The tension was evident, untouchable, but abundant. Everyone spoke with unmistakable anger. It was approaching 11.00 p.m. and for hours we listened to community members who took turns to narrate to us the harrowing experiences the Borana community had gone through at the hands of well-trained rangers and raiders from the Samburu community. This had gone on since 2006 when the Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy was formed.
“We were forced to collect the information at night after word went round that the Northern Rangelands Trust had earlier mobilised its supporters to unleash chaos during a meeting called the following day to discuss its operations in the Conservancy,” said Al-Amin Kimathi, a renowned human rights activist. . After taking dinner out in the open, the team gathered in a makeshift shelter eager to listen to members of the community. And they had prepared well. Some had come with written notes and used torches to read through them.
“The organisation employed the carrot-and-stick tactic used across Africa for centuries by Europeans to colonise, control, exploit and dominate people on the continent. NRT started off by contacting and sweet-talking influential personalities within the community who it later deployed to convince fellow community members of the benefits they stood to gain from the conservancy,” said Najar Nyakio Munyinyi, a consultant on indigenous land rights.
“Ile ndovu tuliyoambiwa tutakua tukiikamua sasa imekua ya kutumaliza” (We were told that we will be benefiting from wildlife conservation, but instead we have been losing our lives), said Sheikh Dabbaso Ali Dogo, the former chairman of the Conservancy Board. Dogo added that before the conservancy was formed, top officials of NRT, including its founder, Ian Craig, had made a raft of promises to the community.
“The organisation employed the carrot-and-stick tactic used across Africa for centuries by Europeans to colonise, control, exploit and dominate people on the continent. NRT started off by contacting and sweet-talking influential personalities within the community who it later deployed to convince fellow community members of the benefits they stood to gain from the conservancy,” said Najar Nyakio Munyinyi, a consultant on indigenous land rights.
Among those selected was Jaarso Golicha Gaade, a former councilor with the defunct Isiolo County Council and now an employee of NRT. With other elders, Gaade was hosted by Craig at Lewa Conservancy in Laikipia in 2006. Craig then asked the initial group of elders to identify fellow elders who could join them in coaxing the rest of the community members to accept the idea of the Conservancy.
After being promised goodies, the latter then organised seminars during which the formation of the Conservancy was discussed. “NRT promised the communities a complete halt to the long-running insecurity and cattle-rustling incidents as well as lasting peace between it and the neighbouring Samburu, Turkana and Rendille communities,” said Retired Major Jillo Dima, an elder in the community. Jillo added that to make this happen, NRT promised to finance the construction of an institution for morans in the area. He says that the organisation also made other promises related to employment of young men as rangers and said that they would not only be protecting wildlife but also members of the community. It would also invest Sh50 million on a project identified by members of the first Conservancy Board, and income from tourism activities in the Conservancy.
“With the promises in mind, the community needed no more coaxing; it soon agreed to commit hundreds of thousands of its pasturelands for conservation purposes. The 364,000-hectare Conservancy was formed in 2006 following the ‘signing’ of an agreement between the community and the NRT.” He expressed disappointment that the agreement has remained secret for over the 13 years the Conservancy has been in existence, adding that it was odd that all the people, including former board members, “have neither seen the agreement nor were they aware of its provisions”.
(Our attempt to interview relevant officials of NRT did not bear fruits. They did not get back to us even after sending questions to them.)
Members of the community reported that apart from giving the Conservancy a vehicle, constructing two classrooms, a mud-walled nursery school and teachers’ houses and employing a number of rangers, the NRT has reneged on most other promises. To make matters worse, NRT went out of its way to worsen the plight of the community and unilaterally makes all the decisions. For instance, we learned that the organisation engineered the sacking and replacement of members of the first board after they demanded to know what came of the promises made to the community. Those interviewed added that finances meant for the Conservancy were banked in an NRT account and that the Conservancy has only held two annual general meetings since it was formed. Further, they said that past and current Conservancy board members have no powers and do not even know what income was earned by the Conservancy.
It is not a wonder that the community later resolved, in a meeting called by elected leaders and the Borana Council of Elders, to kick NRT out of Isiolo County; a resolution that is yet to be fully implemented.
‘Kenya ‘B’ and the Community Land Act
As part of Isiolo County, the land in Biliqo-Bulesa is just a small proportion of the more than 60 per cent of the country where land adjudication has hardly started. So anyone with the financial muscle and the ability to command the backing of top political kingpins in the country can lay claim to vast tracts of land there and thereby disinherit communities, some of whom have inhabited the region since the 10th century.
It is important to appreciate that the goings-on at the mammoth-sized conservancy is part of what happens in the section of the country now called, in Kenyan parlance, “Kenya B”. This is a vast region in the country whose residents have suffered neglect and open discrimination since the geographical entity now called Kenya was configured by the British colonisers. It is a region that seems to have remained in the peripheries of the subconscious of many a policy maker and politician who’ve run this country since independence. As Dr Nene Mburu says in the book Bandits on the Border: The Last Frontier in the Search for Somali Unity, this is “one half of Kenya which the other half knows nothing about and seems to care for even less.”
As part of Isiolo County, the land in Biliqo-Bulesa is just a small proportion of the more than 60 per cent of the country where land adjudication has hardly started. So anyone with the financial muscle and the ability to command the backing of top political kingpins in the country can lay claim to vast tracts of land there and thereby disinherit communities, some of whom have inhabited the region since the 10th century. The land conundrum there is now compounded by the decision to put up mega-schemes, such as LAPPSET and other Vision 2030 projects that continue to take up vast tracts of the community land.
However, the seemingly desolate and apparent economically underdeveloped region covers more than half of Kenya’s total land area and has vast wealth buried in the soil. The presence of mineral wealth is confirmed by a map of oil blocks in Kenya that criss-cross Isiolo and other arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) counties.
On paper, the land in Isiolo and elsewhere in the north is protected by the Community Land Act. This Act gives pastoral communities the right to govern their land with full recognition of their ancestral heritage and unique governance and livelihoods systems. It recognises, protects and provides for the registration of community land rights; the administration and management of such lands; and titling and conversion of community land. It also provides for the management of the environment and natural resources on community land and the resolution of disputes and accommodates the customs and practices of pastoral communities relating to land.
However, although this piece of legislation became part of Kenyan law in 2016, the process of developing regulations for its implementation have been frustrated by powerful people in government for their own ends. At the same time, little or no effort has been made to raise the awareness of members of the pastoral communities on the provisions of the Act. Further, the National Land Commission and the relevant county governments are yet to initiate a process that would lead to registration of community land and implementation of this law. This has given organisations, such as the NRT, adequate room to manipulate communities for their own benefit.
It is no wonder that NRT had gone ahead to unilaterally identify sites for the construction of tourism facilities that are located in areas that are key for the survival of the livestock-based economy in Biliqo-Bulesa and the entire Charri Rangeland. These include the Baballa Camp that is set to be put up along an animal movement route close to the Ewaso Nyiro River, the Maddo Gurba Huqqa, which is close to a community shallow well, and Sabarwawa, an area where the water table is quite shallow. Others are in Nyachiis, which was previously used by the community for traditional naming ceremonies, and Kuro-Bisaan Owwo, a hot spring whose water has medicinal properties for both humans and livestock – a place where the NRT had planned to set up a spa for tourists. “We have resisted the takeover of these sites by NRT,” said Jillo.
There are those who believe that the failure to start the land adjudication process in Isiolo and the counties of Marsabit, Moyale, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera, and the marginalisation and deprivation in the erstwhile Northern Frontier District (NFD) have been deliberate schemes by all the governments that have run Kenya since the colonial period. Their main aim, it is said, is to keep the lands open for all manner of activities that have largely been injurious to the environment as well as to the local residents and their economic lifelines. For instance, the colonial government arbitrarily partitioned – and thereby greatly disrupted – the rhythm of life and especially the traditional pastoral way of life in the north. This went hand in hand with the establishment of what Dr Nene Mburu calls “impracticable administrative arrangements”.
The colonial government did little other than setting up military installations there, taxing the pastoralists as well as quarantining animal movements that curtailed the traditional trade in livestock. It also enacted discriminatory laws, such as the District Ordinance of 1902, declared Isiolo a closed district in 1926, and restricted the movement of residents under The Special Districts Ordinance of 1934. “This legislation regulated non-resident travel into the districts,” writes Dr Mburu who concludes that the net effect of the discriminatory policies was to create an “iron curtain” that isolated the north from the rest of Kenya.
Sadly, successive post-independence governments have not shown, in policy and actions, that they were opposed to the colonial policy. If anything, the first post-independence government of Jomo Kenyatta continued the colonial policy of discrimination and neglect. Kenyatta waged war against a determined Somali nationalism. This was after failing to reach an agreement over whether NDF was to be part of Kenya or Somalia during the three Lancaster House Conferences on 1961, 1962 and 1963. Between 1963 and 1968, Kenya deployed its military to fight off Shifta guerillas out to enforce the secession of the NFD from the new republic.
Isiolo’s hidden wealth
Isiolo is dominated by members of the Borana community who have continued to lose their land over the years. According to Dr Mburu, the community was historically used as a convenient human barricade, or buffer, by Ethiopia and Britain against the expansionist tendencies of other communities. For instance, he says that different Ethiopian kings used the Borana country to check the influence of European penetration into Abyssinia’s interior and to contain Somali expansion northwards from the NFD and western Somalia into Ethiopia. And just like the Kenya government has failed to do since the colonial period, Ethiopia merely used the Borana community but was not interested in governing its homeland effectively.This gave the Somali an opportunity to consolidate their westwards expansion into the NFD. Dr Mburu says that by 1880, the Somali had forcefully driven the Borana into Moyale and southwards out of the El-Wak wells, forcing them further westwards into Marsabit, Isiolo and parts of Wajir.
Although the attractiveness of Isiolo and other parts of the north appears to have being missed by policy makers, it is not lost on the NRT and the vested interests it represents. True, the region has a harsh environment with hot and dry habitats dominated by low-lying terrain, acacia trees, shrubs and isolated dwarf bush grasslands. The county has conditions that are quite uncomfortable, especially for people inhabiting the highlands areas of Kenya, where it is much cooler. Whenever they fall, the rains there are low; there’s hardly a place that gets more than 500 mm of rain. And besides the Tana and Ewaso Nyiro to the south as well as River Dauwa to the north, Isiolo and other counties in the entire region have few other permanent water sources.
However, the seemingly desolate and apparent economically underdeveloped region covers more than half of Kenya’s total land area and has vast wealth buried in the soil. The presence of mineral wealth is confirmed by a map of oil blocks in Kenya that criss-cross Isiolo and other arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) counties. Indeed, the presence of mineral wealth in Isiolo and other areas of Kenya was confirmed by the Russian ambassador in 2003, who revealed publicly that by the 1940s, Russians had known the minerals Kenya has. What the ambassador did not reveal then was that the British had contracted Russian geologists to explore and map out mineral occurrence in Kenya.
The NRT-mineral connection becomes vivid if one was to overlay the map of the 35 conservancies under the organisation and the minerals-occurrence map of Kenya. Whether this is by coincidence or not is hard to ascertain. However, it is important to note that the NRT conservancies happen to be in the same areas suspected to have the greatest proportion of mineral wealth in Kenya.
Around the time the Russian ambassador made the claim, many keen Kenyans were surprised when mineral deposits started “popping out” all over the country. For instance, it was around the same time that the prolonged controversy over the titanium deposits in Kwale started. Further, word started spreading that Isiolo has significant deposits of iron ore, gemstones and other mineralsm, as well as vast amounts of water in the Merti aquifer. This was decades after Kenyan school children started being taught about the lack of minerals in the sub-soils of the country in geography lessons! What became interesting too was that the greatest number of companies that have since received prospecting or mining permits for oil, titanium and other minerals are either British or belong to the British in the Australian and Canadian diasporas.
The mineral-conservation nexus
It is easy to miss the connection between conservation and mineral occurrence in the country. It is also easy to miss the nexus between the ongoing quest to secure vast tracts of land, ostensibly for conservation purposes, and the confirmed mineral wealth in Isiolo and other counties in the north. But keen observers have noted an interesting financial camaraderie between the NRT and certain mining concerns. For instance, according to reports, Tullow Oil gave NRT a whopping $11.5 million (Sh1.15 billion) to NRT in 2013 to start six conservancies in Turkana, a county that has little or no wildlife. “It is not a wonder that many people have expressed suspicions that by donating so generously to NRT, Tullow Oil wanted the organisation to help it secure lands that are rich in oil deposits,” said Ms Munyinyi. However, as media reports showed, the operations of NRT in Turkana were curtailed to a great extent after the Joseph Nanok-led county government kicked the organisation out of the county in 2014.
The NRT-mineral connection becomes vivid if one was to overlay the map of the 35 conservancies under the organisation and the minerals-occurrence map of Kenya. Whether this is by coincidence or not is hard to ascertain.
However, it is important to note that the NRT conservancies happen to be in the same areas suspected to have the greatest proportion of mineral wealth in Kenya. Indeed, this writer found it curious during the tour to Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy in February that the Chinese were already mining mica and other minerals in Nyachis and Sabarwawa areas, which are located in an inaccessible part of Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy. This writer has since learned that the Chinese have stopped their operations there following the raging controversy over NRT operations in the Conservancy. However, what this writer was unable to establish was the connection between the NRT and Chinese miners and how the latter were allowed to mine in a Conservancy started for the sole aim of wildlife conservation.
What is unmistakable though is that Isiolo, a resource-rich county, is already experiencing the initial symptoms of a “resource curse” that is so prevalent across Africa and which is more pronounced in places that are rich in minerals. Usually, the curse unfolds whenever governments unwittingly or deliberately fail to pacify areas referred to as the “backwaters of development”. To cover the void, the communities decide, or are encouraged, to arm themselves to protect their lives and livelihoods from neighbouring communities with whom they share water, pastures and other resources. Soon, bilateral and multilateral agencies, as well as NGOs, find these places attractive for their activities, which are largely passed on as being beneficial to the neglected communities. The agencies are given a near-free hand to operate there since their activities and their effects on the relevant communities are rarely audited by the national governments or independent auditors.
As far as the north of Kenya is concerned, there have been claims that outsiders are involved in supplying arms to the warring communities. For instance, the Small Arms Survey of 2012 says that the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (Batuk) is one of the outfits that have been supplying arms to pastoralists in the north. This has raised the firepower wielded illegally by members of different communities in the north and has led to the transformation of the traditional cattle-rustling activities into intermittent clashes which, if unchecked, can spiral into dangerous, full blown conflicts that might go on for decades.
Because many of the people who run African governments are beholden to vested interests in rich industrial countries, they do very little or nothing to fully integrate the neglected areas into mainstream society. This gives the vested interests ample opportunities to keep the conflicts alive; they result in the same divide-and-rule tactics perfected by Europeans who have kept much of Africa on a leash. In Isiolo for instance, the NRT has encouraged the expansionist tendencies by members of the Garri community, who are said to have migrated from Moyale in Ethiopia following the change of government in Addis Ababa that occurred a few year ago. Encouraged by NRT, the Garri now constitute seven out of the eleven board members of Gotu-Nakurpat Conservancy that neighbours Biliqo-Bulesa.
At the same time, there is evidence that NRT has been facilitating inter-community and intra-community tension and conflict in the conservancies in Isiolo. We learned that for years, the Borana community, whose most members are opposed to ongoing NRT operations in Isiolo, had almost lost their ability to fight for human and land rights. According to a local elder, Mzee Mohamed Adan, this was after the organisation influenced the withdrawal of guns held by homeguards who earlier defended the Borana. He added that since the Conservancy was formed, the community has experienced nine raids conducted by Samburu morans, during which over 70 people were killed and thousands of livestock stolen. From interviews with past officials of the conservancy board and other community members, it emerged that 59 of the people were killed by Samburu morans who were assisted by the specially-trained NRT rangers who travelled there in NRT-branded vehicles. The rest of the victims died after young men from the Borana community engaged in counter-attacks. The raids, we learned, were well coordinated. The NRT had taken sides and appeared keen to “punish” the Borana for opposing its operations in Isiolo.
Campaign to involve communities
NRT’s operation across Kenya was informed by the campaign for the involvement of communities, and especially those inhabiting wildlife dispersal areas, in the national conservation programme. This began in early 2000s and particularly after the IUCN’s World Parks Congress held in Durban, South Africa in 2003. The campaign was inspired by the need to preserve ecosystems and wildlife habitats that happen to be on lands owned and held by local communities. The effort was entrenched in law following the review and enactment of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act in 2013. Championing the model have been conservationists who claim that 70 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife is found outside national parks and reserves and that the survival of protected areas largely depends on the preservation of vast habitats and lands used by wildlife away from parks.
NRT was founded by Ian Craig in 2004. Craig is a holder of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), awarded in 2016 by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to conservation and security to communities in Kenya”. Craig’s family owns the 62,000-acre Lewa Conservancy in Laikipia, which is said to have been given to his great-grandmother by the British government in 1918 for serving during the First World War. Craig, who was raised in Kenya, is the father of Jessica Craig, the young woman who was once believed to be romantically involved with Prince William.
Since its formation, the NRT has been receiving billions of shillings in grants from a number of European countries and the United States as well as international NGOs, such as the Nature Conservancy (TNC), private trusts and rich people in the West. As a result, the NRT has managed to set up 35 conservancies across northern and coastal regions that now cover a whopping 44,000 square kilometers or over 10 million hectares (i.e. about 8 per cent of the total land surface in Kenya). These conservancies are mainly in remote places where the Kenyan government has little or no footprint. The NRT has been trying to fill the void by altering and adding to its initial conservation mandate a number of activities, including security, prevention of cattle rustling, running a credit scheme, meeting the needs of the communities and livestock marketing.
It is out of this hue and cry that this writer accompanied the team that carried out the fact-finding mission in Biliqo-Buulessa Community Conservancy. Included in the team were representatives of the Isiolo-based Waso Professional Forum, the Borana Council of Elders, the Sisi kwa Sisi organisation formed by students from the School of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure at Kenyatta University, journalists as well as representatives from the Errant Native Movement.
True state of affairs
Kimathi, who is also a member of the Errant Native Movement, says that it was important to establish whether the allegations made against NRT were true. He told this writer that his team bore in mind the fact that livestock production remains the most important livelihood activity for the community and that any tourism activity or other economic undertaking can only supplement, but not replace, livestock husbandry. He added that the joint team experienced firsthand how NRT had been violating the rights of the community.
“We visited the Biliqo-Conservancy between January 26 and 29, 2019. Prior to the tour, we were informed that NRT had, on ten different occasions, used its influence within the security and administration establishments in Isiolo County, and especially in the Merti Sub-county, to frustrate the desire by the community to hold a meeting to deliberate on whether or not to continue with the conservancy. Indeed, we found out that conducting the fact-finding mission was risky,” says Kimathi.
According to community members interviewed by this writer, the NRT had earlier sent its officials who would travel in the organisation’s vehicles “inciting and buying off” some communities in order to unleash chaos during the planned community meeting. To avoid what would have otherwise become an ugly encounter, Kimathi’s team decided to hold long discussions with members of the community on the evening of January 26th at Biliqo Market, during which different people there narrated how the conservancy was started and the harrowing experiences they have experienced at the hands of NRT rangers and Samburu raiders. They also claimed that the NRT has introduced lions into the conservancy, which have been killing livestock and attacking and injuring some of the residents.
“On the morning of January 27th, we visited and interviewed some of the family members of the victims killed during the Samburu raids and counter-raids by the Borana,” said Ms Munyinyi. The consultant on indigenous land rights added that many of the interviews were held in their homes at the Buulessa Market. “As this was going on, we saw rowdy young people being ferried to the venue of the meeting by Land Cruisers belonging to the NRT and the Biliqo-Buulessa Conservancy who shouted threats to members of the team, saying they would kick them out of the area. Later, the rowdy youth succeeded in disrupting the meeting.”
On their part, the police from the Merti Police station, who were present, appeared more interested in finding out whether the conveners of the meeting had a permit. They were unwilling to stop the rowdy youth from disrupting the meeting even after finding out that the conveners had indeed taken the necessary steps, as is required by the law. Eventually, the police stopped the meeting and ordered everyone to disperse, which greatly pleased the rowdy youth.
It was apparent that the Acting Deputy County Commissioner (DCC), James Miring’u, and the Assistant County Commissioner (ACC), Njeru Ngochi, were of not much help either. The DCC and the ACC were evidently not in control. When interviewed by this writer, they expressed ignorance of the connection between insecurity and NRT operations in the Conservancy. However, it was not clear how the sub-county administration would have failed to notice (or investigate) the alleged killing of tens of people and the invasion of Borana people’s land by the raiders.
Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms
According to Dr. Abdullahi Shongolo, a consultant with the Germany-based Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology, the Borana, Samburu, Somali, Rendille and other pastoralist communities in the north avoided conflicts by sending elders to seek and negotiate for permission to graze in each other’s lands, especially during droughts.
The intermittent conflict in the Conservancy is not new; inter-community conflicts in the north have a long history. The conflicts usually start off as “normal” cattle raids or as competition over water and pasture. But they have worsened with the proliferation of small arms in the region. In the past, local communities had established effective traditional mechanisms to either avoid the conflicts or to resolve them whenever they occurred.
According to Dr. Abdullahi Shongolo, a consultant with the Germany-based Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology, the Borana, Samburu, Somali, Rendille and other pastoralist communities in the north avoided conflicts by sending elders to seek and negotiate for permission to graze in each other’s lands, especially during droughts. Usually, the elders from the affected community would visit their counterparts in communities that were not as affected by the droughts with a message of goodwill and to seek grazing permission on behalf of their community members. In most cases, such a request was granted once the elders in the relevant community assessed the available pastures and deliberated on where to allow the affected people to graze their animals. But, according to Dr Shongolo, this system was done away with following the appointment of chiefs and elected leaders who can now make unilateral decisions on this matter without consulting the community, especially after money has changed hands.
This has been complicated further by the entry of NRT, which has altered the power and traditional governance structures of the communities in the north and replaced traditional natural resource management systems, such as the Dedha system practiced by the Borana, with “modern” systems. Instead of working through institutions such as the Dedha Council, NRT has appointed conservancy managers, security scouts and members of the conservancy boards who have effectively taken over the decision-making roles that were the preserve of the elders. These NRT-appointed managers and boards now wield largely unchecked and ultimate power in the conservancies. NRT has also imposed its influence on the management of resources by reducing the grazing area of the Borana community in the Biliqo-Conservancy.
“After we came back from Biliqo-Bulesa, it was clear that NRT has capitalised on the lack of awareness of the land rights of the inhabitants of the Conservancy to violate their rights,” said Ms Munyinyi. She added that it is also clear that security issues in the Conservancy, as well as in other parts of in the north, are made worse by the fact that the Kenyan government has largely ceded its responsibility of providing security to the residents. “There is evidently a thin line between the roles of conservancy security teams formed by the NRT vis-à-vis state security personnel because the former are well-trained and equipped with sophisticated weapons and have been handling roles that are legally the preserve of the police, the KWS [Kenya Wildlife Service] and the county administration.”
In most other countries, no NGO, such as the NRT, would be allowed to conduct security operations that lead to violence and are coercive in nature. In this regard, the Government of Kenya has failed the community of Biliqo-Buulessa and needs to take its responsibilities seriously.
Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.
The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.
Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.
I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.
Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges
Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.
Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.
While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.
While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.
The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.
Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.
In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.
Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.
After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.
Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.
Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.
Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.
Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.
Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.
Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.
The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.
Enablers and drivers of development
The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.
From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.
The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.
The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.
Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.
Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.
As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.
The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.
Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.
The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.
Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.
Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.
The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.
In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.
Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.
This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.
Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons
Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.
The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.
Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”
However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.
As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.
Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:
Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”
It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:
Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.
Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.
Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.
In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.
Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:
Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.
This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.
However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.
Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.
Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.
While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.
This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.
This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.
In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.
This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.
But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”
These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.
“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”
Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.
It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.
The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid
Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.
The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.
Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.
In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).
In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.
Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.
These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.
Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.
Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’
Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’
When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.
One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.
Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.
From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.
Why money is never free
‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.
Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.
All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.
Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.
All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?
Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.
By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.
Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid
‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.
As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.
Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.
How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.
By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.
Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.
Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.
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Black Sahibs: Decolonising Language
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The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya
Long Reads4 days ago
Kenya Should Get Out of Somalia and Negotiate With Al Shabaab