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2017: The End of the Kenyan Judiciary’s Independence

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As Kenya marked its 55th anniversary of independence on 12 December 2017, the Judiciary was silently marking the end of its 60 days of independence.

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2017: The End of the Kenyan Judiciary’s Independence
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Lawyer Julie Aullo Soweto glanced at her wristwatch and realised that she was running late for the 11 am pre-trial conference that was scheduled to take place on that morning of 14 November 2017. She robed quickly and debated whether or not to wear her advocate’s wig. In the end, she chose to leave the wig behind as she made her way from her Biblica House office to the Supreme Court building. She had filed an application at the Supreme Court for scrutiny of the materials from the 26 October 2017 repeat presidential election, and had a good feeling about its chances.

Almost single-handedly – over three days and with little sleep in between – she had drafted the application for scrutiny of election materials from the 8 August 2017 poll in the Raila Odinga petition. The success of that application, in which 19 of the 26 prayers were granted, enabled the petitioners to not only discover anomalies in the election results filed in the Supreme Court but also exposed the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) suspicious refusal to grant access to the computer servers used to receive, transmit and collate results. It likely played a significant role in persuading four of the six judges to nullify the election of Uhuru Kenyatta as president.

The petitioners hoped to use the scrutiny to prove that the results published on the portal did not correspond to those on the official paper documents. The IEBC’s lawyers, however, proceeded to paint a grim picture of the information overload that the court would have to bear if it accepted the request.

Despite playing a critical role in the first petition, Soweto had not sought the public’s attention from the row of seasoned litigators assembled for the case but the petition challenging the repeat presidential election brought by civil society activists Njonjo Mue and Khelef Khalifa, would thrust her to the fore.  Soweto was determined to bring her experience from the first successful petition to bear on the second one. She had gone over the application, which had been allowed in August, tightening loose ends and closing gaps. She whittled down her original 26 prayers to a round figure of 20. It was the same bench of judges; she was certain they would allow it.  They did not.

The petitioners hoped to use the scrutiny to prove that the results published on the portal did not correspond to those on the official paper documents. The IEBC’s lawyers, however, proceeded to paint a grim picture of the information overload that the court would have to bear if it accepted the request. They inundated the judges with frightful claims of the terabytes of information that would take two years to work through – while conveniently neglecting to mention that, in fact, these were photographic images of results forms. (Images occupy substantial space on databases.)

The question raised by this response is how the IEBC itself managed to sift through the terabytes of information within a week to establish who had won the vote.

In the event, the petitioners were granted the order for the original voters’ register but the IEBC demanded Sh80 million to have it photocopied. But even had the petitioners been able to afford the price of photocopying the register themselves, it would have taken several weeks to produce one and, in the end, the petitioners were simply given a soft copy of the register. This incident serves to illustrate the needless hurdles that the petitioners had to overcome.

The court granted only 2 out of the 20 requests around the scrutiny – allowing access to results declaration forms for the constituency, county and national tallying centres and permitting access to the voters’ register at the petitioner’s cost. The court’s ruling said:

Some of the prayers have been declined due to the sheer impracticability of their implementation given the short time left for the determination of the petitions at hand. Others have been declined because they were not pleaded with sufficient particularity in the Petition. Yet others were declined on grounds that they are couched in such general terms as to be no more than fishing expeditions.

The court had explained that the prayers had been “declined on the basis of very clear grounds, which will be elaborated in a detailed version of this ruling to be issued by the Court at a later date”. More than 18 months since that ruling was read out in open court, those reasons are yet to be made public.

Scrutiny is intended to demonstrate openness of the electoral process, wrote Justice Maraga in a 2016 paper, adding that it was one of the tools courts used to ascertain the integrity of an election. It is a court-supervised forensic investigation into the validity of votes cast and the subsequent determination of who ought to have returned as the winning candidate.

Scrutinising the servers

The decision to allow scrutiny of the servers in the August 2017 petition was notable in its provisions (showing a court that had a firm grasp of ICT matters), a far cry from what had happened in 2013. The orders on ICT were detailed and authoritative, indicating that the court’s ICT literacy was higher than it had been in 2013 when arguments about Uhuru Kenyatta’s The National Alliance (TNA) party sharing a results platform with the IEBC seemed to fly over the judges’ heads. There was a certain burden that the court understood it needed to discharge to command respect in the wider judiciary.

Although the 2013 scrutiny showed appalling errors, with some polling stations recording turnouts as high as 203 per cent, and numerous discrepancies between the votes announced and those recorded in the official result forms, the lawyers for Odinga were unable to create a coherent narrative that would force the judges to confront what had happened in the election.

The scrutiny in 2017 was a marked departure from what had transpired in 2013 when the Supreme Court ordered the Chief Registrar of the Judiciary to take charge of the exercise. That scrutiny got underway in fits and starts more than 24 hours after it was ordered, and was characterised by systems collapse, poor coordination and unequal representation of the various parties. Davis Chirchir and Winnie Guchu, who had both been members of the IEBC’s predecessor, the Interim Independent Electoral Commission, and were now working for The National Alliance Party, were present throughout. In contrast, lawyers for Raila Odinga showed up one evening at 8 pm, milled around the hall at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre for an hour, and left. By the time the court was being informed that the scrutiny had not been completed, Odinga’s lawyers had no report of their own to file.

Although the 2013 scrutiny showed appalling errors, with some polling stations recording turnouts as high as 203 per cent, and numerous discrepancies between the votes announced and those recorded in the official result forms, the lawyers for Odinga were unable to create a coherent narrative that would force the judges to confront what had happened in the election.

During the August 2017 petition, the petitioners sought to make the scrutiny produce the smoking gun that would prove their case. They alleged that not all the records of the vote count in the presidential election had been received at the national tallying centre when the results were announced; thousands of polling station results documents and scores of constituency results were missing, a claim acknowledged by the IEBC.

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Their lawyers asked the court to order a scrutiny of these documents. They also sought an audit of the servers, alleging that the IEBC’s system of electronically transmitting results from polling stations and constituencies had been compromised.

The judges not only allowed the scrutiny and the audit, but also ordered the registrar of the Supreme Court to supervise it. Petitioners and respondents were allowed two agents each while the lawyers for each side would be granted 15 minutes to make submissions. The court ordered the registrar to produce reports of the scrutiny and audit by 5 pm two days later.

The registrar of the Supreme Court supervised the scrutiny of the results forms, which took place at the Milimani Ceremonial Hall in Nairobi. A staff member of the court’s ICT department and two independent, court-appointed ICT experts oversaw the audit of the IEBC servers at the commission’s headquarters at Anniversary Towers in Nairobi. There had been disquiet at the commission, especially around the ICT system – and with good reason; Chris Msando, the commission’s head of ICT had been found brutally murdered barely a week to the election.

At noon on Tuesday 29 August 2017, James Orengo, Odinga’s lead advocate, reported to the court that the audit of the servers had not yet begun. By way of explanation, IEBC lawyers claimed that the delay in allowing access to the servers was due to the fact that the system’s high-level security was based in France – a two-hour time difference with Kenya – and their suppliers were still asleep at 9 am Kenya time when the audit was supposed to have begun.

The stonewalling hid a major flaw in the system: the server simply wasn’t there. A report by the Auditor General later revealed that most of the equipment that was to be used to transmit and interpret results had not been delivered, while part of the equipment for processing the results at the data centre was delivered five months after the 8 August 2017 election.

Justice David Maraga asked the parties to work together to comply with the order so that the court could receive a report by 5 pm, or reasons for the failure would have to be provided. “If some of your clients’ agents are in Europe, or wherever, they must have been told yesterday. Wake them up and get the order complied with,” he said.

The stonewalling hid a major flaw in the system: the server simply wasn’t there. A report by the Auditor General later revealed that most of the equipment that was to be used to transmit and interpret results had not been delivered, while part of the equipment for processing the results at the data centre was delivered five months after the 8 August 2017 election. The country had gone to the election without a back-up database for transmitting results and the IEBC did not have the capacity to analyse the data it received from the polling kits.

The reports on the scrutiny and audit were ready when the court reconvened just after 9 pm on Tuesday, 29 August. Orengo stated that the court’s order had only been partially complied with; the GPS locations for each of the Kenya Integrated Election Management System (KIEMS) devices used at the polling stations were not released. The read-only access to the servers the court had ordered had not been granted and agents were only given live access; they could not view or access the logs or see the log-in trail of users.

The 20-hour court-ordered scrutiny of results from the 8 August presidential election raised red flags for documents from at least 63 constituencies, 30 of which did not have a serial number and another 33 of which did not have a security watermark. Some were unsigned and others had typographical errors. Some forms were printed in landscape layout instead of the standard portrait layout of the original forms. Some forms had candidates’ first names printed before their surnames whereas on the standard form the surname preceded the first name.

The 30 constituencies that filed results forms without a serial number accounted for 1,407,746 valid votes, while documents for the 33 constituencies holding 1,850,706 valid votes failed the ultra-violet test because they did not have a watermark.

In his comments about the audit, Orengo said that the scrutiny of the forms showed that some did not have security features, others did not have serial numbers, and close to two-thirds of them did not have the handover section filled out. He said that the court audit had revealed that the election had been “shambolic”.

“Our case has been proven that forgery, trickery and alteration of documents has been used in various ways. We pray you should declare the election of the third respondent as not valid and not in accordance with the constitution,” he added.

But lawyer Fred Ngatia, who represented Kenyatta, said, “It is a fair report. It is our submission that this report fortifies what we have said all along that this election was a fair election.”

Justices Maraga, Mwilu, Wanjala and Lenaola constituted the majority that voted to annul the election of Uhuru Kenyatta for not having been done in accordance with the Constitution and the law. Dr Willy Mutunga’s students at university (Justices Maraga, Wanjala, Ibrahim and Lenaola) appeared to have improved on the record of their teacher.

Justices Jackton Ojwang and Njoki Ndung’u disagreed. Justice Ibrahim, who had been taken ill on the second day of the hearings, did not vote.

Justice Ndung’u, in her dissenting opinion of 1 September 2019, questioned the results of the scrutiny and wrote in detail about her own private examination of the documents in question, which produced different results. Justice Maraga felt compelled to repeat his opening statement after the dissenting opinions had been read out in open court: “The greatness of a nation lies in its adherence and its fidelity to its Constitution, and its strict adherence to the rule of law …”

Days later, Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party accused Supreme Court registrar, Esther Nyaiyaki, of doctoring the scrutiny and insinuated that she had colluded with the petitioners to massage the results. For good measure, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) began an inquiry into the allegations of impropriety on the part of the registrar. It remained an open question and, during the petition against the repeat presidential election, the Supreme Court granted limited access for scrutiny and the registrar kept a low profile.

Civil society as petitioner

All presidential election petitions in Kenya have been filed on the deadline day – hinting at the pressure under which they are prepared. They have also been decided within the constitutional deadline of 14 days after filing.

The data centre at InformAction offices, where some of the evidence for the civil society-backed petition was being assembled, had to be moved several times when staff and volunteers noticed a military helicopter circling over the compound for hours.

In the run-up to the 26 October 2017 repeat election, police officers had attempted to forcibly enter the Africa Centre for Open Governance offices to shut it down for alleged tax transgressions. Its Executive Director, Gladwell Otieno, had been one of the petitioners challenging Kenyatta’s 2013 election. The Kenya Human Rights Commission, another critical civil society actor, was being threatened with closure over alleged financial impropriety.

The data centre at InformAction offices, where some of the evidence for the civil society-backed petition was being assembled, had to be moved several times when staff and volunteers noticed a military helicopter circling over the compound for hours. Katiba Institute suffered a major power outage in the week before the deadline for filing a petition. All these organisations were working together under the Kura Yangu Sauti Yangu (KYSY) initiative to support free, fair and credible elections.

With threats and physical attacks on civil society organisations escalating as the deadline for filing the November 2017 petition drew near, the team preparing the case for civil society activists Njonjo Mue and Khelef Khalifa worked discreetly through the nights from a secret location.

They had up to midnight of the last day to file the petition. The court required eight copies for itself and several others for the different parties. The main challenge was ensuring that everything was filed on time. Some important documents had to be couriered by motorcycle to get to the registry on time.

Though they had hastily put together a strong petition, the petitioners’ lawyers felt the deck was stacked against them right from the start. There was hostility even at the registry, with court staff providing misleading information about the time of filing papers.

The respondents had put together an impressive assembly of legal talent to represent them — mostly senior lawyers and household names in Kenya. The petitioners’ lawyers were a team of experienced but younger lawyers. Kenyatta’s and the IEBC’s lawyers then used their seniority to obtain better treatment from the court. The lawyers for the petitioners felt that they were before a court that had already made up its mind – a court that appeared to be looking for reason and justification not to entertain the petition in spite of the strict standards it had set for the IEBC when it overturned the first election.

There were no friendly faces on the bench, but some judges were egregious. Judges appeared to take pleasure in demolishing the evidence and the manner in which it was introduced. One lawyer noticed that Justice Ojwang was being particularly hostile towards Julie Soweto. He appeared to be cross-examining Soweto when she began reading the resignation statement by former IEBC commissioner Roselyn Akombe. “He descended into the arena of litigation. Of all the judges, he was the one that was hardest on us,” said one of the lawyers on the team. “It was like we were litigating against them.”

Lawyer Jane Odiya, an experienced advocate, led the team that went to access the election results forms. She was accompanied by young data entry professionals and university students. Even though they were working under a tight deadline, the scrutiny team was initially stonewalled and then given the run-around at the IEBC’s Anniversary Towers offices. “The IEBC officials slow-walked the scrutiny even though we had the court order in hand,” recalls Haron Ndubi, co-counsel for the Mue-Khalifa petition.

Although IEBC lawyers accompanied the scrutiny team to the commission’s offices, they quickly left after giving assurances that the process would go on smoothly. That was not to be; IEBC officials took a long time to supply files. The scrutiny team wandered the halls of Anniversary Towers with no one to assist them. The IEBC corridors were teeming with people who looked like plainclothes police officers and who followed the scrutiny team everywhere, including into elevators and out of the building. One lawyer said she believed some of the officers trailed them in a vehicle as they went home.

The sense of frustration among the scrutiny team was palpable and, after tempers flared, the team was led into a cosy office at Anniversary Towers where they found lawyers for the commission and a senior IEBC official, who assured them that the conference room for examining the results documents was now ready. Once inside the conference room, the reason for the delay became quickly apparent: the Jubilee team, consisting of lawyers and party officials, like lawyer Faith Waigwa, was already present.

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The files were not to be copied during the scrutiny. The team could not enter the boardroom with their phones or stationery of any sort. The ban on any writing material was enforced with the help of plainclothes police officers posted at the door. The head of the scrutiny team had to go back to the Supreme Court to seek clarification on the order they had received. It was only after the judges stressed that the team could write down their findings that the exercise resumed. “We felt tortured,” admitted one of the petitioners’ advocates.

After the scrutiny, the team quickly put together its report, and the advocates fought to have it admitted into the record. The court declined, defeating the purpose for which the orders had been sought and issued. The court said the scrutiny report was merely one party’s view and not a rigorous finding arrived at by all parties to the petition. Both Kenyatta’s and IEBC’s representatives had been present when the petitioners scrutinised the results documents but they were there more to impede the process than to participate in it. The scrutiny fell short of the legal definition of one — it was, to be generous, a review of the documents.

The petitioners asked why the forms used to collate the presidential results differed from those the IEBC had brought to court. They further pointed out that the numbers shown in the election portal differed from the ones on the collation forms.

The rejection of the report and the limitation of its scope “broke all of us,” admitted another advocate who worked on the petition.

They believed that a proper scrutiny would have made plain the far greater illegalities in the 26 October election than even those found in the 8 August poll that had been nullified by the Supreme Court. The lawyers point out that the fact that the judges did not entertain the scrutiny gave away the endgame; the petition would be thrown out.

Yet, what the Supreme Court was being asked to do in the November petition was not easy. Even if there were merits to the case, it would be very difficult for a president to accept that he had lost the election, petitioned by a group of civil society activists. Privately, some of the judges felt that Odinga should have come back to court. Still, nullifying one election and paying such a heavy price for doing so had blunted the appetite for a repeat performance, unless a senior political player was asking for it.

After Odinga withdrew from the fresh election a mere fortnight to polling day, the Supreme Court felt that it need not enter into a political dispute. Perhaps the judges would have been less irritable had they felt that the political contestants were taking them more seriously. In the event, the judges treated the petitioners as if they had brought the petition as proxies for Odinga’s National Super Alliance (NASA).

From the outset, the court’s attitude had betrayed the judges’ reluctance to entertain the petition. They dismissed it and unanimously found that Kenyatta had been validly elected. They found no fault with anything that the electoral commission had done in the fresh election. NASA expressed sympathy with the court, saying that the judiciary had been intimidated but the judges too felt abandoned by the political players.

Kenyatta would be sworn in as president on 28 November 2017 at a stately but sparsely populated inauguration ceremony presided over by the Chief Justice. Would this judicial mea culpa suffice to heal the rift between the Judiciary and the Executive?

The full judgment, released on 11 December 2017, read in part: “The … petitioners have not discharged the burden of proof to the standard established by this Court. At no time, in our view, did the burden shift to the [first] and [second] respondents.”

The court tipped its hand by blaming the petitioners for the shortcomings of the IEBC. Although the petitioners made serious allegations against the IEBC and its capacity to conduct an election, in their ruling, the judges blamed the petitioners for failing to provide proof of the allegations.

The judges pointed to the disenfranchisement of a huge swathe of the country that did not vote on 26 October and, curiously, blamed it on the petitioners. This again shows that the judges seemed to treat the petitioners as if they had brought the petition as NASA proxies. The judgment noted that the violence that took place in certain areas where the election could not be held was promoted by the petitioners. The court’s judgment failed to create future disincentives for electoral fraud and malpractice.

Law scholar Muthomi Thiankolu has faulted the Supreme Court for failing to appreciate the informational asymmetry between the IEBC and potential petitioners. He argues that given this imbalance, the court ought to adopt an inquisitorial rather than an adversarial approach in proceedings.

The judges pointed to the disenfranchisement of a huge swathe of the country that did not vote on 26 October and, curiously, blamed it on the petitioners. This again shows that the judges seemed to treat the petitioners as if they had brought the petition as NASA proxies. The judgment noted that the violence that took place in certain areas where the election could not be held was promoted by the petitioners. The court’s judgment failed to create future disincentives for electoral fraud and malpractice.

In the 2013 petition, the Supreme Court had pronounced on the effect of a candidate withdrawing from a fresh election or dying after the nullification of an election; in such a case, a fresh poll having all the characteristics of a new election (such as fresh party nominations) would have to be held. In the November 2017 decision, the court walked away from that observation.

As Kenya marked its 55th anniversary of independence on 12 December 2017, the Judiciary was silently marking the end of its 60 days of independence.

Politics

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.

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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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