addition to the difficulties President Kiir erected to frustrate TGoNU functions, a rebellion was brewing in Dr. Machar’s party. Taban Deng Gai, who was the SPLM/A (IO)’s chief negotiator, was not pleased that Riek Machar had denied him the petroleum portfolio in the TGoNU. He shifted allegiance to President Kiir in a conspiracy that triggered the fighting in the presidential palace on 8 July 2016, rekindling the war and precipitating the collapse of the TGoNU as well as the ARCISS. President Kiir later appointed Taban Deng Gai as the first vice president in lieu of Dr. Machar. This was a flagrant violation of ARCISS.

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during a visit to Nairobi later in the month, forced the IGAD Council of Ministers to recognise the de facto new situation in South Sudan. The United States had played a pivotal role in the consummation of the CPA and in the conducting of the referendum on self-determination that eventually led to South Sudan’s independence. The region therefore could not effectively intervene to stop the deteriorating humanitarian situation caused by the escalation of the war, which now engulfed the hitherto peaceful areas in Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal consequent to the emergence and proliferation of armed opposition groups. This situation continued until finally in June 2017, the JMEC Chair, Mr. Festus Mogae, finally admitted that ARCISS was fatally disabled and required revitalisation.

Revitalisation of ARCISS

The intricacy of diplomacy renders difficult the interpretation and operationalisation of certain terminologies. In the current context of South Sudan, “the revitalisation of ARCISS” is meaningless as it is not be feasible without Dr. Machar, who has been holed up in South Africa since November 2016 on the advice of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Since the 30-month ARCISS transition period is almost expiring, the IGAD mediators should have started a new peace process involving the newly formed political and armed opposition groups. However, IGAD proceeded with their plan to consult and draw an agenda for the revitalisation of ARCISS. This agenda included a meeting in December 2017 to recommit the parties to the agreement on the cessation of hostilities. The parties signed the agreement on 21 December, but it never came into force because the government started its dry season military offensive to regain the territories under the armed opposition in Equatoria and Jonglei. This caused further humanitarian crises, with people streaming into Ethiopia and Uganda to seek refuge.

The second phase of the revitalisation process commenced on 4 February 2018 and was expected to continue until 16 February. The objectives of this phase are: a) restore the permanent ceasefire; b) achieve full and inclusive implementation of ARCISS; and c) develop a revised and realistic timeline and implementation schedule towards democratic elections at the end of the transitional period.

These are unrealistic objectives. First, the government has demonstrated a complete lack of interest in sharing power with the opposition. Secondly, the mediators have failed to deploy the 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force from Rwanda and Ethiopia that would have provided security for Juba and other major towns. Thirdly, the armed opposition, the SPLM/A (IO), provides no military threat to the government because of an undeclared arms embargo imposed on it and the incarceration of its leader in South Africa. Fourthly, the transitional period that ARCISS provided ends in May 2018, which is the beginning of the rainy season in South Sudan. Even if it was possible to conduct elections during the rainy season, it would be a futile exercise as there are more than four million South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and DR Congo. It would not be possible to bring them back to partake in elections in such a short time. Fifthly, assuming that the high-level revitalisation forum ends in an agreement, a new transitional period must factor in reconciliation and must enable the repatriation and resettlement of refugees.

Even if it was possible to conduct elections during the rainy season, it would be a futile exercise as there are more than four million South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and DR Congo.

The revitalisation process is therefore a tall order in terms of the commitment of the IGAD region, the African Union and other interested parties to enforce the implementation of the resultant agreement. It would also require walking the extra diplomatic and political mile to force President Kiir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to accept the agreement and its implementation in the letter and spirit in which the parties negotiated and agreed to it.

The entire process reeks of liberal peacemaking. The usual shortcoming of liberal peacemaking is that it leaves the regime intact. The superficial reforms it provides rarely impact the character and essence of the regime and end up recreating the conditions for renewed conflict. The 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement between the May regime of Gaafar Nimeri and the South Sudan Liberation Movement of Joseph Lagu created the conditions for the formation of the SPLM/A and the war of national liberation (1983-2005). The CPA created the conditions for the ongoing wars in the Sudan and South Sudan. Other examples exist in Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. Therefore, whatever agreement the interested parties may come up with, the people of South Sudan should receive it with caution.

What then is the solution to the conflict in South Sudan?

A national democratic revolution

The plethora of problems afflicting the people of South Sudan are typical of when a people emerge from a war of national liberation or from colonial bondage. These problems obtained, and even continued to multiply, in South Sudan because the SPLM leaders decided to construct and maintain neocolonial relations with global comprador capitalism in order to perpetuate the system of extraction and plunder of South Sudan’s natural resources. This has left the country bankrupt and in economic meltdown while the people have been pauperised.

The essence of the war of national liberation that the SPLM spearheaded was to develop and free the national productive forces from any kind of foreign interference and domination. In this context, the SPLM hitherto counted as one of the forces of national democratic revolution in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. However, the socio-economic and political developments in South Sudan since 2005 have demonstrated that the SPLM leaders have jettisoned the liberation pledge they made in 1983 and abandoned the path to national democratic revolution.

Until we successfully carry out a national democratic revolution for the social, economic and political development of our people, these problems will endure. We have to complete the national democratic revolution by implementing its programme in the social, economic and political spheres. We must construct a national democratic state that emancipates our people from the poverty, ignorance, political and ideological illiteracy, and superstition, which if left alone, could pop up in different forms: ethnic chauvinism and bigotry; religious, gender and racial discrimination; nepotism and favouritism; electoral fraud; political exclusion; and economic marginalisation and exploitation. These could quickly become the drivers of future conflict.

However, while the conditions and chances for successfully carrying out a revolutionary armed struggle are getting dimmer because of internal and external factors, the masses have at their disposal the option of non-violent means of struggle to win back their basic rights and fundamental freedoms.

Notwithstanding their political weaknesses and lack or organisation, the forces of the national democratic revolution exist in South Sudan in social groups, civil society and community-based organisations, and in the political parties and armed opposition. Some of these are actively participating in daily social and economic struggles and some may be hibernating, waiting for the opportune time. The tools for national democratic revolution range from what already exists now in the form of waging a revolutionary armed struggle, to demonstrations and processions, sit-ins and civil disobedience in towns and cities. We tried these methods successfully before in the popular uprising against the first military government of Ibrahim Abboud and Jaafar Nimeiri’s totalitarian dictatorship in Sudan.

However, while the conditions and chances for successfully carrying out a revolutionary armed struggle are getting dimmer because of internal and external factors, the masses have at their disposal the option of non-violent means of struggle to win back their basic rights and fundamental freedoms. It is imperative to complete the national democratic revolution and the construction of the national democratic state to address social and economic development, as well as the secondary contradictions inherent in the ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural multiplicities of South Sudan. This is necessary whether or not the IGAD-led revitalisation of ARCISS succeeds in forcing the parties – through diplomatic arm-twisting by development partners – to agree to a power-sharing timeline and some reforms in the system.

In conclusion, the people of South Sudan are in such a dire social, economic and humanitarian situation that there is no time to waste in sterile debates about power-sharing and reforms of a system that has become, as Dr. Garang used to say of the government in Khartoum, “too deformed to be reformed”. It is about time the patriotic democratic social and political forces pulled together to salvage the country and its people.

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Peter Adwok Nyaba trained as a geologist and lectured in Juba and Asmara Universities. He is a trade unionist, an activist, a former commander in the SPLA, a Noma Award (1998) winner and a former minister in the Government of the Republic of Sudan and the Government of the Republic of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the SPLM in Opposition.

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

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

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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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