Set on a 20-acre piece of land in the Athi plains, the Mavuno “Hill City” Church (a Kiswahili word meaning harvest) looks like anything but a church: its mega dome tent resembles one huge dance hall – complete with discotheque-type revolving multi-layered and multi-coloured strobe lights that flash on and off, and a soundtrack system that would rival sound system proprietor DS Njoroge’s, 10,000-watts sound system equipment. Kendrick Lamar, the American hip-hop mega star rapper would have no problem holding a concert here. As a visiting Anglican Church cleric commented: “There’s nothing to suggest this is a holy sanctuary: a rap reggae artist could as well find his footing here. The tent could also be used to hold a conference for businessmen or entrepreneurs discussing multi-billion-shilling investments.”
Hill City, which can hold up to 4,000 worshippers, is one of the symbols of the growing influence of America’s evangelical religious culture of giant churches, whose preaching is beamed in real time on billboard-sized LED smart screens. The church precincts are no longer referred to as a compound, but a campus.
It is the kind of church where testimonies warm and cheer up the worshippers. Testimonies of success abound. “Since coming to this church, I cannot keep up with the growth of my company…my products are moving faster than I can replenish them.” Or “After I started attending this church, my prayers were answered – I got a job, which flushed the anxiety from my heart. The job gave me a relaxing feeling, the kind of feeling you have when you know you’ve a big bank account somewhere.”
Surrounded by Chinese-themed mega estates, Hill City is 35km from Nairobi city centre. Located off the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, it is a 3.5km walk from Stage 39, the nearest bus stop for worshippers intending to trek to the church. It would really take an inspired Christian to attend this church – the scorching sun and choking dust is not made for trekking. In short, it is not your typical walk-in-walk-out church. Its parking bay can easily hold 500 vehicles.
“Mavuno Church’s relocation of its headquarters to a location just beyond the city limits in 2014 resulted in a number of members moving to other churches, as well as to other Mavuno campuses closer to their areas of residence,” said Pastor Linda Ochola-Adolwa, who oversees Mavuno Crossroads Church, which meets in the Lavington suburbs.
Mavuno Crossroads was started in June 2016. Its worshippers are the remnants of the original Mavuno Church that used to meet at Bellevue in South C. Reluctant to move to “Hill City”, they finally found a suitable location where they could pray and worship: at the Lavington Primary School. They refurbished seven classrooms and gave a face-lift to the primary school. Today, the congregation is made up of nearly 400 worshippers.
“The people who formed Crossroads were the well-heeled Christians who had been supporting the Mavuno Bellevue Church with their big tithes,” said a Mavuno church-goer. “The Crossroads Church worshippers are all professionals and affluent and they meet in a rich suburb, away from the prying eyes of the less privileged Christians.” It was just a matter of time before Mavuno Crossroads’ leadership and the headquarters at “Hill City” were at crossroads over the issue of control of money allocation and tithe contribution, whispered a Crossroads Mavuno worshipper.
“Pastor Muriithi Wanjau [founder of Mavuno] is upset about the fact that Crossroads, which is a much smaller congregation, has a lot bigger slice of money than the huge congregation at Hill City,” said a Mavuno Church Athi River worshipper. “He has always wanted control of the Crossroads money, but he seems to be encountering headwinds. It is a public secret that Pastor Muriithi has shown displeasure with Mavuno Crossroads Church’s leadership over his inability to oversee its finances.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth”, retorted Pastor Muriithi. “In fact Hill City, with its big contribution of tithe is able to fund other churches that are not as endowed as Mavuno Athi River. Every church (independently) controls its finances and its choice of projects, even as they contribute their share to the central operations of the Mavuno Church,” posited the pastor. The biggest operation of the church is planting Mavuno churches where there are none.
“Hill City contributes 42 per cent of its finances to the centre, Crossroads about 15 per cent, the same as Downtown, but generally churches give between 5 and 20 percent of the finances to Mavuno Church, of course, depending on their financial capabilities.” There has been a lot of rumours and misinformation out there about Hill City and me, said Pastor Muriithi.
“It is true, there was a disagreement between Pastor Linda and I”, the soft-spoken Pastor Muriithi told me, “but let me not disclose what the disagreement was about.” Pastor Muriithi said he and Pastor Linda agreed to engage “a trusted resource person,” in the person of Oscar Mureu, who is considered to be the titular bishop of Mavuno/Chapel group of churches. “We sat down with Oscar and he agreed to arbitrate our pressing issues and, we all agreed to leave the matter with him, so it’s an ongoing matter because he is currently looking into it.”
There are seven Mavuno churches in Kenya, “but because of planting churches along the logic of colonial lines within the city, the outcomes of this has been a subtle segregation within the Mavuno congregations,” said a Downtown Mavuno church-goer. Downtown Mavuno meets at Ufungamano building near the University of Nairobi. “Crossroads is the best example of a group of people for whom class and space are more important than just being called Christians.”
Mavuno Church encourages the starting of satellite churches based on specific area’ needs to cater for specific Christians, said the worshipper. In Eastlands, for instance, there is Mavuno Mashariki (Kiswahili for east). For long Mashariki used to meet in Donholm estate, but now meets at Naivas supermarket’s premises, where they erected a tent off Rabai Road opposite Buru Buru Phase V. “That church is for people from Eastlands…that’s just it,” said the worshipper.
There are seven Mavuno churches in Kenya and, in addition to their apparent intra-competition over which among its branches has the most money, “Mavuno is a church that practises subtle segregation,” said a Downtown Mavuno church-goer.
Mavuno Churches are led, presumably, by pastors influenced by the American televangelists from the south and mid-west who preach the message that success comes to those who pray. Forty-nine-year-old Senior Pastor Muriithi, takes no prisoners and pulls no punches in his preaching. In the month of October, he aptly called his preaching, “Wakanda Unchained – The Financial Liberation” series. “It was one of my boldest preaching,” confessed the pastor. “I will tell you something – our church looks rich…many are in debt…Christians give the illusion of success, you know, the idea is to fake it until they make it.”
In one of his Sunday sermons (which the church uploads online and which are available for all to view), Senior Pastor Muriithi rankled some of his congregants by talking about Jews and them being God-inspired money geniuses. He claimed Jews were successful because they understood the language of money and that is why they continue to attract hatred from other races as their blessings get multiplied.
“In a country riven with deep ethnic passions and where Kikuyus refer to themselves as Jews, it was deeply inconsiderate and insensitive to use the analogy of the Jews as God’s chosen people, whose success is seen as money-driven in a heterogeneous and multi-ethnic congregation,” said a Hill City worshipper to me. “Pastor Muriithi was preaching about Uthamaki theology in the guise of extolling Jews’ money virtues.”
“Let me say this, I regret the comments made afterwards by one of my congregants on my Jews’ analogy,” surmised Pastor Muriithi. “She misinterpreted my choice of Jews as people who have succeeded financially and otherwise as the biblical people of God. I could as well have used the example of the Ismailis. What I was saying is this: Jews are successful because they have stuck together, they are there for each other and, unlike some of our people who are socially and economically envious of one another, Jews help each other.” The pastor pointed out that after Jews were persecuted and suffered immensely, they learned that their success and survival lay in hanging together and not separately.
“I’m not a career pastor,” Pastor Muriithi reassured me as we concluded our somewhat difficult conversation suppressed by muttered breaths from both sides. He told me tithe- giving has been abused no doubt by many pastors, who are out to make money from their churches. “But that doesn’t invalidate the fact that Christians must not offer their tithes as commanded in the Bible. It is scriptural, it isn’t Pastor Muriithi’s command.”
‘Poverty does not glorify God”
“Africa suffers from [a] deficient money idea,” sermonised Senior Pastor Muriithi in one of his Wakanda series (the title is taken from the runaway success Black Panther movie about a mythical East African country). “Poverty does not glorify God,” boomed the pastor. Fired up like an American prototype televangelist, some of Senior Pastor Muriithi’s biblical pronouncements have been putting some of his worshippers on edge: “By God, where did he get that one from?” asked an exasperated Hill City church-goer.
“All what Pastor Muriithi seems to be preaching about is money, money and money,” said the church-goer. When does he get to preach about theological foundations?” As the presiding and founding pastor of the Hill City Church, one of the first sermons he preached at the newly inaugurated church in Athi River in 2014 was “financial plan for couples and money.”
As he preached in one of his Wakanda series, Pastor Muriithi plucked his authored pamphlet – “Financial Foundations” – and waved it to the crowd, saying it was the key to unlocking financial success. In an unflattering comment, a worshipper confided to me: “Pastor Muriithi is less concerned with spiritual matters, but with making money. How I wish he could write on the theological foundations to understanding the Synoptic Gospels,” bemoaned the worshipper.
“All what Pastor Muriithi seems to be preaching about is money, money and money,” said the church-goer. When does he get to preach about theological foundations?”
“Mavuno Church is run like a business,” said one of its pastors, who asked for anonymity for fear of antagonising his congregation and upsetting the church’s leadership. “It has a business plan model that must fit its expansion plans – in the country and elsewhere in Africa.” The church’s grand mission is to conquer and evangelise to African cities’ urban wannabes, “hence money is at the core of its expansionist manoeuvres,” said the pastor.
It is true Mavuno has an ambitious plan: “to plant culture-defining churches across the capital cities of Africa and the gateway cities of the world,” observes Pastor Linda.
Other than preaching about their favourite subject (money), “evangelical pastors have become experts in everything and anything,” said a Mavuno church-goer. “From investments and wealth creation, to sex and sexuality. From marital issues and parenting, to what type of people you should be associating with and who to invite in your house.” Senior Pastor Muriithi has been advising and discussing how to set up a business and how to avoid the pitfalls of incurring debt by not going to a bank to borrow money, said the Christian. “Is Pastor Muriithi an investments banker or an economist?” queried the churchgoer.
“It’s true I teach about saving and investing,” said a confident Pastor Muriithi. “And it is my desire to teach about money, because I consider it to be part of my obligation to preach on social transformation as a way of uplifting the Mavuno Church. I am raising a church to bring change among the younger generation, the so-called millennials and Generation Z. It is important for our people to understand why poverty exists amidst us and for the blessed to use their blessing to uplift the less privileged in society.”
“It is very strange that some people would accuse me of preaching about money,” said a somewhat miffed Pastor Muriithi. “My Wakanda series came after two years of not talking about money…I think I spoke about money one other time in those two years.” The pastor reminded me that this year alone, he preached for only three months “and out of those three months, I only spoke about money for four weeks out of 52 weeks. It is not as if my preaching is all about money,” the pastor said.
In 2012, Fr Ambrose Kimutai described some of his colleagues as church ministers who put the love of money above everything, in essence, “bastardising the holy shrine of God.”
“The new churches of the evangelical type are in the business of promoting capitalism and neo-liberalism through their prosperity teachings and have nothing to do with spiritual nourishment or contemporary societal problems facing Kenyans,” said Njonjo Mue, the Oxford-educated lawyer with a theology degree from the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST), today known as African International University (AIU). “These pastors are just careerists, advancing their own causes of enriching themselves in the churches.”
“The church in Kenya is still colonial in form and structure,” said Njonjo. “After the exit of the colonial church, presumably with the colonial government, it bequeathed its reign of power to the ‘white community’ of Kenya – the Kikuyus. Is it any wonder that the former Attorney General, ‘Sir’ Charles Njonjo (no relation), in his heydays would decide, for instance, who was going to be the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya?” he posed. “The majority of Kikuyu church leaders fought former President Daniel Moi, not because he was dictatorial and oppressive, but because he was a Kalenjin,” said Njonjo, a born-again Christian.
“The new churches of the evangelical type are in the business of promoting capitalism through their prosperity teachings and have nothing to do with spiritual nourishment or contemporary societal problems facing Kenyans,” said Njonjo Mue, the Oxford-educated lawyer with a theology degree…”
The reference to picking Anglican archbishops by Charles Njonjo cuts back to the 1980 elections of the second Anglican archbishop. Archbishop Manasses Kuria, who died in 2005, was the second Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Archbishop after Festo Olang’ who retired in 1979. In line to succeed him was the fiery Henry Okullu, the Bishop of Maseno South. The elections became a contest between ethnicities.
In his autobiography, The Quest for Justice, Okullu wrote: “The Luhya and Kikuyu ethnic sentiments enforced by political tribalism blocked my way, such that a third person, out of the 25 electors could not be found to sign my nominations.” Okullu said that Bishop David Gitari told him, “Since Archbishop Olang’ was from Western Kenya (Olang’ was a Luhya), this time, you people from Western are to be prepared to support an Archbishop from Central Province.” Okullu shot back: “This time the election of the Archbishop must be geographically decided?”
In the ensuing cacophony – of who should succeed Olang’ – Olang’ himself asked Okullu to throw his support towards the Assistant Bishop of Mombasa, Crispus Nzano, a nondescript auxiliary bishop, but a bishop nonetheless. Okullu declined. To break the impasse, Nzano had been nominated alongside Mannases Kuria, an equally unknown bishop from Nakuru. On the eve of the election, Attorney General Njonjo telephoned Nzano and prevailed him to step down for Kuria and he obliged. James Hamilton, the then Chancellor of ACK, declared Kuria the second Anglican Archbishop of Kenya unopposed.
“The Christianity Kenya received from Western missions seemed to have emphasised personal piety at the expense of public and social implications of the Christian faith,” said Pastor Linda. She described the Mavuno congregation as largely middle class, professional, and young: “Hill City is a young congregation having started in 2005. This middle class congregation, which is multi-ethnic and sometimes multi-racial, tends to be apolitical in its approach to socio-economic and political matters.”
These types of Christians have come to view politics as anathema to their well-being: cushioned and shielded from the vicissitudes of real politik because of their privileged class backgrounds and professional lives, their economic largesse has also afforded them the luxury of ignoring the politics of the day around them. But after the post-election violence of 2008, many middle class (Mavuno) Christians woke up to the crude reality that politics was part and parcel of their lives and, even if it did not affect their lives directly, they had friends and relatives who had suffered because of politics gone awry.
Living in a ‘Christian bubble’
“Middle class Christians are aware of the corrupt political system, the socio-economic breakdown of our institutions and ethnic chauvinistic politics, but they seem to be exasperated and worn down by all these societal ills,” says Pastor Linda. “The greater temptation for this class of Christians is to live in a ‘Christian bubble’ of donating Christmas gifts to the poor and children’s homes, hence believing they have done their bit of civic and societal obligations.”
Yet, according to Pastor Linda, the church’s greater dilemma seems to lie in how it views its defined prophetic role: Does it obey the secular rules here on earth as stated in Romans 13 and just preach for peaceful co-existence as St Augustine proposed, or does it engage in the politics of the day and hope not to be muddied by it or shun politics altogether?
“Middle class Christians are aware of the corrupt political system, the socio-economic breakdown of our institutions and ethnic chauvinistic politics, but they seem to be exasperated and worn down by all these societal ills,” says Pastor Linda. “The greater temptation for this class of Christians is to live in a ‘Christian bubble’ of donating Christmas gifts to the poor and children’s homes, hence believing they have done their bit of civic and societal obligations.”
“Although the majority of Kenyans are Christians – more than 80 percent – they have relegated their church sanctuaries to politicians,” said a senior Anglican Church cleric. “Nowadays, it is the politicians who are crafting and dictating what messages the pastors and priests are to preach to their congregations.” The result: church leadership has become impotent and obsolete.
“After the poll violence of 2008, it became increasingly difficult for the Catholic Church to speak collectively in one voice,” said an Archdiocese of Nairobi priest. “The post-election violence had exposed the deep running ethnic fissures within the church. The Church had taken political sides, and one of its clergy members had been killed because of the ethnic mayhem and the dangerous ethnic and political emotions,” said the priest. “The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) meets nowadays to preach bland messages, such as the need for Kenyans to keep peace. It has ceased to have the moral compass to direct and guide the people.”
The priest told me that it was implicitly agreed among the bishops who form the episcopal conference that the church would not “impose” its collective stand on the politics of the day, or even pretend to inform it on the individual priests. “Politics became an individual priest’s responsibility – so long as he did not purport to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church of Kenya.”
“You cannot fight the government,” the priest said. “Even a powerful church like the Catholic Church is bound to be on the receiving end.” The priest confidentially told me that the government had allegedly sent a subtle message to the church’s leadership that if it pushed it too hard, it would impose taxes on its land and other properties it owns. The Catholic Church is the largest landowner in Kenya outside of the government. The cleric informed me that the government had even “threatened” to repossess some of the land it owned controversially, or land it had given the church.
The church and the state
Instead of effecting these threats, the government had done the opposite: Three weeks ago, President Uhuru Kenyatta, officiating at the funeral mass of the retired Archbishop John Njenga, asked the Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Land, Nicholas Muraguri, to return to the Catholic Church land that could have been appropriated or otherwise from the church. It is obvious that the Catholic Church leadership has been playing ball with the Jubilee Party state and hence the reward.
Although most of the Catholic Church’s land was acquired before Kenya attained its independence in 1963, “once Jomo Kenyatta became president, he gave the church a plot of land in the posh Lavington area,” said the priest. In Nairobi County, the Catholic Church’s land is concentrated in the Langata/Karen area, leading to the area being referred to as the “Little Vatican”. The other prime land is the Lavington property, where they have built posh schools, convents and even have a cemetery for their priests.
“If the state turns on the church it would be the worse for it and it will lose big time,” said the priest. “The church has never contemplated paying taxes, it would never pay taxes and therefore, it would do anything to avoid creating such a scenario.” The Catholic Church imports tonnes of drugs for its clinics and hospitals across the country, all tax-free. It is exempt from paying land rates. More than that, it has a large expatriate workforce that works in hospitals, schools and universities. “The last thing the church would want is for the government to make it difficult for the foreigners to work for the church,” pointed out the priest.
“When President Moi vacated office in 2002, and his former VP Mwai Kibaki stepped into his shoes, relations between the church and the state altered dramatically,’ wrote John Githongo in 2013. “The visceral antagonisms of the prior era melted away. A number of church leaders, including significantly, the National Council of Churches of Kenya’s (NCCK) Mutava Musyimi, were elected to Parliament. President Kibaki, not one for direct confrontation, cultivated a close relationship with the Catholic Church, whose national leadership seemed to share his conservative instincts, especially, in regard to property and acquisition.”
A senior Anglican cleric, who was a close friend of Archbishop Gitari, told me, “Once Kibaki became president, the archbishop ceased any fiery attacks against the state. He even subtly cautioned criticism of the new NARC government from fellow Anglican clerics.” It would seem the upshot of Archbishop’s Gitari’s pullback from finding fault with Kibaki’s government, unlike his constant attacks on Moi’s government, was that their man a (Kikuyu) had re-captured state power and that is all that mattered.
“When President Moi vacated office in 2002, and his former VP Mwai Kibaki stepped into his shoes, relations between the church and the state altered dramatically,’ wrote John Githongo in 2013. “The visceral antagonisms of the prior era melted away…”
So was the Catholic Church – which had tested Moi’s patience by its stinging episcopal pastoral letters, which talked of social justice, political accountability and morality, among other pressing socio-economic and political issues – compromised?
Raphael Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki, the Catholic prelate who had been at the forefront of demanding political transparency and of fighting against state corruption, which was rife in Moi’s KANU government in the 1990s, suddenly went mute, as did the church leadership, when his friend Mwai Kibaki became the president. It was not lost on Kenyans and keen observers that Kibaki shared the archbishop’s faith. Even more noticeable was the decline of the “sharp” pastoral letters that spoke truth to power.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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