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THE CALL OF THE CLAN: Challenges facing Somalia’s fledgling democracy

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THE CALL OF THE CLAN: Challenges facing Somalia’s fledgling democracy
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Somaliland’s 2017 elections, which were generally hailed as successful, have prompted some to wonder whether the democracy model used in this self-declared independent state could be exported to Somalia. With its hybrid system of tri-party democracy and traditional clan-based governance, Somaliland could, in fact, be held up as an example that could work in societies that are deeply divided along clan lines. While clan, tribe, ethnicity, race or religion should ideally not form the basis of a democratic state, given the protracted conflict in Somalia, there are some elements of the Somaliland model that might just work in Somalia.

Somaliland has adopted a unique hybrid system of governance, which incorporates elements of traditional customary law (known as xeer), Sharia law and modern secular institutions, including a parliament, a judiciary, an army and a police force. The Guurti, the upper house of Somaliland’s legislature, comprises traditional clan elders, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from various professions who are selected by their respective clans. The Guurti wields enormous decision-making powers and is considered one of the stabilising factors in Somaliland’s inclusive governance model.

Michael Walls, the author of A Somali Nation-State: History, Culture and Somaliland’s Political Transition, has described Somaliland’s governance model as “the first indigenous modern African form of government” that fuses traditional forms of organisation with those of representative democracy. According to Walls, Somaliland “represents a strong counter-argument to the preoccupation with state failure and corrective external intervention, while also holding out the hope that an accommodation is possible between the discursive politics of tradition and a representative system more suited to the Westphalian state.”

However, Somaliland’s governance model is far from perfect: the consensual clan-based politics has hindered issue-based politics, eroded individual rights and led to the perception that some clans, such as the dominant Isaaq clan, are favoured over others. Tensions across its eastern border with Puntland also threaten the future stability of this former protectorate that opted to became part of Somalia following independence from the British in 1960 and then declared independence from Somalia in 1991.

In addition, because it is still not recognised internationally as a sovereign state, Somaliland is denied many of the opportunities that come with statehood. It cannot, for instance, enter into bilateral agreements with other countries, get multinational companies to invest there or obtain loans from international banks. (Some argue that this lack of official recognition may actually be a blessing as Somaliland is spared the arm-twisting and conditionalities of donors and international financial institutions, plus the exploitation of its resources by predatory foreigners, a phenomenon that has plagued so many African countries.)

Nonetheless there has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, can be exported to its southern neighbour. What type of governance system is most suitable for Somalia, which is not just divided along clan/regional lines, but where political/militant Islam and lack of functioning secular institutions threaten nation-building?

The perils of federalism

Federalism, that is, regional autonomy within a single political system, has been proposed by the international community as the most suitable system for Somalia as it caters for deep clan divisions by allocating the major clans semi-autonomous regional territories. The 4.5 formula for federal states proposed by the new constitution, which is based on the four largest clan groups (Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyne), and (0.5) minorities does acknowledge the reality of a clan-based society, but as Somalia’s recent history has shown, clan can be, and has been, manipulated for personal gain by politicians. (The 4.5 formula is itself contentious as some Somalis claim that the Isaaqs, who are dominant in Somaliland in the northwest of the country, are part of the Dir family of clans, while Isaaqs claim that they are a separate clan.)

As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is a danger that the new federal states will mimic the dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict. “As new lines are drawn on the map, new opportunities for clan, business and political networks to capture State resources have emerged,” stated the 2015 UN Monitoring Group Report on Somalia.

Besides, the various federal states that have emerged in Somalia under the new constitution are beginning to look like clan enclaves that are disconnected from the centre, and which actually work to undermine the national government in Mogadishu. Fears that entrenched clan interests will dominate the future political landscape in Somalia have generated heated debates about whether a unitary system is more suited to a country that is so divided along clan lines and where minority groups have been denied a say in national politics for decades.

As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is a danger that the new federal states will mimic the dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict.

The bitter reality, however, is that the majority of Somalia’s people have not experienced the benefits of a functional central or decentralised government for nearly thirty years; the concept of a state that provides services and protects the citizens is unknown to the majority of the country’s youthful population, especially those in remote areas who are governed by customary law or the Sharia. In fact, it has been argued that with its strict codes and control over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab is the only form of “governance” the majority of Somalis have known since Somalia collapsed and descended into civil war in 1991.

This means that even when Amisom forces liberate regions from the clutches of Al Shabaab, they essentially leave behind a power vacuum which neither the Federal Government of Somalia nor the emerging regional administrations can successfully fill. This has made these regions more prone to clan-based conflicts, which area are already apparent in Jubaland, where some members of the marginalised Bantu/Wagosha minority group have taken up arms in response to what they perceive to be a form of “ethnic cleansing” by both Al Shabaab and the new Ogaden-dominated administration of Ahmed Madobe.

Moreover, as the Qatar-based Somali scholar Afyare Elmi argues, in a country that suffers from a “trust deficit”, and which has experienced dictatorship, people do not want to risk having the kind of highly centralised government that was prevalent during Siad Barre’s regime. He proposes a “decentralised unitary system”, rather than what he calls the “clan-federalism” proposed and supported by the international community. In this system, sovereignty and constitutional powers would remain within the central government, while administrative, political and fiscal powers would devolve to different entities and regions. This would lead to a “de-concentration of authority” that is more responsive to local needs. (However, to accommodate this governance model, the constitution would need to be changed.)

In 1999, the Somalia expert Matt Bryden predicted that the “building block approach” – first proposed in 1998 by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – whereby the country would be divided into six “local administrative structures”, would eventually “resemble a patchwork of semi-autonomous territories defined in whole or in part by clan affiliation”: the Isaaq clan would dominate Somaliland in the northwest; the Majerteen in Puntland would dominate the northeast; the Jubaland and Gedo regions bordering Kenya would have a mixture of clans (though there are now fears that the Ogaden, who are politically influential along the Kenya-Somalia border, would eventually control the region); a Hawiye-dominated polity would dominate central Somalia; the Digil-Mirifle would centre around Bay and Bakool; and Mogadishu would remain a cosmopolitan administrative centre.

The bigger question, which no one has yet been willing to honestly confront is: Why should clan determine how Somalia is federated? How can Somalia emerge as a strong and united nation if clan forms the basis of state- and institution-building? How can Somalis convincingly argue that neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya are supporting clan-based regional entities within Somalia when Somalis themselves implicitly support the creation of these entities based on clan domination? How can democracy advance in a country held back by parochial clan or individual interests?

There has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, can be exported to its southern neighbour.

Some analysts argue that the proposed federalism will eventually lead to the balkanization of Somalia as clan-based fiefdoms start competing for more resources and territories. Other critics, such as the Somali scholar Abdi Samatar, have argued that federalism will lead to “institutionalised discrimination” against minority clans and groups, which would undermine national unity, citizenship and meritocracy.

There is also a concern that the larger (armed) clans could manipulate the system, entrench corruption and pursue their elites’ agendas at the expense of the Somali people. One of the biggest dangers of an exclusionary political system is that rent-seeking and the grabbing of the spoils of war that have dominated Somali politics for decades may be replicated at the federal state level.

A game of musical chairs

Much of the UN-supported transitional governance period was devoted to drafting a new constitution that would set the parameters for statehood and citizenship. However, Somalia’s UN-supported constitution-making process faced resistance, even before it was adopted in 2012, mainly because it was viewed by many as inconsistent, incoherent and difficult to implement.

Some say the constitution tries to unsuccessfully merge Sharia laws with democratic principles. For instance, the constitution precludes the prospect of religious freedom and tolerance in Article 2, which categorically states that “Islam is the religion of the state”, that “no religion other than Islam can be propagated in the country” and that “no law can be enacted that is not compliant with the general principles and objectives of Shari’ah”. (Somalia’s Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Abdurahman Hosh Jibril, told me that the insertion of this article in an otherwise secular constitution was a strategy to “buy in” the support of Islamic religious institutions, which had to be accommodated if the constitution-building process was to be a success.)

Moreover, while the constitution recognises the president as the symbol of ultimate government authority, his relationship with his prime minister, who selects the cabinet, is not clearly defined. In-fighting in all of Somalia’s transitional and post-transitional governments has led to the resignation or removal of several prime ministers and ministers, which has undermined governance. The general high turnover of ministers and public officials, both within the transitional and post-transitional governments, has led to other problems; with so many different prime ministers and ministers rotating, it is difficult to carry out long-term economic development plans or to ensure accountability. This has allowed opportunities for corruption.

Corruption within the government is partly due to the fact that the brief tenures of most presidents, prime ministers, ministers and senior government officials encourage them to make money through corrupt means in the shortest period of time. They enter public service with a “here today, gone tomorrow” attitude, which makes long-term planning difficult, and severely diminishes the government’s ability to be transparent about its finances, including donor funding. Critics have also noted that political leadership in Somalia is like a game of musical chairs; ministers who are sacked are often re-appointed in another ministry shortly afterwards, which makes the gravy train of corruption harder to track or derail.

In addition, unlike Somaliland, Somalia has been unable to hold a one-person-one vote election both during its transitional phase (2004-2012) and in its post-transitional period since 2012, mainly because the country is not yet equipped to carry out such an election, given the countless challenges facing the country, including lack of a voter registration system and insecurity.

Critics have also noted that political leadership in Somalia is like a game of musical chairs; ministers who are sacked are often re-appointed in another ministry shortly afterwards, which makes the gravy train of corruption harder to track or derail.

Elections in Somalia are also usually marred by vote buying, intimidation and violence. Prior to the 2017 election, for example, a Somali official claimed that the more than 14,000 so-called “Electoral College” delegates who were voting for members of parliament were voting for the highest bidder; votes were apparently being bought for between $5000 and $30,000 each. The election of Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo last year raised hopes that he would succeed in eradicating both clannishness and corruption within government, but these hopes are increasingly being dashed by in-fighting and myriad other challenges.

The Italian connection

Some say that Somalia will take years before it has a functioning government because the country has little experience in representative democracy and because recent attempts to revive a democratic culture are coming a little too late. Many blame Italy, Somalia’s colonizer, for failing to leave a legacy of functioning governance structures and institutions in its Somali colony.

Very little is known about the Italian colonial period in Africa because the Italian government restricted access to colonial records for most of the post-Second World War period, which led to a widely circulated myth that Italian colonisation of Eritrea in 1890, of Somalia in 1908 and of Libya in 1912 was much more gentle and inclusive than the colonisation of Africa by Britain, France, Belgium or Portugal.

Some historians believe that Italy’s fascist doctrines of colonial racism, its emphasis on prestige (rather than on institution-building) in both the liberal and Fascist eras, and the country’s lack of experience in colonial administration, led the Italians to adopt anti-assimilationist policies in their colonies that forestalled the formation of an educated labour force that could take over the reins of power once the colonialists left.

Italy’s intentions in Somalia were to create a settlers’ colony, which were in sharp contrast to Britain’s intentions in Somaliland, which were to protect the vital sea trade routes in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and not to settle as such. Thus in the south, “Italians pursued a policy of social engineering, including an education system and missionary work intended to prepare the territory for Italian settlement”, rather than a policy of “civilising” and training the colonised people who could be relied on to provide skilled labour to the colonial project. Although many of Italy’s Somali subjects learnt to speak Italian, formal teaching of Italian, and indeed all schooling, was very limited, unlike in neighbouring Kenya, also a settlers’ colony, where the colonial project was accompanied by – and indeed, propped up by – the many missionary and other schools that were set up to educate not just the white settlers’ children, but also the “natives”, who were expected to become future colonial administrators.

Some historians believe that Italy’s fascist doctrines of colonial racism, its emphasis on prestige (rather than on institution-building) in both the liberal and Fascist eras, and the country’s lack of experience in colonial administration led the Italians to adopt anti-assimilationist policies in their colonies that forestalled the formation of an educated labour force that could take over the reins of power once the colonialists left.

Under Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, Somalia was governed by a fascist colonial government that failed to install democratic structures and institutions that would carry the country forward to independence. Italy’s rule over Somalia was also disrupted after World War Two when Somalia became a UN-administered trusteeship. After Italy lost the Second World War, the Italian colonisers were replaced by a British military administration. In 1950, Britain transferred authority over what was known as the Trust Territory of Somalia back to Italy. However, because Italy’s colonies in Africa were seized by other European powers after the Second World War, they did not undergo a successful “decolonisation” process that would entail a smooth transfer of power to local elites and to the establishment of institutions that would govern the newly independent states.

The Siad Barre era and its aftermath

From 1950 till independence in 1960, there were attempts to “Somali-ise” governance. The first municipal elections were held in 1954, where 20 parties competed for 318 seats in 35 councils; 281 of these seats were held by Somalis, 23 by Arabs, 10 by Italians, 3 by Pakistanis and 1 by an Indian.

However, one decade of democratic governance was not enough to prevent Somalia from descending into political turmoil.   Somalia’s relatively peaceful and democratic first ten years after independence were abruptly disrupted by the assassination of President Abdirashid Sharmake in 1969, just two years after he had taken over from the first post-independence president, Adan Abdulle Osman (also known as Adan Adde).

Barely a week later, Siad Barre gained control over Somalia through a bloodless military coup. Barre suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament, banned political parties and nationalised the economy. Parliament was replaced by the Supreme Revolutionary Council, the ultimate decision-making authority in the country.

Although Barre’s “Scientific Socialism” experiment is credited with many progressive reforms, such as the promotion of women’s rights and the introduction of the Latin script for the Somali language, he failed to bring about democracy in Somalia, and is also blamed for pitting clans against each other through favouritism, political patronage and the persecution of certain clans.

In 1977, when Barre ordered his army to invade Ethiopia in a bid to claim the ethnic Somali-dominated Ogaden region in Ethiopia, Soviet-backed Cuban troops marched in to support the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Maryam. The Soviet Union, which had been supporting Barre militarily until then, quickly switched sides, which proved to be a major blow for Barre’s government. (Soviet withdrawal of support to Somalia gave an opportunity to the Unites States to play a more influential role in Somali affairs.)

After losing the Ogaden war, Barre became more hard line and paranoid, and began arresting, torturing and killing his opponents, including the Isaaq in Somaliland who responded to his repressive tactics by declaring independence from Somalia. By the time he was ousted in 1991, the country was fragmented, and no one, not even the Americans, could prevent the mayhem and destruction that followed. This set the stage for Barre’s ouster in 1991 by the United Somali Congress (USC) led by Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi, who, depending on who you ask, are seen as either heroes who liberated Somalia from the clutches of a dictator, or brutal warlords who unleashed violence and lawlessness in the country.

Although Barre’s “Scientific Socialism” experiment is credited with many progressive reforms, such as the promotion of women’s rights and the introduction of the Latin script for the Somali language, he failed to bring about democracy in Somalia, and is also blamed for pitting clans against each other through favouritism, political patronage and the persecution of certain clans.

When a power struggle between Aideed and Mahdi ensued, UN peacekeepers were brought in to stabilise the situation, but they too withdrew after American soldiers were killed in the infamous “Blackhawk Down” incident in October 1993. Lawlessness and anarchy reigned supreme as Somalia returned to what Somali-Canadian commentator Mohamud Uluso calls a “precolonial fragmentation”, where clan warfare and predatory competition over scarce resources (particularly foreign aid) became the norm and where people sought safety in kinship and clan affinity.

After more than a decade of anarchy and increasing religious extremism, a transitional government backed by the United Nations was instituted in 2004. But, as we have seen, even it could not deliver the much-needed peace and stability as it proved to be weak and ineffectual. The ouster of the Islamic Courts Union (a conglomeration of Muslim clerics and businesspeople who were keen to restore security in Somalia and who sought to replace the Transitional Federal Government) by US-backed Ethiopian forces in 2006 made the situation worse; its recalcitrant offspring, the terrorist group Al Shabaab, gained control of most of southern and central Somalia, making governance difficult, if not impossible.

Some argue that state-building efforts in Somalia have been hampered by a “pastoral ethos” characterised by competition, inter-clan rivalry, disdain for authority (except for traditional elders or religious leaders) and a deep mistrust and suspicion of outsiders. In his seminal book A Pastoral Democracy, first published in 1961, I.M. Lewis claimed that Somali society lacked “judicial, administrative, and political procedures which lie at the western conception of government.” While acknowledging the importance of kinship and clan loyalty in the political organisation of traditional Somali society, Lewis was pessimistic about whether these could deliver Western-style democracy to Somalia. In Somalia’s lineage politics, he argued, “the assumption that might is right has overwhelming authority and personal rights…even if they are not obtained by force, can only be defended against usurpation by force of arms”. Are the current clan-based leaders with their own armed militias a manifestation of this thinking, where political power, once obtained, must be secured through the threat of violence?

While acknowledging the importance of kinship and clan loyalty in the political organisation of traditional Somali society, Lewis was pessimistic about whether these could deliver Western-style democracy.

Critics of this “Somali exceptionalism” thesis argue that Lewis and other Western anthropologists fail to recognise that other pastoralist societies have successfully adopted modernisation and democratic forms of government and that by blaming pastoralism for Somalia’s woes is to assume that Somali society is stagnant and incapable of reinventing itself.

Donors and foreign interests

One of the challenges facing Somalia, which the international community is reluctant to admit, is that any government that is put in place in Mogadishu under the current circumstances will remain a puppet government with no real authority and little capacity to carry out governance functions or to provide services. Manipulation of Somali politics by foreign countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and some Arab countries, has hindered the development of a national vision on the way forward and generated suspicion and resentment.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and increasingly Turkey, have been financially supporting various factions and politicians in Somalia for their own political and economic interests. (The recent rift between Qatar and its neighours Saudi Arabia and UAE also spilled over to Somalia, where President Farmajo was expected to take sides.) It has also been claimed that some of these countries have exported religious fundamentalism to Somalia to appease radical factions within their own territories.

Some donors, particularly Turkey, have done a commendable job in rebuilding Somalia’s broken infrastructure and institutions. However, overall, donor support to Somalia has had a mixed record – much of the donated funds have found their way into individual pockets or gone towards supporting the donor countries’ Somalia operations in Nairobi, not in reconstructing Somalia. While security is currently being provided by Amisom forces, this support is also likely to dwindle in the near future.

There is also the issue of vested commercial interests of donor countries, such as Britain, that are keen to exploit Somalia’s largely untapped oil reserves and the United States, whose “war on terror” has Somalia at its epicentre; these interests often play out in the politics of the country. In 1999, Matt Bryden wrote that attempts by foreigners to fix Somalia have ranged from the “mediocre” to the “disastrous”. Some of these attempts, he said, have been sinister, some benign, others simply incompetent, but all have been ultimately unsuccessful.

Donor-dependency is unlikely to diminish as domestic revenue collection remains a challenge. Since the UN-backed transitional government was installed in 2004, no transitional or post-transitional Somali government has had a credible revenue collecting authority or well-functioning ministries. Most Somalis rely on charities (many of which are based in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates) or local entrepreneurs for services such as water provision, healthcare and education. Somalia does not even have a national curriculum for its schools; donor countries supporting schools introduce their own curricula, which had led to the bizarre situation where Somali children are sitting for exams set in Doha, Ankara or Riyadh, not at Somalia’s Ministry of Education.

Oil discoveries have made these foreign interventions more complicated in recent years. There is widespread suspicion that oil looms large in Britain’s dealings with the Somali government, and that the former may be willing to overlook corruption and bad governance in the latter in order to preserve its economic interests. Somaliland and the semi-autonomous Puntland, have already been granting licences to oil companies. Competition over an oil block that stretches across Somaliland and Puntland has increased tensions in these regions. In the absence of agreed-upon legal frameworks, the oil factor is likely to be a source of conflict in Somalia’s oil-producing regions in the near future.

While it is becoming increasingly apparent that foreign interests are to blame for much of the mayhem in Somalia, laying the bulk of the blame on foreigners is unfair and insincere. If the Somali government had used foreign aid and its vast natural resources to rebuild the country and taken it to the next level, Somalia might have emerged from the ashes.

Many people within and outside Somalia also prefer to maintain the status quo because they profit from protracted conflict, informality and the absence of regulations. A strong and well-governed state with in-built checks and balances would threaten their business and personal interests.

What’s worse, none of Somalia’s notorious warlords and corrupt politicians have been made to account for the atrocities and plunder that they carried out. No national or international institution has charged them with any crime. The International Criminal Court, which has vigorously pursued suspects in other African countries, is mute about the crimes against humanity that have been occurring in Somalia for the last three decades. Its silence lends credence to the assertion that the ICC is only interested in selective justice.

Ultimately, the Somali people themselves have to fight for the government they desire. Having experienced only nine years of peaceful democracy from 1960-1969, maybe it is too much to ask Somalia to be fully fledged functioning nation when it barely has the institutions or the resources to run a government, and where clan rivalries and fiefdoms have entrenched a culture of “winner takes all”.

Many people within and outside Somalia also prefer to maintain the status quo because they profit from protracted conflict, informality and the absence of regulations. A strong and well-governed state with in-built checks and balances would threaten their business and personal interests.

Islam could have been a unifying factor in Somalia, but it is unlikely that an entity like the Islamic Courts Union will be allowed to take root again, especially because it would be associated with Al Shabaab (which is generally loathed by the majority of the country’s citizens who blame the group for carrying out attacks that have resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent Somalis in Mogadishu and other places) and also because the United States and its allies will not allow it.

Is the current Western- and internationally-supported political dispensation that is emerging from nearly five decades of dictatorship and anarchy a “fake democracy”? Can Somalia be salvaged through more home-grown solutions, like the ones in Somaliland, which has managed to deliver relative peace and stability to its citizens for almost 30 years? These are the million-dollar questions no one has been able to answer adequately.

Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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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