Connect with us

Politics

MATING RITUALS: Fault lines in the donor-NGO relationship

16 min read.

As Western donors make nice with the government and abandon Kenya’s vocal civil society organisations, can social media ride to the rescue of citizen activism? By RASNA WARAH

Published

on

MATING RITUALS: Fault lines in the donor-NGO relationship
Download PDFPrint Article

Prior to the 2013 general election in Kenya, presidential aspirant Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto employed a clever (and highly cynical) strategy that used to their “advantage” the fact that they were both indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity committed after the 2007 election. In a campaign that shocked much of the world – and left many dumbfounded – the duo presented themselves as “victims” of a flawed and racist international justice system and painted the election as “a referendum against the ICC”. Thanks to a well-oiled PR machinery (that included the likes of the controversial firm Cambridge Analytica), they were declared the winners of the election (albeit by a small margin that was contested by the opposition) because, not in spite, of the fact that they were indicted.

The UhuRuto election campaign also castigated non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – also known as civil society organisations (CSOs) – and the Western donors that funded them as “evil society”. Prior to the election, the United States Assistant Secretary of State, Johnny Carson, had warned of “consequences” if Kenyatta and Ruto vied for the presidency and the then British High Commissioner to Kenya, Christian Turner, had stated that if the two candidates’ Jubilee Alliance coalition party won the elections, his government would only maintain “essential contact” with its top officials. (This would all change after Uhuru Kenyatta became the president, but I will come to that later.)

Underlying the anti-West rhetoric was a sub-text that cast Western donors and the NGOs they funded as imperialists. Prominent NGOs that had questioned the legitimacy of ICC indictees running for the presidency were labelled as foreign stooges intent on disrupting the peace and on undermining the country’s sovereignty. (The attack on NGOs as imperialist lackeys seemed disingenuous and hypocritical, considering that Kenyatta’s family has vast business interests that are linked to Western capital and that he had even hired a British PR firm, BTP Advisers, to manage his 2013 presidential campaign and public relations. As professor Horace Campbell noted, the “pseudo anti-imperialism” of Kenyatta was so layered that it would have required a high level of sophistication to grasp the game-playing that was going on.)

Kenyan NGOs were among the first casualties of Jubilee’s unexpected election victory. Writing in African Arguments, Kenyan researcher Kennedy Opalo noted that “at some point in the election cycle they [NGOs] lost the support of a sizeable chunk of the middle class. The feeling of betrayal was hard to miss. The very people they had fought for had rejected their cause.”

This sense of betrayal was evident in Professor Makau Mutua’s weekly column in the Sunday Nation of 21 April 2013, in which he described the deep loss that he and his fellow civil society activists felt as “an existential moment”. Fearful that NGOs might not survive a Kenyatta government, Mutua, the chair and founder of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, stated that civil society activists felt “betrayed by a population they’ve always fought for”, adding that “engaging” and “dialoguing” with the new government would only serve to legitimise it, a notion he found hard to stomach.

Kenyan NGOs were among the first casualties of Jubilee’s unexpected election victory. Writing in African Arguments, Kenyan researcher Kennedy Opalo noted that “at some point in the election cycle they [NGOs] lost the support of a sizeable chunk of the middle class. The feeling of betrayal was hard to miss. The very people they had fought for had rejected their cause.”

Now, more than five years after it castigated Western donors and the ICC as racist imperialists and donor-funded Kenyan NGOs as the “evil society”, the Jubilee government, it seems, has not only mended fences with the West, but Western donors are falling over themselves to impress the government, perhaps in an attempt to secure lucrative infrastructure and other deals and to ensure their geopolitical interests in the region. After threatening all manner of “consequences”, including sanctions and “minimal contact” if the two candidates were elected, donor countries, notably Britain and the United States, have recanted their earlier positions. Given that Britain and the United States, in particular, have huge security and economic interests in the country and in the Horn of Africa, it is likely that their relationship with the Kenyan government is set to flourish. There is no more talk of Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s cases at the ICC (which were dropped due insufficient evidence, witness intimidation and state non-cooperation). Instead Western donors are working overtime to lend support to Jubilee’s development agenda – perhaps in an attempt to counter the increasing influence of China on the Kenyan government’s policies and programmes.

NGOs have thus been relegated to the back burner, making many civil society activists wonder whether all the talk by Western donors about good governance, accountability and human rights was mere rhetoric and not a desired or expected outcome of the donors’ engagement with them. And Western donors are back in the government’s saddle, much to the activists’ amazement and disbelief. They have not only gone on a charm offensive with the Jubilee government but they have also remained largely silent in the face of major corruption scandals that have characterised the Jubilee administration since it took power. NGOs that would have been more vocal about a mismanaged economy or human rights abuses are now struggling to get Western donors’ attention.

Meanwhile, high profile civil society activists who have been vocal critics of both Kenyatta and Ruto are slowly fading into the distance. Some NGOs have even been threatened with closure by the NGO Coordination Board, which has come up with spurious charges against them, an indicator that the space for civil society is likely to shrink further.

Mating ritual

But then why are we surprised by this turn of events? This “mating ritual”, as The Economist once described the relationship between Kenya and its Western donors, is hardly new. The government-donor relationship has undergone several incarnations, ranging from passive-aggressive non-cooperation to grudging accommodation to deliberate re-alignment. The mating ritual’s steps, to quote The Economist article published in August 1998, are as follows:

“One, Kenya wins its yearly pledges of foreign aid. Two, the government begins to misbehave, backtracking on economic reform and behaving in an authoritarian manner. Three, a new meeting of donor countries looms with exasperated foreign governments preparing their sharp rebukes. Four, Kenya pulls a placatory rabbit out of the hat. Five, the donors are mollified and the aid is pledged. The whole dance then starts again.”

In his book Liberal Democracy and the Emergence of a Constitutionally Failed State in Kenya, the Kenyan scholar Abdalla Bujra says that Western donors’ emphasis on “good governance” – and their funding of NGO activities that advance this agenda – is not so much premised on the idea that governments have to be democratic, accountable and participatory, but is “to ensure that foreign investors and large corporations conduct business quickly and efficiently in Kenya as well as to ensure that these investors and foreign companies get their maximum profit without having to share it with local elite through corruption”. (Could it be that one of the “rabbits” that Jubilee pulled out of its hat to placate the US government was the awarding of a large multi-billion-dollar contract to a US company to build a six-lane highway between Nairobi and Mombasa?)

In his book Liberal Democracy and the Emergence of a Constitutionally Failed State in Kenya, the Kenyan scholar Abdalla Bujra says that Western donors’ emphasis on “good governance”…is not so much premised on the idea that governments have to be democratic, accountable and participatory, but is “to ensure that foreign investors and large corporations conduct business quickly and efficiently in Kenya…”

Because some foreign aid is channelled to NGOs (ostensibly to exert the donor country’s “soft power”), NGOs in Kenya became inextricably linked to the “good governance” agenda advocated by Western donors and international financial institutions. Kenya’s “second liberation” from Moi’s autocratic rule was partly the result of donor-funded activities that allowed NGOs and their leaders to push forward their demands. As the Kenyan constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina has noted, “the extent to which local politics is often mediated by donors is remarkable”. Donors, Western donors, in particular, he says, “are the first organised group that the opposition in Kenya speaks to when it has an idea to sell”.

Donors thus, in effect, become “embedded” within Kenyan civil society, thereby indirectly exerting influence on the political landscape. Their support also ensured that NGOs promoted the kind of neoliberalism and democracy favoured by Western governments, which emphasises individual, rather than collective, rights, and repudiates notions of “popular power” based on the sovereignty of the people.   (It is important to note, however, that the bulk of bilateral donor aid to Kenya goes to the government; only a small proportion is channelled to NGOs, a fact that successive Kenyan governments have deliberately played down.)

In order to understand how the mating rituals between the Kenyan government and Western donors and between Western donors and NGOs work, it is important to look at how the government-donor-NGO relationship in Kenya evolved.

The evolution of the Kenyan NGO

The role of NGOs in Kenya has changed significantly since colonial times, when they were mainly philanthropic organisations focused on social welfare issues. While some aligned themselves with the anti-colonial struggle, and went on to form political parties and movements, by and large they remained apolitical. (In fact, many NGOs are required to remain non-partisan and apolitical to be eligible for donor funding.)

After independence in 1963, NGOs continued to do charity work, often working hand-in-hand with the government and the private sector in the spirit of harambee (self-help) popularised by the founding president Jomo Kenyatta. Rural communities, in particular, were encouraged to pool together their own resources to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure – which in essence meant that the state abdicated its responsibility towards these communities and expected them to use their own money and labour to bring about “development”. The concept of “harambee” (which means to pull together) also got corrupted in later years as politicians fund-raised for and gave money to harambee projects in order to buy votes and influence constituencies.

However, in the early 1980s, when President Daniel arap Moi tightened his grip on the country after declaring the country a de jure one-party state, a number of underground organisations and advocacy groups emerged to oppose his leadership and to fight for the enlargement of the democratic space. This led to the growth of movements such as the proscribed Mwakenya and other pro-reform groups led by faith-based organisations and individual politicians.

The government’s antagonistic relationship with NGOs has its roots in this period when reformist politicians, intellectuals and activists began demanding greater freedoms and more democratic space. The Moi regime fought their demands by instituting draconian laws, arresting and torturing protesters and activists and disbanding or coopting social movements, such as farmers unions and women’s groups, including Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, the largest grassroots women’s group in the country. Some of these activists went on to form NGOs that later become leading voices in the human rights and democracy movement.

Ironically, the 1980s also coincided with a time when both the government and NGOs started to attract more donor funding, particularly after the Kenyan state began reducing investments in the social sector as required by the World Bank-International Monetary Fund-initiated structural adjustment programmes (SAPs). In an essay titled “The Depoliticisation of Poverty”, Firoze Manji says that the hardships precipitated by SAPs led to some serious re-thinking by official aid agencies and multilaterals on how to present their austerity programmes with “a human face”. Funds were set aside to “mitigate the social dimensions of adjustment”. In the late 1980s, therefore, official aid to Kenya began increasing, rising from $394 million in 1980 to $1.18 billion by 1990. Some of this funding went to the rapidly growing NGO sector, which was seen as more cost-effective, less bureaucratic and more efficient than the state.

SAPs thus enlarged the role and scope of NGOs. Privatisation and the reduced role of the state in service delivery led to a significant rise in the number of Kenyans who were “unserviced”. NGOs and faith-based organisations tried to fill the void left by the state – which did not necessarily lead to improved or expanded service delivery to the masses, but did give rise to many NGOs that focused on delivering basic services, such as health and education.

However, the austerity imposed by SAPs led to a rise in civil unrest and protests by leading opposition leaders, which triggered a backlash against the Moi regime in the early and mid- 1990s. The country’s economy was in shambles and hardships imposed by SAPs were fermenting increased dissatisfaction.

SAPs thus enlarged the role and scope of NGOs. Privatisation and the reduced role of the state in service delivery led to a significant rise in the number of Kenyans who were “unserviced”. NGOs and faith-based organisations tried to fill the void left by the state – which did not necessarily lead to improved or expanded service delivery to the masses, but did give rise to many NGOs that focused on delivering basic services, such as health and education.

By the late 1990s, Western donors’ relationship with the Moi government had also begun deteriorating. In order to pressurise Moi to institute political and economic reforms, donors began reducing the amount of aid given to the country. Figures for Kenya compiled by the World Bank show that official aid to Kenya increased dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but then began dropping in the mid-1990s. By 1999, official bilateral aid to Kenya had dropped to just $310 million, the lowest in two decades.

After Moi’s Kanu party was ousted in the 2002 election by a coalition led by Mwai Kibaki, some NGOs began focusing on issues that the Moi government had failed to tackle or had actually hindered, such as reparation for the victims of historical injustices and the creation of a progressive new constitution. On their part, Western donors, encouraged by the opening of the democratic space and the promise of political and economic reforms, began increasing funding to the Kibaki government and to NGOs; official development assistance (ODA) rose from $525 million in 2003 to $1.3 billion in 2007. This period also saw a rapid rise in the number of NGOs in Kenya, from just 125 in 1974 to more than 6,000 by 2008.

The post-Moi period also saw the co-option of prominent civil society activists and leading lights in the NGO sector into the Kibaki administration; many among them found themselves working for the new government either as elected members of parliament, senior civil servants or advisers. For once it seemed that civil society, NGOs, donors and the government were all on the same page.

However, the cosy relationship between NGOs and the government would change after the disputed 2007 election and its violent aftermath. NGOs dealing with civic education and advocacy found a new calling – that of promoting peace and reconciliation in a country that had become deeply polarised along ethnic lines. Corruption scandals in Kibaki’s first term had also re-energised NGOs that promoted good governance and transparency. The post-election period saw some NGOs and opposition groups intensifying their efforts to advocate for a new constitution (which Kibaki appeared reluctant to implement) that would address historical injustices and safeguard fundamental human rights. (After a lot of back-and-forth, a new constitution was eventually promulgated in 2010 through a nation-wide referendum.)

However, Kibaki’s stated “Look East” policy when it came to development finance, especially for infrastructure, threatened to topple the comfortable paternalistic relationship traditional Western donors enjoyed with the country’s leaders. The appeal of China was irresistible, not only because China did not impose stiff conditionalities on the loans it gave the country, but China’s engagement with Kenya, appeared (on the surface at least) to be mutually beneficial.

This “Look East” policy was further cemented by Uhuru Kenyatta, who barely three weeks after being inaugurated as president in April 2013, made an official visit to China to sign a $3.8 billion deal, most of it in the form of loans for infrastructure projects. (No one wondered how a deal of such magnitude and with so many implications for Kenya’s economy could have been made just days after Kenyatta assumed the presidency, given that bilateral deals of this nature often take months to negotiate.)

Kenya’s love affair with China has blossomed under Kenyatta, much to the detriment of the ordinary Kenyan citizen who is burdened with huge Chinese debts and excessive taxation to service these debts.

The Chinese Communist Party, it seems, has also infected the Jubilee government with an intolerance for dissenting voices. Several NGOs have been threatened with closure, and activists who criticise the government have been vilified on social media by an army of bloggers operating from State House.

The Kenyatta government, like its Chinese counterpart, is also clamping down on the media. In January this year, three TV stations were shut down for almost a week after they aired the “parallel” inauguration ceremony of opposition leader Raila Odinga as “the People’s President”. The Jubilee government is also financially starving media houses by depriving them of advertising: the government’s new MyGov portal that carries all government advertising has deprived many media houses of up to 30 per cent of their advertising revenue. Some newspaper editors have decided to toe the government’s line; there is a feeling that many editorial and management decisions are being made at State House. In March this year, eight columnists working for the Nation Media Group (including myself) resigned due to what we described as “state capture” of the media house.

Intellectual and financial dependency

Some of the problems that NGOs face in the current hostile environment are of their own making. Over-reliance on foreign (mostly Western) donors has created fault lines within the NGO sector which the Jubilee government has fully exploited. Data from the Kenya National Coordination Board shows that more than 90 per cent of Kenyan NGOs’ funding comes from international sources, with only 1 per cent derived from the government. This fact, argues Shadrack W. Nasong’o, raises questions regarding Kenyan NGOs’ independence:

“The reliance of CSOs on external sources of financial support forces them to strive to win the approval of Western donors, lenders, nations and international monitors, rather than the loyalty and support of domestic constituencies, turning them into programmatic appendages of international funding agencies. Given this reality, most of these organisations are unable to effectively counter accusations that they are in the service of foreign rather than local interests. The organisations’ external linkages directly impinge on their agendas and performance.”

Also, as mentioned earlier, NGOs only get the crumbs from the donors’ table: the largest proportion of bilateral donor aid to Kenya has always gone to the state – after all, that is the raison d’être of international development assistance. Given that donor priorities change with the changing priorities of their governments, over-reliance on foreign donor funding can leave NGOs cash-strapped when they least expect it.

Nasang’o further says that NGOs’ contribution to democratisation and popular participation may just be “incidental” rather than “fundamental” because they lack grassroots support; most NGOs are Nairobi-based and speak the “language of donors”, which may not necessarily reflect the needs and desires of social movements and grassroots organisations, such as cooperatives and farmers’ unions. Having no popular grassroots support, many of these NGOs die when their primary funding source vanishes or when donor priorities shift to other areas.

Some of the problems that NGOs face in the current hostile environment are of their own making. Over-reliance on foreign (mostly Western) donors has created fault lines within the NGO sector which the Jubilee government has fully exploited.

Moreover, because they are heavily dependent of Western donors, who come with their own biases and agendas, few of these NGOs are able to assert their independence on the kinds of projects they want to implement. By succumbing to the “language of the donors”, they lose their intellectual independence, as the constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina highlighted in an article published in 1998:

“The language of political reform in Africa is a language generated by donors. Terms like ‘empowerment’ and ‘aid-re-engineering’ are part of the lexicon of the aid business, this language figures prominently in the proposals of local NGOs and in their presentations at seminars. One wonders whether this language can be used among civil society groups in rural Kenya. Even more worrying are suspicions that this dependency on donor language is perhaps part of a larger intellectual dependency…In this regard, it is revealing that key actors in civil society in Kenya, such as cooperatives, farmers and informal groups, hardly ever figure in the reform debate in spite of their obvious power and influence. More remarkably, even when they demonstrate their power to extract concessions from the State in a manner that the more donor-friendly organisations are unable to accomplish, they remain outside the mainstream”

Further, the “professionalisation” of the NGO sector may have hindered the growth of grassroots “Arab Spring” movements made up of ordinary citizens. As Maina has noted, NGOs often reproduce the cleavages in their society; many of the disenfranchising power structures and corrupt practices of government are replicated in the NGO sector because many NGOs’ main aim is not to bring about a fundamental change in society but to ensure their own survival.

In addition, donors’ and NGOs’ focus on “development”, rather than on social justice, ends up “depoliticising” the root causes of poverty and underdevelopment , as Firoze Manji explains:

Far from helping to overturn the social relations that reproduced injustice and impoverishment, the main focus of development was to discover and implement solutions that would enable the victims to cope with, or find ‘sustainable’ solutions for living with impoverishment…Central to this paradigm was to cast ‘poverty’, rather than social justice, as the main problem facing ‘developing countries’. The victims of years of injustices, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by years of colonial rule, were now defined as ‘the problem’, and once so defined, provided the stage set for the entry of the development NGO to participate in the process of depoliticising poverty.”

Manji says that NGOs face a stark choice: either they reinforce the social relations that reproduce poverty, injustice and conflict or they play a positive role in overturning those relations by empowering (for lack of a better word) and giving a voice to those who remain unheard and by helping the poor and the marginalised to accurately diagnose the causes of their poverty and underdevelopment. The latter choice could give rise to a true people’s movement aimed at liberating entire societies from the clutches of retrogressive and authoritarian structures and unjust social and economic systems.

However, the reality is that any hope of a people’s movement has been severely diminished by the “handshake” between Kenyatta and the opposition leader Raila Odinga in March this year. This so-called rapprochement has taken the steam out of many NGOs and opposition groups. For those who spent the better part of the last five years fighting a government they feel is both illegitimate and unethical, the handshake was like a slap in the face. There is a feeling that the handshake was not about ending hostilities between the government and the opposition but about the sharing of state goodies between the president and opposition leader. What deal was struck between the two leaders remains a mystery.

Western donors, on the other hand, perceive the handshake as a mark of success – a shining example of how warring parties in Africa can achieve peace and reconciliation through dialogue. (Note: the “dialogue” that took place between Kenyatta and Odinga was private, was not made public and civil society was not invited to participate in the discussions.) Donors are back in the business of “development” – and government contracts for infrastructure and other projects (including arms deals) that benefit the donor country. Security and the “war on terror” are also likely to remain priority funding areas in the near and distant future.

However, the reality is that any hope of a people’s movement has been severely diminished by the “handshake” between Kenyatta and the opposition leader Raila Odinga in March this year. This so-called rapprochement has taken the steam out of many NGOs and opposition groups. For those who spent the better part of the last five years fighting a government they feel is both illegitimate and unethical, the handshake was like a slap in the face.

With donors no longer interested in actively promoting the good governance and human rights agenda, it is likely that many NGOs will struggle to remain relevant. It is also possible that the nature of the donor-NGO relationship will shift, focusing more on basic needs and service delivery, rather than human rights and governance issues, as it did in the 1990s. With a new set of austerity measures in place, including punitive new taxes (courtesy of the IMF) NGOs may once again be called upon to be the “human face” of hardship.

The idea of having “People’s Assemblies”, and more participatory forms of governance, as proposed by the opposition’s strategist David Ndii, has also died as a result of the handshake between Odinga and Kenyatta. Moreover, the concept that people should be allowed to make decisions about their own welfare – a key principle of devolution that led to the formation of 47 counties – has been tarnished by incompetent and corrupt county governments that are replicating the dysfunctions of the national government. The return of Moi-ism in a different – and perhaps more lethal – garb has set the country back by several decades. However, unlike in the Moi era, NGOs working on issues related to human rights, democracy and good governance are today not likely to find a friendly face at a Western embassy.

Enter social media

The good news is that citizen activism is growing. Tired of opposition politicians who are increasingly being viewed as self-centred and opportunistic and lacking in moral fibre and conviction, the 1.5 million Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) and 5 million Kenyan Facebook users may be the ones who bring about much-needed needed social change. Kenya’s mobile penetration is nearly 90 per cent, which means a large proportion of the population has access to the Internet via smartphones.

Many campaigns, such as the one to switch off Kenya Power, the country’s only electricity supplier, have been initiated using the social media platform, sometimes with positive results. Kenyan social media users have been credited with spearheading the campaign to release the Ugandan politician and musician Bobi Wine from detention. KOT have highlighted issues to do with corruption in government, exorbitant or illegal taxes, and incompetent county governments, among others. Such digital movements may still be urban-based and English-speaking, but they do point to a future where ordinary citizens are becoming more vocal and visible about what they want from their government – that is, if the government does not implement draconian laws to stop their voices from being heard (which it has tried to do through at least three laws, but which the courts have rejected on the grounds that they curtail freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution).

Other environmental and community-led groups, such as those opposed to the building of a coal-powered plant in Lamu, and fact-checking “digital warriors” who monitor or counter false government propaganda or hate speech, are also emerging. Such individuals and groups no longer feel the need to be mediated by NGOs, which is a good thing as it could eventually lead to a groundswell of grassroots social justice movements across the country. 

Note:

Civil society organisations are generally defined as formal or informal groups that operate in the realm between the individual and the state, and include non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based groups, neighbourhood associations, trade unions, charities and faith-based organisations. For the purposes of this article, I have used the term non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which are formal, registered entities that have a national public interest, developmental, social welfare or advocacy function, and which operate largely outside the state, and quite often, in opposition to it. I am not referring to networks, movements or associations that operate informally or outside the law, or which are deemed illegal by the state. Nor am I referring to community-based organisations (CBOs) whose activities are focused at the local community level. 

Support The Elephant.

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

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

By

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

Politics

Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya

The fortress conservation model, created with support from some of the world’s biggest environmental groups and western donors, has led to land dispossession, militarization, and widespread human rights abuses.

Published

on

Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

With its vast expanses and diversity of wildlife, Kenya – Africa’s original safari destination – attracts over two million foreign visitors annually. The development of wildlife tourism and conservation, a major economic resource for the country, has however been at the cost of local communities who have been fenced off from their ancestral lands. Indigenous communities have been evicted from their territories and excluded from the tourist dollars that flow into high-end lodges and safari companies.

Protected areas with wildlife are patrolled and guarded by anti-poaching rangers and are accessible only to tourists who can afford to stay in the luxury safari lodges and resorts. This model of “fortress conservation” – one that militarizes and privatizes the commons – has come under severe criticism for its exclusionary practices and for being less effective than the models where local communities lead and manage conservation activities.

One such controversial model of conservation in Kenya is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). Set up in 2004, the NRT’s stated goal is “changing the game” on conservation by supporting communities to govern their lands through the establishment of community conservancies.

Created by Ian Craig, whose family was part of the elite white minority during British colonialism, the NRT’s origins date back to the 1980s when his family-owned 62,000-acre cattle ranch was transformed into the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Since its founding, the NRT has set up 39 conservancies on 42,000 square kilometres (10,378,426 acres) of land in northern and coastal Kenya – nearly 8 per cent of the country’s total land area.

The communities that live on these lands are predominantly pastoralists who raise livestock for their livelihoods and have faced decades of marginalization by successive Kenyan governments. The NRT claims that its goal is to “transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources.”

However, where the NRT is active, local communities allege that the organization has dispossessed them of their lands and deployed armed security units that have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. Whereas the NRT employs around 870 uniformed scouts, the organization’s anti-poaching mobile units, called ‘9’ teams, face allegations of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, among other abuses. These rangers are equipped with military weapons and receive paramilitary training from the Kenyan Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Academy and from 51 Degrees, a private security company run by Ian Craig’s son, Batian Craig, as well as from other private security firms. Whereas the mandate of NRT’s rangers is supposed to be anti-poaching, they are routinely involved in policing matters that go beyond that remit.

Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife.

Locals have alleged the NRT’s direct involvement in conflicts between different ethnic groups, related to territorial issues and/or cattle raids. Multiple sources within the impacted communities, including members of councils of community elders, informed the Oakland Institute that as many as 76 people were killed in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy during inter-ethnic clashes, allegedly with the involvement of the NRT. Interviews conducted by the Institute established that 11 people have been killed in circumstances involving the conservation body. Dozens more appear to have been killed by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and other government agencies, which have been accused of abducting, disappearing, and torturing people in the name of conservation.

Over the years, conflicts over land and resources in Kenya have been exacerbated by the establishment of large ranches and conservation areas. For instance, 40 per cent of Laikipia County’s land is occupied by large ranches, controlled by just 48 individuals – most of them white landowners who own tens of thousands of acres for ranching or wildlife conservancies, which attract tourism business as well as conservation funding from international organizations.

Similarly, several game reserves and conservancies occupy over a million acres of land in the nearby Isiolo County. Land pressure was especially evident in 2017 when clashes broke out between private, mostly white ranchers, and Samburu and Pokot herders over pasture during a particularly dry spell.

But as demonstrated in the Oakland Institute’s report Stealth Game, the events of 2017 highlighted a situation that has been rampant for many years. Local communities report paying a high price for the NRT’s privatized, neo-colonial conservation model in Kenya. The loss of grazing land for pastoralists is a major challenge caused by the creation of community conservancies. Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife in the name of community conservancies, and to subsequently lease it to set up tourist facilities.

Although terms like “community-driven”, “participatory”, and “local empowerment” are extensively used by the NRT and its partners, the conservancies have been allegedly set up by outside parties rather than the pastoralists themselves, who have a very limited role in negotiating the terms of these partnerships. According to several testimonies, leverage over communities occurs through corruption and co-optation of local leaders and personalities as well as the local administration.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel. Furthermore, the NRT is involved not just in conservation but also in security, management of pastureland, and livestock marketing, which according to the local communities, gives it a level of control over the region that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government. The NRT claims that these activities support communities, development projects, and help build sustainable economies, but its role is criticized by local communities and leaders.

In recent years, hundreds of locals have held protests and signed petitions against the presence of the NRT. The Turkana County Government expelled the NRT from Turkana in 2016; Isiolo’s Borana Council of Elders (BCE) and communities in Isiolo County and in Chari Ward in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy continue to challenge the NRT. In January 2021, the community of Gafarsa protested the NRT’s expansion into the Gafarsa rangelands of Garbatulla sub-county. And in April 2021, the Samburu Council of Elders Association, a registered institution representing the Samburu Community in four counties (Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit and Samburu), wrote to international NGOs and donors asking them to cease further funding and to audit the NRT’s donor-funded programmes.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel.

At the time of the writing of the report, the Oakland Institute reported that protests against the NRT were growing across the region. The organization works closely with the KWS, a state corporation under the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism whose mandate is to conserve and manage wildlife in Kenya. In July 2018, Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, appointed Ian Craig and Jochen Zeitz to the KWS Board of Trustees. The inclusion of Zeitz and Craig, who actively lobby for the privatization of wildlife reserves, has been met with consternation by local environmentalists. In the case of the NRT, the relationship is mutually beneficial – several high-ranking members of the KWS have served on the NRT’s Board of Trustees.

Both the NRT and the KWS receive substantial funding from donors such as USAID, the European Union, and other Western agencies, and champion corporate partnerships in conservation. The KWS and the NRT also partner with some of the largest environmental NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), whose corporate associates have included major polluters and firms known for their negative human rights and environmental records, such as Shell, Ford, BP, and Monsanto among others. In turn, TNC’s Regional Managing Director for Africa, Matt Brown, enjoys a seat at the table of the NRT’s Board of Directors.

Stealth Game also reveals how the NRT has allegedly participated in the exploitation of fossil fuels in Kenya. In 2015, the NRT formed a five-year, US$12 million agreement with two oil companies active in the country – British Tullow Oil and Canadian Africa Oil Corp – to establish and operate six community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot Counties.

The NRT’s stated goal was to “help communities to understand and benefit” from the “commercialisation of oil resources”. Local communities allege that it put a positive spin on the activities of these companies to mask concerns and outstanding questions over their environmental and human rights records.

The NRT, in collaboration with big environmental organizations, epitomizes a Western-led approach to conservation that creates a profitable business but marginalizes local communities who have lived on these lands for centuries.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the NRT is yet another example of how fortress conservation, under the guise of “community-based conservation”, is dispossessing the very pastoralist communities it claims to be helping – destroying their traditional grazing patterns, their autonomy, and their lives.

The  Constitution of Kenyan  2010 and the 2016 Community Land Act recognize community land as a category of land holding and pastoralism as a legitimate livelihood system. The Act enables communities to legally register, own, and manage their communal lands. For the first three years, however, not a single community in Kenya was able to apply to have their land rights legally recognized. On 24 July 2019, over 50 representatives from 11 communities in Isiolo, Kajiado, Laikipia, Tana River, and Turkana counties were the first to attempt to register their land with the government on the basis of the Community Land Act. The communities were promised by the Ministry of Land that their applications would be processed within four months. In late 2020, the Ministry of Lands registered the land titles of II Ngwesi and Musul communities in Laikipia.

The others are still waiting to have their land registered. In October 2020, the Lands Cabinet Secretary was reported saying that only 12 counties have submitted inventories of their respective unregistered community lands in readiness for the registration process as enshrined in the law.

Community members interviewed by the Oakland Institute in the course of its research repeatedly asked for justice after years of being ignored by the Kenyan government and by the police when reporting human rights abuses and even killings of family members. The findings reported in Stealth Game require an independent investigation into the land-related grievances around all of the NRT’s community conservancies, the allegations of involvement of the NRT’s rapid response units in inter-ethnic conflict, as well as the alleged abuses and extrajudicial killings.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along. While this report focuses on the plight of the Indigenous communities in Northern Kenya, it is a reality that is all too familiar to indigenous communities the world over. In far too many places, national governments, private corporations, and large conservation groups collude in the name of conservation, not just to force Indigenous groups off their land, but to force them out of existence altogether.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along.

The latest threat comes from the so-called “30×30 initiative”, a plan under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity that calls for 30 per cent of the planet to be placed in protected areas – or for other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) –  by 2030.

The Oakland Institute’s report, Stealth Game, makes it clear that fortress conservation must be replaced by Indigenous-led conservation efforts in order to preserve the remaining biodiversity of the planet while respecting the interests, rights, and dignity of the local communities.

Continue Reading

Politics

Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference

Before Nashulai, Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling off their rights to live and work on their land, becoming “conservation refugees”.

Published

on

Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference
Download PDFPrint Article

The Sekenani River underwent a mammoth cleanup in May 2020, undertaken by over 100 women living in the Nashulai Conservancy area. Ten of the 18 kilometres of fresh water were cleaned of plastic waste, clothing, organic material and other rubbish that presented a real threat to the health of this life source for the community and wildlife. The river forms part of the Mara Basin and goes on to flow into Lake Victoria, which in turn feeds the River Nile.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Nashulai Conservancy — the first community-owned conservancy in the Maasai Mara that was founded in 2015 — which also provided a daily stipend to all participants and introduced them to better waste management and regeneration practices. After the cleanup, bamboo trees were planted along the banks of the river to curb soil erosion.

You could call it a classic case of “nature healing” that only the forced stillness caused by a global pandemic could bring about. Livelihoods dependent on tourism and raising cattle had all but come to a standstill and people now had the time to ponder how unpredictable life can be.

“I worry that when tourism picks up again many people will forget about all the conservation efforts of the past year,” says project officer Evelyn Kamau. “That’s why we put a focus on working with the youth in the community on the various projects and education. They’ll be the key to continuation.”

Continuation in the broader sense is what Nashulai and several other community-focused projects in Kenya are working towards — a shift away from conservation practices that push indigenous people further and further out of their homelands for profit in the name of protecting and celebrating the very nature for which these communities have provided stewardship over generations.

A reckoning

Given the past year’s global and regional conversations about racial injustice, and the pandemic that has left tourism everywhere on its knees, ordinary people in countries like Kenya have had the chance to learn, to speak out and to act on changes.

Players in the tourism industry in the country that have in the past privileged foreign visitors over Kenyans have been challenged. In mid-2020, a poorly worded social media post stating that a bucket-list boutique hotel in Nairobi was “now open to Kenyans” set off a backlash from fed-up Kenyans online.

The post referred to the easing of COVID-19 regulations that allowed the hotel to re-open to anyone already in the country. Although the hotel tried to undertake damage control, the harm was already done and the wounds reopened. Kenyans recounted stories of discrimination experienced at this particular hotel including multiple instances of the booking office responding to enquiries from Kenyan guests that rooms were fully booked, only for their European or American companions to call minutes later and miraculously find there were in fact vacancies. Many observed how rare it was to see non-white faces in the marketing of certain establishments, except in service roles.

Another conversation that has gained traction is the question of who is really benefiting from the conservation business and why the beneficiaries are generally not the local communities.

Kenyan conservationist and author Dr Mordecai Ogada has been vocal about this issue, both in his work and on social media, frequently calling out institutions and individuals who perpetuate the profit-driven system that has proven to be detrimental to local communities. In The Big Conservation Lie, his searing 2016 book co-authored with conservation journalist John Mbaria, Ogada observes, “The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it.” Ogada details the use of coercion tactics to push communities to divide up or vacate their lands and abandon their identities and lifestyles for little more than donor subsidies that are not always paid in full or within the agreed time.

A colonial hangover

It is important to note that these attitudes, organizations and by extension the structure of safari tourism, did not spring up out of nowhere. At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty and the odd American president or Hollywood actor.

Theodore Roosevelt’s year-long hunting expedition in 1909 resulted in over 500 animals being shot by his party in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, many of which were taken back to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and in various other natural history museums across the US. Roosevelt later recounted his experiences in a book and a series of lectures, not without mentioning the “savage” native people he had encountered and expressing support for the European colonization project throughout Africa.

Much of this private entertaining was made possible through “gifts” of large parcels of Kenyan land by the colonial power to high-ranking military officials for their service in the other British colonies, without much regard as to the ancestral ownership of the confiscated lands.

At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty.

On the foundation of national parks in the country by the colonial government in the 1940s, Ogada points out the similarities with the Yellowstone National Park, “which was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later.” In the case of Kenya, just add trophy hunting to the original model.

Today, when it isn’t the descendants of those settlers who own and run the many private nature reserves in the country, it is a party with much economic or political power tying local communities down with unfair leases and sectioning them off from their ancestral land, harsh penalties being applied when they graze their cattle on the confiscated land.

This history must be acknowledged and the facts recognised so that the real work of establishing a sustainable future for the affected communities can begin. A future that does not disenfranchise entire communities and exclude them or leave their economies dangerously dependent on tourism.

The work it will take to achieve this in both the conservation and the wider travel industry involves everyone, from the service providers to the media to the very people deciding where and how to spend their tourism money and their time.

Here’s who’s doing the work

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation and to secure a future in which these communities are not excluded. Some, like Dr Ogada, spread the word about the holes in the model adopted by the global conservation industry. Others are training and educating tourism businesses in sustainable practices.

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation.

The Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, or STTA, is a leading Kenyan-owned consultancy that works with tourism businesses and associations to provide training and strategies for sustainability in the sector in East Africa and beyond. Team leader Judy Kepher Gona expresses her optimism in the organization’s position as the local experts in the field, evidenced by the industry players’ uptake of the STTA’s training programmes and services to learn how best to manage their tourism businesses responsibly.

Gona notes, “Today there are almost 100 community-owned private conservancies in Kenya which has increased the inclusion of communities in conservation and in tourism” — which is a step in the right direction.

The community conservancy

Back to Nashulai, a strong example of a community-owned conservancy. Director and co-founder Nelson Ole Reiya who grew up in the area began to notice the rate at which Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling or leasing off their land and often their rights to live and work on it as they did before, becoming what he refers to as “conservation refugees”.

In 2016, Ole Reiya set out to bring together his community in an effort to eliminate poverty, regenerate the ecosystems and preserve the indigenous culture of the Maasai by employing a commons model on the 5,000 acres on which the conservancy sits. Families here could have sold their ancestral land and moved away, but they have instead come together and in a few short years have done away with the fencing separating their homesteads from the open savannah. They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route. Elephants have returned to an old elephant nursery site.

In contrast to many other nature reserves and conservancies that offer employment to the locals as hotel staff, safari guides or dancers and singers, Nashulai’s way of empowering the community goes further to diversify the economy by providing skills and education to the residents, as well as preserving the culture by passing on knowledge about environmental awareness. This can be seen in the bee-keeping project that is producing honey for sale, the kitchen gardens outside the family homes, a ranger training programme and even a storytelling project to record and preserve all the knowledge and history passed down by the elders.

They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route.

The conservancy only hires people from within the community for its various projects, and all plans must be submitted to a community liaison officer for discussion and a vote before any work can begin.

Tourism activities within the conservancy such as stays at Oldarpoi (the conservancy’s first tented camp; more are planned), game drives and day visits to the conservation and community projects are still an important part of the story. The revenue generated by tourists and the awareness created regarding this model of conservation are key in securing Nashulai’s future. Volunteer travellers are even welcomed to participate in the less technical projects such as tree planting and river clean-ups.

Expressing his hopes for a paradigm shift in the tourism industry, Ole Reiya stresses, “I would encourage visitors to go beyond the superficial and experience the nuances of a people beyond being seen as artefacts and naked children to be photographed, [but] rather as communities whose connection to the land and wildlife has been key to their survival over time.”

Continue Reading

Politics

Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo

In the context of the climate emergency and the need for renewable energy sources, competition over the supply of cobalt is growing. This competition is most intense in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nick Bernards argues that the scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overthrowing capitalism on a global scale.

Published

on

Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo
Download PDFPrint Article

With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.

Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.

Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.

These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.

Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.

There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.

In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.

*

Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.

However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.

These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).

In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.

Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.

There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.

Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.

*

Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.

The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.

In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.

Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.

The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.

To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.

However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.

If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.

We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.

In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

Continue Reading

Trending