As he was leaving for work, Stephen Mumbo closed the door to his apartment. It was still dark outside, but he had to be at work early enough to finish a report and prepare for a meeting. In one hand he carried the lunchbox his wife, Roselyne, packed for him every night. In the other, he held his car keys.
A quiet, shy bespectacled man with a balding head and a nerdy aura, he was always polite to a fault. He was also a workaholic, rarely seen anywhere else but at his office desk. But this morning, as he left the apartment, got to the parking lot, and into his maroon Mitsubishi Lancer, registration plate KAS 843M, something else was on his mind.
He was tired, but that fatigue would have to wait. He had barely seen Roselyne and their infant daughter in the preceding two months as he had been busy undoing one of the biggest corporate messes in Kenyan history. It was his brief, but for most of the previous decade and a half, such assignments had been his life.
To anyone watching, nothing was outwardly unusual about Mumbo that cold Friday morning.
From his apartment building, the 9-storey Pangani Palace Apartments off Muthaiga roundabout, he joined the early morning rush hour traffic. Although Nairobi wakes up early to beat the city’s infamous traffic jams, it took him less than 30 minutes to reach his office in Westlands. The sun rose on the horizon and with it, the city. It would be the last time he would take that route.
As he took a gentle left turn off Waiyaki Way to the paved driveway of the twin Delta Towers, the headquarters of his employer, Stephen Mumbo was already a man on edge. But his permanent calm demeanor, which had only failed him on rare occasions, hid the turmoil beneath.
Mumbo waved at the guards as they let him through the barrier. He drove to his parking slot, reverse-parked into it, and walked to the lift. Once in, he pressed the 12 button and waited. When the doors opened, he got off and walked to his office.
Mumbo used his access card to enter the office a few seconds before 6:15 a.m. Even that early on a Friday morning, he was not the first person at the Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) Kenya office. At least four of his colleagues were already at their desks, typing up reports, trying to meet deadlines and preparing for meetings.
Mumbo removed his suit jacket and draped it over his seat. On any other day, he would only wear it again if he had a meeting or if it got cold. He sat at his desk, which was a neatly arranged table with no personal items. It was where he spent days and nights working on assignments, and where, this fateful morning, he would sit one last time. On his mind was a report he had been toiling on for the previous two weeks that was due that morning. But there were many other things troubling him.
Mumbo used his access card to enter the office a few seconds before 6:15a.m. Even that early on a Friday morning, he was not the first person at the Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) Kenya office. At least four of his colleagues were already at their desks, typing up reports, trying to meet deadlines and preparing for meetings.
Six weeks before that morning, UBA Bank had placed ARM Cement, a listed manufacturing company, under PwC’s management over massive debt. The company had been suspended from the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE) as its shareholders reeled in disclosures of hidden debts and other forms of corporate malfeasance. While for outsiders it was a story of yet another typical Kenyan company, for Stephen Mumbo it was a direct challenge.
As the Assistant Manager of Executory and Forensic Investigations, the complexities of understanding the company’s true position, and then figuring out ways to solve the mess, fell directly on his desk – and he was just the man for the job. He was not only reliable, he was also driven. In a profession that demands brilliance, he could be considered a proper nerd. Besides, he had worked for PwC for nearly a decade and a half and had proven his skills countless times. If there was a complexity you couldn’t untangle, on just about any project, Stephen Mumbo was the man to ask.
He’d spent 18-hour work days working on the ARM proposal, which was not unusual for him or anyone who worked at PwC. What was specifically different was that Mumbo was a perfectionist par excellence. Grammar was important to him; a comma out of place would unnerve him, and more than once he had chosen to file reports late rather than table them with errors. He approached his work, as one colleague put it, like the civil engineer he had been trained to be. One centimetre off, and the whole structure risks collapse. That perfectionism meant he spent hours and days labouring on not just getting the right proposals on paper, but also on making sure that the language in the reports was clear and concise. It made him irreplaceable, but at the same time, it meant that he could not be promoted.
Sometime between 7:30am and 7:40am, Mumbo asked a colleague whether there was any free meeting room on the 17th floor. There wasn’t, she told him. Despite having this information, he still went upstairs, hoping that the administrator there could find him one. He needed it for a meeting, which was scheduled for 9am, but he also had other things on his mind.
The only thing that might have caught anyone’s attention was that he wasn’t wearing his spectacles, which was rare. His eyes were red, but for a man in his profession, that was considered just another day at the office. It was also not unusual for him to go upstairs hours before a meeting. Since he had left his jacket draped on his chair, everyone assumed he was coming back.
On the 17th floor, Mumbo tried several rooms. He found someone talking on her phone in one of them. She asked him if he had booked the room. He said no, and closed the door. That woman was probably the last person to see him alive.
When he got to Kilimanjaro 2 meeting room, he found it empty. He closed the door behind him. He was physically alone, but no one will ever truly know what kind of torment he was going through. He walked across the room’s polished floors, passing the black and yellow chairs, probably tapping his fingers on the grey top mahogany table. Then he placed his Lenovo laptop on the table, walked to the window, and climbed outside. From there, he could see the Westlands rush hour traffic below him. He could see Waiyaki Way, and even the stretch he had turned into two hours earlier to get into his office, as well as the Westlands matatu stage on the other side of the road. There was the luxury car dealership at the end of the complex, and the parking lot between it and his building. But maybe he didn’t notice any of this as he steadied himself on the ledge.
Then he jumped.
To anyone watching from outside, the fall lasted the blink of an eye. One second Stephen Mumbo was standing on the ledge of the window, and the next he was on the balcony of the 2nd floor, fifteen floors down. It must have looked macabre, the sight of a man falling to his death against the backdrop of Delta Towers’ imposing façade. To the employees at SBM Bank, on whose second-floor window ledge Mumbo died, it sounded like a sudden thud.
Many things drove his choice of the 17th floor, including the fact that it was mostly empty at that time of day, and that from that high up, he was unlikely to survive the fall. Later images from witnesses in the buildings across show four first responders around his lifeless body dressed in a light blue shirt and black suit pants. There wasn’t much anyone could do at that point, and he was pronounced dead immediately after he was taken to the hospital.
Inside PwC Kenya, the immediate members of his team were told to go home or wait if they needed to see a counsellor. Someone retrieved Mumbo’s Lenovo laptop from the meeting room, and from it the report he had spent his last two months alive working on. Everyone else was ordered back to their assignments, even while Mumbo’s body still lay on a ledge below.
As the news of Stephen Mumbo’s fall broke in the capital city, people speculated on whether he had jumped or he had been pushed. On Twitter, people wondered whether there had been foul play; some connected the dots from Mumbo’s sensitive work as a forensic investigator to his fall. There are no cameras in the corridors outside the boardroom, only on the staircases. That blind spot would make it hard for investigators to determine if anyone had joined him in the room.
Others focused on the suicide angle; many wondered why a 41-year-old man with a well-paying job would choose to end his life. Some suggested domestic issues had driven Mumbo to his death; one strangely detailed tweet suggested infidelity. But the public speculation ignored the probability that only Stephen Mumbo knew what Stephen Mumbo was going through. In the absence of a suicide note in any form – none has been found – piecing back the last few years of his life is probably the only way to understand why he killed himself.
As the news of Stephen Mumbo’s fall broke in the capital city, people speculated on whether he had jumped or he had been pushed. On Twitter, people wondered whether there had been foul play; some connected the dots from Mumbo’s sensitive work as a forensic investigator to his fall.
By the time he died, Stephen Mumbo was one of only three employees who had been at PwC Kenya for more than 13 years. He’d only had one job outside PwC (as a design engineer between March 2003 and April 2004) before joining the accounting firm. The only other company he had worked for was a small Malawian smallholder farmer’s company where he had done a brief consultancy in 2016. PwC was, by all accounts, more home to him than his apartment was. The job fit his personality as it required a meticulous, borderline obsessive mind.
Mumbo was, by many accounts, a good boss and an effective team leader who avoided office politics. In a profession where kindness is rare, he was overly compassionate and helpful. Sometimes, according to several people who worked with him over the years, he would volunteer to help on a project and eventually take a leadership role. But he was the kind of colleague who took on team projects and then credited everyone else. According to at least one insider, the kind of work Stephen Mumbo was handling on ARM Cement was probably work that should have been handled by a team of six.
Mumbo’s perfectionism and thoroughness also made him irreplaceable. Most of the people who eventually became his bosses owed some of their success to him. He trained them, as he did many other people, but they passed him in rank because he was not assertive. In a meeting room, he would point out flaws in plans in a heartbeat, but recoil when asked how to change them. Instead, he would draft his thoughts and offer them to someone else to present.
But he enjoyed the work itself. The constant mental challenge must have been a thrill at the beginning of his career, but it slowly chipped away at his mental health.
By October 2018, he couldn’t take it anymore. “They [PwC] plied him with so much work, and he wasn’t the type to say no, so he did it anyway. He was always very well groomed, but always tired,” said a relative.
By the time Pricewaterhouse Coopers bought part of Delta Towers in late 2012 for Sh4.4 billion in a joint deal with the University of Nairobi, it was already one of the biggest auditing firms in the world. The company was founded in 1998 through a merger between Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse, and rebranded to PwC in September 2010. By then, it was present in 158 countries and 743 locations, battling it out with three other audit firms, Deloitte, EY, and KPMG. PwC had over 236,000 people in its ranks, among them a quiet Kenyan nerd called Stephen Mumbo.
The PwC Tower, one of the two towers that make up Delta Towers, became PwC’s new home from early 2013. It was a remarkable investment by a company partially owned by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani. PwC Kenya settled for Wing B of the 20-storey twin towers, occupying half and renting out the other half. Upper Hill, its former home, was losing its lustre as new buildings came up without the infrastructure to support them. Now, in the newest building on the corner of Waiyaki Way and Ring Road Westlands, its employees were spoilt for choice on where to live. Location was important because many of them would work long hours, driving to and from work while the city slept.
As an employer, PwC Kenya consistently ranks as one of the best places to work in Nairobi. Entry-level graduate trainees earn an average monthly salary of Sh120,000, and its partners, according to Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), are some high-net-worth individuals with gross annual incomes of between Sh350 million and Sh1 billion.
For the ARM job, PwC charged Sh65.6 million for the first three months, in addition to Sh7.9 million for preparatory work. While the PwC partners appointed to do the job were Muniu Thoithi and George Weru, the actual legwork went to a quiet nerd on the 12th floor called Stephen Mumbo. Thoithi and Weru would earn Sh43,000 per hour, while associate directors would earn Sh37,800, senior managers Sh30,000, and project managers Sh25,000 per hour. As a manager, Mumbo’s pay most likely fell in the two lower ranks. But to earn his keep, he would have to spend hours on end poring through reports, preparing his own recommendations, and presenting them to his bosses and the client.
By the time Mumbo got to his desk at 6:15am on Friday, 12th October, he had had less than three hours of sleep. He had gone home at 1am the previous night. He fell asleep fast, but he was clearly distressed, according to several close family members. He kept tossing and turning and woke up before daylight to get back on the grind.
Multiple conversations with past and current employees of PwC Kenya paint the picture of a firm with little space for work-life balance. Long hours and mind-breaking work are the norm, and most employees, like Stephen Mumbo, tend to live close to Delta Towers to ease the commute to work. The employee turnover rate is understandably high, as the work environment becomes more unbearable as one ages and begins seeking a better work-life balance.
Describing his experience at PwC, one employee said, “Deadlines have to be met and bonuses have to be earned. Your health is your problem. If you can’t handle the pressure, quit.” Another termed PwC’s work culture as “ruthless”, adding that even “having a baby is frowned upon.” Lunch breaks, several employees said, are not exactly an option: “Nobody goes for a long leisurely lunch at PwC. Many people eat at their desks.” The average work day, said several employees, is 14 hours. If you are on a project, it’s not unusual to work 18-hour days.
Under Kenyan law, normal working hours are between 45 hours and 52 hours a week for day employees and 60 hours for night employees. The law also provides for at least one rest day a week. At 14-18 hours a day, Stephen Mumbo and his colleagues were clocking between 84 hours to 126 hours a week, twice the legal limit. While the law also provides for overtime, the overriding element is that it be properly compensated, and not result in overworking, which impairs sleep patterns and increases the risk of stress, depression, and lower immunity. Overwork has been associated with heart problems, and among low-income workers, with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. People who overwork tend to lead unhealthy lifestyles, having less time to exercise, eat. They also tend to smoke or drink more.
Describing his experience at PwC, one employee said, “Deadlines have to be met and bonuses have to be earned. Your health is your problem. If you can’t handle the pressure, quit.” Another termed PwC’s work culture as “ruthless”, adding that even “having a baby is frowned upon.”
Stephen Mumbo seemed to have navigated many of the physical challenges of overworking for almost a decade and a half. He was in good health, didn’t smoke, and barely drank alcohol. But the mental strain was showing.
All the interviewees for this story did not want to be named for fear of retribution for breaking company policy. In more than one case, there were also descriptions of the kind of retribution they might face, down to being put on track to be fired. More often than not, the interviewees still within PwC Tower outlined their basic exit plans and described Mumbo’s death as the latest in a series of wake-up calls.
For those who choose to stay, like Stephen Mumbo, the back-breaking work eventually leads to burnout. There was at least one other breakdown at the office in 2017, and several employees whispered about people self-harming or using drugs to cope with the pressure. For Stephen Mumbo, years of such pressure had finally taken their toll.
Mumbo’s distress on that last night was not the only time he had shown signs of work-related stress and depression. In the years before his death, he had had at least three visible episodes of burnout and mental distress at work. In 2015, he had a breakdown in the office and walked out on his boss. He was away from the office for a month. Meanwhile, work was still piling up; Shah Karuturi, the Kenyan subsidiary of the world’s biggest producer of cut roses, was placed under administration sometime during his break. This project was on his desk when he got back.
Then, in mid-2017, a colleague recalls, Mumbo fell asleep in the middle of a presentation with a client. “He was totally burned out, but his bosses simply told him to go to another boardroom and sleep for 45 minutes and then get back to work,” remembered the colleague. Such was life for him, going from one burnout to the next.
The third instance was perhaps the most significant in piecing together Stephen Mumbo’s last years alive. It happened years before he finally took his life, and linked back to the pillars in his adult life.
Then, in mid-2017, a colleague recalls, Mumbo fell asleep in the middle of a presentation with a client. “He was totally burned out, but his bosses simply told him to go to another board room and sleep for 45 minutes and then get back to work,” remembered the colleague. Such was life for him, going from one burnout to the next.
Run to the finish
Mumbo’s village in Kisumu, Nyamasaria, is a hot, dry, humid area. The land is infertile because its black cotton soil sucks the life out of any cash crop. Only weeds, euphorbia, and coarse grass are stubborn enough to grow on the land.
It was in this unforgiving terrain that Stephen Henry Mumbo was born to Arthur Waore Mumbo, an administrator at KEMRI, and Abigael Waore, a teacher at Nyamasaria Primary School in 1977. Mumbo was the last-born in a family of five.
Arthur Waore died in 1992, the year before Stephen joined St. Paul’s Amukura. The young teen moved to Alupe, Busia, to live under the care of his uncle, Mzee Obura, a doctor who still works for KEMRI. All accounts of Stephen Mumbo then match the man he would become: quiet, studious, and driven. According to his cousin, Fred Obura, Mumbo was more than just a brother. They were best friends and even went to the same high school.
In the 1990s, St. Paul’s Amukura, founded by Catholic priest Father Louis Okidoi in 1962, was an academic giant in what is now Busia County. The school motto, Cursum Consumavi, is Latin for “Run to the Finish.” When Stephen Mumbo was a student there, between 1993 and 1996, he lived in Nehru dormitory, named after the charismatic Indian leader.
In his teens, Stephen Mumbo walked awkwardly and avoided conversation. Several fellow alumni of St. Paul’s describe Mumbo’s shyness with fascination. Mumbo was, one says, the guy who wanted the key to the library when everyone else was chasing girls and dates. Odeo Sirari, a KTN news editor, was in Form One when Mumbo was in his final year. “As a new student, it was easy for me to notice Mumbo because he looked so serious, a total book worm,” recalls Sirari.
Another schoolmate, Caleb Etyang, who was a year ahead of Mumbo, says Mumbo would never be found on the school Isuzu bus, christened Kisisiata 3, which served the school between 1990 and 1999, and was driven by a gentle old man the boys fondly called Boyo. “He wasn’t a guy to go for sports or drama outings, he was much more at home in the school and in the library.” In his first two years at the school, he was the class prefect. In his last two years, he was the library prefect.
Mumbo topped the class of 1996 at the school, his only disappointment being that he hadn’t beaten the record of Adiema Aura, a renowned educationist who attended the school in the 80s. He’d only failed to overthrow Aura because he didn’t do well in Kiswahili; he scored an A-minus in the subject.
From St. Paul’s, he made his way to JKUAT, where he would spend the next few years training to become a civil engineer. Engineering offered the challenges a nerd like him yearned for, with its tenets of approaching problems and challenges with a tenacity that combined knowledge, skills and experience. After graduating, he did an accounting course and then took a brief engineering gig. Then he joined PwC Kenya, where he would spend the rest of his life, save for two unpaid sabbaticals.
Throughout this life, Mumbo relied mostly on his mother, Abigael, for emotional support. He had his siblings as well, as well as his adopted ones who were in fact, his cousins. But it was Abigael who represented the most profound influence on her shy young son’s life before and after school.
Then, on 3rd June 2008, Abigael Waore died.
Multiple accounts point to a marked change in Mumbo’s life, work, and demeanor after his mum died. He simply couldn’t work anymore; he took a one-year unpaid sabbatical before going back to work. At some point, either then or after, Mumbo also mounted a massive portrait of his mother in his bedroom. Her face was the last thing he saw before he slept and the first thing he saw when he woke up.
Colleagues say that whenever he was not shy, he would talk about his mum a lot. After she died, he mostly talked about his wife Roselyne. They had been married for seven years but had spent a considerable time apart as Roselyne focused on a project in Kisumu and Mumbo toiled at PwC Tower. On days when they were together, his lunch box was the source of envy, as colleagues listened to him go on and on about his wife’s cooking. On any day, even when out of the country on assignment, he would speak to her on the phone for at least an hour.
In the three months before his tragic fall, he also talked about his daughter. The couple had tried to have a baby for several years before finally settling on adoption to grow their family. The toddler was a new addition, and a happy one at that. Mumbo often talked about his daughter, but also said how he didn’t get enough time to be with her.
Mumbo’s suicide was not the first time a PwC employee had died after jumping from a floor in a PwC office. In April 2016, a 23-year-old employee of the PwC headquarters in London had jumped to his death from PwC’s ten-storey office building. His decision was attributed to a secret gambling habit, which he had begged his parents not to inform PwC about. He died on a walkway outside the office.
In another case, in May 2012, a 46-year old man jumped off the eighth floor of the PwC building in Largo, the third largest city in Pinellas County, Florida. In 2015, a director at PwC in the UAE, Jumana, was found dead in an apparent suicide pact with her sister, Soraya Saiti, at the base of a building under construction in Amman, Jordan. Then in August 2017, a PwC director named Werner Haupfleisch died by suicide in his home in Royldene, South Africa.
While none of these deaths were directly linked to PwC’s organisational culture, there have been other related deaths. In 2011, for example, Angela Pan, an auditor at the Shanghai PwC office, died ten days after first showing flu-like symptoms. Although her death was attributed to viral encephalitis, social media users of Sina Weibo speculated that she had been “worked to death”, Sometime before her death, Pan sent an update on Sina Weibo that said, “I can accept overtime. I can also accept out-of-town business trips. But on learning a young worker died from fatigue at KP (KPMG), I feel something has broken my bottom line to endure.” She had only worked for the company for six months, after graduating from Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Faith Atsango, a psychologist, says that work-related stress should be classified as a safety hazard. “People in high pressure jobs are prone to have mental breakdowns,” she adds, “and such incidents should be treated as physical health and safety issues at work.” Atsango says that similar to how factories provide safety gear, stressful work environments should find ways to help employees cope, and ease burnout. Many of these are included in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which also safeguards employees from “mental strain”.
Faith Atsango, a psychologist, says that work-related stress should be classified as a safety hazard. “People in high pressure jobs are prone to have mental breakdowns,” she adds, “and such incidents should be treated as physical health and safety issues at work.”
Despite these safeguards, high unemployment and weak enforcement of labour laws mean that work-related stress is not properly addressed. Mental health is still largely a taboo topic, despite an increasing number of deaths directly connected to it.
Part of the stigma attached to mental health is gender-related; statistics show that more than 70 per cent of the suicide-related deaths in 2017 were of males. Two days after Mumbo’s death, another man jumped into a borehole in Matisi Estate, Kitale. Five months before that, another man had jumped off the 8th floor of the 15-storey NSSF building in Mombasa.
There are numerous reasons for the gender disparity, most of them revolving around the social silence on depression and other mental health issues among men. Even worse, the stresses of living and working in a fast-paced urban centre pile up. The stresses include underemployment, overwork, length of the commute to work, and stagnant pay levels in a struggling economy.
A 1982 study on the subject showed that while the population in Nairobi grew by 7.5 per cent between 1975 and 1979, the rate of suicides grew by 300 per cent. The study also found a pattern in the months with the highest suicide rates; suicides tend to occur in the months of January to March, April to June, and October to December. There have been other studies focusing on at-risk groups, such as university students, but there is barely any substantive research on work-related stress and depression.
Then there’s the law. Instead of the law taking a pragmatic approach to the reasons why people take their own lives, it treats suicide as a crime. Attempted suicide is a misdemeanour punishable by two years’ imprisonment or fines, or both. This means that if Stephen Mumbo had survived his fall, which was unlikely, he would have promptly been arrested and thrown before a judge. That legal perspective and the social stigma also mean that suicide goes largely unacknowledged as the social issue it is.
Despite the legal and social hurdles, there have been some attempts to provide psychological wellness for several at-risk groups. In October, the same month Stephen Mumbo died, the National Police Service created a new department to assess the psychological wellness of officers. There had been at least five reported suicides of police officers in the preceding months. A few months later, the education ministry raised the alarm on an increasing number of death by suicide among university students.
In corporate workplaces such as PwC Kenya, the inclusion of psychological wellness has been at best abstract. PwC Global has made several public commitments to facilitate mental health awareness within its ranks. PwC UK, for example, has a “Green Light to Talk Day” and hired Beth Taylor as its new mental health leader in January 2016. PwC Malaysia has a “FitPwC” programme that combines physical and mental wellbeing. PwC Kenya does not have any such programme, and several employees described recent events, such as a meeting where management sought ideas on how to improve the work environment, as window-dressing.
As a consulting firm, PwC has published several reports on workplace stress. In 2017, PwC UK published a report on tackling workplace stress with technology. Three years before that, PwC Australia published a report titled “Creating a mentally healthy workplace.” The irony of such reports, according to a former long-term employee of PwC, is that they were most likely prepared by people who were themselves working in a mentally unhealthy environment.
A few hours after Mumbo’s death, Peter Ngahu, PwC’s regional and country senior partner, held a press conference where he said, “It’s difficult to keep track of what each and every person is doing.” He refused to answer the question about whether Mumbo had been alone in the meeting room before he fell to his death. His response was: “He may have had a meeting, but he’s not here to answer the question.”
After that, Ngahu and Mumbo’s bosses, Muniu Thoithi and George Weru, declined any more media interviews into the death. Both Ngahu and Thoithi didn’t pick calls or answer text messages about the company’s work culture and measures they would institute to help employees deal with work-related stress. Reached for comment, George Weru declined, saying “No, no, no, I would not wish to say anything about this issue. The boss, Ngahu, issued a press statement and held a press conference on the matter last Friday.”
At PwC Tower, life continued almost as if nothing significant had happened there on October 12th. If Mumbo’s death had been “a big blow” to PwC Kenya, as Ngahu termed it in his press release, then it didn’t show. There was counselling for a few of the staff members in Mumbo’s team, but then everyone went back to work even before his body was removed from the scene.
The ARM project, his last, continued unabated, as did the entire firm. Eleven days after he stepped off the ledge of the 17th floor meeting room, ARM’s creditors approved an extension of PwC’s mandate to September 2019. It will be going on to this next phase without one of its ablest minds. In a meeting on October 22nd, the creditors also gave PwC permission to implement several options to revive the company. These, most likely sourced from Mumbo’s work, include getting a strategic investor and selling off some of the company’s key assets. It is unclear whether he had been the one who discovered that for years, ARM Cement had been treating a loan to its Tanzanian subsidiary as a performing loan while Maweni had been defaulting for years.
At PwC Tower, life continued almost as if nothing significant had happened there on October 12th. If Mumbo’s death had been “a big blow” to PwC Kenya, as Ngahu termed it in his press release, then it didn’t show. There was counselling for a few of the staff members in Mumbo’s team, but then everyone went back to work even before his body was removed from the scene.
Even before the shock of his sudden death waned, Mumbo’s friends and family organised meetings and fundraisers. At Tumaini Meeting Chambers behind Kencom House, they planned a farewell to a man who had seemed like he had it all. Many of his colleagues could not make it to the meetings because they were working. Instead, they sent cash donations and condolences.
On Friday, 26th October 2018, exactly two weeks after Mumbo had ended his life, they left in a convoy from Montezuma Funeral Home and drove to Mumbo’s home in Nyamasaria. The next day, at 9 am, they sat as the priest prayed, and then watched in grief as the casket bearing Mumbo’s body was slowly lowered into the grave. It was heartbreaking, a tragedy by any measure. A man who, after living off his brilliance, had ended up back in the unforgiving soil where he had first seen the world. For Roselyne and their daughter, it was the beginning of a life without Mumbo, who was at the time the sole breadwinner in the household.
On the 2nd floor ledge at Delta Towers, where Mumbo breathed his last, the dent his body left is still prominent, a stark reminder of his tragic end. In the parking lot, his Mitsubishi Lancer sat untouched for months, parked in the same spot where he left it.
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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