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I Am Not Your Negro: The Cultural Problem in China’s Engagement With Africa

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The Middle Kingdom is failing to acknowledge the cultural and racial distance it still has to close with the continent. By OWAAHH

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THE CHINESE DEBT TRAP: A new form of colonialism?
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Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It was a small part of a big story. Easy to miss, yet significant in more ways than one.

At the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR)’s Miritini station, there is a bronze statue on a plinth. The statue is of the great Chinese explorer Zheng He, who travelled to the Kenyan coast in the 15th century. You’ve heard parts of his story, including how one of the ships in his mighty armada was wrecked. A few people survived and swam ashore to Pate Island, where they settled after killing a snake. But most travellers tend to assume that it’s a statue of Chairman Mao. With good reason. Mao is probably the second most recognisable Chinese man in Kenya after Jackie Chan.

But the story wasn’t even about Zheng He the man, but Zheng He the statue. Like everything about our new railway, this statue was made in China and shipped to the Kenyan coast. It was installed by Chinese sculptors. At the time, a group of Kenyan sculptors wondered why they weren’t considered for the job. Hidden within this labour and material question was a much deeper reality – that the Chinese economic conquest is nothing else but. Although it is radically altering the societies it is involved in, China is refusing to acknowledge the cultural distance it has to close. Not only that, China is also ignoring the histories and cultures of those societies, choosing instead a cultural journey that we’ve already been through (and not with good results) in the belief that everything must be made in China, with Chinese money, by Chinese people.

There are several things about the statue that reflect how China’s sees itself and the world it intends to conquer. One is that the Chinese have a racial superiority problem they refuse to acknowledge – not only openly, but even within. For them, racism is a Western problem. You’ve probably already heard the statement “China cannot be racist.” That, or seen the numerous press statements China and her companies have to send out almost every week defending themselves against claims of open racism.

The statue is not the only example of Chinese racism. Another is the signage. Where one could argue that the Zheng He statue was rightly made by China because he is their national hero, there was no such argument for the terrible translations. The notice “Hakuna kipenzi kuruhisiwa” next to the escalator, for example, was translated as “No pets allowed” instead of “No lovers allowed” (when actually it probably intended to say “No petting”). This was clearly a hilarious algorithmic mistranslation that went unnoticed until the signs were mounted. A single Kiswahili speaker, after laughing his or her heart out, would have helped avoid such an embarrassment.

There are several things about the statue that reflect how China’s sees itself and the world it intends to conquer. One is that the Chinese have a racial superiority problem they refuse to acknowledge – not only openly, but even within. For them, racism is a Western problem.

The confusion is not surprising. In China’s quest for global dominance, it has adopted a bland, business-like approach to soft power. Through a global network of Confucius Institutes, China tries to encourage the citizens of other countries to admire Chinese values. It doesn’t seek to adapt itself to those societies at all. It instead sees them in the same way Victorian Britain and her contemporaries saw Africa: as a land inhabited by uncivilised people in need of a model to aspire to. Just like the racism that drove European conquest of other continents, the Chinese believe they are the superior race. Somehow, in both contexts, black people form the base of the racial hierarchy.

China’s current soft power model is ignorant of the complexity of the post-colonial societies it is investing in. Any society seeking to impose its culture on the world should have a plan, at the very least. For the British, it was immolation of any preceding cultures or religions, and the imposition of replacements that sustained the racial hierarchies that were required to entrench their domination. We are still here a century later, albeit traumatised. On paper, China’s plan is simple: to loan money to poor countries to help them build things, not for their own prosperity, but for China’s. How this alters those societies, or how the cultural conquest to make the world Chinese is a foolhardy task, are not things that keep the Chinese up at night. Branded as a partnership rather than a conquest, it is thankfully secular, but the absence of a plan will undoubtedly complicate race relations. It already is.

Several recent events epitomise this. Earlier this year, a racist 13-minute skit aired on CCTV during the Lunar New Year. It had an audience of more than 700 million people. The plotline was something one would expect to see in old British movies about Africa in the 1930s. It featured a black actress, dressed as a train stewardess, who asks a Chinese man to pose as her husband so her mother can stop pestering her to marry. The man’s real wife then appears, but the mum has no problem because, as she shouts for all to hear “I love China!” Simple enough, but the actress playing the mum was Chinese. For her role she wore blackface, a fake chest, and an exaggerated fake posterior. She also had a basketful of fruits on her head, and was accompanied by a black man in a monkey suit. That no one saw the many things that were wrong in these choices shows just how little China has learnt about the history of race globally.

In 2017, an exhibition opened in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. Titled “This is Africa”, it featured images of Africans juxtaposed with images of animals. The exhibition was closed after an outcry, but the curator defended it, saying that being compared to animals is a compliment in Chinese culture. What he left out is that in Sinology, the animals one would want to be compared with are very specific. The defence also ignored how black people would react to being compared to animals, given the negative history it triggers. It might as well have been a human zoo.

Another example, from 2016, was a detergent ad. A black man with dark paint on his face hits on a Chinese girl, who pushes detergent into his mouth and then pushes him into a washing machine. When he emerges, he is a fair-skinned Chinese man. Presumably, they live happily ever after. The commercial was copied from an Italian ad, which showed the reverse transformation: a scrawny white man transformed into a muscular black man.

China and her defenders were quick to claim that the CCTV skit was not racist. More than one official, including a diplomat in Nairobi, said that the outrage was an attempt by Western media “to drive a wedge between China and African countries”. The implication here is that because China doesn’t have a history of enslaving and colonising black people, it cannot be racist. But China does have a history of enslaving black people, and all its actions in the last two decades smell, walk, and quack like colonialism. 

***

The first black people to enter China were slaves, taken there by Arab traders around the second half of the first millennium. At first, the Chinese saw black people as strange, and added them to folklore as people descended from animals and who possessed magical powers. After these first interactions, black Africans entered Chinese folklore as knights-errant, but as times changed, they became “devil slaves”.

While darker skin Chinese could be “improved” in an economic sense that would raise their social hierarchy and hence, skin colour, these dark Africans could not be. This piece rightly notes that although China has not had as much a history of racism as the Western world, the idea of whiteness is about class rather than mere racial superiority. To the common Chinese, the writer notes, “Africa symbolises poverty; no money.” The Mandarin word for Africa, 非洲 (Feizhou / Fēizhōu) translates to “wrong continent”, or “no state”, or “nothing state”. Its etymology might point to the time when China was closed off to the world, but in a modern world it carries all the connotations of “The Dark Continent”, as reflected in some of the negative responses to the Black Panther movie. These ideas are also shaping Chinese pop culture; one 2017 blockbuster had all the hallmarks of a “white saviour and poor helpless Africans” story.

Chinese understanding of race is based on colourism within its own culture and history. Colourism and racism are different, although related. Colourism is discrimination based solely on skin colour and whatever stereotypes you choose to attach to it. Racism is a construct that often either starts with, or grows into, colourism.

In many societies, lighter skin is seen as a sign of material and social affluence. Among the Chinese and most East and South Asian societies, darker skin implies you are not wealthy enough to not work in the fields. It connotes poverty, while light skin is aspirational. For the Chinese, the racial hierarchy has them at the top, Manchuns and Europeans next, and Africans after whoever you want to add between them and Europeans. This view precedes communism and Mao, and defined how empires fostered cohesion and conquest in the centuries before.

Chinese understanding of race is based on colourism within its own culture and history. Colourism and racism are different, although related. Colourism is discrimination based solely on skin colour and whatever stereotypes you choose to attach to it. Racism is a construct that often either starts with, or grows into, colourism.

Although there are 56 ethnic groups in China, more than 90 per cent of China’s population is Han Chinese. This homogeneity, combined with cycles of conquest and insular pursuits, has worsened colorism. It has also blinded China to changes in how the rest of the world processes race.

As a people, the Chinese see nothing wrong with treating people they consider poor badly. This wouldn’t be a significant problem if it did not define how we do business together. Deals are unfair, unequal, expensive, destructive, and benefit no one but the Chinese. There’s no appreciation of the unique experiences of a society such as Kenya. The only thing China is worried about is its own survival. After Zheng He’s golden age of exploration, China closed itself off again.

The Ming Dynasty destroyed the entire naval fleet; for centuries, the reason offered was that the empire was distracted by excursions by the Mongols. But recent research shows that although the “barbarian” distraction was blamed, it was actually the social and economic shifts within Chinese society that triggered the fallback. Private wealth was disrupting the social hierarchies. During the Golden Age though, Malindi city-state had sent diplomats and gifts to China for two years, and Zheng He had been to the East African coast.

When China reemerged on the global scene after centuries of being an insular society, racism against black people was rife. The earliest African students in China in the 1960s and ‘70s were discriminated against. There were also widespread demonstrations against African students in late 1988 and early 1989 in Nanjing. The main issues included the contact between African men and Chinese women, similar to the “black peril” fears during the colonial decades. Among the solutions to the demonstration was a raft of policies that placed a race-specific night-time curfew, as well as access limits to Chinese girlfriends. Within modern China, there is a growing xenophobia against black Africans, despite official denials. There have been instances, such as a protest in Guangzhou in 2009 after continued police harassment. Africans living in China have also written about being called things like “hei gui” (black devil) and being assumed to be criminals. There has also been racism in Chinese football.

Societies process colour and race differently. A recent example is the reaction to Albert Einstein’s 1922/3 travel diary where he made what, to the modern reader, are racist observations about the Chinese. To the West, the celebrated genius finally had (another) kink in his shining armour; he was a racist. There was the usual sense of shame and catharsis that comes from people in atonement when they recognise what they believe to be wrong in their heroes, based on the realities today. Einstein describes the Chinese as “spiritless” and “peculiar”, adding that “it would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

For the Chinese though, Einstein wasn’t being racist. For them, he was just recording what he saw, and he kept true to it. That Einstein said he found their “houses very formulaic, balconies like bee-hive cells” wasn’t a racist view. Or when he (rightly, when you think about it) wrote that China was a “peculiar herd-like nation” that would one day take over the world. To the modern Chinese in a period of prosperity, in a driven society that only looks back to learn business lessons and not reflect enough, the past is factual, and if the facts are right, then that’s that.

A big part of how China is experiencing blackness (as a concept) now is that which is filtered by the West, especially by Hollywood, or by its own government. In the Black Panther case, marketers were afraid a movie with a majority black cast wouldn’t do well in the second biggest movie market. But they were wrong, which might point more towards the curiosity of a culturally insular people to people different from them than to an appreciation of black people. The social interactions are already shaping China’s inevitable diversity explosion. An example is the marriage between a Chinese man and a Cameroonian woman, which has become an online sensation within the Chinese corner of the web.

***

In much the same way that black skin connotes poverty to the common Chinese, fair skin connotes wealth to the common Kenyan. One example was a photograph of a Chinese man selling roasted maize in Nairobi. The image went viral in 2012, and often had captions, such as the “Chinese invasion” of the informal economy. That same year, there was a protest in Nairobi on the same issue, where one protester said, “The Chinese must go. Let them come and build roads.” It was a response to the increasing number not just of cheap Chinese products in the market, but Chinese businessmen in the informal economy. This has happened before, but when it did, Kenya didn’t exist as an independent country. The Indian labourers who first came to build the railway at the end of the 19th century set up dukas and businesses, and became the middle race in the British colonial hierarchy. As loosely connected networks of related cultures, even Indians today are accused of racism against black people.

China cannot ignore that while they went through centuries of being insular, Africa went through radical transformation. It went through slavery, civil wars, colonial conquest, liberation wars, independence, coups, and democratic revolutions. Its sons and daughters were shackled and taken across seas. They were kept in human zoos and others sent to the cotton fields. At home, millions were caged in concentration camps by people with lighter skin, and killing a black person was considered pretty much the same as killing an animal. When the first white man was being hanged in Kenya, the white community here couldn’t believe one of their own was dying for killing a black man who had thrown stones at his dog. That was in the 1950s, and I am not sure Kenya hanged any other white man until it unofficially suspended executions in 1987.

This history is conveniently forgotten, at least officially. Perhaps the hope is that it will fade into the background, which is impossible. Ignoring the issues of race is essentially also ignoring the issues of class that colonialism built. Even worse, it is downplaying the fact that the debt model China is using is worsening, not helping, the glaring inequality in African countries. As China seeks to transfer its surplus capacity to Africa, it has not only skewed competition and stifled formal markets, but it is also seeking dominance over the informal sector as well. There are small-scale Chinese businesspeople even in agriculture, raising the chances of a new xenophobia.

Since Kenyan elites are personally benefitting from this newfound love with China, they are willing to ignore China’s negative impact on Kenyan society. They are also unwilling to seek any leverage with China that would hurt their pockets. Their hope is that the same way that the Uganda Railway built a country, the new SGR will set Kenya off to a new future. But in its months of operations, and even before, it’s become clear that the railway is a white elephant – a white elephant that barely grows the Kenyan economy because it was made for China. The Chinese built it for the same reason slavers scoured the landscape in caravans, and the British built a railway – to steal from people who they believed to be lesser than them.

***

Unlike the 19th century conquests, when our ancestors were caught mostly unaware of the global order, we are living in a time when we can see it in motion. The Kenyans alive from 1895 all the way to the mid-1960s experienced institutionalized racism. It was ingrained in their psyche that lighter skin was better than darker skin. Our cultural experience has been with the West, hence even a significant part of how we process cultural problems like racism is influenced by the Western catharsis on race issues. For China, as a society united on the basis of being superior to everyone else, this presents an opportunity – one that has become roads and bridges and railways. Buildings and disappearing ports. An opportunity driven by debt, the promise of a future built, funded, and owned by the Chinese.

Since Kenyan elites are personally benefitting from this newfound love with China, they are willing to ignore China’s negative impact on Kenyan society. They are also unwilling to seek any leverage with China that would hurt their pockets. Their hope is that the same way that the Uganda Railway built a country, the new SGR will set Kenya off to a new future.

China’s claims that the Western media is trying to drive a wedge (which it is) between Sino-African relations portray blackness as a point of contention only between white people and Asians. It feels as if black people are kids being discussed, or fought over, in a room by adults. It’s clear in the one-size-fits-all approach to infrastructure projects, where instead of adopting cultural elements to infrastructure projects, China prefers its own model. When it has to translate signage to local languages, it chooses algorithmic translations to human interaction. It also prefers its own professionals and, in most instances, blue-collar workers. With little leverage, economies such as Kenya have acquiesced, choosing to ignore the damage this is doing to the same societies it should be uplifting.

For our new creditors, the Chinese, this reality only exists in conversations they have nothing to do with. For them, blessed as they are with significant ethnic homogeneity and more used to social hierarchy based on class, there’s no need to atone if you treat others differently simply because they are poor. That they happen to be black is actually secondary. And for a business society built to work like the parts of a factory, what matters are emotions based on facts.

The blindness of the Chinese to their own racism presents a chance to the West to reconnect with us – to shift us back from “facing East”, which we only viewed through the lens of economic prosperity, not the cultural challenges. This 2013 study epitomises the Western perspective of Chinese racism and African experience with anti-racism. In this global chess match, we are the piece, the pawns and the merchandise. And that presents itself as a challenge when we have mortgaged our economies and, therefore, the basis of our cultural cohesion as a nation-state. Instances of racism that belong to a time long past are back in the news, but we are processing them differently from those who are racist against us.

For our new creditors, the Chinese, this reality only exists in conversations they have nothing to do with. For them, blessed as they are with significant ethnic homogeneity and more used to social hierarchy based on class, there’s no need to atone if you treat others differently simply because they are poor. That they happen to be black is actually secondary.

By this point, you must be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the most recent cases. I don’t think I need to. At least not about Liu Jiaqi, who confidently and without flinching said, “I don’t belong to here. I don’t like here, like monkey people, I don’t like talk with them, it smells bad, and poor, and foolish, and black. I don’t like them. Why not [like] the white people, like the American?” Or the many other instances, such as the restaurant in Nairobi that refused service to blacks after 5pm. Or the racism, discrimination, and emotional abuse experienced by those not just working at the SGR, but at almost every Chinese-owned or run business in the country. We can’t deport all our Chinese visitors (because we owe them money), but we must remind them that if nothing else, we will not sit and become second-class citizens simply because we happen to be born black.

How should we experience this, as African societies who have been at the bottom of almost every global socio-political hierarchy in recent history? Do we think of ourselves as a global force? Are we proud to be black because we are beautiful, or because we are reacting to those who say we are not? We see ourselves through how others see us, and thus accept this reality unless it directly affects us. Or we have learnt to acknowledge that it is wrong and untenable.

If we didn’t know it yet, here’s the truth. There’s no cultural exchange happening with the Chinese. While their economic conquest is in full gear, it is ripping the fabric of our societies in its wake. Instead of processing this new reality, however, we are reacting in real time, with no real plan. It is not the work of the oppressed to understand the oppressor, but because we still don’t see China as a new conqueror, and we live in a time of forced self-reflection, we might need to. How many more Chinese people can we deport for racism, insults, and being uncouth before we realise the problem is not just with individuals involved? The other side does actually see as stupid, pliable, poor, animal-like lesser beings.

If we didn’t know it yet, here’s the truth. There’s no cultural exchange happening with the Chinese. While their economic conquest is in full gear, it is ripping the fabric of our societies in its wake. Instead of processing this new reality, however, we are reacting in real time, with no real plan.

When we turned East, we should have restarted a conversation we’d already had. That we Kenyans, as a diverse country of mostly dark-skinned people, are deserving of respect as human beings. That we are proud to be black, and we will not accept to be enslaved again or to be made to feel like lesser human beings. There’s enough to worry about as a Kenyan in 2018 without having to deal with yet another group of people who think that because we have less than they do, we can’t think for ourselves. But this conversation needs to start from within, by acknowledging that we are a proud society with diverse cultures, a colourful history, and world-class artisans who are capable of making a statue.

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Owaahh is the pseudonym of a blogger based in Nairobi

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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