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Not My Brother’s Keeper: Forces That Have Kept the Luyia People Apart

14 min read.

Luyias have never been able to take advantage of their numbers to gain or forge strong, collective political mileage. They have been unable to put their eggs in one basket to negotiate for their community. To understand the story of the Luyias of Kenya, one has to analyse their history from pre-colonial days to date, and particularly the impact of colonial events, ideology and administration.

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The Luyia community has produced more vice presidents than any other Kenyan community. Musalia Mudavadi was appointed vice president in 2002 for 90 days, Wamalwa Kijana in 2003 for seven months and Moody Awori was also Mwai Kibaki’s vice president between 2003 and 2007. But has this ever translated into any political clout or force? That has always been the big question of the day.

Luyias have never been able to take advantage of their numbers to gain or forge strong, collective political mileage. They have been unable to put their eggs in one basket to negotiate for their community. To understand the story of the Luyias of Kenya, one has to analyse their history from pre-colonial days to date, and particularly the impact of colonial events, ideology and administration.

Before the Luyia nation was cobbled together as a political necessity in 1943, several Luyia clans, such as the Bukusu, Banyala, Batsotso, Idakho, Isukha Kisa, Marama and Wanga, were originally Luo, Kalenjin or Masaai. In fact, a whole community like the Tachoni was originally part of the highland Nilotes who were incorporated through inter-marriage with the Bantu. This history does not make any of the clans less Luyia. Indeed, the entire community is an amalgamation of Bantu and Nilotic genealogy, bound by a common linguistic and cultural orientation acquired through adoption or assimilation. There are more than 800 Luyia clans to date, existing as units with fluid boundaries, joined together by a thin mosaic band of cultural and linguistic similarities.

Before the Luyia nation was cobbled together as a political necessity in 1943, several Luyia clans, such as the Bukusu, Banyala, Batsotso, Idakho, Isukha Kisa, Marama and Wanga, were originally Luo, Kalenjin or Masaai. In fact, a whole community like the Tachoni was originally part of the highland Nilotes who were incorporated through inter-marriage with the Bantu.

The political union between these clans has eluded them since the formation of the word “Abaluyia” in 1943. In essence, Luyia ethnicity did not exist before then. British ethnographers called all tribes in western Kenya “Kavirondos”, a pejorative term resented by the Luyia, Luo, Kalenjin, Kisii, Kuria, and Teso. The fight by these communities to redeem their respective ethnic pride was somewhat achieved when the name Kavirondo was expunged from official use and replaced by “Nyanza”, which in some Luyia dialects means “a large water body”. What we refer to as Western Kenya was then called North Nyanza.

Most of these clans that shared closely related ethnic polity did not have a centralised system of traditional governance. Around the Second World War, traditional leaders in pre-colonial Kenya realised the world had changed, and with it political parameters. Only organised societies with definite ethnic identities could survive and possibly benefit politically by bandying together. The so-called Luyia communities were not spared the effects of this political idea.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the word Luyia was first proposed by the local African Mutual Assistance Association in 1930 and adopted by the North Kavirondo Central Association in 1935, although some sub-communities’ elders rejected it. Their opposition gradually waned and the name started gaining currency.

In 1940, the Abaluyia Welfare Association was born, partly to popularise the name “Abaluyia” as a first step to creating a super ethnic identity. Shortly afterwards, a language committee was formed, and following its recommendations in 1943, the Luyia nation was born. It was formally adopted to describe a federation of lexically- related Bantu sub-tribes as a distinct tribal group living in the western part of Kenya.

According to Shadrack Bulimo, a Kenya-born ethnographer based in Edmonton Canada, “midwifing the super tribe was the easy bit; nurturing and developing socio-cultural institutions to anchor an impregnable system with national ethos, has evaded Abaluyia tribesmen for three generations. Over the years, talk of Luyia unity has waxed and waned depending on prevailing political temperatures, in a cyclical pattern that continues even today especially during electioneering.”

“Luyia unity is a favourite subject among politicians whenever elections are looming, but the same leaders are unwilling to jump into one political vehicle to harmonise the region’s socio-economic interests,” Bulimo argues.

Origins

The word Luyia is derived from Oluyia (the variation being Oluhya), which generically means a fireplace or hearth. It is believed that in pre-colonial Luyialand, members of a family, lineage or clan congregated around a bonfire in the evening to exchange the day’s news, or simply tell stories about war or clan matters. If a stranger joined them, they would ask, “Which Oluyia do you belong to?” to establish where the person was from in order to guard against threatening strangers or enemy infiltration.

Besides a family hearth, each clan had a common village gathering place where elders assembled to honour a village summon. This way, Oluyia also served as a village court where important matters were discussed, argued and adjudicated. It derived a different meaning but for a similar purpose. The village’s largest tree replaced the individual family’s hearth and became the focal point of Oluyia during the day. Gradually, when people said they were going for a meeting at Oluyia they meant the village common ground, rather than the literal fireplace. (Note the spelling of the word “Oluyia” without the “h”. The first Arabs encountered by Luyias are to blame for being unable to pronounce the word “Luyia” hence corrupting it by adding the letter “h” in their writing. Eventually, the new spelling came to be and was gradually adopted by scholars.)

The word Luyia is derived from Oluyia (the variation being Oluhya), which generically means a fireplace or hearth. It is believed that in pre-colonial Luyialand, members of a family, lineage or clan congregated around a bonfire in the evening to exchange the day’s news, or simply tell stories about war or clan matters.

The other meaning of Oluyia is both micro and macro. Those who share a fireplace as a lineage or clan belong to the same Oluyia (micro meaning). Thus when a group of clans come together they form Aba-luyia (sub-tribe) or Aba-luyia (macro-tribe). Nowadays the Abaluyia or Luhya generally means people who speak any of the closely- related 18 dialects found in Busia, Kakamega, Bungoma and Vihiga counties.

However, this group of 18 related nations have had distinct experiences under colonialism, and specifically under the various Christian missions. The missionary church played a huge role in the politics of the Luyia community and in the developments and cleavages of Luyia identity.

The Kenya-Uganda Railway reached Kisumu (then known as Port Florence) in 1901. Two years later, the Quakers (Friends Mission) started a mission hospital and primary school at Kaimosi in Tiriki. The Quakers would quickly become dominant in the area because, apart from evangelising, they introduced vocational training that imparted employable skills like carpentry, tailoring, masonry and machining to the natives.

A defining moment in the political history of Luyias had just been established. And somehow, the seed of discord among the community had also been sowed.

In the early 20th century, the various missionary societies active in the area concluded that competition for native souls was unhealthy and confusing, so they agreed to carve out spheres of jurisdiction in the region, just like during the “Scramble for Africa” when European powers did the same.

Under this pact, the Church Missionary Society – later called Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK) and today the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) – was assigned to evangelise among the Luo and the Marama. The Church of God was assigned Bunyore, Kisa and Butsotso. Friends African Mission (Quakers), with its headquarters in Kaimosi, was assigned Maragoli, Bukusu and Tiriki. Catholics were to concentrate on Wanga, Isukha and Idakho; the Mill Hill Fathers – also Catholic – anchored their mission at Mukumu in Isukha. The Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG) from Ontario, Canada, through Otto Keller, later established the mission at Nyangori. (Nyang’ori is located about 15km from Kisumu at the confluence of Nyanza, Rift Valley and Western Province.) Keller soon became very popular because he introduced drumming, which attracted locals to his church and annoyed Quakers who were already dominant in the area.

In the early 20th century, the various missionary societies active in the area concluded that competition for native souls was unhealthy and confusing, so they agreed to carve out spheres of jurisdiction in the region, just like during the “Scramble for Africa” when European powers did the same.

The Church Missionary Society (Anglicans) started a mission at Maseno, led by James Jamieson Willis and Hugh Saville, to preach to the Luo people. Maseno School later developed into one of the best centres of academic excellence in Kenya. Having been established at a borderline, many neighbouring Luyia boys were enrolled into the mission alongside Luos. After all, inter-marriage between the Luo and Luyia had existed along the Maseno borderline.

The British appointed Nabongo Mumia as paramount chief of the region in 1913. Nabongo Mumia acquired the first bicycle in 1910, making him the first Luyia to do so, and since then, the item has remained a precious possession amongst the Luyias. Mumia was also the first Luyia to own a motor car. He retired in 1926 and died in 1949 aged 100 years, and was buried at Itokho in Mumias. The first sewing machine was introduced in 1916 by the Singer Company, which sold it to the Irish CMS Missionary at Butere. Modernity or “civilization” had arrived in Luyialand.

The Bukusu were the only Luyia community to openly resist the colonialists in 1895. They built Chetambe Fort in Webuye to reinforce their battle with the white man. The British fought back their warriors in 1895, ending the Bukusu resistance. To date, Bukusus perceive themselves as brave warriors.

The Quakers and their mission

Islam was also present in Luyialand, and was brought to Wanga by Arab traders en route to Buganda in 1902. Beyond Wanga, there was little success in spreading the religion to the rest of Luyialand. Since Swahilis raided Bukusus for slaves, they met stiff resistance and hence few Bukusu converted to Islam. In Nabongo Mumia’s court, the Swahili occupied an envious position in the colonial administration. They were employed as tax collectors, informers and circumcisers of Wanga Muslims convertees, despite being associated with cunningness and corrupt practices. Today many Luyias refer to Abawanga as Abaswahili (implying cunning and untrustworthy people).

But it was the American Quakers Mission, which was dominant in the area, that became the site of major social transformation. The mission at Kaimosi was situated on a hill called Hill of Vision, which the locals referred to as Javujilachi (holy hill). The Quakers’ vision was premised on four pillars: education, health, industry and evangelism. Their arrival marked a radical approach that was different from that of earlier evangelists who only preached the gospel without investing in vocational and educational infrastructure.

Kaimosi was established in Tiriki where believers did not initially resist the American missionaries. (They especially enjoyed and appreciated the health facilities.) Yet things took a turn for the worse when the Quakers began to question the traditional Tiriki way of life. The backlash was so severe that by 1910, only eleven Tirikis remained as converts. With time, the missionary efforts were combined with other colonial instruments like schooling, waged labour, taxation, property laws and urbanisation. Christianity disrupted traditional social practices like marriage and circumcision.

But it was the American Quakers Mission…that became the site of major social transformation. The mission at Kaimosi was situated on a hill called Hill of Vision, which the locals referred to as Javujilachi (holy hill). The Quakers’ vision was premised on four pillars: education, health, industry and evangelism.

The Tirikis found themselves in a deep quagmire when their land was forcefully acquired by the missionaries, and when their culture was maligned and disrupted. They coexisted as uneasy neighbours with the Quakers, who they now disliked for their stand on polygamy and traditional culture. It meant that other Luyia communities gradually found refuge at the Kaimosi mission. Girls who sought refuge after running away from forceful suitors arrived at Kaimosi. Another sticking point was the presence of many non-Tiriki, especially Maragoli, as workers to the missionaries. This fostered the feeling that the mission favoured “outsiders”.

Where the Tiriki lost, the Maragoli gained. With a huge population occupying a small area, they migrated in droves to live among the Tiriki in Kaimosi, becoming a sizeable minority. As early as 1904, the Maragoli made up the majority labour force at Kaimosi, a trend that has continued to date.

At this point, Kaimosi was the only intermediate school in Luyialand where the rest of the sub-clans had to go for education past Standard 3. On arrival, they came face to face with the perceived Maragoli dominance at the mission, which caused resentment. Led by the Bukusu, the other communities felt that they were “there to be seen and not to be heard”. Most of the leading schools in Luyialand were either established or affiliated to Quakers; these included the Musingu, Kaimosi and Lugulu schools. However, the first government school (Kakamega High School) was built in 1932.

In any case, the Maragoli were the first Luyia to take advantage of the new economic and social opportunities presented by colonialism. They were among the first to join schools, so the Quakers found it easier to work with them as opposed to the Tiriki. Consequently, the Quakers, led by Emory Rees and his wife Deborah, arrived at Vihiga from South Africa, and between 1903 and 1926 they learnt the Maragoli language and translated the Bible and school texts. This made conversion to Christianity among the Maragoli much easier. To date, most Christian hymnals among the Luyia are written and sung in their language.

The Maragoli started drifting from their traditional ways after 1910 with the arrival and influence of the Quakers. They for instance gradually started to drift from traditional circumcision ceremonies altogether, preferring western medical practices. Their purview of customary belief systems also changed dramatically. Conversion to Christianity or adoption of Western values had no negative social backlash among them. Maragolis, hence, became the first amongst equals in the eyes of the missionaries and other Luyias.

In Kaimosi, the Quakers mission would gain even more prominence in 1927 when it was the centre of a Pentecostal revivalist rebellion led by native Africans. The discontent simmered until the missionaries met with rebels and they had no choice but to expel some members who went ahead to establish the African Spiritual Church (Dini Ya Roho). In 1942, Daudi Zakayo Kivuli also founded his own church: The African Israel Nineveh Church. He installed his wife Rebecca as the High Priestess and when she died in 1983, her grandson John Mweresa Kivuli, took over as the current High Priest. Their followers are noted for wearing white turbans.

In 1946, Dini Ya Musambwa (Religion of Ancestral Spirits) was established by Elijah Masinde as a protest movement against Christian churches, which preached against ancestral sacrifices and polygamy. The Bukusu revere him as a prophet (omung’osi). In 1957 another splinter group led by Saulo Chabuga formed the African Divine Church in Maragoli. By 2008 they had around 25,000 churches spread out in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

After several misunderstandings and clamour for autonomy, the Kaimosi Quakers transferred the boys’ school from the Tiriki and Maragoli to the Bukusu, renaming it Friends School Kamusinga in the heart of Bukusuland in Kimilili. The seeds of future disunity were planted by that simple action. Bukusus started seeing themselves as equal to Maragolis, at least on the education (read civilisation) front.

Meanwhile, the Catholic missionaries tolerated local customs like polygamy, drinking alcohol and dancing at funerals. Locals in Isukha and Idakho who wanted to continue with this way of life found refuge amongst the Catholics, who did not condemn these practices too loudly. When they tried to replicate their success in Maragoli, they met stiff resistance – the Maragoli were already firmly embedded with the Quakers. The only Catholic mission arrived in the form of Maragoli Girls’ Secondary School at Mbale set up by Mill Hill Missionaries, and this was as late as 1971.

The Tiriki resistance to Christianity was finally broken when Chief Paul Amiani joined the Salvation Army in 1932, and by the sheer force of his personality built strong followers, offering the much-needed alternative to Quaker dominance. Through him, the Tiriki elders accepted their youth to undergo both Christian and traditional initiation ceremonies. They also embraced education as an engine for personal and economic development. But as they did this, the horse (read Maragoli) had already bolted with the diadem of “modernity”.

In fact, when the idea of forming an “Abaluyia” identity was mooted in 1943, resistance came from the Maragoli community, who made it known to all and sundry that the Maragoli were not part of the Luyia nation – they were simply Maragoli. Nevertheless, the Maragoli never formally or officially asked for the name to be expunged from the list of communities that form the Luyia nation, leaving them firmly included.

Pulling apart

Culturally, attempts to have what is often referred to as spoken standard Luyia have often hit a snag because no single dialect is understood by all sub-communities. Still, those who live in close geographical proximity tend to understand each other more easily, creating a pattern which can be sub-divided into four cluster areas: Cluster one – Logooli, Nyole, Tiriki; Cluster two – Isukha, Idakho, Kisa, Wanga, Batsotso and Marama; Cluster three – Bukusu, Tachoni, Kabras, Abanyala (Kakamega); and Cluster four – Samia, Marachi, Abakhayo, Abanyala (Busia). According to scholar Abraham Mirimo, “all Luyia dialects share a core lexical structure and only minor inflection in suffixation and prefixation divided them”.

Talk of Luyia unity and two groups strongly come to mind – the Bukusu and the Maragoli, who are always believed to be pulling apart. Is it a coincidence that they are also the most migratory and daring of all Luyia sub-nations? Sample this. The Bukusu are mainly found in Bungoma and Trans-Nzoia. They are the most populous of the Luyia sub-nations, forming about 20 per cent of the estimated six million Luyia population. (The name Bungoma is derived from Bongamek, a Kalenjin tribe that originally occupied the territory.) In the 10th Parliament, they had seven MPs representing their domiciled interest in Kanduyi, Bumula, Webuye, Sirisia, Kimilili, Tongaren, Kwanza and Saboti. Their presence is spread out and overlaps into Trans-Nzoia, Kakamega and Uasin Gishu counties.

Culturally, attempts to have what is often referred to as spoken standard Luyia have often hit a snag because no single dialect is understood by all sub-communities. Still, those who live in close geographical proximity tend to understand each other more easily, creating a pattern which can be sub-divided into four cluster areas…

Maragolis are also found beyond the boundaries of Vihiga County. In 1927 they ventured into Uriri in Migori County. The international language encyclopedia Ethnologue, Issue no.16, even lists the Maragoli as a tribe in Tanzania, across the border from Migori. A contingent of Maragoli immigrants settled in Bunyoro, Uganda in 1958 following an agreement between the British colonial government and the Kingdom of Bunyoro. Now estimated at around 35,000, the Maragoli were even allocated land at Kigumba in Kiryandogo district but are now spread to Ntoma and Masindi. They have an unofficial pressure group led by one Eliakimu Adola pushing for their official recognition as a fully-fledged Ugandan tribe, having settled there for over half a century.

Masinde Muliro, a Bukusu, proved quite a principled and fair leader who earned respect across the community. Born at Matili near Kimilili in 1920, he was among the founders of the FORD party, which struggled against President Daniel arap Moi’s one-party tyranny. Muliro instantly became the quintessential Luyia leader and is immortalised by a university in Kakamega, the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST). On August 27, 2011, the government declared him a national hero.

Muliro came from the Bakokho clan, and his political defining moment came in 1975, when he voted against a government report into the murder of JM Kariuki. He was the only cabinet minister to do so. Peter Kibisu, an Assistant Minister for Labour and MP for Vihiga, also voted against the report. An angry President Jomo Kenyatta sacked both Muliro and Kibisu, tossing them into the political wilderness. Once again the Bukusu and Maragoli had proved their political mettle within the Luyia nation.

After Muliro’s sacking, Moses Substone Budamba Mudavadi stepped into his large shoes. By virtue of his close association with President Moi, Mudavadi – a Maragoli – wielded immense power that was felt across Luyialand and beyond. Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi has followed as a titular Luyia leader, but his “gentle” mien attracted detractors who until today feel he lacks “fire in his belly”. Musalia, though, proved them all wrong in 2007, when under the ODM party he delivered 18 seats as the party’s torch bearer. So far he has cut his own apron strings by launching the Amani National Congress (ANC).

Another leader who earned respect across the Luyia community was the late Michael Christopher Kijana Wamalwa. Though raised a Bukusu, his roots can be traced to the Sabaot. Wamalwa’s father, Senator William Chemayek Ngeywo, was a Sabaot who changed his name to Wamalwa to get a missionary education as the Sabaot suffered discrimination in those days. (“Chemayek” in the Sabaot and indeed Kalenjin language is “alcohol” and its equivalent in naming is “Wamalwa” in Lu-bukusu.) Michael’s mother, Esther Nekesa, however, was a Bukusu from the Baengele clan. His Sabaot roots did not matter as he was raised Bukusu, underscoring that the Luyia nation is a confluence of Kalenjin, Maasai, Luo and Bantu ethnicities

Although political unity has been a slippery path for Luyias, their most astounding success has occurred outside politics. The Abaluyia United Football Club (AFC Leopards) was formed in 1964. All teams under the sub-tribal banners agreed to merge and form one team. You can be sure everything was smooth until the Maragolis opted to remain autonomous by keeping their Maragoli United Football Club. Still, the club remains the only veritable symbol of Luyia unity where leading personalities have always sought to be elected chairman or patron. Player unity on the pitch helped it to succeed in the East African region.

The Luyia have adequate social tools to unify them into one coherent force: inter-marriages, esikuti dance, Ingwe (leopard) as a tribal totem and other symbols. However, that all Luyias actually found themselves conjoined by colonialists makes it very difficult to lump them socio-culturally, politically and economically. They actually came from different directions and met within the boundaries of the so-called Western Province. Since they do not trace their lineage to one ancestor, like the Gikuyu with Mumbi or the Luos with Ramogi as their patriarch, it was arguably a convergence for convenience.

The Bukusu and Maragolis are undoubtedly great achievers among the Luyia sub-nations. Compared to other Luyia sub-nations, they know how to position themselves politically. Whereas Bukusus consider themselves warriors, Maragolis carry themselves as the elites of Luyialand who were the first to “see the light” when others were still in darkness. The two communities are also perceived to be haughty and domineering, a trait that repels both Maragolis and Bukusus from other Luyias. They have nowadays morphed into two great, conjoined siblings and none is ready to let go.

The Luyia have adequate social tools to unify them into one coherent force: inter-marriages, esikuti dance, Ingwe (leopard) as a tribal totem and other symbols. However, that all Luyias actually found themselves conjoined by colonialists makes it very difficult to lump them socio-culturally, politically and economically.

Indeed none is ready to be seen as subordinate to the other. They both have produced Vice Presidents in Kijana Wamalwa and Musalia Mudavadi, and in community leaders Masinde Muliro and Moses Mudavadi, and it appears as if they are always on a permanent ‘check-mate alert mode’. The recognition of Muliro in the naming of the biggest university in Luyialand located in Kakamega the headquarters of Luyias was perceived to be a scoop of sorts for the Bukusus. In addition, the biggest public park that convenes political rallies – Muliro Gardens – ‘the biggest Oluyia’ was also named after the great son of Bukusuland.

After all these years of push and pull based on historical and post-independent seeds of discord, it is clear that the elusive Luyia unity is still a long shot.

My friend James Wasike says, “as long as the Maragoli are always on standby to throw a spanner in the Bukusu works and vice-versa, Luyia unity will still remain a mirage”. Alternatively, as long as the Bukusu still harbour the Kaimosi grudge, where they were looked down upon by the Maragoli who are in any case their historical competitors, the Luyia nation will not be able to truly say: ‘I am my brother’s keeper’.

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Bethuel Oduo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya

Politics

The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration

The responses to the information disorder adopted in Kenya have been largely ineffective. Multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively stand a higher chance of success and will result in a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.

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The information disorder (i.e., mis- and disinformation) pervasive on social media has arguably interfered with democratic processes across the world. As public authorities and political actors continue to embrace social media as a broadcast and civic engagement tool, the potency of manipulated narratives online is further entrenched. This is debatably truer in electoral contexts where issues are perhaps more emotive and divisive. For example, in the run-up to Kenya’s general elections, a notable amount of mis- and disinformation on social media was observable. As Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal noted, doctored images of crowds during political rallies, mild deepfake videos, doctored photos, and fake accounts passing off as political actors or mainstream media were just some of the categories of mis- and disinformation observable on social media. These observations tie in with earlier research by Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo, highlighting the practice of using bloggers for disinformation campaigns. During the actual elections, the EU Election Observer Mission also observed “manufactured amplification and coordination of messages online by fake accounts and malicious, bot-driven activity in support of the presidential candidates”.

The impact of the information disorder on democracies has been extensively discussed and will not be the subject of this article. Instead, this article focuses on the diverse responses which have been mooted and implemented in Kenya by policy makers, media, civil society, and social media platforms in response to the information disorder. In particular, this article argues that these responses are largely ineffective when used in isolation and suggests that collectives comprised of a broad range of multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively are likely to have a higher chance at success. One such collective, Fumbua, was established in the run-up to the 2022 general elections in Kenya, and this article argues that the frameworks for collaboration it established can be repurposed to address the information disorder in numerous contexts.

Contextualizing the information disorder on social media

The proliferation of mis- and disinformation on social media is made easier by the fact that such platforms, by nature, enable peer-to-peer engagement with little to no gatekeeping. While this characteristic has also meant that these platforms have served to create room for civic engagement and act as an equalizer, such civic engagement is often undermined by the harmful content that is prevalent. In recognition of the potential for harm their platforms pose to democratic processes, numerous social media platforms have adopted policies and tools specifically designed to address election-related mis-and disinformation. Comparatively, the content moderation tools applied in the Global South have arguably been scant. For example, in Brazil, the individuals tasked with enforcing Twitter’s policies during the presidential election only got access to the necessary internal tools a day prior to the election, and only in a limited capacity. Twitter allegedly utilized automatic enforcement technology and third-party service providers. According to numerous commentators, it is not uncommon for content moderation efforts in the Global South to be below par. From automatic enforcement tools trained on datasets lacking in local context, to human content moderators facing the same challenge, these platforms’ efforts to curb the information disorder are handicapped from the outset. These challenges are exacerbated in electoral contexts. Recent developments have shown that it sometimes takes third parties such as researchers or civil society pointing out harmful content for platforms to act.

It is generally agreed that mis-and disinformation was prevalent on social media during Kenya’s August 2022 general election. For example, the EU Election Observer Mission indicated in its report that it had identified hundreds of misleading Facebook and Twitter profiles. Platforms triggered their civic integrity policies a few weeks prior to the election and set up information centres and moderately labelled misleading content. However, these labels were not consistently applied and were in fact only deployed during the election tallying process. Stakeholders seemingly lacked a clear solution to address the information disorder on social media. The lack of sustainable and scalable solutions is not unique to Kenya and the region. It is certainly a global problem and a key step in the right direction is securing more transparency from platforms in relation to their enforcement processes as this will enable stakeholders to co-create solutions. However, in the interim, the information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed. One way to accomplish this is through multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua.

Addressing the information disorder

Fumbua is a collective of media and media-related organisations which came together in the run-up of the 2022 general election with a view to addressing the information disorder as it relates to political campaigning. The efforts to address the information disorder in Kenya’s 2022 general election can largely be categorized into actions taken in anticipation of the mis- and disinformation (pre-emptive measures) and actions taken in response to the information disorder (reactive measures). Fumbua brought together organisations involved in both areas, such as fact checkers, “pre-bunkers” and traditional media. Both these reactive and pre-emptive measures are discussed below.

The information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed.

Mis- and disinformation has reportedly featured in Kenyan elections since 2013. Consequently, with each passing cycle, stakeholders have been able to understand its nature and develop solutions which are alive to Kenya’s specific context. Unfortunately, due to the rapidly evolving nature of mis- and disinformation practices, the solutions developed have often been reactive in that they seek to get rid of such harmful content or undo its effects after the fact. For example, by criminalizing false content through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, by fact checking such content, by using labels to warn audiences of the nature of the content, and by obtaining the takedown of such content from social media sites.

Fact checking has perhaps been the most prevalent or visible response to the information disorder. It essentially entails systematically breaking down the validity of claims made by public officials, institutions, and political actors with a view to identifying whether the claim is factual or not. In Kenya’s elections, various fact-checkers were active. These included independent media, the fact-checking desks of mainstream media, and collectives or associations. To name a few, Africa Check, Africa Uncensored, Pesa Check, Media Council of Kenya, Kenya Editors Guild and The Star were involved in fact-checking claims made during the Kenyan elections. While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder, especially when empirical evidence on the subject is divided. In highly politicized environments, it is unlikely that being exposed to verification of claims will affect an audience’s world view. This is more so the case where the objectivity and impartiality of the fact-checkers are in question. Fact-checkers often must compete with an audience’s confirmation bias and their credibility is often questioned due to the conflict their narrative poses to the world view of some audiences. This is not made easier by the fact that fact-checking is a difficult, time-consuming, and labour-intensive process which cannot compete with the speed at which false information is spread through social media. Add in the fact that false information more easily captures attention due to its ability to trigger negative emotions and one can understand why the utility and efficacy of fact-checking is limited. Fact-checking claims made through social media have also been especially difficult in Kenya due to the minimal and often performative support given to fact-checkers by social media platforms.

For fact-checking to be effective, it must offer an alternative narrative to that which it is disputing. The challenge is that such a narrative must exist in the first place and must be capable of being accepted by an audience. Where such a narrative exists, there is a risk that it may come with “political baggage” and as such be difficult to accept. In such cases, the efficacy of fact-checking is limited, and this is essentially the challenge faced by fact-checkers – purveyors of false information are not bound by the same rules. Despite all this, fact-checking has been found to positively affect audience beliefs notwithstanding pre-existing beliefs and whether an alternative narrative was presented. However, these credentials are limited as the effects on belief are weak and gradually becoming negligible. Additionally, they do not always translate to downstream effects (i.e., changing of votes).

For a long time, stakeholders seeking to curb the information disorder have found themselves on the back-foot, always responding after the fact. By the time interventions such as fact-checks, social media takedowns, and flags are deployed, harmful content has likely taken root. With this in mind, some pre-emptive solutions have been contemplated and used by stakeholders. These are discussed below.

While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder.

As discussed earlier in this article, fact-checkers often face the challenge of having to overcome an audience’s inherent biases and the political baggage accompanying the alternative narratives they seek to put forth. In seeking to overcome this reactionary approach, Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden argue that it may be more effective to inoculate audiences against harmful content by priming their minds to anticipate it. This has come to be referred to as prebunking, and it essentially entails exposing audiences to watered down versions of false or misleading content with a view to highlighting the tactics used by purveyors of such content. Prebunking efforts recognize that the information disorder may not necessarily be solved by disseminating more accurate information given that harmful content is often consumed in highly politicized contexts. Instead, these efforts seek to redesign information architecture through behavioural interventions (i.e., changing how audiences consume information). In Kenya, Stop Reflect Verify was the first publicly documented election-related prebunking program. It offered a misinformation quiz focused on the Kenyan elections.

While prebunking seemingly promises to reduce the reactionary nature of stakeholder efforts, there is insufficient proof that skills learned in prebunking programmes are applied in practical situations. Counterfactual thinking may be a useful strategy to incorporate into prebunking efforts. Counterfactual thinking involves stimulating an audience’s mind to consider alternative facts and hypotheses when presented with information in a bid to logically deduce the likely truth. The lack of consensus on the utility and efficacy of prebunking as an alternative to fact-checking points to the need for the deployment of multiple interventions in a coordinated fashion, and this is where multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua come in.

Building in sustainability 

Periodically, civil society, media practitioners, and the donor community focus their efforts on election-related programmes in a collaborative manner (for example the media’s collaboration during presidential debates). In most cases, the collaboration does not survive the post-election period. As a result, these election stakeholders have to start anew during each election. A considerable amount of time and resources are dedicated to establishing the frameworks for collaboration, taking away from the potential impact these programmes may have. With collectives such as Fumbua, stakeholders are able to repurpose the goodwill that fostered collaboration during elections to continue to address the information disorder in other contexts. By sustaining the collaboration, stakeholders would be able to leverage on incremental gains and make a more impactful change. In relation to the information disorder, they would be better able to move towards how media is generated and consumed. The effect of this would be a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.

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The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy

Crisis is the new constant and advocacy efforts should seek ways of growing public awareness through civic education.

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The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy
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Are East African countries ready to face the next crisis or are they simply keen to go back to how things were? What does a new normal mean when speaking about public finance management (PFM)?

In continuing the struggle for structural transformation, economic justice efforts must work towards developing a new citizen and preparing for unpredictable or unforeseen events, more so those with extreme socio-economic and political consequences.

This is because, besides known challenges posed by existing inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out how “unusual circumstances such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes, disease outbreaks and warfare … depress the ability of citizens to engage in economic activity and pay taxes as well as that of governments [capacity] to collect revenue [or] provide services”.

Such circumstances therefore demand more inclusion of human rights-based approaches in economic justice efforts to champion greater fairness within existing financial architecture.

Disasters should, therefore, not obliterate human rights but should heighten the need to respect, protection, and fulfilment of obligations through prioritizing expenditure on service delivery, as well as all elements of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) to “boost the capacity of residents to withstand shocks” by improving coping mechanisms.

Promotion of fair taxes among other broader economic justice initiatives within PFM should consequently adapt towards championing ESCRS within the context of more disruptive and unexpected incidents. Crisis is constant in the new normal.

Fiscal democracy and civil protection: Recovery, resilience, and transformation

Currently, conversations on recovery are focused on tackling reduced tax collection; slowed growth; depressed formal or informal productivity; exploding unemployment; diminished remittances; persistent poverty; decline in energy access; and escalating food insecurity.

This emphasis seeks to reverse the effects of various lockdown policies that placed restrictions on businesses, mobility, movement within and across international borders, [plus] public gatherings. However, it speaks mostly of a desire to return to pre-COVID levels of economic activity while vital systems in tackling the next crisis such as water, education, or health remain unaddressed.

Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda. This will then speak to the resilience, and transformation needed to ensure PFM works for Africans in good times or bad.

Understanding fiscal democracy takes the form of better prioritization, response to problems, and improved sanctions for mistakes in the revenue cycle.

Advocacy for increased domestic opportunities, promotion of childhood development, enhanced socio-economic mobility, support for workers, motivation of local entrepreneurship, diversification of public infrastructure from mega projects, as well as increased innovation through subsidized research and development should be at the heart of economic justice efforts.

Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda.

Civil protection gives a new framework of planning by envisioning contexts or processes in which a series of unfortunate events can emerge, thus providing adequate responses without breaking the social contract.

Transformation therefore occurs when both go hand in hand so that public facilities are not overstretched in the event of crisis. Hence, in looking at the impact of Covid-19, across the East Africa region, we must ask ourselves: How transformative are the current recovery efforts underway? Will they offer a new resilience?

The salvage job: Economic sustainability through reliefs, guarantees, subsidies, and funds

Responses have clearly been driven by the urgency to overcome the pandemic and the need to forestall outright disaster or collapse. The “short-term rescue mode” has seen efforts to ensure vaccine access and bolstering of public health systems.

On the economic front governments “Have sought debt relief, implemented corporate tax deferrals plus exemptions, made direct citizen transfers and interest rate adjustments. [They have also] implemented guarantees and subsidies, liquidity support and food relief … [with] examples of support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Cash transfers and other safety nets for poor and vulnerable populations are critical for an integrated … response. While not transformational, they are building blocks for a basic level of resilience to external shocks.”

The fact that these efforts are not transformational must motivate the infusion of a justice quotient in recovery efforts. This will enable a movement beyond an emergency-oriented recovery that recognizes existing modern challenges such as climate change, population growth, scarce resources, man-made or natural calamities.

In the case of tax justice, to make the linkages that will establish economic sustainability in East Africa, it is important to understand the effect of recovery efforts in relation to public debt; the tax burden on individuals or households; illicit financial flows; harmful tax practices; economic growth; and resource distribution.

Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities. Concerns were looming over the fact that 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan African countries were in or at high risk of debt distress. Between 2010 and 2018, public debt in East Africa grew rapidly as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – National Debt to GDP Ratio

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

In this time, East African Community (EAC) governments failed to mobilize sufficient revenue despite an overall increase in taxes. The situation was therefore exacerbated by COVID-19, the consequence being that these countries are now stuck in a situation where they must tax more to bridge revenue gaps.

Basically this, first and foremost, creates a context of unfair tax policies in the region that burden their respective citizens, does not enhance service delivery, and is exclusionary in how debt repayment strategies are developed.

Lack of open debate about a country’s fiscal priorities within the existing PFM system neglects the needs of youth who constitute the majority of the population among other segments of society, curtails ideas on how to increase resources needed to provide for new economic opportunity(ies) and respond to the next emergency.

Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities.

Secondly, an environment or ecosystem of illicit financial flows (IFFs) that constitutes the formation of International Financial Centres (IFCs) in Kigali and Nairobi plus the signing of numerous Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) continues to perpetuate itself thereby providing loopholes within the tax architecture that undermine efforts at domestic revenue mobilization (DRM) because the monies going out of countries are so massive, outweighing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).

This is thanks to “Constitutionalism [among other legal questions] plus demands to implement new public finance management principles, growth in trade and services across countries in the region or with other countries across the globe, and discovery of natural resources requiring more inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI).”

On average IFFs accounts form 6.1 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) thereby impeding economic development and sustainability. For instance, since 2011, Kenya is estimated to lose KSh40 billion annually “as government, local firms and multinationals engage in fraudulent schemes to avoid tax payments”. As of 2021, The State of Tax Justice Report indicates this has grown to an estimated KSh69 billion annually at current exchange rates.

Third, growing account deficits and rising external debt are heavily limiting to economic growth. Increased spending on debt repayment is restricting prioritization on essential public goods and services while borrowing remains one of the key sources of budget financing.

In as much as Kenya cancelled its recent pursuit of another Eurobond, the about-turn towards borrowing domestically following a surge in yields within international markets because of the Russia-Ukraine war is still going to punish the country’s citizens by squeezing them out of access to credit.

Lastly, the debt burden is disempowering the citizen. Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable. This is further worsened by limited access to information on debt or public spending. Moreover, there is weak oversight by parliaments as executives take full control of processes.

Policy-making processes during cascading crises: Fiscal Consolidation, Special Drawing Rights, and Open Government

By understanding that crisis is constant, and that it is likely to manifest as confluence events — merging risks of mitigatable disaster(s) — or major confluence events, that is, the combination of potentially unmitigated risk(s) at any one point in time, how does policy making at such a time help to prepare for the emergency next time?

For example, what does Kenya’s fiscal consolidation programme — which comprises of reforms to improve oversight, monitoring, and governance of state-owned enterprises; improved transparency of fiscal reporting; and comprehensive information of public tenders awarded including beneficial ownership information of awarded entities — have to do with preparing for the next series of cascading crises?

Several emergency relief funds have been established to address the impact of COVID-19, such as the Rapid Credit Facility, the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, and the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).

However, these efforts are not likely to unlock the existing “trilemma” of solving the health plus economic crisis and meeting development targets while dealing with a tightening fiscal space. This is because they are stuck in the present circumstances with no consciousness of how much the challenge is likely to prevail into the future.

East African Community governments, in this time, failed to mobilize sufficient revenue, despite an overall increase in taxes.

Adopting fiscal democracy not only provides a new agenda determining organizing principles, but it has the potential for establishing a new citizenship through further entrenchment of human rights-based approaches in economic justice, and commitment to open government principles.

It will also anticipate and prevent the disaster capitalism witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many African countries seem to be in a constant state of crisis, thus allowing for IFFs through PFM malfeasance that locks corruption and fraud into procurement through bid rigging or collusion.

Principals of public participation, demands for accountability, championing non-discrimination, advocacy for empowering programing, and legitimacy through the rule of law should set standards on beneficial ownership while open contracting, open data for development, legislative openness, improving service delivery, access to information, and access to justice will help build resilience in government.

A call to civic education: Revenue rights and obligations

Somewhere along the way, capacity building and training programming took prominence over civic education. Advocacy efforts should look for ways to bring back more popular public awareness. Denial of resources for these kinds of activities has been a major blow for PFM advocacy among other activist efforts.

Civic education will re-establish links between individual claims to service delivery and assigned duties in the fulfilment of public demands. Citizens will be able to identify how the problem manifests and engage on the immediate, underlying or root causes of an issue.

Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable.

It will also allow them to establish the patterns of relationships which may result in the non-fulfilment of rights or absconding of obligations. This will enable them to assign appropriate responsibility by identifying the relevant authorities. It will keep an eye on resources through participating in decision making.

Governments and political leadership should therefore work to improve their communication capabilities in engaging the public so that once this new citizenry is involved, they can work together to achieve representative priorities for action.

This article is based on a presentation and comments made at the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Debt Conference, Towards strengthening accountability and transparency around public debt management and the use of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in Eastern and Southern Africa, 20–21 June 2022, Nairobi, Kenya.

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‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’

Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.

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Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.

Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.

The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.

Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.

On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.

Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.

Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.

This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.

Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.

It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.

At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.

A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.

More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.

Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.

Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.

Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?

***

The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.

Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.

“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.

A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.

At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.

None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.

***

The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.

My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.

Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.

In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.

Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.

A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.

***

As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?

None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.

To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?

Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.

For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.

Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).

What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.

Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.

Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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