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LOSING MY RELIGION: The cross, the lynching tree and Kenya’s post-colonial enterprise

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LOSING MY RELIGION: The cross, the lynching tree and Kenya’s post-colonial enterprise
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“My kingdom is not of this world…” John 18:36

When we were children, our mother took us to St. Andrews Church in Nairobi every Sunday. A grand, cavernous cathedral-style building on the right side of Uhuru Highway, it was there that she and my father had had their wedding ceremony in 1983.

The Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) was founded by Scottish missionaries but would soon be known for what the Kikuyu called mutaratara – a liturgical style of worship that is composed, outwardly decorous and predictable. That was how my mother, Rose Wanjiku, had always done church. She was in charge of our spiritual formation; my father was largely irreligious – I now realise that this is not unusual, and perhaps the norm, in most Kenyan families.

In my teenage years, I met some cool kids who went to Nairobi Pentecostal Church, and I followed them there. The youth fellowship there was nicknamed Fortress, and for a 13-year-old raised to be a dignified mini-adult in church, the unbridled energy and chaotic emotionality of a Pentecostal service was enchanting. I loved Fortress. We had day (and night) concerts, youth camps, picnics and movies. I led praise and worship and preached on occasion. We went on “missions” where we proselytised to strangers, prayed in tongues and we baptised in the Holy Ghost.

My mother was not entirely pleased with my new spiritual commitments. I suspect that they seemed a little too ecstatic to her. She resisted my formation of a whole lifestyle that was outside her supervision or control. I would argue that at least I was spending my time in church, not “out there” like other girls. This would usually placate her.

I spent the rest of my teenage years being highly active “in the ministry” as we called it, both at my boarding school and at Fortress when I was home on vacation. And far from being a drag on my social life, church was actually fun. It was not only a sanctuary but also the place where I grew up, developed my own personality, and made deep and meaningful friendships, some of which remain to this day.

***

The tension between my mother and I was fuelled by teenage resentment and maternal anxieties, but – like our domestic strife – was located in the context of a country whose religious life had always been animated by its relationship with power.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time when Kenya’s Christian institutions were undergoing a profound change, whose effects remain with us today. Purportedly, Kenya is a Christian nation; census data indicates that nearly four in five Kenyans self-identify as Christian.

The tension between my mother and I was fuelled by teenage resentment and maternal anxieties, but – like our domestic strife – was located in the context of a country whose religious life had always been animated by its relationship with power.

The Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches accounted for 70 per cent of Christian congregations in Kenya by the time Daniel arap Moi became Kenya’s second president in 1978. Christianity was a colonial project in most of Africa. The missionaries may have been welcomed in individual communities, but the machinery of the colonial state followed very soon after, enforcing and accelerating the winning of (bodies and) souls.

In England, Lambeth Palace on the south bank of the River Thames is the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Houses of Parliament are less than 400 metres away, on the opposite bank. The British colonisers diligently replicated this spatial intimacy of church and state. In the capital cities of most former British colonies in Africa, the official residence of the Anglican archbishop was next to, or across the street from, the Governor’s Mansion.

In Nairobi, the Anglican archbishop’s residence, even today, is at the T-junction of State House Avenue and State House Road, right across the road from the official residence of the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief.

Because of their colonial roots, the mainstream churches had an uncritical relationship with the government, even after independence when both institutions were “Africanised”. The churches were firmly pro-establishment, preferring to “keep out of politics” and focusing on providing social services.

The Anglican and Presbyterian churches were formally organised under the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). Formed in 1966, NCCK was an umbrella of 37 church organisations affiliated to the Anglican and Presbyterian churches. In 1978 (the year that Moi became president) NCCK was commissioned to undertake a theological study of three words: “peace, love and unity”. Peace, Love and Unity was the slogan underlying President Moi’s new political philosophy of Nyayo, as he called it. But Moi’s regime would end up being anything but peaceful, loving or uniting.

***

Moi was vice president when Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, died in 1978. The constitution directed that the vice president take office upon the death of the president, but in the years that Kenyatta’s health began to fail, politicians close to Mzee had tried to sideline Moi – ostensibly because he lacked the political clout of Kenyatta, and was ethnically Kalenjin, whereas those establishment politicians were mostly Kikuyu.

In fact, that group had tried to change the constitution to block the automatic succession of a president by his deputy. Though they failed in that regard, Moi nevertheless began his tenure with a deep sense of political insecurity.

By 1982 that insecurity had turned into a fully-fledged political crisis. In the early hours of August 1st of that year, a group of Air Force officers commandeered state radio and declared a coup. Within hours, forces loyal to the incumbent president had crushed the coup attempt, but it would be the pivotal point in the downward repressive spiral of the Moi regime, with increasing surveillance, detentions, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment intensifying in the mid- to late 1980s.

The “Peace Love and Unity” study coordinated by David Gitari (who decades later became Kenya’s Anglican archbishop) was intended to provide a theological interpretation of the Nyayo philosophy. The ultimate goal was to get the Nyayo philosophy incorporated in religious education in schools and also among church congregations. The study was published in 1983 as a book called A Christian View of Politics in Kenya: Love, Peace and Unity.

But as the political space became more constricted in the mid-80s, the NCCK became more vocal against the Moi regime. It must be said here that NCCK and the Catholic churches were ethnically disproportionately Kikuyu and Luo. This was possibly for historical reasons, as the early Christian missionaries were most active in areas dominated by Kikuyus and Luos.

The “Peace Love and Unity” study coordinated by David Gitari (who decades later became Kenya’s Anglican archbishop) was intended to provide a theological interpretation of the Nyayo philosophy. The ultimate goal was to get the Nyayo philosophy incorporated in religious education in schools and also among church congregations.

Possibly to counter the rising malcontent, Moi created an alliance with a number of Pentecostal and evangelical congregations who would come together under the Evangelical Fellowship of Kenya (EFK) – and whose ethnic composition happened to be closer to that of Moi and his allies. Congregations, such as the African Inland Church (AIC), the Reformed Church of East Africa, Kenya Assemblies of God and the African Gospel Church were part of this evangelical fellowship; Moi himself was said to be a very religious man, an AIC faithful, whose habit was to wake up at 5am for prayer and reading the Bible.

Because of their closeness to the seat of power, the evangelical churches now came to occupy a privileged place in 1980s and 1990s Kenya.

The position taken by the EFK during that time was one of consoling the State rather than confronting it; the image of the President as “God’s anointed” became a frequent one.

Meanwhile, NCCK and Catholic leaders continued to speak out against government excesses. The most vocal of these leaders were Rev. Timothy Njoya of PCEA (who for a time headed my mother’s congregation at St. Andrews), as well as Bishops Alexander Muge, David Gitari and Henry Okullu, all Anglican. Among the Catholics, the most outspoken was Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki of the Nakuru Catholic diocese.

As the university community was harassed and diminished, especially after state repression, detentions and surveillance were ramped up in the 1980s, the NCCK became the major institutional challenge to Moi’s regime. The churches had the organisational network and national infrastructure to mount and sustain a form of protest politics in what was then a one-party state.

In turn, government politicians adopted a defensive stance and challenged the legitimacy of the church in discussing matters of politics. The evangelical fellowship, for its part, led by Bishop Ezekiel Birech of the AIC and Bishop Arthur Kitonga of Redeemed Gospel Church, often denounced NCCK in vehement Sunday sermons that were then printed in state-leaning newspapers. Kenyan churchgoers saw the acrimonous split along denominational lines, but few saw its ethnic and political dimension.

Moi won the 1992 election against a badly fractured opposition and on the back of state-sponsored gangs that suppressed the vote in much of the country. But by this time Kenya was in dire economic straits, with decay everywhere you looked – uncollected garbage, spiraling inflation and crumbling public services.

I was just a child at this time, but I remember the panic that seemed to seep into my parents’ conversations when they talked about money; the faint disgust with which my father handled the newly minted Ksh500 note (previously, Ksh200 was the biggest denomination). He said that this new note was a sure sign that Kenya was going to the dogs.

This was also the time that the “prosperity gospel” began to explode in Kenya. With a roughly evangelical stance, the prosperity gospel churches offered a version of Christianity that was both appealing and logically consistent with the political mood of the day, one that presented spiritual practice as a site for claiming back some power in a country where things were falling apart. Like the Pentecostal congregation that I was a part of, they were radical, emotionally speaking, in terms of an ecstatic worship experience. But politically, they were solidly conservative – they offered a privatisation of solutions in the face of public dilapidation that seemed beyond hope. Claim your miracle. Reap your blessing. Accept Jesus as your personal saviour.

***

As I grew older and became more politically conscious and intellectually mature, my faith began to be a source of deep internal strife. I was increasingly uncomfortable with interpretations of Scripture that seemed to be obsessed with meticulous sexual policing, which of course was always directed at the girls (“be careful not to cause a brother to stumble!”) but made almost no demands on the boys.

This was also the time that the “prosperity gospel” began to explode in Kenya. With a roughly evangelical stance, the prosperity gospel churches offered a version of Christianity that was both appealing and logically consistent with the political mood of the day, one that presented spiritual practice as a site for claiming back some power in a country where things were falling apart.

Perhaps it wasn’t incidental that many of our fathers were disinterested in the church – except when they were looking for a good woman to marry. Church was a place women learned, practised and refined their marriageability. Men didn’t need to. We were discouraged from dating casually, unless the relationship was headed towards marriage. That produced an incentive to declare things more serious than they actually were, or needed to be. And then the power play began – it fell upon the boys to proclaim whether that relationship was indeed headed towards marriage and upon the girls to demonstrate how wifeable they were.

One of the major traits of wifeability was the maintainance of the “purity” in the relationship. So we (the girls, mostly) expended enormous amounts of energy discussing “how far is too far” in relating to the opposite sex (Holding hands? Kissing? Petting? Actually, what exactly is petting?). And then, it seemed the boys would adjudicate whether the girl had adequately maintained the collective purity of the relationship or had fallen short of the glory of God. It was a bizarre dance that rested upon the presumption that a woman’s body was a kind of blank slate with no innate desires of its own.

This was during Mwai Kibaki’s first term as president. In the course of just five years, Kenya’s political mood made a full about-turn – from the joy and optimism of the 2002 election in which democracy had triumphed to the violent aftermath of the 2007 election.

Kibaki’s first swearing-in ceremony was the first, and I believe the last, political meeting my mother attended in her life; she walked from our home in South B to Uhuru Park to join the celebratory throng and watch a new democratic government take power. (Throng is a word I like. It is dense and heaving, as though people’s bodies were compressing and purging themselves, and each other, of the weight of dictatorship and failed dreams.) By then I was in my early twenties, and the friction between my mother and I would increasingly shift from being a dispute over denomination into one over politics.

Kibaki quickly consolidated power around his own Kikuyu elite, which seemed to me an obvious betrayal of the multi-ethnic and popular mandate that had brought him to power. But at family meetings, funerals and weddings, I would hear my relatives proclaim quite categorically that Kenya was much better off under a Kikuyu president. In fact, Kibaki was God’s anointed. At home I would constantly challenge my mother on those kinds of declarations, my voice shrill and my manner emphatic. How do we know that whoever is in power is God’s anointed? What is godly about chauvinism? Are we now saying that Anglo Leasing is the will of God? She would only wearily listen to me and wave me off.

Just five years later, in the aftermath of a disputed 2007 election, I watched in horror the smouldering remains of a church in Kiambaa, where a mob shut dozens of people in a church, blocked the door with a mattress and set the sanctuary on fire. As the smoke billowed on the television screen, my mother turned to me and calmly said the most cutting words she had ever said to me. “Do you think that when they come for you they will ask you who you voted for?”

It was clear what she meant. Kenya was a country where your ethnicity was everything. It could be the difference between life and death. And I hated to admit it, but she was right.

That day I was unconvinced that the personal holiness that we were taught to aspire to as a mark of the Kingdom would save me from a political system that was so depraved and unjust that I could be summarily executed for having the wrong last name. My piety would not save my body. Thirty people died that day, and so did most of my faith.

I spent the next eight years of my life vaguely describing myself as an agnostic, “spiritual but not religious”, or generally avoiding matters of faith. It increasingly seemed absurd to me that one could be an African and a Christian, and even less a self-respecting, or at least politically conscious African, with any kind of serious commitment to social justice. Christianity is a white man’s religion, I thought. I don’t really know any African religions, so I will have none.

That day I was unconvinced that the personal holiness that we were taught to aspire to as a mark of the Kingdom would save me from a political system that was so depraved and unjust that I could be summarily executed for having the wrong last name. My piety would not save my body. Thirty people died that day, and so did most of my faith.

***

First-century Judea was a colonial project. The land itself brought in little revenue to the Roman treasury, but by controlling it, Rome could control the land and sea routes to Egypt, which was the breadbasket of the empire.

Judea was also a border province against the Parthian Empire (in modern day Iraq and Iran), a rival of Rome in the east. The Bible records that the Jews had been taken into exile in Babylon some centuries before, and though they had returned to their homeland, the Jews were viewed as suspicious and potential fifth columnists by Rome, because of that lengthy exile to the east.

It was here that the New Testament records than God became incarnate into man. Jesus, as described in the Bible, was not only from Judea, but from a town in Galilee called Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian faith now reflexively associates Nazareth with the power, awe and authority of the Divine, but in the first century Nazareth was nowhere to be bragged about.

The historic Nazareth was an area of entrenched poverty in the ancient world. The people of Nazareth were on the bottom of society. When Herod the Great – the Jewish king who was little more than a Roman colonial administrator – died in 4 BC, the Roman armoury in Sepphoris, just outside Nazareth, was robbed. The Romans retaliated by crucifying 2,000 Jews as a public warning against such revolts. Sepphoris was burned to the ground, and its inhabitants were sold into slavery.

Less than a decade later, there was another revolt, this time against paying taxes. Another Roman crackdown followed, with many more crucified. The place earned a reputation for being a hotbed of unrest; young Nazarenes were labelled gangsters and thugs.

The elite one percent in Jerusalem – the priests, teachers of the law and Sadducees – looked upon those from Nazareth as uneducated and uncultured; Nazarenes were subjected to slurs on their purported lax morals and were policed for their lack of manners. The people of Nazareth were considered a Problem People.

One can thus understand the disciple Nathaniel’s jaded statement when Philip excitedly tells him that he has met the Messiah: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” In fact, we ought to consider “Jesus of Nazareth” a politically loaded statement, akin to Jaymo kutoka ghetto. In the gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is spoken about in this metaphor of Empire.

The Mediterranean world called Caesar sôtêr (saviour of the world). Caesar was the one who brought Peace, Love and Unity, Pax Romana, to the ancient world. So when the gospel writers used the word sôtêr to announce the birth of Jesus: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” (Luke 2:11) they were essentially undermining the authority of the empire.

Crucifixion was a public execution that was carried out as a warning for those who rose up against the state, for those who refused to know their place. Jesus was executed for sedition, a political offence, and not blasphemy, a religious one – the inscription on the cross mockingly said “This Is The King Of The Jews”.

The way the Roman State tortured and executed Jesus and his early followers was not incidental. It tells us who Jesus was in relation to the state – crucifixion was done publicly, as a warning, in response to a perceived offence against the authority of Caesar.

Crucifixion was a public execution that was carried out as a warning for those who rose up against the state, for those who refused to know their place. Jesus was executed for sedition, a political offence, and not blasphemy, a religious one – the inscription on the cross mockingly said “This Is The King Of The Jews”.

More than 4,000 black men, women and children were lynched in the American South between 1900 and 1950. Lynchings were public events, sometimes announced in advance. Photographs were taken and used as postcards. Bodies were dismembered and parts handed out as souvenirs.

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists, writes American theologian James Cone, who passed away this April. According to Cone, Jesus and blacks in America suffered a similar fate: both were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity, unfairly tried and quickly condemned, tortured and left to die as a public warning.

During colonialism, several Kenyans experienced similar indignities. Otenyo Nyamaterere was killed by a British firing squad in Kisii in western Kenya for resisting the advance of the colonial state in the early 20th century. He was beheaded and his headless body left on a bridge. Waiyaki wa Hinga, the Kikuyu chieftain who resisted harassment and forced taxation, was buried alive at a prison camp in 1890. Koitalel arap Samoei, the Nandi chief who fought British occupation for eleven years, mounting guerrilla attacks on the railway and colonial forts, was shot at point blank range by a colonial official who had asked him to meet and discuss peace; Koitalel’s skull was then carried off to Britain.

Then there was General Baimungi Marete of the Mau Mau, a leader of the armed rebellion of the 1950s that fought for Kenya’s self-rule. General Baimungi and his lieutenants held out in forest camps as Jomo Kenyatta, who would become Kenya’s first president, negotiated an independence treaty with the British. The colonial structures were left intact; Kenyatta would now head this new expropriating state.

After independence, Kenyatta sent word to the Mau Mau fighters that they would receive land and compensation if they surrendered their weapons. They emerged from the forest and waited for their promised land, only to be killed by government agents. The bodies of Baimungi and two lieutenants were displayed publicly in Chuka for three days by an independent Kenyan government, and the Mau Mau was declared a banned organisation.

Kenyatta went on to publicly declare: “Mau Mau was a disease which was eradicated, and must never be remembered again.” The Mau Mau remained a banned organisation in Kenya until 2003. The colour of the administrators had changed, but the colonial logic remained intact.

After independence, Kenyatta sent word to the Mau Mau fighters that they would receive land and compensation if they surrendered their weapons. They emerged from the forest and waited for their promised land, only to be killed by government agents. The bodies of Baimungi and two lieutenants were displayed publicly in Chuka for three days by an independent Kenyan government, and the Mau Mau was declared a banned organisation.

The fact that white colonisers would use the symbol of a Nazarene anti-colonialist to enforce and entrench the very project of colonisation is a testament to the twisted genius of white supremacy. But Jesus of Nazareth was no coloniser.

***

There’s a difference between priests and prophets, as religious scholar Jonathan Walton describes in his book Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. Priestly leaders believe that the structures of society are fundamentally good and that any political or social problems are the result of a few bad apples or degraded moral standards, as opposed to inherent flaws in the structures of society. Priests seek to nurture humility, patience and goodwill in their congregations in order to integrate them into the culture as productive and loyal citizens. By doing this, priests accommodate themselves and their parishioners to injustice without necessarily affirming it – at most, they encourage the congregation to endure those things that cannot be readily changed.

Priests generally seek to “stay out of politics”; whenever they do get involved in politics, it is usually to use their respectable social standing to have access to the ear of the powerful. Priests believe they can be a “good influence” to the ruling class, appealing to their moral goodwill to try and obtain justice. Pray for your leaders, they say. Touch not God’s anointed.

Priests are uncomfortable with social protest or real reform because it might lead to a loss of their social capital.

But the prophet is different. “The prophet views society as neither fundamentally good nor bad, but as fundamentally flawed,” Walton writes. Prophets have a clear theological and political conception of what those flaws are and an uncompromising declaration that if the injustice is not uprooted, the society will be destroyed.

The prophet is social reformer with no moral middle ground. No form of oppression is consistent with God’s will, the prophetic witness declares, and is actually in opposition to the very physical form that God chose to be incarnated in first-century Judea. Turn around! the prophet declares. You’re going the wrong way! It seems to me that Christianity’s prophetic roots were never fully formed; they were prematurely twisted into an entwining conformity with colonial and neo-colonial states – Rome, Britain, America, Kenya.

“The prophet views society as neither fundamentally good nor bad, but as fundamentally flawed,” Walton writes. Prophets have a clear theological and political conception of what those flaws are and an uncompromising declaration that if the injustice is not uprooted, the society will be destroyed.

I now see that the focus on personal piety and private redemption that energised my formative years ended up obscuring calls for social justice. The uncritical embrace of society’s unjust structures – especially the capitalist economy that has its colonial logic intact and the obsession with morals and manners – reflects the non-confrontational stance of the priest rather than the radical reform of the prophet.

The prophet is never neutral in the face of oppression. The prophet doesn’t want to “hear both sides”, doesn’t want to be “fair and balanced”, cannot be “objective”. The prophet is on the side of justice.

It is time for Kenyan Christians to live out their ministry for those caught on the underside of power today, for the “least of these”. In the words of James Cone, we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualising it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering and death.

The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.

Author’s note:
Many thanks to Jeremy L. Williams for the many conversations that helped clarify my thinking for this article, and to Jonathan Walton for his ministry, and insightful books Watch This! and the forthcoming A Lens of Love.

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Christine Mungai is a writer and journalist based in Kenya. Currently, she is the curator for Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, a co-creation space that supports public-interest storytelling. She was a 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Her work has been published in The Elephant, The Africa Report, Rest of World, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and Adi Magazine, among other outlets.

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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