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8-4-4 AND ITS AFTERMATH: Is the new CBC system a solution to Kenya’s education crisis?

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8-4-4 AND ITS AFTERMATH: Is the new CBC system a solution to Kenya’s education crisis?
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In early 2005, I went to see Geoffrey Griffin, the director of Starehe Boys Centre, just before he died in June of that same year. We discussed many things, among them the 8-4-4 education system. “The fact of the matter is that there is intrinsically nothing wrong with the 8-4-4 system,” Griffin told me then. By the time of his death, he had overseen the system at the centre for 20 years. “The 8-4-4 students that Starehe has produced since its inception in 1985 are just as good and as vigorous as the students of the previous (7-4-2-3) system,” said Griffin, who explained that the system was based on a Canadian model of education. Even though the 8-4-4 system was supplanted onto a tested system, his students had excelled in it academically and even assumed professional jobs – locally and abroad – in which they had also excelled. “The system had fitted just well,” said Griffin.

Griffin, who maintained an annual tradition of taking a select number of Starehe students to study in universities abroad, said he had continued with this tradition. even with the onset of the 8-4-4 system. “In the beginning, I closely monitored their progress because I was interested in finding out how they were fairing compared to their predecessors, who had gone through the previous system and who I had been always confident they would have no problems pursuing further studies in top universities abroad,” said Griffin. “I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that my 8-4-4-students coped well and still stood out.” Throughout his leadership at Starehe, Griffin sent scores of his students to Ivy League universities in the United States and the Russell Group of universities in the United Kingdom.

“The 7-4-2-3 system was good because it separated the wheat from the chaff from early on and allowed students to identify their specialisation. It also helped them to gradually mature as students as they developed and gained analytical and comprehensive skills.”

We spoke during an entire afternoon in his office and by the time I was leaving the school I gathered that even though Griffin had embraced the 8-4-4 system wholeheartedly, he was nostalgic about his beloved 7-4-2-3 system. “The 7-4-2-3 system was good because it separated the wheat from the chaff from early on and allowed students to identify their specialisation. It also helped them to gradually mature as students as they developed and gained analytical and comprehensive skills.” Had it been his choice, it is unlikely he would have changed the system he had been used to. “In considering the merits and demerits of the 8-4-4 system,” said Griffin, as he rounded up our discussion, “you must always remember that the system began because of politics.”

WATCH: EDUCATION IN CRISIS: An insiders perspective

Exactly two years ago, on April 3, 2016, former President Daniel arap Moi was presiding over a thanksgiving day at Sunshine Secondary School in Langata, Nairobi, one of the high schools started by him. The school’s prize giving day gave him the platform he needed to tell off the government’s impending plans to do away with the 8-4-4 education system. Moi said the system had served Kenyans well and had proved itself as an education system whose students had gone on to doing well in both local and international universities. “The students brought up under the 8-4-4 are excelling…who’s that telling us that we got it wrong?” Moi asked the parents rhetorically.

Five years earlier, on August 1, 2011, while presiding over an Anglican Church of Kenya fund-raising event in Voi, Taita-Taveta County, Moi cautioned the government against scrapping the 8-4-4 system. He told the churchgoers that 8-4-4 was the best education system so far that had served Kenyans well, and therefore, there was no “urgent need” to change it. Every time Moi has smelt a whiff of change in the 8-4-4 system, he has always vehemently and vociferously opposed the idea. It has become his personal crusade.

Beneath Moi’s vigorous protection of the 8-4-4 system is a political decision that nobody dares to talk about openly. The educationists and education specialists I have spoken to over the years have always, in private, agreed that the 8-4-4 system was more of a reaction to a prevailing political situation and less an answer to a seemingly “faltering” education system that needed to be fixed.

The 8-4-4 education system was ostensibly started with the sole intention of making education in Kenya more amenable to vocational training. Then, as now, the government of the day did not prepare and train the teachers (the core implementers) in the system adequately. Hence, the 8-4-4 system never really achieved it primary objective – that of producing and training more technical-oriented graduates.

In his defence of the 8-4-4 system, Moi no longer speaks of these (noble) intentions. He invariably talks of how the system has (remained) competitive to the extent that 8-4-4 system students are “accepted by even the best universities” worldwide. The technical/vocational training that Moi had said would prepare the students to be self-driven and self-sufficient is no longer talked about – because it has always been non-existent.

Beneath Moi’s vigorous protection of the 8-4-4 system is a political decision that nobody dares to talk about openly. The educationists and education specialists I have spoken to over the years have always, in private, agreed that the 8-4-4 system was more of a reaction to a prevailing political situation, and less an answer to a seemingly “faltering” education system that needed to be fixed.

Academic versus creative learning

Fast forward to a dozen years later. It seems to me that both parents and teachers are at a crossroads concerning the 8-4-4 system. In the years since talking to Griffin, 8-4-4 has been beset by massive exam cheating. There is unprecedented corruption in the education sector. Rich parents have been gradually removing and shuffling their children from public and private schools that teach the 8-4-4 system to schools teaching international curricula, convinced that schools offering 8-4-4 are not giving them value for their money. This has been accompanied by a rapid commercialisation of the education sector.

Faith Wambugu’s two children used to attend a private primary school that taught 8-4-4 until a year ago when she transferred them to a private school teaching the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) Cambridge syllabus. “For a while I had been agonising about whether my children should continue with the 8-4-4 system,” Wambugu, who is from Nakuru town, said to me recently. “When I found a suitable school with an internationally tried and tested educational system in Nakuru, I did not look back.” I asked Wambugu why she was dissatisfied with 8-4-4 system. “The system does not build confidence and impart skills to children; it is too focused on book learning and that this is not what I wanted for my children,” said the mother of two, who herself went through the 8-4-4 system.

“I want a system that does not only concentrate on academics, but one that also recognises other talents, such as music and drawing.” She said that the 8-4-4 system is straightjacketed and does not bring out the hidden creative potential that a child might possess.” The introduction of the new Competence Based Curriculum (CBC) system that is to replace 8-4-4 equally does not give her confidence that it is the best system for her children. “I do not have a problem with the CBC system per se, but is the government ready to roll out the system? I was worried my children would be caught up in an experimental project and I was not ready for that.”

As a middle-aged Kenyan Asian woman who has been through the previous GCE public education system told me, “Whereas before one could be sitting in class with your maid’s daughter, today students in schools are all from the same income group, which has created another kind of elitism and racial segregation.”

Although Calisto Ogutu is yet to remove his two children from the 8-4-4 system, he has already identified the school he wants them to attend. “I will be removing my children from the system,” said Ogutu, whose children go a well-regarded public primary school in a rich suburb in Nairobi. “I have had to wait for my children to be interviewed since last year because the waiting list is long.” The private school in Nairobi County that he wants his children to attend teaches the (General Certificate of Education (GCE) system. “I have done my due diligence and I am persuaded that this is the system that will serve my children’s educational needs.”

Ogutu faults the 8-4-4 system’s teachers for having a limited understanding of how to nurture talent and creative minds. “All what these teachers do is bombard the children with bombastic theoretical knowledge that cannot be of any help in the 21st century.” Ogutu said he wanted a school where his daughter will learn art and craft and be encouraged to learn a musical instrument. According to Ogutu, the 8-4-4 system produces students who are boring and cannot think on their own or on their feet. “The 8-4-4 system presumes that one can only succeed in life if one becomes a doctor, an economist or a lawyer. Yet if the quality of current professionals produced by the system in the last 20 years or so is anything to go, we have a long way to go as a country.”

The issue of an academic curriculum versus creative and exploratory learning was starkly brought home to me by Flora Muthoni, who narrated to me the story of her son who used to attend a well-known and expensive private primary school in Nairobi that teaches the 8-4-4 system. “Some time in 2016, I received a report card from my son’s class teacher that made me ponder over it for a long time,” said Muthoni. The report form said in part: “Your son is always doodling and twiddling under the desk when I am teaching. His concentration is poor. If only he could pay attention in class, his marks would improve.”

“That report card was my wake up call,” said Muthoni. “Ordinarily a rash parent would have set upon the son with tough talk about how it is important to pay attention in class when the teacher is in front teaching. But I decided to approach the matter differently.” Muthoni said she sought to find out from her son what interested him most in his life and what he would like to study in school. She found out that her 12-year-old son enjoyed drawing and painting. “I decided to look for a school that would encourage him to tap into his interest in the creative arts. After shopping around and asking colleagues and friends, I found a school that I thought would tackle my son’s ‘doodling and twiddling’ problem.”

The new Nairobi-based international school that teaches the International Baccalaureate (IB) system that Muthoni found for her son was a dream come true. “My son no longer doodles, he draws and paints without being afraid that he will be chastised,” said Muthoni. “I could not believe my eyes when during the school’s open day, my son’s two paintings were exhibited for all parents, teachers and visitors to see.”

Be that as it may, it was the deliberate and systematic neglect of public primary and secondary schools, beginning in the mid-1980s, that led to the rise of the so-called academies and private schools. This “apparent neglect” created a void for “educational private developers” to commercialise education by building “centres of educational excellence and wellsprings of education”. In essence, we created a class of educational entrepreneurs, whose primary motive was profit, all in the name of providing “special and quality education”.

The cumulative net effect of this privatisation of education was the creation of “class education” that dichotomised and segregated schools – an apartheid-like separation that pitted moneyed parents against less-moneyed parents. This is in sharp contrast to the previous system that was more egalitarian and merit-based, and which offered quality education to all, irrespective of financial capabilities and social status. As a middle-aged Kenyan Asian woman who has been through the previous GCE public education system told me, “Whereas before one could be sitting in class with your maid’s daughter, today students in schools are all from the same income group, which has created another kind of elitism and racial segregation.”

The teacher, who has taught the 8-4-4 system for 25 years, said that the government decided to introduce CBC without properly acquainting the teachers with the system beforehand. “It looks like the government is in a hurry to implement the system – for whatever reason.”

As some parents who have had their children go to school in these private schools told me, some of these private schools are over-rated and over-priced for nothing: They neither offer “private” education in its strictest sense nor quality education. It is about the bottom line – they are businesses that have invested in education to reap profits for shareholders.

It is no wonder that some rich parents, after sending their children to expensive private primary schools, will do anything to wean their children off private education to join national public high schools. A paradox, but one that explains the commodification of the education system in Kenya. Public high schools, such as Alliance Boys and Girls Schools (aka Bush Boys and Bush Girls), Kenya High (aka Boma), Lenana Boys (aka Changes), Limuru Girls (aka Chox), Mangu Boys, Nairobi School (aka Patch), Maseno School (the only national school on the Equator), Moi Girls Eldoret (former Highlands School), Moi Nairobi Girls and Catholic-sponsored schools, such as Loreto Convent Girls, St. Mary’s, Precious Blood, Riruta, Bishop Gatimu Girls School (formerly Ngandu Girls) and Strathmore School remain to date star attractions for parents, who value high schools imbued with a sense of missionary and civic philosophy.

Luis Franceschi, the Dean of the School of Law at Strathmore University in Nairobi, says that over time he has been observing differences in his Bachelors of Law (LLB) students. “I can outright tell which students underwent the 8-4-4 system and those that went through international systems such IB, IGCSE and GCE,” says the Dean. “The students who have gone through international systems are confident, open-minded, better in analytical skills and research methodology. The students who have gone through 8-4-4, even though not lacking in knowledge, tend to be inward-looking and are not adventurous.”

Franceschi’s sentiments are echoed by a University of Nairobi don who says that today’s 8-4-4 system students arrive at the university expecting that their lecturers and professors will provide them with photocopied lecture notes. “They lack the simplest of analytical and conceptual skills. They are not imaginative. It is not them to blame, it is the system that they have been made to go through,” said the university don.

Brian Gitonga, a software engineer working for Google in Dublin, Ireland – one of only two African engineers at the firm (the other is a Nigerian) out of a total work force of 4,000 engineers working at the Google’s headquarters – told me that the 8-4-4 education system does not bring out creativity and imagination in a student, neither does it encourage the student to think outside the box. Recently in Nairobi, partly on home leave and partly to scout for talented Kenyan engineers, Gitonga told me that it was saddening that the graduate engineers he had a chat with “could not even in the widest margin qualify to work for Google”. And it is not because they make for poor engineers (there is a lot to be said about the teaching in the engineering institutions in Kenya, said Gitonga); it is because the graduate engineers have gone through an education system that teaches them to duplicate knowledge and material, instead of encouraging them to be exploratory and innovative.

CBC: What is it and why now?

The nervousness then shown by parents over the pending introduction of the new Competence Based Curriculum (CBC) that is meant to replace the much debated and doubted 8-4-4-system should therefore be seen in the context of parents being conflicted about what is the best system that will address their children’s educational needs in contemporary Kenya’s 21st century needs. To this end, I sought the views of teachers who will be central in ensuring that the new system is properly integrated and correctly implemented.

The greatest tragedy in this country is that we have left politicians and non-educational experts to experiment with our children’s education. “The only people who seem to know about CBC are ministry bureaucrats,” said Ms Achieng. “Who is supposed to be best equipped with CBC knowledge – ministry desk officials or teachers who are out there with pupils?”

“Parents, as well as us teachers, do not understand the new educational system,” says Mercy Mbai, a public high school Chemistry and Biology teacher in Kiambu County. “We are yet to be properly inducted and as it is currently many teachers are groping in the dark. We are learning as we go by.” The teacher, who has taught the 8-4-4 system for 25 years, said that the government decided to introduce CBC without properly acquainting the teachers with the system beforehand. “It looks like the government is in a hurry to implement the system – for whatever reason. Why wouldn’t the government take time to first acquaint the teachers with the new system, since they are the implementers?” Ms Mbai said she was slated to go for training in the CBC system in the coming weeks. “We are being trained on the job, we are learning the ropes as we go along.”

The CBC system, as I vaguely understand it, ought to be a practical and workable educational system, one that is able to tap talents and redirect the students to their special areas of interest, be it academics, creative arts, sports or vocational training. However, it is not clear why this new system was introduced at this particular time, and without much prior consultation with the main stakeholders (head teachers, teachers, parents and students).

“As a teacher who has taught the 8-4-4 system for many years, I have pondered over several questions,” said Ms Mbai. “Why did the government find it fit to change the system? What is wrong with it? If there is something wrong with 8-4-4, have we first tried to rectify the problem? CBC sounds great on paper, but if, as we are being told, it is supposed to identify gifts and talents among the students, do our we have the necessary resources and infrastructure to facilitate the new system?”

The science teacher told me that the country could be rushing into adopting an educational system that might, in the long run, come a cropper. “As a student myself, I went through the 7-4-2-3 educational system. It was an educational system well-suited to most students of our time. Why? Because it allowed students, once they were in secondary school, to select subjects that they enjoyed and that they would eventually peg their future careers on. The system was a good sieve.”

For those who did not go beyond GCE “O” level studies or who did not qualify to go to university, there were tertiary and vocational institutions that could absorb them, said the teacher. These institutions included teacher training colleges for primary and secondary school teachers that awarded certificates and diplomas and technical-oriented institutions, such as the polytechnics and vocational training institutes.

Some of the better known primary teacher training institutions included Thogoto and Shanzu teachers colleges in Kiambu and Mombasa counties. The best science teachers’ colleges were Kagumo and Kenya Science Teachers College (KSTC) in Nyeri and Nairobi counties. Kenya Polytechnic, Mombasa Polytechnic, Eldoret Polytechnic, Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology and Kenya Technical Teachers College trained some of the best middle cadre technical personnel that this country has ever produced. So what happened to these great institutions? “They were all converted to universities,” lamented Ms Mbai.

Victoria Achieng, a primary school teacher of many years, posed the same questions that Ms Mbai is grappling with: Why does the government seem to be in a rush to implement this new system? Have they (the state bureaucrats) told us (parents, teachers and all the people involved in education matters) what precisely is wrong with 8-4-4? Is the infrastructure ready and in place to roll out CBC? Have teachers been properly trained to teach the new curriculum? Do the current crop of teachers have the necessary skills to identify and scout for talent?

Ms Achieng told me that teachers have been “trained” for only three weeks and with that they are expected to fully comprehend the details of what they are supposed to teach. “I will tell you for free that many teachers – and head teachers – do not know, much less understand, what CBC is.”

Can the new system work in Kenya?

The greatest tragedy in this country is that we have left politicians and non-educational experts to experiment with our children’s education. “The only people who seem to know about CBC are ministry bureaucrats,” said Ms Achieng. “Who is supposed to be best equipped with CBC knowledge – ministry desk officials or teachers who are out there with the pupils?”

Ms Achieng said that ministry officials keep on assuring the teachers that they will acquaint them with all the necessary information and skills. “It is as if they are on a trial-and-error policy. Is the government piloting the students?” The teacher was categorical about what she thought about CBC: “It is a system that had been tried elsewhere and worked, no doubt, but it is not the panacea to our current educational crises.”

CBC’s advocates believe that the system will see increased success in many companies’ performance. This is pegged on the fact that CBC is not exam-oriented and, therefore, “students will no longer only be interested in passing exams, but also in nurturing the required skills in their field of specialisation”.

The Competence Based Curriculum (CBC), is an educational model used in countries such as Australia and the Scandinavian countries like Finland. It is supposed to be implemented right from pre-primary level – PP1 to PP2, then progresses to Grade I, II, III, which signals the end of lower primary schooling. Grades IV, V and VI end primary schooling. Primary schooling is followed by three years of senior school that comprise grade VII to Form 1. This is followed by another three years of learning from Form 2 to Form 4, and finally three years of tertiary and higher learning.

According to CBC proponents, the 2-3-3-3-3-3, or for some 2-6-3-3-3 system, is transformational and is supposed to evolve a new educational methodology that taps into the students’ creative juices. The system, its architects opine, will be skills-oriented rather than exam-oriented. Students will able to acquire all-round skills, ranging from sports to academics. The students will be judged on how they display their skills, not on whether they pass exams. They further argues that the system will allow specialisation for students. While at senior secondary, students will go for the subjects they are best suited for. It will allow students to excel because they will only select their areas of interest.

Ministry officials seem convinced that CBC will curtail cheating in national examinations. They argue that since national exams will be scrapped, schools will not be tempted to engage in exam cheating as they will no longer be competing against each other. Proponents of the new system are also convinced that students will now have room to express their talents and abilities. They point to the fact that the current system had totally neglected non-academic subjects, with teachers spending all their valuable time pushing students to cram for exams.

CBC’s advocates believe that the system will see increased success in many companies’ performance. This is pegged on the fact that CBC is not exam-oriented and, therefore, “students will no longer only be interested in passing exams, but also in nurturing the required skills in their field of specialisation”. Here is a summary of what the benefits of CBC are supposed to yield: focus on competencies, flexibility that creates room for specialisation, balanced and fair assessment of excellence, emphasis on education and learning.

We will just have to wait and see if the system will create a new breed of creatives and entrepreneurs who will propel Kenya into the 21st century. Let us hope that like the much-maligned 8-4-4 system, CBC will not be replaced with yet another system because it did not produce the desired results. Kenya, after all, is not Finland, where the government backs its policies with the needed infrastructure, training and budgetary allocations, and where the teacher-student ratio is one where teachers are able to not just spot talent, but nurture it as well.

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Politics

The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration

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

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

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

Contextualizing the information disorder on social media

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

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

Addressing the information disorder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building in sustainability 

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

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The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1 – National Debt to GDP Ratio

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A call to civic education: Revenue rights and obligations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’

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

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Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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