Connect with us

Politics

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

Published

on

MANNA FROM HELL: How the church in Kenya became a refuge for scoundrels
Download PDFPrint Article

“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.”

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

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.

Published

on

The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

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.

Published

on

The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

‘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.

Published

on

‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Trending