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Manna From Hell: How the Church in Kenya Became a Refuge for Scoundrels

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MANNA FROM HELL: How the church in Kenya became a refuge for scoundrels
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“Christianity began as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When it went to Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it become an organisation. When it went to Europe, it become a culture. When it went to America, it become a business.” – Anonymous.

In the last few weeks, Deputy President William Ruto, who has made it known to all and sundry that he has clearly set his sights on the presidency come 2022, has made troubling theological statements which cannot stand biblical scrutiny. And all this while the church’s leadership across Kenya has been eerily mum on these utterances that border on both fallacy and heresy.

At a church function in Kiambu County on June 17, 2018, feeling sufficiently sanctified to be within the precincts of a Catholic church – the most influential and powerful religious institution in the country – and after contributing what he must have considered to be an amount that would please God and the church’s coffers, Ruto was audacious enough to later claim that his cash donation was tantamount to future “risk” investments in the hereafter. After the church fund-raiser, the Deputy President met some religious leaders at the Blue Post Hotel in Thika, where he is reported to have stated: “Some people condemn me for going around raising money here and there and in church. It is up to them. I’m investing in heavenly matters…some people invest in funerals, let them continue…”

The utterances at St Benedict’s Church in the Ngoingwa suburb of Thika town were followed exactly a month later by another stupendous statement by Ruto, clearly indicating that he was confident that he was on uncritical and all-embracing grounds. On July 15, 2018, he was the chief guest at the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) Patanisha, in Kayole, a populous suburb 10km south-east of Nairobi city centre, where he gave Sh2.5 million (about $25,000) to the church and said: “They say I’ve been purchasing seats for the churches. And because we do not ask them why they take their money to witch doctors at night, they should leave us alone to give money to church for the work of God.”

To date, no church leader – Catholic or otherwise – has found it necessary to correct his misleading statements and to remind the Deputy President that his contributions to different churches are in no way a measure of his Christian virtues, neither are they a passport to eternal bliss or a favour to churches and Christians. But the church leaders have been quiet, perhaps hoping that he will tone down on his quasi-religious utterances as they continue to reap from his humongous cash donations.

According to a July 22, 2018 Daily Nation report, in a short span of just six months, Ruto’s generous spirit has led him to dish out amounts totalling Sh60 million (roughly $600,000), most of it in cash, to various churches. The distribution of Ruto’s cash donations to Catholic churches and institutions in Central Kenya and Nakuru County are as follows: Kairuri Catholic Parish, Embu County, Sh5 million (during the fundraiser, Ruto pointed out that the contribution was a joint effort between him and President Uhuru Kenyatta); Mary Immaculate Primary School, Nanyuki, Laikipia County, Sh3 million; Holy Cross Catholic Church, Nakuru County, Sh2 million; a Catholic church project in Njoro, also in Nakuru County, Sh2 million; Baricho Catholic Church, Kirinyaga County, Sh1 million; and Murugu Catholic Church, Nyeri County, Sh1 million. (Interestingly, Nyeri town constituency is represented by the rookie MP, Wambugu Ngunjiri, the de facto leader of Central Kenya MPs, most of whom are also first-timers and who are opposed to the perception of Ruto as the Jubilee Party’s automatic presidential flagbearer after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s term ends in 2022.) This adds up to Sh14 million solely given to Catholic churches.

According to a July 22, 2018 Daily Nation report, in a short span of just six months, Ruto’s generous spirit has led him to dish out amounts totalling Sh60 million (roughly $600,000), most of it in cash, to various churches.

If we add to this the contribution to Murang’a High School, which received Sh15 million for the construction of a multipurpose hall, Ruto’s total donation to Central Kenya and Nakuru counties amounts to Sh29 million, or roughly half of his total contributions. The Catholic churches on their own have gobbled 23 percent of Ruto’s harambee donations.

At the function, where Cardinal John Njue was present (Embu County is his ancestral home), the presiding Embu prelate, Bishop Paul Kariuki, egged on Ruto, telling him: “This is the time to do what you were told, kutanga tanga (to roam). Do not be afraid because to those who will start visiting us in 2022, we shall ask them where they have been and didn’t loiter earlier. In 2022, I shall write a letter banning politics in the church.”

“Unlike God,” said Ruto, defending his generous hand towards the church, “….none of us is being asked to give more than we can.” In separate church fund-raisers, Ruto has reiterated that he has been giving “cheerfully and proudly”. Outside of the Catholic churches, which cumulatively have received the largest amount from Ruto’s largesse, the single biggest contribution to a church has been to the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi. He gave the church Sh8 million and pledged to deliver another Sh2 million. Apart from contributing to Catholic and Anglican churches, Ruto has also given Sh3 million to Evergreen Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) in Nairobi.

“Churches in Kenya have become – for all practical purposes – sanctuaries for politicians to do as they feel,” proffered an evangelical pastor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Priests and pastors alike have rendered themselves manipulable to the politicians because of their runaway greed, political partisanship and because of their corrupt, unethical lifestyles.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the evangelical and Pentecostal churches, added the pastor. The rise of the evangelical/Pentecostal churches in the last 30 years or so in the country has led to a proliferation of churches, many of them independently run by individuals who claim they have a calling to serve God and who in the strictest sense of the word are not trained theologians i.e. they are not schooled at recognised theological institutions or seminaries.

“Many of these pastors are careerists who run the church as personal enterprises and fiefdoms – to be passed onto their wives and children – hence they are driven by a great desire not to serve as shepherds but to use their positions … as platforms for acquiring riches,” said a pastor who ministers with one of the Nairobi Chapel/Mavuno Churches in Nairobi, and who asked that I conceal his/her name for the sake of not offending his/her fellow Christians. “Other than peddling drugs, the surest way of becoming a multimillionaire in Kenya today is starting a church. The majority of such pastors fall under the banner of the evangelical/Pentecostal churches. Is it a wonder that many of them are easily compromised [by politicians], because they have no scruples and all they are interested in is amassing enormous wealth and living large? But above everything else, they have no sound theological grounding and training to anchor their scriptural command and understanding.”

The gospel of prosperity

The rise and proliferation of these evangelical churches that were weaned off mainstream churches, such as the Catholic and Anglican Churches (with their theology of moral righteousness, sin and repentance) came with it a new Gospel teaching: the so-called prosperity gospel.

The institutional churches – the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), the Baptist Church and the African Inland Church (AIC) – all brought to Kenya by white missionaries – proselytised the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the local people by asking them to repent their sins and to accept the Lord if they hoped to inherit the Kingdom of God. This was the Gospel of obeying and trusting God to meet all their needs. However, the white missionaries did not preach to the local people that their faith would lead them to greater wealth.

The prosperity theology of the modern Pentecostal movement has its roots in the Bible Belt of the United States. This theology frames earthly material gain as a sign of divine blessing and unrelenting faith in Jesus Christ.

The prosperity gospel, also known as the health and wealth gospel or the Word of Faith movement, is a skewed interpretation of the Synoptic Gospel that claims that God rewards those Christians that continually increase their faith in him. Anchored in the belief that one’s (proper) faith must lead to great health and wealth, prosperity gospel proponents present the gospel as the panacea for a Christian’s earthly material needs, which include plenty of cash in the bank, multiple houses, several motor vehicles, acquisition of land and generally posh living.

The prosperity theology of the modern Pentecostal movement has its roots in the Bible Belt of the United States. This theology frames earthly material gain as a sign of divine blessing and unrelenting faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul Gifford, religious emeritus professor at the School of African and Oriental Studies, in his book, African Christianity: It’s Public Role, published in 1998, points out that, “African Christians believe that success is determined by your faith.” He says that prosperity gospel preachers have moved beyond traditional Pentecostal practices of speaking in tongues, prophesying and healing to the belief that God will provide money, cars, houses and even spouses – in response to believers’ faith.

According to Gifford, the prosperity gospel arrived in Kenya in the mid-1980s. After the failure of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), Kenyans lost confidence in the stringent austerity policies executed through the government by these two Washington-based bodies. The social recovery safety nets and the government’s purported ability to bail them out failed. A notoriously religious society, Kenyans turned to the new revivalist churches that were now fervently preaching the prosperity gospel.

God-fearing dictatorship

There was another reason why Kenyan turned to these churches: The tightening of political freedoms of speech and movement under the stranglehold of the one-party dictatorship of KANU and President Daniel arap Moi led to the emasculation of people’s rights, and with this came the rule of fear and despondency.

The Bible-toting Moi is a fervent born-again Christian and a member of the African Inland Church and of the evangelical/revivalist persuasion that had swept the East African region from Uganda at the beginning of the 20th century. The Dictionary of African Christian Biography describes the Tukutendereza Yesu (We Praise You Jesus) as the revivalist movement within the Anglican Church of Uganda that began in the Kingdom of Buganda, hence Balokole (Luganda for the saved people). Today, the term Balokole has been embraced beyond Buganda as a movement of saved or born-again Christians across the East African region. Likewise, the Luganda hymnal song, Tukutendereza, has become the theme song of revivalist Christians throughout East Africa.

Moi reached the pinnacle of his dictatorship in the late 1980s, just when the revivalist churches were entrenching themselves in the country. To further keep the people in check and continue running a tight ship as he maintained an iron grip on the state, Moi would invite international prosperity gospel evangelical preachers to Kenya to hold massive crusades.

Two of the better known preacher men who visited Kenya in the late 1980s and early 1990s were Morris Cerullo from America’s southern Bible Belt and the German Reinhard Bonke. Both were friends of Moi and their first port of call was the State House. The undertone of their preaching then was that Moi was a God-fearing, divinely-ordained leader like the kings of the biblical yore and it was only through unwavering faith in the Almighty that the people would count and reap their blessings in abundance.

Moi reached the pinnacle of his dictatorship in the late 1980s, just when the revivalist churches were entrenching themselves in the country. To further keep the people in check and continue running a tight ship as he maintained an iron grip on the state, Moi would invite international prosperity gospel evangelical preachers to Kenya to hold massive crusades.

These new churches preached the gospel of materialism and miracles. Burdened by economic woes and spiritual poverty occasioned by the devastating austerity measures of the SAPs, Kenyan Christians turned to these apostles and prophets in the hope that they would alleviate their suffering and offer them earthly happiness. As fate would have it, prosperity gospel thrives in Kenya because it resonates well in societies that are economically afflicted and are hostage to spiritual powers, believing these powers control the fortunes of all.

The churches’ leaders had appealing fancy titles to announce their arrival: apostle, prophet, visionary. They offered utopian hopes to disillusioned and dispossessed poor people through miracles and promises of prosperity. Gifford, in his essay, “Expecting Miracles: The Prosperity Gospel in Africa” (www.christiancentury.org published in 2007), observed that the churches equally had fanciful names, such as Jesus Breakthrough Assembly, Triumphant Christian Centre and Victory Bible Church.

According to theologians and experts in the scriptures, there is probably no religious phenomenon today that has attracted as much controversy and varied interpretations as the prosperity gospel among Christian believers. Efe Ehiogae and Joseph Olanrewaju, in their essay, “A Theological Evaluation of the Utopian Image of Prosperity Gospel and the African Dilemma” (https//pdfssemanticscholar.org), argue that the African continent, alongside Latin America, is considered to be the richest hunting ground for evangelical Pentecostalism, one of the fastest growing religious movements globally. There are some religious leaders who today argue that the ancient practice of selling the blessings of the church has been subsumed by the prosperity gospel.

For many Christians, theology is a vague and an oblique academic notion. It is true many people consider theology to be the science of religion, and rightly so, but oftentimes they associate it with the quaint branches of academic disciplines, like numerology, that few people today take seriously.

Liberation theology

One enduring fact is that Africans as a whole have continued to suffer defective Christian theologies. One such theology – the remnants of which persist to date – is white theology, a carry-over of the white missionaries’ gospel teaching of doom and gloom, of trust and obey (for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey). That white theology, instead of contextualising the people’s developmental needs vis-à-vis their spiritual growth, has continued to create frightening doomsday scenarios of sinners eternally roasting in balls of hell-fire and brimstone.

White theology should be understood in context and especially in relation to its nemesis – black theology. In the United States, white theology was associated with racism, slavery and the oppression of African-Americans, but above all with white supremacy. This was also the case in Latin America and Africa where the gospel was proselytised by white missionaries who brought their white culture and biases with them. In South Africa, white theology was propagated by the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) to sanctify the segregationist rule of Apartheid.

Dr. James H .Cones, who died in April this year, and who was considered to be the father of the black liberation theology movement in the United States, invited Americans to understand the corrosive effects of white theology: “Christianity was seen as the white man’s religion…the Christian Gospel is not the white man’s religion. It is the religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free. But I realized that for black people to be free, they must first love their blackness,” he said. He defined black liberation theology as the interpretation of the Christian Gospel from the experiences, perspectives and lives of people who are at the bottom in society – the lowest economic and racial groups.

In the United States, white theology was associated with racism, slavery and the oppression of African-Americans, but above all with white supremacy. This was also the case in Latin America and Africa where the gospel was proselytised by white missionaries who brought with them their white culture and biases.

Emeritus Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and the Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu is today remembered for his fearless fight against the Apartheid system in South Africa, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. What many people, particularly Christians, may not know is that for him to confront the all-powerful Apartheid state machinery that was spiritually sanitised by the Dutch Reformed Church, he had to confront the theology propagated by this church, which claimed that the principle of separate and unequal co-existence (segregation) of black and white South Africans was biblically ordained. Just as the African-American Christian leaders during the civil rights movements in the 1960s came up with black theology to fight the monster of racial discrimination, so did Tutu, who also came up with a black theology in South Africa to liberate his people.

In Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, where a great majority of the world’s Catholics lived, a different type of theology was taking shape: liberation theology. It was propagated by the likes of Archbishop Helda Camara and Leonardo Boff (then a Franciscan priest), both from Brazil, the Peruvian Dominican friar, Gustavo Gutierrez, and the Spain-born Jesuit priest, Jon Sobrino, who migrated to El Salvador where for many years he performed his major ecclesiastical work.

Liberation theology in Latin America was the fusion of Marxist teachings – class differentiation and means of production – and Catholic teachings, especially of the small Christian communities tradition (in Kenya known as jumuiya ndogo ndogo). It was Sobrino who in the late 1960s said that Latin America had reached a “theological boiling point”. In short, what Sobrino was advocating was a new theology to tackle debilitating poverty under military dictators who oppressed and killed their people. In his view, as indeed in the views of his contemporary like-minded Catholic priests, the theology of sin and repentance was not working.

Fr. Gutierrez, now 90-years-old, who is considered the father of liberation theology, argued in his book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, published in 1971, that there are two schools of thought on poverty and both are derived from the synoptic Gospels: The first talks of Christ’s sensitivity towards the poor and their sufferings. The second, that Christ himself “had lived a life of poverty, and so, Christians from their origin understood that in order to be his disciples, they also had to live a life of poverty.” Both of these schools of thought are true, pointed out Gutierrez, “but we interpret these two points of view on the bases of our historical context and of our lives.”

“The first perspective is found in Luke’s version of the beatitude of the poor (Blessed are you, for the kingdom of God is yours). The second is reflected in Matthews (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven),” he wrote. “I think both lines of thought – poverty as scandal and poverty of spirit can be useful, although their meaning must be actualized in our historical context.” The Catholic priest argued in the book that poverty is not a result of fate or laziness but a result of “structural injustices that privilege some, while marginalizing others.” When Jesus said, “blessed are the poor,” emphasised Gutierrez, he did not mean, “blessed is poverty.”

The church and politics in Kenya

In Kenya, our Christian clergy may not have evolved any particular theology but the country nonetheless produced, in its heyday, fearless church ministers who were not afraid to speak the biblical truth as they understood it, to both the powers that be and to their flock. Such clergymen included the controversial Anglican bishop Alexander Muge, the fearless Reverand Timothy Njoya of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Anglican Bishop David Gitari and the mercurial and politically savvy Bishop Henry Okullu. (All are dead except for Njoya. The death of Muge in 1990 in a bizarre road accident is still shrouded in mystery.)

When Jesus said, “blessed are the poor,” emphasised Gutierrez, he did not mean, “blessed is poverty.”

In 1975, as the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) bishop of Maseno South, Okullu published his seminal book, Church and Politics in East Africa, which soon become a bestseller and a guide for church leaders, church groups and students studying Christianity in the region. It was under Okullu, who was first elected as the chairman of National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) in 1976 and went onto serve for two terms, that the NCCK, during its annual general meeting in 1977, crafted the all-important statement regarding the central role of the church: “The Church being the conscience of the nation, should teach and safeguard intrinsic values of persons, knowing that all men and women are children of God. The church should endeavour to show, both in action and preaching, that it is not wealth, education or status that matter, but the individual’s intrinsic value.”

Dr. Okullu was a firebrand prelate. In 1998, I had the chance to meet him. Soft-spoken and cheerful, Okullu liked regaling one with stories. I remember him telling me how many Kenyans did not know that before rubbing the Kenyan political establishment the wrong way, he had locked horns with Ugandan President Milton Obote in the late 1960s when he served as the first African editor of the Church of Uganda-owned newspaper New Day. In 1967, Okullu had to come back to Kenya after he penned a scathing editorial on the one-party system, which Obote had introduced through the Common Man’s Charter policy document.

With the demise of these outspoken institutional church leaders, who in their own limited ways sought to speak truth to power, the mainstream churches’ leadership has been clipped and is a pale shadow of its former self. Even the elaborate voice of the Catholic Church, which used to be relayed through powerful pastoral letters, has been dead for a long time.

“The mainstream churches lost the plot in 2005,” said a Catholic priest from Kitale diocese. “That referendum [on the new constitution] split the churches along ethnic fault lines and they have never recovered to date.” The referendum that proposed a new constitution pitted the opposition, led by Raila Odinga, against President Mwai Kibaki. It was the first real test of Kibaki’s grip on state power. When Kibaki lost the referendum, the opposition knew it had rattled his power base.

“The mainstream churches lost the plot in 2005,” said a Catholic priest from Kitale diocese. “That referendum [on the new constitution] split the churches along ethnic fault lines and they have never recovered to date.”

“The church leadership, instead of stepping in and cautioning against the imminent ethnic battle lines that had been drawn out by the mini-election, which, if went unchecked, would definitely escalate into ethnic warfare, also entrenched its ethnic position that had informed how it had voted in the referendum,” said the priest. “Remember these leaders would openly canvass for their political sides to their respective congregations, which fell in place.” The priest said when the presidential election came in 2007, “all it did was accentuate the leaders’ ethnic positions”.

Since 2007, the story of Kenya’s church leaders has been the same: in 2013, they led their congregation to vote along ethnic lines. The same happened in 2017, observed the priest. “What Ruto is now doing is heavily infiltrating the churches’ leadership and exploiting their political differences and personal greed by dishing out lots of money, because everybody understands it’s their time to make hay while the sun shines.” Meanwhile, people facing hard economic times have been crying for help from their shepherds for moral courage and help, as well as guidance, but the clergy, unbothered and unconcerned by the “disconcerting noises” from their flock, continue with their privileged lifestyles.

The priest said the Deputy President has deliberately targeted the Catholic Church in Central Kenya because he reckons that this could possibly be one of the best strategies for penetrating and winning over the difficult Kikuyu constituency. “Even if he doesn’t win all of them, it would still be important if he got a foothold in the region.”

He said that in Kenya today, the church cannot speak in one voice and will not condemn institutionalised state corruption because it is fragmented and its leadership across the board has benefitted from that same corruption’s largesse. “It is not too difficult to see what is happening: The people are crying, the people are hurting, the people have been rendered poor and the Levite priest is on his way to Jerusalem.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

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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