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PASSPORTS TO RICHES: Semlex’s dubious dealings with African governments

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The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world has one of the most expensive passports and Comoros issues diplomatic passports to non-Comorians. By TAMA MULE

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PASSPORTS TO RICHES: Semlex’s dubious dealings with African governments
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Albert Karaziwan is a multi-millionaire who in 1992 founded Semlex, a privately traded company owned primarily by him and his family. Semlex supplies passports and identification cards. In 2008, Karaziwan claimed that his businesses had a combined value of 100 million euros.

Karaziwan has had close ties with the governments of at least 18 African countries spanning the whole of the continent, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Libya, Mozambique, and the Ivory Coast. The most prominent among these, as far as his connections go, is the Comoros Islands, from where he holds three diplomatic passports. He has also twice attended the United Nations General Assembly as a part of the Comoros delegation. He was made a roving ambassador of the Comoros and at least eight of his staff were nominated for Comoros honorary consulships between 2010 and 2012. Another big partner of his is the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was seen at the United Nations General Assembly with the Congolese delegation early in 2017.

Despite these surprisingly powerful connections, Karaziwan is neither a citizen of Comoros, DRC or of any other African nation with which he has been able to secure incredible financial footholds and political appointments. He is a Syria-born Belgian citizen who for close to two decades has used Semlex and its various partners, as well as political clout and connections on the continent, to secure multiple hundred-million-dollar deals to provide passports and other identification documents to African countries at exorbitant prices and sometimes without going through open tender processes.

In the Comoros, presidential decrees and various documents have revealed that Semlex-supplied Comoros passports have been bought by foreigners. A parliamentary investigation into the sale of passports to foreigners found that more than 2,800 Comoros diplomatic passports have been issued since 2008 – in a country with a population of about 800,000. At least 184 of these passports were issued to non-Comorians.

Karaziwan became involved in a Comoros programme to raise cash by selling citizenships. The plan was aimed mainly at the Bidoon people of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates who do not possess citizenship of any country. It offered Gulf governments a means of identifying these people without giving them local citizenship. It also provided the Comoros with much-needed revenue. The Comoros government received just over $4,500 for each citizenship issued, according to government documents from 2012. The Emirati government estimated that the number of Bidoon within the country ranged from 20,000 to 100,000. Currently at least 40,000 of these people carry Comorian passports.

However, the citizenships and passports were also being sold to non-Bidoon people, sometimes at much higher prices, according to Comoros investigators. Comoros passports are of value because they offer citizenship with no tax obligations, allow the opening of bank accounts In Gulf States and facilitate visa-free travel through the Gulf and to many major business hubs globally, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as to tax haven countries such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, Mauritius, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Panama, according to U.S officials in the State Department who specialise in the region.

The Comoros government allowed some of these sales to be facilitated by a Dubai-based firm called Lica International Consulting, according to an agreement between the two entities reviewed by Reuters. Three sources, one with direct knowledge of Semlex operations, said Lica is controlled by Karaziwan while two of these sources claim that Lica is run on behalf of Karaziwan by a business associate named Cedric Fevre, a name that appears many times during this saga. Lica was supposed to vet the candidates for citizenship and pay the Comoros government $10,000 per document issued, according to the agreement between the company and the government.

The Iranian connection

A presidential decree revealed a list of 21 foreigners who had been proposed by Lica for Comorian citizenship, which had then been granted by the president, while a former Comoros government official said he knew of at least 23 other passports sold through Lica to non-Comorians. Two sources with knowledge of Karaziwan’s activities claimed that Lica asked for at least 100,000 euros for supplying a Comoros passport. A series of presidential decrees have revealed that some of the Comoros passports were sold to people who had been accused by the United States of breaking sanctions with Iran.

A decree from July of 2015 revealed that a man named Hamid Reza Malakotipour was granted Comoros citizenship. He had been sanctioned in 2014 by the United States government, which alleged that he was in possession of an Iranian passport and had used his Comorian citizenship to circumvent the sanctions placed on Iran by the United States and to supply the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria.

Also revealed in the same decree was that a man called Mohammed Zarrab of Turkish- Iranian origin was issued with Comorian citizenship. He was accused by U.S prosecutors in 2016 of violating the U.S sanctions on Iran by using the U.S financial system to undertake hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transactions on behalf of Iran. His brother Reza Zarrab was also indicted on claims that he had transacted on behalf of the Iran-based Mahan Air, which had been sanctioned for airlifting weapons to Iran’s Quds Forces and Hezbollah. A Reuters investigation was unable to glean how the two individuals received their passports, and the extent to which Semlex and Lica were involved

In January 2018, the Comoros government cancelled a batch of passports that had been issued to foreigners, saying they had been improperly issued. A confidential list of the passport recipients reviewed by Reuters discovered that more than 100 of the 155 passports that had been cancelled belonged to Iranians, among whom were senior executives of companies in sectors that had been targeted by U.S sanctions. The government of Iran does not officially permit its citizens to hold more than one passport, but a source familiar with the process stated that Iranian military intelligence had given the green light for some of these senior officials so that business transactions and travel could be carried out with ease.

According to details contained in a database of Comoros passports issued between 2008 (when the government programme to sell citizenships began) and 2017, more than 1,000 people whose place of birth was Iran bought Comoros passports. Some of the names on this list include names such as:

  • Mojtaba Arabmoheghi, one of the top managers of the Iranian oil industry, who obtained a Comoros passport in 2014 while he was the chairman of Sepeher Gostar Hamoun. He was also a commercial consultant for a firm called Silk Road Petroleum in the UAE whose financial director, a man named Naser Masoomian, also acquired a Comoros passport on the same day.
  • Mohammed Sadegh Kaveh, who heads Kaveh Port and Marine Services, obtained a Comoros passport in 2015. Kaveh and his family are among the main operators of Iran’s Shahid Rajaee port that handles most of Iran’s container traffic
  • Hossein Mokhtari Zanjani, an influential figure in Iran’s energy sector and a lawyer who handles domestic and international disputes, acquired a Comoros passport in 2013.

On its website, Lica listed a Dubai-based company called Bayat Group as a partner, which, according to the latter’s website, specialises in providing citizenships of places such as Comoros, Malta and St. Kitts and Nevis. Bayat Group is headed by Sam Bayat Makou, an Iranian who acquired a Comoros passport in July of 2013, though this was among the passports that were cancelled by the Comoros government. Makou said that Iranians acquired Comoros passports because “Comorians have better visa-free access than Iranians” to many Far East countries. Bayat Group, according to Makou, had done work with Lica, which he claimed was licenced by the government of Comoros to market the passports outside the Bidoon programme.

In January 2018, the Comoros government cancelled a batch of passports that had been issued to foreigners, saying they had been improperly issued. A confidential list of the passport recipients reviewed by Reuters discovered that more than 100 of the 155 passports that had been cancelled belonged to Iranians, among whom were senior executives of companies in sectors that had been targeted by U.S sanctions.

The incumbent President at the time was called Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, and throughout his 2006-2011 tenure, he began to forge strong ties with Iran. Sambi had been educated in the Iranian holy city of Qom, and when he ascended to power, he visited Tehran in 2008. The then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was looking to cultivate relations with African and Latin American states as the West took increasing measures to distance itself from Iran. Following Sambi’s visit to Tehran, Ahmadinejad visited Comoros in 2009. In addition, Sambi is said to have had Iranians within his personal guard and was referred to as “The Ayatollah of Comoros” by some islanders.

Though Sambi left power in 2011, he declined to comment on the sale of the said passports to non-Comorians. The sale of these passports continued under his successor, Ikililou Dhoinine, who was in office from 2011-2016. Though Dhoinine has no obvious links to Iran, he declined Reuters’ requests to comment on the situation.

His successor Azali Assoumani came to power in 2016 and changed tack completely, severing ties with Iran and aligning with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Nations at odds with Iran. He set up a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate the programme that sold citizenship to the Bidoon. The commission found that as early as 2013, the UAE informed the Comoros government that hundreds of passports had been sold to foreigners outside the programme. This was after UAE officials noticed people who were neither Comorian nor Bidoon travelling through the country on Comoro passports. A Comoros security source said that the Comorian intelligence services had received reports of people with Comoros passports being killed on the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Somalia, a demonstration of how widespread the sale of Comoros passports had become. As a result, the United States has begun to perform more thorough background checks on people travelling with Comoros passports.

According to a parliamentary report, at least $100 million in revenue from the sale of these passports was never received by the government of Comoros and had gone missing, though the government has not released a statement explaining where they think the money could have gone.

The deal in the DRC

The investigation in the Comoros followed a report published by Reuters in April of 2017 that revealed that Semlex was the same company responsible for issuing biometric passports in the impoverished Democratic Republic of Congo for the exorbitant price of $185 per passport, making the DRC passport among the most expensive passports in the world. This in a country where the average national income is $394.25 a year.

Between October 2014 and June 2015, Karaziwan corresponded with Congolese authorities on the passport deal. Initially, in an October 2014 correspondence, he told Joseph Kabila, the incumbent president of the DRC, that Semlex would be able to provide the biometric passports at a cost of between 20 and 40 euros each as Semlex had its own printing facilities. Five days later, Karaziwan invited two members from Kabila’s inner circle, Moise Ekana Lushyma and Emmanuel Adrupiako, to Dubai to discuss a possible contact. By 13 November 2014, the price for the passports had risen to $120.

In the Comoros, presidential decrees and various documents have revealed that Semlex-supplied Comoros passports have been bought by foreigners. A parliamentary investigation into the sale of passports to foreigners found that more than 2,800 Comoros diplomatic passports have been issued since 2008 – in a country with a population of about 800,000. At least 184 of these passports were issued to non-Comorians.

Fiinally, in March 2015, Karaziwan was invited to Congo to finalise the proposal for the passport programme. In June of the same year, the final contract was signed by Karaziwan, the Congolese Finance Minister Henry Yay Mulang and the Congolese Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda. Semlex had agreed to invest $222 million into the project and the Congoloese government ageed to raise the price of the passport, charging its citizens $185 for every passport issued. (The steep rise is doubly shocking considering a rival proposal from another Belgian company called Zetes. Zetes outlined a plan and confirmed making an offer in 2014 to supply Congo with biometric passports that would cost $28.50 each.) From the revenue made from the passports, only $65 dollars would go to the Congolese government. The remaining $120 would be given to a group of companies that include, Semlex Europe in Brussels, Semlex World in the UAE, Semlex’s Lithuanian printer and a UAE entity called LRPS.

In a second agreement in June of the same year, the $120 was further divided up, with $12 from every passport sale going to Mantenga Contacto, a Kinshasa-based firm that would handle the projects “human resources issues, including supplying staff”. The three Semlex firms from the previous agreement were allotted $48 per passport issued, leaving out $60 of the money allotted to the consortium of companies going to LRPS, who would in return help with administration, logistics and relationship with the government.

Though LRPS was represented in the government talks by Karaziwan, it is currently owned by Makie Makolo Wangoi, according to a source familiar with the passport deal. A Bloomberg investigation into the business interests of the Congolese president and his family revealed that Wangoi was Joseph Kabila’s sister. Corporate records confirmed that she was a shareholder in several companies with other Kabila family members.

A Reuters investigation was unable to verify the status of LRPS, but its certificate of incorporation from Ras al Khaimah in the UAE revealed that it was established on 14 January 2015 just as Semlex was negotiating the passport deal with Kabila’s representatives. The certificate of incorporation does not reveal who owned the company when it was established, but a second document from that same year revealed that in late 2015, LRPS was owned by Cedric Fevre, a business associate of Karaziwan based in Dubai, who also ran Lica International Consulting, one of the firms implicated in the sale of Comoros passports to non-Comorians.

Though the computer-created document that revealed this information is unsigned, the metadata embedded in it shows that it was created in the UAE in 2015 and printed on 25 June of the same year. On that same day, Fevre transferred all 10,000 shares in LRPS to Wangoi, according to a source with direct knowledge of the deal. The only signed copies of the share transfer agreement are in the possession of Fevre and Wangoi, both of whom declined to respond to questioning from Reuters investigators.

A few weeks after the deal was signed, bank documents and emails revealed that two UAE-based companies made deposits of $700,000 to the private bank accounts of Emmanuel Addrupiako, one of the advisors that Kabila sent to the UAE to meet with Karaziwan during the initial talks for the passport deal. One of the companies that made the payments was called Berea International and the other was called Cedovane. The incumbency certificate for Berea revealed that the Semlex CEO, Karaziwan, was the director, secretary and sole shareholder of Berea. Another director of Berea was none other than Cedric Fevre, who is also a director of Cedovane.

The investigation in the Comoros followed a report published by Reuters in April of 2017 that revealed that Semlex was the same company responsible for issuing biometric passports in the impoverished Democratic Republic of Congo for the exorbitant price of $185 per passport, making the DRC passport among the most expensive passports in the world.

The payments were made through United Arab Bank (UAB). UAB documents show that on 29 July 2015, Cedovane paid $300,000 to a Royal Bank of Canada account held by Adrupiako in Quebec. The documents cite a “loan agreement.” Then, on 25 August, Berea International paid $400,000 to Adrupiako’s account with Jyske Bank in Denmark. According to bank emails and contact with Berea, Adrupiako told Jyske Bank that the money was to pay for a four-storey building that Berea was renting from him in Kinshasa. The transaction triggered concern in Copenhagen. Reuters visited the site of this four-storey building and found that it was still under construction and Berea had no visible presence there.

The passport contract in Congo runs for five years and does not specify how many passports will be produced, but in recent years DRC has issued nearly 2.5 million passports annually. Sources with direct knowledge of the Semlex-Congo deal said that on one occasion Semlex had claimed that it had produced 145,000 passports by the end of January 2017, earning LRPS nearly $9 million. A Reuters reviewed document then revealed that Semlex said it would be able to supply DRC with 2 million passports per year once everything was fully operational, a deal that would make LRPS $120 million a year.

Kabila was due to step down from DRC’s presidency in December 2016, but elections were postponed, and he retains power as tension, violence and calls for him to step down increase. Dozens were killed in violent clashes between protestors and police, and his domestic opponents assert that his authority has run out – though even if Kabila does step down, LRPS will continue to make money as Article 14 of the contract for the deal states that the agreement remains valid even if “institutional changes” occur within the country.

Other dodgy contracts

Karaziwan’s and Semlex’s exploits in Africa do not end with the Congo or Comoros. Early in 2017, the government of Mozambique terminated a 10-year contract with Semlex worth several hundreds of millions of dollars that had been awarded in 2009 by the previous government. According to sources close to Semlex, the deal was struck without an open tender, and the new government claims that only a fraction of the $100 million that Semlex had promised to spend on training, electronic scanners and other types of infrastructure was invested. The passports were going to cost citizens of Mozambique $80 each in a nation whose average income per capita was under $500 per year. Officials from the Mozambique Centre for Public Integrity (CIP) published a review of the contract in 2015 revealing that the state only collected 8% of the revenues from the ID documents produced between 2011 and 2014

In Guinea Bissau, Helder Tavares Proenca was listed as a Semlex agent in the country, according to Semlex documents reviewed by Reuters. In November 2005, Proenca became the defence minister and in early 2006 Semlex won contracts to supply the country with passports, visas, ID cards and foreign resident cards. Semlex documents revealed that Proenca was paid at least 80,000 euros between 2004 and 2009.

Proenca was assassinated in 2009, but in 2010, Semlex employees, including Karaziwan, discussed what percentage of revenue they would have to pay former and current Guinea Bissau officials to secure a further contract to provide the country with passports and identification cards for foreigners. A proposal was made to pay a commission of 20% of the price of a passport and 15% of the revenue that Semlex received for residence permits issued to foreigners. Karaziwan was asked to sign off on the offer on 24 January 2011 and the next day he replied, “You can confirm it.”

In Guinea Bissau, Helder Tavares Proenca was listed as a Semlex agent in the country, according to Semlex documents reviewed by Reuters. In November 2005, Proenca became the defence minister and in early 2006 Semlex won contracts to supply the country with passports, visas, ID cards and foreign resident cards. Semlex documents revealed that Proenca was paid at least 80,000 euros between 2004 and 2009.

However, the Guinea Bissau government says that Semlex did not win a further contract but other Semlex emails show staff describing certain payments as bribes. In November of 2010, Michele Bauters, the Semlex finance manager, requested an employee to detail how he had spent close to $80,000 euros provided for operations in Africa, to which he plainly replied that it had gone towards rent and utility bills while 10,000 euros had gone towards “pot de vin” (the French term for bribes). When asked about what had happened to half of the $10,000, he responded that it had gone to pay “a bribe that Albert Karaziwan made me pay recently”.

In Madagascar, there is evidence of Semlex benefitting disproportionately in comparison to the state in a deal that the two entities signed. Semlex extended an existing contract to provide passports to Madagascar in 2013, and more than doubled the amount charged. In the deal, citizens would pay 36.25 euros for a passport. Of this amount, 33.75 euros would go to Semlex, leaving the Madagascan state with only 2.5 euros for every passport issued. Previously, Semlex only received 15.50 euros for every passport issued. And not that producing these passports is restrictively expensive. An invoice from Imprimerie National, a French printing firm that provided Semlex with blank passports prior to Semlex setting up their own printing facilities in Lithuania, showed that Semlex paid between 1.75 and 2 euros per document for projects in Madagascar, Gabon and Comoros between 2007 and 2008.

Semlex appears again in Gambia in a much bigger way than the two instances mentioned above. While the country was ruled by the now deposed dictator Yahya Jammeh, an opaque deal was signed with Semlex to manage the provision of identity documents to Gambia. Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, seems to be pursuing widespread reformative policies, such as removing restrictions on free speech. However, leaked data, including contracts, emails and international correspondence from company and government insiders, have revealed that the new government is seeking to renew the contract with Semlex to provide identity documents to the country. The former interior minister under Jammeh, Ousman Sonko, had signed a 5-year contract with Semlex in June 2015 to provide biometric ID cards and border control systems for Gambia. Semlex would retain 70% of the profits from this deal with the rest going to the government. Overall the company was estimated to make $67 million over the course of the 5 years.

The deal was met with protests from several civil society organisations that believed that the contract would allow Semlex to gain control over the identities of Gambia’s citizens. According to critics of the said contract, its flaws touch a wide range of areas. For instance, a signed version of the contract obtained by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) does not mention any form of government oversight. The contract prohibits government interference with any third parties that Semlex or its partners select to carry out the work and allows the firm to repatriate profits anywhere without limits on the timeframe or the amount. The contract further places no restrictions on Semlex’s role in collecting, storing, using or safeguarding citizens’ private data. It also does not spell out who is responsible for oversight or handling of identity cards and passports. It is not clear on who is considered a non-citizen or alien. Finally, the contract also stipulates that the deal will not be affected by any institutional changes: “The validity and continuity of this contact shall not be affected by any institutional change within Gambia.” This is almost like the contract signed by Semlex and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As a response to this backlash, the national assembly launched an inquiry into the arrangement, while the government issued a press release stating that while the Semlex contract would remain in place, it was under review.

Since the contract was signed in 2016, it has remained largely unimplemented. A local company called Pristine had been provided, without bids, two contracts from 2009 to 2020 to produce identification documents for the country and has continued to provide the documents. The owners of Pristine have told reporters that if they lose the contract to the more politically connected Semlex, they would be in a lot of debt, as the family that owns it has invested $4.3 million for the work required for the provision of the documents.

Jammeh, Gambia’s former ruler, confused matters further when he gave the firms Zetex (another Belgain company) and its local partner Africard the same deal that he had given Semlex. There has been no evidence that any work has been undertaken by these two companies.

In January 2017, Semlex was also granted a contract to provide voter cards to Gambia. This was again carried out with no apparent government oversight and critics of the contract fear that it might use its power over the voter cards to influence elections, as the company is dependent on the success of the regime for its own personal success.

The original Semlex deal in Gambia was orchestrated by Laurent Lamothe, the former Prime Minister of Haiti and the director of Global Voice Group, a US-based communications company. Lamothe began working with Semlex in early 2007. The two companies drafted contracts and agreed to create a local venture known as Semlex Gambia and a company named Biometric International Group to be run by Lamothe. According to one version of the contract, Biometric International would earn 20% of the joint venture revenues, which would be paid out as bonuses, though who the benefactor/s of these bonuses are remains unclear. In July of 2007, they sent an email with a formal submission to the Gambian government, though it is unclear whether Biometric International was involved at the time. In addition, no deal seems to have been finalised at the time.

In 2016, Jammeh’s office instructed that the deal with Semlex be cancelled in favour of a contract with Zetex and Africard. This led to conflicting claims over which company had the rights to the contract. It then emerged that none of the three companies – Semlex, Pristine or Zetex – had ever been subjected to Gambia’s public procurement process. The office of the president in Gambia is allowed to “exempt any procuring organisation from requiring the approval of the Authority with respect to any procurement in whole or part”. Such exemptions are legally required to be published in the official Gazette. The government, however, seems to be siding with Semlex. As mentioned above, it maintains that Semlex’s contract is valid though its terms require re-evaluation. Critics fear the re-evaluation of the contract will not be effective as the national assembly is only allocated 10 days to investigate and review the contract.

How do Semlex, Karaziwan and his consortium of associates manage to secure these deals up and down the African continent? An important player in helping them secure these connections is Zina Wazouna Ahmed Idriss (referred to as “Madame Idriss” in Semlex emails). She is an ex-wife or President Idriss Deby of Chad. An email written by the Semlex finance manager, as well as sources with knowledge of Semlex’s operations, described her role as acting as an intermediary to help Semlex win new business in Africa.

In 2007 and 2008, Semlex secured two deals worth $21 million euros to produce passports, visas and ID cards for Gabon. From 2008 to 2010, Madame Idriss received payments totalling 1.6 million euros from Semlex, according to a Semlex spreadsheet of costs related to her. The invoices described the payments as commissions for helping land business in Gabon. The payments were made in various forms, including money for hotels, ski lessons, dresses, flights, credit card payments and cash, according to a Semlex spreadsheet from 2011. Payments totaling 565,561 euros went towards a house that Madame Idriss became the owner of in the upmarket district of Waterloo in Brussels. The payment was listed as “Maison Waterloo”. An additional 9,000 euros went towards rent for an apartment in Monaco. Madame Idriss was nominated by the Comoros foreign ministry as an honorary consul of the Comoros to Monaco in July 2010, according to Comoros foreign ministry documents.

How do Semlex, Karaziwan and his consortium of associates manage to secure these deals up and down the African continent? An important player in helping them secure these connections is Zina Wazouna Ahmed Idriss (referred to as “Madame Idriss” in Semlex emails). She is an ex-wife or President Idriss Deby of Chad. An email written by the Semlex finance manager, as well as sources with knowledge of Semlex’s operations, described her role as acting as an intermediary to help Semlex win new business in Africa.

***

In May 2018, Comoros officials in Brussels raided the headquarters of Semlex following the Reuters report on the company’ dealings in the DRC. Francis Koning, a lawyer who represents Karaziwan and Semlex, claimed that unidentified third parties were manipulating Reuters with the aim of damaging the reputation of Karaziwan and his company. He said, “Semlex Europe has no role in the decision to issue passports. This is the sole prerogative of the Comoros authorities who are the only authorised representatives to do so.” He then added that Semlex “is neither responsible nor to blame for the actions or acts” that are alleged in the Comoros parliamentary report on the sale of passports, “supposing they even took place”.

This report has been compiled from a series of investigations carried out and published by Reuters.

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Tama Mule is an editorial intern at The Elephant and an undergraduate at McGill University.

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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