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

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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.

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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

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Politics

‘Teach and Go Home’: Kenya’s Teachers Service Commission and the Terrors of Bureaucracy

The TSC has no mandate, and no qualification, to be peeping into classrooms and making pedagogical decisions. The litany of bureaucracy that it imposes on teachers must be abolished.

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‘Teach and Go Home’: Kenya's Teachers Service Commission and the Terrors of Bureaucracy
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On the afternoon of Friday, 12 November, Martha Omollo, a teacher in Nairobi County, was called to her school and served with a letter from the Teachers Service Commission, the government employer of teachers in public schools. The letter, which was dated that day, informed her that she had been transferred to a school in Trans Nzoia County, 400 kilometres away, and that she was to report ready to teach the following Monday, 15th November.

Earlier in the week, Omollo had been the spokesperson of the Teachers’ Pressure Group, which had called into question the loyalty of the union leaders to its members, and the opaque health insurance scheme into which teachers pay through involuntary salary deductions. Shortly after the press conference, Omollo received a call from the TSC Nairobi County office warning her not to publicly discuss issues facing teachers.

The idea that a teacher can pack her bags in the middle of the term and move 400 km away, ready to teach in three days, is nothing short of cruel. The move clearly disregards human nature, and the fact that teaching is, by its very essence, a profession of relationship. Teachers cannot take care of students’ minds and wellbeing when they themselves are anxious about their own wellbeing, and worse, when they are denied the freedom of thought and speech. The transfer communicates that the TSC does not care, and worse, it callously turns one teacher into a warning to other teachers.

Similar treatment of a teacher was witnessed in April this year. The media reported about a teacher, Magdalene Kimani, who trekked to a school 20km away for a number of days to administer national examinations. In reaction to this fairly innocent report, the county education office sent her a “show cause” letter, yet the report was initiated by the media rather than the other way round. The education officials were heartless to ignore the teacher’s 20km trek and then issue a threatening letter to her.

These two cases are just a microcosm of the harassment that Kenyan teachers endure under the TSC. For instance, the TSC has carried out massive transfers of teachers away from their home areas in a procedure called “delocalization”. In her appearance before the Senate, Nancy Macharia, the CEO of the TSC, justified the initiative affecting thousands of teachers as a move to encourage “national cohesion”. It is amazing that one can think that cohesion comes from displacing teachers, disrupting their families, and showing no care about what worried teachers mean for students. To make such moves that increase teachers’ anxiety during school unrest is insensitive and a symptom of bureaucratic hubris.

It should not surprise Kenyans, therefore, that this callousness is bound to show up in the schools and public spaces. Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals, and a seeming ignorance of the harm that their actions against juniors imply for the larger public. Teachers who are anxious and who feel disrespected cannot treat children with dignity and respond to the extra-ordinary circumstances of the children under their care. To expect otherwise, as the TSC seems to do, is the definition of either hubris or inhumanity.

Take, for instance, the forms that teachers have to fill in regularly. According to the TSC, teachers have to fill in 18 forms, but teachers say that the forms are more than that. The ludicrous CBC promise of paying attention to individual learners has meant that teachers fill in forms detailing the special learners in their class, the nature of the learners’ challenges, and the remedies that the teachers have taken to address those challenges. Teachers are also expected to file reports on how they have covered what KICD calls “strands” and “subs-strands”. Now that this is assessment season, teachers are also required by the Kenya National Examinations Council to assess students conducting group activities, but the assessments require the teacher to grade each individual student along six or seven measurements. This means that for one subject taught to one class of sixty students, a teacher is filling in 60 rows x 7 columns.

Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals.

The problem with this work is not simply the amount. It’s that the work is demeaning. Teachers are filling in paperwork about teaching rather than doing the actual teaching. In the language of the anthropologist David Graeber, this is the “bullshitization” of work caused by an increase in bureaucrats with nothing to do but supervise others. The point of these forms is not to improve teaching and learning, as the bureaucrats have deluded themselves. The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children, nor the fact that that beauty and mystery cannot be translated into numerical measurements. By some perverse psychology, Graeber explains, work in the neoliberal era has meant an exponential increase in administrators who subsequently use bureaucratic tools to terrorize the people doing the actual work.

I do not use the word “terrorize” lightly. The word has been used by education scholars in their assessments of performance appraisal for teachers, including by the eminent British education sociologist Stephen J. Ball, in his well-cited journal article The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity. The nature of terror is to plant shame and fear in the individual, make the individual feel isolated and therefore incapable of changing anything about their condition. Terror is also characterized by a lack of predictability. And because the system is always incoherent and inconsistent, teachers can never tell where the attack will come from. No matter what the teacher does, the teacher is never good enough.

One teacher told me that with TPAD, teachers are told to rate themselves but not too much, and then punished for not achieving 100 per cent performance. The teacher put it this way: “During the introduction of TPAD, we were directed that we should not rate ourselves more than 80 per cent even when you know you have met the ‘targets’. During the recent interviews, those without evidence of it were disqualified.”

The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children.

​Another tragically hilarious story was recounted in a letter to the editor of the Nation newspaper some years back. The letter, titled “TSC should listen to teachers’ voice on appraisal row”, read:

Back in 2010, quality assurance and standards personnel from the Ministry of Education visited the school I was teaching in then.

As a routine, they demanded to inspect teachers’ ‘tools of trade’, as they called them. These included schemes of work, records of work books, lesson notes and lesson plans and files containing learners’ progress reports, amongst many others. We complied. Only one member of staff had all these. The rest of us, in a staff of 27, including the principal, had one or more documents missing.

After perusal, we were given a lengthy lecture on how ‘lazy’ we had become, and that only one of us merited a recognition in a public forum, notably, the school’s Annual General Meeting, and that the institution would be posting better results were we to emulate our colleague.

After the exit of the QASO personnel, the entire staffroom burst into laughter. Months later, the teacher in question was transferred following complaints from parents and learners over his below par delivery and alcoholism.

This is an egregious story of how bureaucrats confuse measures and tools of work with the actual work itself. Humiliating teachers for not having submitted complete records is similar to judging a carpenter’s work not by the furniture but by the carpenter’s hammer. For the teacher, part of the torture of performance appraisal comes from the consciousness that the work that one is doing is barely a reflection of the real work of teaching. As the story shows, a teacher actually teaching in the classroom is unlikely to achieve perfect record keeping, and yet, it is the lack of record keeping that is used to judge the teacher as lax and incompetent.

As Ball explains, the goal of teacher appraisals is not the improvement of teaching, as education bureaucrats claim. The real goal is to capture the teacher’s soul. The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are. It is a vicious power grab aimed at denying teachers the ability to make judgements based on their professional opinion, and at making the bureaucrats and managers, rather than the children in their classrooms, the main focus of teaching. This obsession is so acute in the TSC, that as the latest wave of school fires began a few weeks ago, teachers were simultaneously receiving text messages from their employer reminding them to meet the deadlines for their appraisals. In other words, our children are not a priority for the education bureaucrats. It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the “teach and go home” philosophy. It even has an acronym: TAGH.

The common sense of cruelty

How is this cruelty so easily enforced without public resistance?

Part of what makes appraisals so difficult to resist is that they sound like common sense. The argument of the managerialists and politicians in support of appraisals goes something like this: Public education is useless and is failing our children (the Kenyan version is that it produces incompetent graduates). The problem is the teachers. To improve our education and make teachers work better, teachers need to be policed with appraisals or performance contracts, where their performance is measured by a score.

This logic is devilishly convincing when one has no personal experience of teaching. I have been studying performance management in education for a decade, and to this day, I still struggle with explaining why the system is abusive. The common sense character comes from Anglo-American billionaires and politicians whose power and access to the media allows them to spread the narrative of truant and incompetent teachers who are overpaid by the state and protected by permanent and pensionable terms (called “tenure” in the US). Teachers in the US, UK and Australia, among other English-speaking countries have gallantly resisted this attack, but their struggle has been rendered longer and harder by the fact that politicians and billionaires have used the media to poison the public’s opinion of teachers.

The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are.

The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”. To avoid the political mess of firing teachers en masse, these haters of teachers call for more measurement of teachers’ work. They also advocate for drastic measures like shaming and firing teachers, and closing schools that do not meet “standards”, standards that are solely determined by students’ examination scores. Appraisal management is a large-scale and sanitized form of “constructive dismissal”, which is the technical term for workplace bullying, where a worker is deliberately mistreated so that they can quit. The tactics are working, because many teachers tell me that they want to quit.

Microsoft seems to be preparing for such a scenario where the number of trained teachers will be so insufficient that technology will have to do the teachers’ work. Microsoft came on my radar when one teacher wrote to me that part of the TSC’s regime of form-filling includes teachers uploading their notes on Microsoft. It appears that when the president attended the Global Partners for Education conference in London in August 2021, one of the events was to sign a deal with Microsoft whose goal was vaguely defined as “to enable the best use of technology to dramatically enhance learning.”

The article gives no details of what Microsoft intends to do with those notes, but one can legitimately worry that the point is to eventually use those notes to create lessons for which Microsoft will charge Kenyans, and probably without honouring the copyright of teachers. If such is the case, then the teaching profession is essentially a plantation in which the TSC is the foreman that terrorizes teachers to extract materials for foreign companies to exploit.

There is yet another common sense narrative to make us accommodate this potential exploitation, and this narrative came with CBC. It is the narrative of “individual talent” and “personalized learning”. When Kenyans hear it, they think the discussion is about a human teacher giving loving and individual attention to each child, when in fact, the corporates are talking about children learning from tablets and without teachers.

This hatred for teachers is not about education. It’s a cruel contempt for society and especially for the poor whom, the rich think, do not deserve a good education, least of all at public expense. Others suggest that it comes from contempt for teachers as people with expertise, and as members of unions that are still standing up against the casualization of labour. Rev. William J. Barber also mentioned another logic of this attack: “The reason they want to privatize education is because a lot of people who are greedy know that they can’t make as much money out in other markets now. So they want to come in and siphon off money from the government for their own personal pockets. Some of them don’t hate government; they just hate government money going to anybody but them.”

Whatever the case, the war against teachers and public education, which has a peculiarly Anglo-American character, is a war that has been waged against Kenyan public school teachers since 2010, led by the current president who was Finance Minister and Acting Education Minister then, and with the help of the British Government. As Nimi Hoffman details in her article, the DfID engaged British academics who used unethical means to push for a project that undermined teachers’ unions through hiring contract teachers on low pay. The project was piloted in Kakamega County and was rigorously resisted by the teachers’ unions.

It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the philosophy of “teach and go home”.

The relentless effort to casualize teaching continued in April 2015, when the TSC announced the replacement of the punitive performance management system with a more “encouraging” appraisal system. The pilot project was funded by the World Bank, and the British Council funded the implementation of appraisals. To anticipate the resistance of the union officials, the then TSC chief executive officer Gabriel Lengoiboni reminded them that they had implicitly accepted the project when they participated in the benchmarking trip to Britain in 2014.

Education policy in Africa has largely been influenced in this way. Foreign governments offer trips abroad for teachers, and the familiarity disempowers teachers from questioning or opposing the policy being subtly pushed through this informal networking. Even the Bologna Process, largely responsible for the bureaucratization of Kenyan higher education, was entrenched through sponsored trips to Europe for African vice-chancellors and senior academics.

Truth is exposure

The way to end this intricate system of decadence in the school system is through public exposure. But education leaders in Kenya are notoriously secretive, fanatically hostile to self-examination and ironically, steadfastly resistant to public interrogation. Learning institutions muzzle teaching professionals despite academic freedom being guaranteed by the constitution. The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development replaced the education system with competency but avoided any debate in the media about their choice. The TSC terrorizes teachers in the shadows and punishes teachers for any publicity in the media. In the universities, public debate is discouraged through an insidious rebuke of disagreement as “attacking people personally” and with calls for intervention from a third party to lead in reconciliation. Being a teacher in Kenya’s colonial school system is like living in a bad version of the movie “Stepford Wives”, where people are supposed to ignore reality and humanity and live in a fictional utopia.

There is little difference between this scenario and witchcraft. The defining characteristic of witchcraft is that actions happen in the shadows, supposedly with no human actors, as if brought about by the wind, with nobody to hold accountable. There is no one to name, no one to be held responsible. Education institutions maintain a stoic silence in the delusion that because education bureaucrats have blocked their ears and cannot hear alternative voices and visions of education, those alternatives do not exist.

The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”.

This is why we need a Truth and Justice Commission for education. We need a public forum where Kenyans are forced to hear all the participants in education, especially those who are the most vulnerable. It is time for Kenyans to stop listening to the disjointed stories of the media, the propaganda of the private sector, and the silence of educational institutions, and to construct for themselves a complete story that connects the dots between the brutality suffered by our children, the terror experienced by teachers, the deaf ears of education bureaucrats and the sadism of the Kenyan public. Our faith in the colonial education system is a national delusion that can only be cured by the truth.

In the immediate, TPAD and the litany of bureaucracy which the TSC imposes on teachers needs to be abolished. The TSC has no mandate, and no qualification, to be peeping into the classrooms and making pedagogical decisions. Despite its “Commission”, tag the TSC’s role is mainly human resource clerical work. If the TSC officers want to enjoy the dignity of teaching, they are welcome to join us in the classroom. As they know, there are not enough teachers, and moving with their salaries to the classroom would save the country some money for hiring teachers. Likewise, the yearly assessments of the Kenya National Examination Council need to be done away with. With the introduction of CBC, the KICD promised Kenyans the end of exam obsession. It is ridiculous that CBC is now increasing yearly assessments all the way down to primary school. And Martha Omollo’s transfer should be reversed. The remedial measures should be guided by this simple principle: our children deserve to be taught by adults who are free in thinking, creative in teaching, and caring in interaction.

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Prebendal Politics and Transition to Democracy in Somalia

The Somali political space is a marketplace that does not allow for free and fair elections and diminishes the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process, hindering the emergence of democracy in Somalia.

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Government should belong to the people, be for the people and by the people. This is the democratic ideal borne out of man’s innate desire for good governance, societal stability, and development. Credible elections are the hub around which the practice of ideal and sustainable democracy revolves.

As such, it is closely tied to the growth and development of democratic political order. To realise this democratic ideal, however, electing people to participate in government should be freely and fairly done to allow for the right choice of the electorates to emerge. The elections process is the only means of guaranteeing the credibility and sanctity of democratic practice. The election becomes a crucial point in the continuum of democratisation and an imperative means of giving voice to the people’s will, which is the basis of government authority.

Fundamentally, democratic development involves the practice and sustainability of regular, credible electoral conducts and processes. In fact, one of the cardinal features of democratic practice is the conduct of credible, free and fair elections. Therefore, the cardinal issue in a democratic polity could viewed as the method of selecting people who govern at any point in time.

Indirect election

Conducting elections in fragile countries like Somalia cannot be an easy task by any yardstick. Conducting free and fair elections in such a polity, that gives the victor free reign to grab resources, is a much more difficult assignment the success of which even angels cannot guarantee. This is in large part because of the insecurity, political infighting amongst the elites, endemic corruption and the threat from Al-Shabaab. The militant group has historically made it difficult to hold elections in Somalia by threatening to attack polling places.

To minimize concerns about Al-Shabaab disrupting elections, Somali political leaders and their international allies have supported a narrow voting process based on a power-sharing formula between clans, rather than a popular vote (universal suffrage is still a distant dream for the country) and adopted the electoral college model. In the model, elders are selected from across the diverse clans and they, in turn, nominate or elect parliamentarians, who in turn elect the president. Initially, one elder from each clan picked one member of parliament (MP), but this has now changed to an electoral college system. In this system, each clan still appoints one member of parliament, but instead of one person deciding, each clan picks 51 of its members to vote for that clan’s one representative in the lower house of parliament as happened in 2016/17 indirect election.

Since early 2000, Somalia has had four indirect national elections and witnessed a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian to another. In 2012, 135 traditional clan elders elected members of parliament, who in turn elected their speakers and the federal president. In 2016, elections were conducted in one location in each federal member state. The 135 traditional clan elders also selected the members of the 275 electoral colleges made up of 51 delegates per seat, constituting the total college of 14,025. On the other hand, the senate (upper house) members were nominated by the federal member state presidents, while the federal member state parliament selected the final members of the upper house.

The ongoing (2020/21) election mirrors the 2016 exercise but has expanded the number of delegates involved in the lower house (electoral collegeElectoral College) from 51 to 101 delegates. This expansion raised the number of participants in the lower house election from 14,025 to 27,775—a notable growth in suffrage. Furthermore, the September 2020 agreement increased the number of voting centres per member state from one to two. It also established federal and state election commissions to oversee the polls. However, elections in Somalia have lacked the basic ingredients of democratic elections as most Somalis are not included in the voting. The elections have also been characterised by pervasive corruption and widespread electoral fraud.

It is common knowledge in Somalia that running in an election and winning requires not only political clout but also a lot of money. An aspiring politician needs the help of a well-heeled or well-grounded politician or a money bag to bankroll their political campaign to see success in such an endeavour. This is mainly because taking political office in Somalia has come to be seen primarily as a means of enrichment and of gaining influence, and not as an opportunity to serve the people.

Somali elites and prospective parliamentarians receive campaign funding from both internal and external actors. External actors include neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, Gulf countries and Western allies. On the other hand, internally, the key powerbrokers are the elites who have captured states and regions, and particularly those who had mastered the art of obtaining contracts during the war; they have built business empires in the import/export sectors, construction and rebuilding, clearance and customs and are now playing a critical role in politics.

The cost of democracy 

In the electoral collegeElectoral College system, the price of votes ranges from US$5,000 to US$30,000, with politics at the local and national levels recognised to have become increasingly monetised over time. Some candidates are said to have offered bribes of up to US$1.3 million to secure votes. Jeffrey Gentlemen reports that in 2012 former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud gave several clan elders a US$5,000 bribe each to influence the choice of their clan’s representatives in Parliament.

The 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections that brought Hassan Sheikh to power had little legitimacy, and they were criticised as the most fraudulent in Somalia’s history. Hassan Sheikh was elected as President, backed by the Qatari Government with money brought to Mogadishu by Farah Abdulkadir (a former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs), and business and political allies in Mogadishu. The various processes and elections to put together the leadership of the federal member states were also marred by high levels of corruption and intimidation.

Taking political office in Somalia has come to be seen primarily as a means of enrichment and of gaining influence, and not as an opportunity to serve the people.

The 2016/17 federal election involved a significant amount of money. Farmaajo’s win surprised most observers, and Somali analysts estimate that at least US$20 million changed hands during the parliamentary elections that culminated in the presidential election. Farmaajo’s supporters had hoped that he could be the answer to corruption and extremism in Somalia, but he too succumbed to corruption. He is believed to have influenced elections in the federal member states using money and coercion. During Farmaajo’s time in office corruption worsened and security deteriorated.

Between 2017 and 2021, elections were held across the federal member states that optimised the defining features of prebend, the salience of clan identity, and the pervasive use of violence and money. In Puntland, incumbent President Said Abdullahi Dani narrowly won the election after carefully crafting an alliance of two clan-based interests, The Saleban Clans.  An estimated US$15 million changed hands in the week before the election, with all candidates using money to buy support.

In Galmudug, FGS employed the Somalia National Army (SNA) and Ethiopian military support to restrict opposition figures and elders access to voting centres. The FGS was able to disarm Ahla Sunna Wal Jamma using financial incentives. Eventually, Ahmed Abdi Kaariye, also known as Qoor, won the election with the support of the federal government.

In the Hirshabelle election, the FGS spent more than US$1.2 million to secure the election of the Hirshabelle president. Former Al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow was the running favourite in the South-West State elections. Robow is from an influential Leysan sub-clan (one of the largest in South-west State) with a loyal clan militia, and he was considered widely popular among the broader population. He reportedly refused a significant financial pay-off not to take part in the election and was duly arrested by Ethiopian forces acting on behalf of the federal government before the election itself.

The arrest of Mukhtar Robow and the blatant intervention of Ethiopian forces on behalf of the federal government led to a demonstration and a reported 15 deaths. A critical statement by Nicholas Haysom, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General, in which he raised questions over allegations of abuses by forces loyal to the federal government saw him declared persona non grata.

The long-delayed parliamentary and presidential election was supposed to offer Somalis universal suffrage. However, given the security and logistical challenges of conducting an election in Somalia, as mentioned previously, Somalis opted for indirect election, and so far, the election of members of the senate has been concluded. It is commendable that the majority of senators have been elected by the FMS state legislature in accordance with the electoral model adopted on 17 September. However, the senate election was marred by foul play where FMS presidents and elites pre-determined the winners of every seat, contrary to the agreements and the national interest. The cases of corruption were widely reported; bribes were given to the state legislatures by aspiring senators and their sponsors, including federal and regional executives.

The election for the lower house has just started. Each of the 275 members of the lower house will be elected by an electoral college of 101 clan elders and civil society, determined through the collaboration of the FMS authorities, clan elders and civil society. Nonetheless, the lack of criteria by which the members of civil society and clan elders will be selected has created great concern among the public. It is widely believed that the federal member state presidents have the upper hand in the process, as they also play a role in determining clan elders and civil society. Corruption and vote buying are widespread in all regions; prospective parliamentarians are buying votes.

Abdi Malik Abdullahi tweeted, “2021 electoral process in Somalia is commercialised and sham.” On her part, Hodan Ali tweeted, “Somali politicians poised to spend 10s of millions of dollars on election rigging/buying while millions face killer drought conditions across the country.” Nadeef shared similar view. He noted, “I have realised that Somali leaders are not trying to fix any of our problems. They are trying to make enough money and get enough power so that problems that affect us don’t reach them.”

Given the foregoing, it is clear that taking political office is perceived more as a means to personal economic advancement. This, no doubt, intensifies the unhealthy rivalry and competition for political office that triggers corruption, election rigging, violent conflicts and even coups. In recent years, those seeking power have included prominent scholars coming from all corners of the world to seek elective office on the strength of the size of their pocket. Indeed, the Somali political space is a marketplace that does not allow for free and fair elections and diminishes the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process, hindering the emergence of democracy in Somalia.

External Influence 

In both Somalia and the West, these influences are believed to be coming from five or six Middle Eastern and African countries with various interests in Somalia. These countries include Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, and Sudan. They have been increasingly involved in providing the political elites with campaign money to secure their specific objectives such as access to oil, port and airport development projects, and other business opportunities. Turkey has financial and infrastructure interests in Somalia, including significant investment in the Mogadishu airport. Qatar is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and wishes to see its regional influence expand in East Africa. The United Arab Emirates opposes the Muslim Brotherhood, and may therefore be acting to counteract Qatari influence in East Africa.

Corruption and vote buying are widespread in all regions; prospective parliamentarians are buying votes.

The Gulf crisis has made Somalia a proxy ground for strategic rivalries across the wider region. Qatar and Turkey have supported the last two presidents. Under Farmaajo’s presidency, the UAE supported federal member states and their oppositions, enhancing the bargaining power of federal member state elites in the political marketplace. The UAE is reported to have made payments to parliamentarians and has directed considerable investment towards Puntland, Somaliland and Galmudug. The UAE has also maintained its corporate interests in port development and strategic infrastructure in Berbera, Bossaso and Hobyo.

On the other hand, maritime disputes between Kenya and Somalia have raised Kenya’s involvement profile. FGS has accused Kenya of supporting Jubaland president Ahmed Madobe against the federal government. Ethiopia remains one of the most influential actors in Somalia and since the election of Abiy Ahmed in 2018, the country has taken a much stronger position in supporting the federal government.

Domestic dynamics

Internal actors including clan elders, political entrepreneurs, conglomerates and technocrats are entangled in a web of political clientelism, kickbacks and redistribution, and debt relations. The federal formula has shaped elite political competition around access to external rents in Somalia.

In recent years, those seeking power have included prominent scholars coming from all corners of the world to seek elective office on the strength of the size of their pocket.

These actors use territorial control, access to strategic infrastructure and foreign exchange to protect their ill-gotten assets and to secure new opportunities. These businesses cope with containing cost and risk by stashing wealth abroad and by avoiding growth to circumvent the attention of governance providers and armed actors who may wish to extract or take a stake in an expanding business.

Consequences of state capture by elites and external actors

The consequences of corruption will be far-reaching. Donors will expect to call the shots after an election. This will constitute a cog in the wheel of progress of such a political entity, with outside forces dictating the direction politics and development will take. It may become difficult for the Somali government to act in the interests of the Somali people rather than those of foreign capital since the occupants of political office will owe allegiance to the money bag (the godfather) rather than the state.

It has become increasingly clear that the main incentive for joining politics in Somalia has become prebendal as the issues of democratic ideals and political ideology are relegated to the background. Ideally, ideology serves as a guide to an individual politician and to a political party’s development initiatives, policies, programmes and actions. This is because a political leadership that emerges without ideology will lack development focus and discipline and not be subject to the rule of law.

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Agricultural Productivity as Performance: A Tale of Two Mozambican Corridors

Agricultural corridors in Mozambique emerge when international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers overstate the success of agricultural projects.

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In what is now remembered as the Great Leap Forward, 15 to 55 million people died of starvation in Mao Zedong’s China. Decreeing increased efforts to multiply grain yields, Chairman Mao unleashed panic in rural China, and local officials, fearful of the national government, competed to fulfil (or over-fulfil) quotas based on Mao’s exaggerated claims, collecting “surpluses” that in fact did not exist and leaving farmers to starve as a result.

The Great Leap Forward took place between 1958 and 1962. Such schemes ostensibly aimed at improving the human condition and which end up in epic failure, as observed by James C. Scott, have reoccurred throughout history.

Other examples may not have led to a widespread loss of life as happened in mid-twentieth century China, but they have certainly produced hybrid and rather unpredictable outcomes.  An agricultural campaign with similar objectives as the Great Leap Forward was adopted by the Mozambican government for the year 2018/19.

It rallied smallholder farmers to increase production and productivity under the motto, “Mozambique Increasing Production and Productivity Towards Zero Hunger”. In the end, Mozambican farmers were unable to significantly increase production.

They had faced a number of challenges: limited access to credit, fertilizer, farm inputs, and feeder roads, and thus to markets. Which is to say, without easy access to markets, any surplus the farmers had produced was wasted before it even got to market.

What is more important to consider is the fact that this failure to increase the productivity of rural farmers in Mozambique had occurred at the same time as the government had put in place measures to commercialise agriculture along two important transport corridors located in its central and northern regions, that is, the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors. The Mozambican government had been mobilizing international capital over a decade or so, in order to build and renovate transport infrastructure with the aim of commercialising agriculture along the corridors.

Despite attracting some capital and infusion of technology, capital flows and technological transfers were generally unpredictable as they largely depended on the intervention of multiple actors and the dynamics of the global economy and global commodity prices. Adding to the lack of the much-needed infrastructure was the absence of Mozambican capital, as the banking system in Mozambique was unwilling to take the risks that come with financing agriculture. Investments in agriculture normally take 5-10 years to show visible returns, and Mozambican investors cannot afford to wait that long.

Additional challenges to the implementation of the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors were related to national and local politics. On the one hand, the armed confrontation between government forces and the armed branch of the major political party in the opposition, Renamo, which affected parts of Sofala and Nampula provinces between 2013 and 2016, had led to a reduction of investments, disrupting the flows of existing businesses. Also, agricultural corridors, in particular the Nacala corridor, tend to generate anxiety over land, leading to continuous debates and campaigns over “land grabbing” and land titling. As a result, both the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors faced significant challenges in their implementation.

Investments in agriculture normally take 5-10 years to show visible returns, and Mozambican investors cannot afford to wait that long.

The vision of their blueprints, that is, of interlinked agricultural activities – that would have stretched from the cities of Beira and Nacala on the Indian Ocean up to Mozambique’s land-locked neighbours, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi – is yet to materialize. Despite the fact that such a grand vision is yet to materialize – if at all it will – this piece highlights its material consequences on the ground.

As a recently published special issue of the Journal of Eastern African Studies on growth corridors has shown, a careful examination of the planning, implementation and effects of agricultural corridors suggests that they often generate anxiety over land, and potential environmental impacts, and reconfigure power dynamics between international capital, local elites, bureaucrats and smallholder farmers – whether or not their official objectives are achieved.

By focusing on the practices of international investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and project beneficiaries, this research has suggested that, in order to attract capital, selected regions for development projects must dramatize their potential as places for investment, carefully selecting project locations and participants who will make compromises so as to conceal failure, virtually guaranteeing that the programme will be declared a success when the time comes for evaluation. These performances of success require the participation of a constellation of actors in order to be effective.

Along the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors of Mozambique, there has been a widespread trend where international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers collude in performing agricultural success, not only to attract the much-needed international capital, but in ways that bring the largely non-existent corridors to life. Agricultural corridors in Mozambique, in this sense, emerge on those occasions when international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers overstate the success of agricultural projects – much like Chinese local officials did in the early 1960s. Below are two examples worth considering.

The tomato processing plant that never was

The administrative post of Tica in Nhamatanda District – along the Beira agricultural corridor – is famous for its abundant production of tomatoes. They are often left to rot when farmers are not able to sell all their produce.

In the local media, talk of building a tomato processing plant in Tica can be traced back to 2009, when a local entrepreneur reportedly received about US$33,000 from the Nhamatanda District Development Fund to build a tomato processing plant in order to capitalize on the district’s agricultural potential. In some of the media accounts, the processing plant was presented as if it already existed, running and fulfilling its promise to absorb the horticultural produce of farmers along the Beira agricultural corridor.

In 2013, a daily newspaper Notícias, published a news piece with the title, Processing plant created in Nhamatanda. The content of the news was based on an interview with the then district administrator of Nhamatanda, who said that a building plot had been located for the construction of the processing plant, and that a public tender for constructors had been announced and bids were awaited. He stated that the building would be completed by December 2013, and that equipment would be installed by February 2014.

There has been a widespread trend where international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers collude in performing agricultural success.

In April 2015, another headline by the Voice of America read, Tomato processing plant changes the lives of producers in Tica. This story was based on two women who had been making a living for over 12 years selling tomatoes at a small agricultural market. This time the district administrator was announcing that the building was going to be completed by May 2015. In February 2018, another headline announced, This year Nhamatanda is going to process tomato, in an article where a district administrator was boasting of the 200,000-tonnes capacity of the future processing plant, advising local farmers to get ready to “produce a lot” since there was going to be a company to buy their produce.

When I visited the factory in March 2018, the building was not equipped. In a follow-up visit three months later, the main building of the processing plant was closed; a small agricultural inputs shop was operating from the security booth. The main building had caught fire at some point, and was closed pending repairs. The situation on the ground was in stark contrast to what district officials had been telling visiting researchers and journalists.

Ideas such as the introduction of financial services or the provision of technical assistance and tillage services are attractive, not only to farmers, but also to international donors and investors, but at the time the success of the tomato processing plant in Tica was being widely touted in the media, most of these plans were yet to materialize. The fire did indeed put an abrupt end to the brief lifespan of the plant, but the expectation of agricultural commercialisation that the plant had generated in the region long before it began operating exemplified the extent to which local officials were willing to create a narrative of success around a project in anticipation of, or as a means of attracting the much needed but seriously lacking investment capital.

A very important agribusiness fair 

On 7 and 8 July 2018, an agribusiness fair took place at the municipal soccer field of Ribáuè in Nampula province along the Nacala agricultural corridor. The fair was entitled Nakosso Agribusiness Fair: Facilitating Access to Markets, and was the first of a series of five fairs to be organized in northern Mozambique by a private company working in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The fair was an important event in the calendar. The provincial governor opened it in a ceremony that was also attended by the Ministers of Agriculture and Rural Development, and by the Minister of Industry and Commerce.

The fair had stands showing various products by local farmers’ associations, whose work is often done with the support of district extension officers, and through a number of NGO-supported projects. As the visiting dignitaries went from one exhibition stand to another, the interaction with exhibitors was punctuated by questions, compliments and suggestions for improvement. The opening ceremony ended with the provincial governor’s speech, where he congratulated the exhibitors and encouraged them to continue the good work.

The events that took place during the fair, including the governor’s speech, were disseminated across the district through local radio station news programmes by the end of the day and the following morning they featured in the provincial news broadcast – a local feat.

The processing plant was presented as if it already existed, running and fulfilling its promise to absorb the horticultural produce of farmers along the Beira agricultural corridor.

In many ways, the fair represented the desired agricultural life in the district, showcasing products and opportunities for smallholder, medium and large-scale farmers in the production and commercialization processes – financial institutions, input providers and dealers, extension officers, successful smallholder farmers and large commercial farms were all brought together at the fair in a performance of agricultural success.

While district statistics point to the growth in local production and productivity in the past three years, the fair is especially effective as a field to demonstrate agricultural productivity all throughout the corridor, giving materiality to the corridor as a result, and enlisting a network of actors in the project of corridor making. In other words, the example of the fair illustrates how such events can provide occasions for the demonstration of success, and the creation of an ideal vision for the agricultural corridor. In Mozambique, the significance of agricultural fairs is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they form a distinctive feature in the agenda of visiting high-level dignitaries, from the president of the republic, to provincial governors and ministers.

Despite the fact that on some occasions visiting dignitaries have questioned the blatant exhibition of produce brought in from other areas – in ways similar to the deception adopted by local officials in 1960s China – the fair is presented as a sample of agricultural developments already taking place in other areas covered by the corridor, especially given the efforts local officials put into achieving some kind of geographical representation of exhibitors. Finally, the fair also provides an opportunity for a pedagogy, through the celebration of cases of success that should be seen as models to be followed by other actors, in particular smallholder farmers.

In Mozambique, the significance of agricultural fairs is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they form a distinctive feature in the agenda of visiting high-level dignitaries.

The idea of the corridor, whether the corridor existed or not, was in Mozambique, producing material effects on the ground.

The lesson

Without actual investments and infrastructure, blueprints, visions and policies for agricultural commercialisation in Mozambique come to be, or are given visibility, only when specific agricultural projects within the geographical location of the corridor are presented as successful.

At these events, complex entanglements emerge, exemplifying the everyday work of international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats, and smallholder farmers, as they all perform project success on different occasions. Meanwhile, agricultural commercialisation, within the identified corridor region, remains low.

The lesson from these examples is that whether or not they achieve their official objectives – often to increase productivity and lift people out of poverty – development plans, visions and blueprints have material consequences.

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