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Winter Is Coming: Why Our National Debt Is Illegitimate, Unjust and Unsustainable…and Why We Should Be Worried

14 min read.

Greece teaches us, if we will listen, that the time is likely to come when Kenya will be unable to pay government workers’ salaries and will not be able to fund essential public services, such as security. At this point, the Government of Kenya will be forced to take on yet more borrowing to prevent a mass uprising. These “rescue packages” will be offered on grossly usurious terms, terms that the government will have no choice but to accept.



Winter Is Coming: Why Our National Debt Is Illegitimate, Unjust and Unsustainable…and Why We Should Be Worried
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Recently the matter of Kenya’s national indebtedness has gained wide coverage in the media, not least in a presidential roundtable with the press on December 28th, 2018. In my opinion, our nation is grossly indebted, and in fact we are in a de facto state of emergency as far as our nation’s finances are concerned. I hope to demonstrate this fact below, and to suggest what options we have for dealing with our indebtedness.

Several indicators for measuring national indebtedness exist, such as Debt-to-Gross Domestic Product (Debt:GDP), debt per capita, etc. Probably the most widely-used indicator is the Debt:GDP ratio. This particular metric is so obfuscatory and misleading that it is not inconceivable that it was actually developed to mask the truth about national indebtedness the world over.

When we as individuals want to borrow salary-backed loans from banks, the banks attempt to assess our ability to pay off these loans by reviewing our payslips, sometimes going back 3 to 6 months. This effort is calculated to answer just one question: what is our take-home pay? In doing this, the banks are assessing our credit-worthiness, which helps to reduce the risk of default.

At the national level, however, this abundance of caution is thrown to the wind. The use of the Debt:GDP ratio to measure national indebtedness means that a country’s ability to take on more debt is assessed on the basis of its GDP. At an individual level, such an assessment would approximate assessing our ability to pay off salary-backed loans based on our gross pay. In fact, it is much worse: it is more like assessing an individual’s ability to pay off a loan based on how much revenue he generates for his employer. Even if such a company is just breaking even, the revenue an employee earns his employer must necessarily exceed his salary, or else that organisation would be unable to meet its operational costs, such as rent, electricity and other office expenses. Put another way, the revenue an employee generates pays a lot more than his salary). Since GDP attempts (poorly) to measure the total value generated by all the economic activity in a nation, to use it as a basis for measuring whether a country has room to borrow is patently unwise simply because not all the value created in a nation’s economy is available to pay a nation’s debt.

The revenue employees generate and the value an economy generates (GDP) are analogous in that both are measures of value created. However, whereas the revenue produced by employees accrues directly to their employers’ GDP, it does not so directly accrue to a nation. For example, after a loaf of bread has been produced in a country, that loaf is not submitted to the government, yet its production adds to the nation’s GDP. For this reason, even a revenue-based definition of employees’ income does not properly approximate the absurdity of using GDP as a measure of national income on which to assess indebtedness because not all of GDP accrues to the nation as income.

By masking true indebtedness, therefore, the Debt:GDP ratio encourages wanton borrowing. This works in favour both of fiscally irresponsible (or worse, corrupt) governments and of predatory lenders…

What is the net effect of all this? The more broadly a lender can define a borrower’s income, the larger the proportion of that borrower’s true income that will flow out as loan repayments, and the more the borrower’s assets stand at risk of repossession as collateral. This is what has happened to us as a nation. When we consider further stratagems like rebasing our GDP, which had the effect of increasing our GDP by 25% at a stroke, it can be seen that by nominally increasing our GDP the illusion was given that our nation was able to take on even more borrowing than before, opening the gates to yet more lending.

By masking true indebtedness, therefore, the Debt:GDP ratio encourages wanton borrowing. This works in favour both of fiscally irresponsible (or worse, corrupt) governments and of predatory lenders, both private and multilateral (the line between private and multilateral lenders is far thinner than is generally believed). We do not pay debt out of GDP. We pay debt out of our national revenues. The more revealing and honest measure would be debt-to-national revenue. For the same reasons of honesty and clarity, it is prudent to narrow the definition of national revenue down further to tax revenue, thereby eliminating grants, donations, monies realised from the sale of public assets, and other incidentals from the discussion.

The problem – from the viewpoint of irresponsible governments and predatory lenders, of course – is that once we do so, the scales will fall off our eyes and it becomes apparent just how much of our nation’s money is going towards servicing our debt. According to the national Treasury, our national debt, which stood at Sh1.894 trillion in the financial year (FY) 2013, had grown to Sh5.047 trillion by the end of FY 2018, a growth of 269 per cent.

In 2013, however, the government collected a total of Sh754.2 billion in taxes. The implication is that our Debt:Tax ratio stood at a whopping 251 per cent in that year. By 2018, although revenue collections had grown to Sh1.47 trillion, our debt had grown much faster, so much so that our Debt:Tax ratio in the FY 2018 stood at 343 per cent.

Our GDP in 2013, according to the same report, was Sh4.496 trillion, meaning our Debt:GDP ratio was 42.1 per cent in 2013. In 2018, our GDP was Sh8.845 trillion. (This suggests that our GDP has been growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 14.49 per cent, which would be news to most Kenyans; the effect of rebasing our GDP can now more clearly be seen.) These figures imply our Debt:GDP ratio in FY 2018 was 57 per cent.

In 2013, however, the government collected a total of Sh754.2 billion in taxes. The implication is that our Debt:Tax ratio stood at a whopping 251 per cent in that year. By 2018, although revenue collections had grown to Sh1.47 trillion, our debt had grown much faster, so much so that our Debt:Tax ratio in the FY 2018 stood at 343 per cent. In other words, if the Government did nothing else but pay off our national debt – if it did not pay teachers, doctors, nurses, the army, and the police; if it did not provide medical supplies; if it bought no textbooks; if it did not construct one metre of road or railway; if it did not construct one hospital room or classroom or police post – it would take us about three and a half years to pay off the national debt.

Table 1: Kenya's Debt:GDP vs Debt:Tax ratio, FYs 2013 - 2018

Table 1: Kenya’s Debt:GDP vs Debt:Tax ratio, FYs 2013 – 2018

This situation is untenable. National Treasury data indicates that in FY 2018 we spent Sh459.4 billion servicing our debt. By that measure, debt repayment was the single largest item in our nation’s expenditure, exceeding our expenditure on transport infrastructure (Sh225 billion), health (Sh65.5 billion) or education (Sh415.3 billion). In other words, we are spending more paying off our debt than we are spending providing good transport for our people and good treatment for our sick – combined.

A day of reckoning is soon coming for our beloved country, on which day we shall realise that indeed, as per the Holy Writ, “…the borrower is slave to the lender”, and that debt (even if the money is used well, let alone if it is actively misused as we have done) is the tool of the neo-colonialist. It will become starkly apparent that by a system of multilateral and international debt, there is a sense in which foreign powers have been able to be perhaps as extractive of our nation’s wealth as they were when they were in power as our colonial masters. There is in fact a very real sense in which the colonial powers never really left. The only major change is that China is now on the list of our foreign masters.

We have already seen multilateral lenders like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) force our government to impose VAT on fuel. This is not the first time this happened. In 2013, when our debt was less than half what it is now, the IMF backed changes in our VAT law that would have imposed VAT on milk and medicines, claiming that “…the changes in the law [would] put Kenya in line with other modern VAT regimes in the world by simplifying the way it operates while reducing the number of exempt items.” Although the Cabinet did not impose VAT on milk and medicines, other items, such as textbooks, periodicals and magazines, did not escape the taxman’s levy. The press reported that our national port in Mombasa was used as a security for the loan that was used to construct the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). These are not isolated bellwethers of the dire situation our country finds herself in: the Daily Nation recently reported that we will require Sh1.04 trillion to service our debt in FY 2020. Where will it come from?

We must now examine possible solutions to what is clearly a monumental problem. The truth is this: debt can be dealt with either by paying it, or by not paying it. National debt can be repaid through austerity programmes and/or by the realisation of collateral. A nation may avoid repayment by pursuing debt forgiveness; defaulting on our sovereign debt; and/or overseeing a managed default on our sovereign debt.

Options for paying our national debt

Austerity programmes

Since the national debt can only be paid out of taxes, an escalation of the national debt can only result in an austerity programme. Austerity is a term that follows a very well-worn path of giving nasty, anti-common man policies honourable names (this is what is called “Economese”). Simply put, austerity necessitates the redirection of large portions of tax receipts away from normal government expenditure (including mission-critical social expenditure like health and education, and away from development expenditure) in an effort to pay off the debt. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes austerity as “enforced or extreme economy”.

The fact that Kenya is – whether it has publicly announced it or not – well up the austerity road is evidenced by the earlier observation that debt repayment is the single largest item in our nation’s budget. By the time our lenders and leaders decide to announce that we are in an austerity programme, we will have been in one for years.

To examine where this road leads, we must turn to Greece. That nation has been locked in austerity’s deathly embrace for the better part of a decade. An Al Jazeera article notes that the austerity programme in Greece was occasioned by over-borrowing (sound familiar?) in the years leading up to the global financial crisis, which was exacerbated by a rise in rates occasioned by that crisis. In order to keep paying government salaries and finance public services, Greece had to accept an initial loan of EUR110 billion from its Eurozone partners and the IMF. To pay off this loan, the country was compelled to institute radical austerity measures. How did that go?

In August 2018, the Guardian summarized Greece’s experience thus:

The European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund loaned Greece a total of €289bn ($330bn) in three programmes, in 2010, 2012 and 2015.

The economic reforms the creditors demanded in return brought the country to its knees with a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) evaporating over eight years and unemployment soaring to more than 27%.

The fundamental contradictions between the envisaged outcomes of austerity and its outcomes in reality are also the reason we find multilateral lenders talking out of both sides of their mouths, first imposing these programmes, and then sheepishly admitting that they have not worked. The IMF, for example, actually produced a report stating that it made notable failures on its first rescue package to Greece.

Greece teaches us, if we will listen, that the time is likely to come when Kenya will be unable to pay government workers’ salaries and will not be able to fund essential public services, such as security. At this point, the Government of Kenya will be forced to take on yet more borrowing to prevent a mass uprising. These “rescue packages” will be offered on grossly usurious terms, terms that the government will have no choice but to accept. Then, in a strange twist of irony, the very people upon whom the initial injustices were visited will do the lenders’ marketing for them by way of a civil uprising. From then on, our nation’s expenditure will be “supervised” by these lenders, not to help the Kenyan people, but to ensure that these lenders are paid. These are doomsday scenarios, and I find it difficult to even write them. Yet it can get worse – and has, elsewhere in the world.

Realisation of collateral

Realisation of collateral is a method of debt payment that is as old and as basic as Shylocks. It is difficult to recall a time when national debt was collateralised to the extent that has happened in the recent past. It appears that the realisation of collateral appears to be the favoured method of China for collecting debt. For our case study on this, we must turn to the nation of Sri Lanka, as the New York Times reported:

Every time Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned to his Chinese allies for loans and assistance with an ambitious port project, the answer was yes.

Yes, though feasibility studies said the port wouldn’t work. Yes, though other frequent lenders like India had refused. Yes, though Sri Lanka’s debt was ballooning rapidly under Mr. Rajapaksa.

…Mr. Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015, but Sri Lanka’s new government struggled to make payments on the debt he had taken on. Under heavy pressure and after months of negotiations with the Chinese, the government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years in December [2017].

There are examples closer to home. In December 2018, the US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, sensationally claimed that China was about to take over the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO), which is Zambia’s version of Kenya Power & Lighting Company, before KenGen and Ketraco were hived off. Although this rumour was strongly refuted by Zambia’s presidential spokesman, Mr Amos Chanda, Mr Chanda did admit that Zambia owes China US$3.1 billion in debt. In Africa that kind of statement from that kind of person often means the figure is much higher; indeed, some sources have placed the figure at US$6.4 billion.

In 2017, Zambia’s police force had to scrap plans to hire eight Chinese nationals following a public outcry. Zambians were concerned about having to salute a Chinese national in their own country. It is also true that in November 2018 police arrested over 100 residents in Kitwe (the country’s second-largest city) who were protesting the alleged sale of the Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation (ZAFFICO). There is a possible sub-plot here: Mr Bolton’s claim may mean that the IMF and Western allies are worried that they are losing their grip on the Zambian nation to China.

Options for not paying our national debt

In advocating for the non-payment of national debt I am not advocating injustice or dishonesty for this reason: “The government” is not a nebulous entity separate from the people. The government is the people. When the government borrows, it is the people who are borrowing; when the government pays, it is the people who must pay; indeed, it is their taxes that are used to pay.

As can be seen from the foregoing, over-borrowing, poor governance and/or the mismanagement of public funds can lead to adverse effects, not on “the government”, not on the lenders – even private lenders – but on the people. The stark truth is that austerity rarely, if ever, aids recovery – unless by recovery we mean the recovery of lenders’ money.

As can be seen from the foregoing, over-borrowing, poor governance and/or the mismanagement of public funds can lead to adverse effects, not on “the government”, not on the lenders – even private lenders – but on the people. The stark truth is that austerity rarely, if ever, aids recovery – unless by recovery we mean the recovery of lenders’ money. Austerity is a creditor-oriented policy, not a people-oriented policy, and it fails because cuts in government spending result in reduced consumption, unemployment and lower tax receipts. Yet tax receipts are what are needed in order to pay off the debt. The realisation of collateral (the other solution) is nothing but the seizure of a people’s land

There exists, therefore, a moral case for non-payment, which is this: that the betrayal of a people by its ruling class through the accumulation of a debt whose benefits the people never realised should not be visited upon the class of the ruled, who pay the debt. On this point, therefore, I am advocating for justice, not injustice; and for honesty, not dishonesty.

Debt forgiveness

Debt forgiveness is not a new concept; it is in fact a biblical concept. The concept of Jubilee meant that every 50 years, during the eponymously-named Jubilee year, all debts were written off, all enslavement ended, and everyone was allowed to return to whatever ancestral lands that they might have had to give up because of an inability to pay back debt. A thorough examination of the wisdom and justice of this law would take up a solid chapter in a good book; suffice it to say that it acted like a legislated revolution, resetting the kind of gross national inequalities that US Senator Bernie Sanders is grappling with – for the price of a trumpet blast.

Our gross national indebtedness means – or rather, dictates – that we pursue debt forgiveness, because we simply cannot pay back everything we have borrowed. The problem is that we are not considered a poor country any more – not even a low-income country. We are now a middle income nation, and precedent shows that debt forgiveness is the preserve of highly indebted poor countries. Our pleas for debt forgiveness, therefore, are quite likely to fall on deaf ears. Further, a significant portion of our national debt is owed to China and China, Sri Lanka might whisper, is not a nation one asks for forgiveness.

A note of caution must here be sounded: only 15 or so years ago, Zambia had its debts wiped clean under the IMF’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries scheme. The same country then took “less than a decade” to run up fresh debt of 59 per cent of GDP, buying million-dollar fire engines and constructing roads twice as expensive as those of her neighbours.

A strategy of debt forgiveness is, therefore, useless in the absence of enforced legislation to ensure that future over-indebtedness and/or wastage is prevented. A law preventing the government from tying up more than 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the average tax collected in the previous five years on debt servicing would be a very good place to start. The laws preventing wastage and theft of what we actually do borrow do exist, but require radical enforcement.

Default on sovereign debt

There exist exceptional circumstances in which nations default on their national debt. These times are usually presaged by significant external shocks or political ones, such as when Fidel Castro took over in Cuba in 1959, and simply defaulted on outstanding Cuban debt. The bonds on which he defaulted are in default to date.

Reference is often made to the Argentinian default (and one must be specific) of 2001. In 1998, Argentina’s economy entered a deep recession. The IMF’s by now predictable solution, of course, was austerity. Over the course of the following two years, it became increasingly clear that the toxic mix of an artificially fixed exchange rate, a steadily worsening balance of payments deficit (imports exceeding exports) and mounting debt, among other factors, meant that Argentina would never be able to pay off its debt.

Then the people began to protest, with increasing vociferousness, against austerity. When in December 2001 the IMF realised that default could not be avoided, it held back previously promised “support” so that the government was left without any external funding. Bank runs and riots followed: at one point the country had five presidents in ten days. Finally, on December 24, the country defaulted on a US$ 100 billion debt. This led to a social crisis of epic proportions, characterised not least by rampant unemployment.

Sovereign defaults of this nature tend to be devastating and ought to be avoided. The social cost ends up being far too high, even if one is a Castro leading a non-conformist Cuba. Firstly, in order to teach other would-be defaulters a lesson, lenders make an example out of one. Secondly, the world has become too interconnected for us to make ourselves a pariah state for any length of time: globalisation is a source of many ills, but it can help us as well, for we have a surplus of labour that we can offer the world (among other competitive advantages).

Managed default on sovereign debt

The way we might want to do it is the way Ecuador did it between 2007 and 2009. The then President Rafael Correa stopped payments on bonds that the country had taken out, and established a “debt audit commission” to conduct an audit on the country’s debt, which at the time was using up 38 per cent of the government’s budget. The purpose of this audit was to establish the “legitimacy” of the debt.

This was a brilliant first step. Firstly, it brought to the forefront the moral injustice of a people’s having to pay loans from which they never benefitted. Secondly, the reason given for the initial default was a moral one, as opposed to a financial one (even though the financial reasons lurk menacingly in the background). The genius behind the debt audit was that it was for establishing the morality (and not merely the affordability) of the public debt. Such a debt audit commission in Kenya – objective, apolitical (in a local sense), staffed with technically qualified, patriotic individuals and with an ability to trace the flows of borrowed funds – would likely produce spectacular results.

The way we might want to do it is the way Ecuador did it between 2007 and 2009. The then President Rafael Correa stopped payments on bonds that the country had taken out, and established a “debt audit commission” to conduct an audit on the country’s debt, which at the time was using up 38 per cent of the government’s budget. The purpose of this audit was to establish the “legitimacy” of the debt.

Ecuador’s debt audit commission found that the debt was illegitimate based on the manner in which negotiations were conducted. (The reasons for which debt can be illegitimate are myriad: here in Kenya, the factors would range from non-existence of the assets ostensibly purchased with the debt, overpricing of assets that do exist, payment of bribes and kickbacks, and lack of public participation and parliamentary approval, etc.) Arising from the stopped payments, and from the public establishment of the illegitimacy of the debt, the value of the bonds on the open market plunged. The Government of Ecuador then tendered to repurchase the bonds at 30 cents on the dollar. On the basis of the auction results, the government then offered to buy back the bonds at 35 cents on the dollar, expecting to retire at least 75 per cent of the bonds. Ninety-one per cent of the bonds were so retired in June 2009, that the government paid off its public debt for about a third of what it was worth and, according to President Correa, saved US$ 300M (Sh30 billion) per year in interest payments.

The Ecuadorian solution has an elegance that only simplicity gives. However, its success needs to be assessed against the backdrop of an important contextual factor: the retirement of the country’s debt happened at a time when markets were in the throes of the global financial crisis. Investors, therefore, were under pressure to liquidate their assets. Further, how successful this method would be as regards Chinese debt is anyone’s guess: simple and easy are vastly different things.

That said, the process presents a blueprint for any government that is ready and willing to ease the burden of over-indebtedness and is an option and a strategy this country should pursue – before it’s too late.

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The author is a Christian, a patriot and a financial professional. He tweets at @Chrenyan


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.



The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
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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.



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.



‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
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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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