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Battle for the Family’s Soul: Anatomy of the Orphanage Phenomenon in Kenya

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The HIV/AIDS pandemic and hardships caused by SAPs led to a dramatic rise in the number of orphanages in Kenya. However, as SIMON NJOROGE notes, the concept of orphanages is alien to Kenyan and African culture. The good news is that global and national shifts in policy could soon see the eradication of orphanages in poor countries.

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Battle for the Family’s Soul: Anatomy of the Orphanage Phenomenon in Kenya
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Orphanages, alternatively referred to as children’s homes or charitable children’s institutions as per the Children Act 2001, have been in the headlines in the recent past for a myriad of allegations ranging from abuse and neglect of children, recruitment of children from poor families and involvement in a cartel of traffickers in the guise of adoption that has involved adoption societies, lawyers, children’s officers and judicial officers. The dramatic case of Matt and Daisy Mazzoncini is the latest in a series of explosive exposés on orphanages and adoption in Kenya.

While all the focus has been on these emerging cases and the ensuing drama, a more profound discourse concerning the suitability of the orphanage as a model of care and protection of children has been ongoing for some years among policymakers, practitioners and childcare advocates. Deinstitutionalisation or the gradual replacement of the orphanage with social services at the community level coupled with family-based alternatives like foster care and kinship care have been proposed. To a keen observer, the question of whether there is a nexus between the two seemingly discrete occurrences naturally arises.

Deinstitutionalisation

Is the ongoing onslaught on childcare service providers related to the broader deinstitutionalisation discourse?

Bur first, what exactly is deinstitutionalisation?

Any attempt to effectively unpack the concept of deinstitutionalisation immediately demands an answer to the question of how the orphanage, in the first place, came to stealthily occupy the space for the care and protection of children traditionally reserved for the family. Social inertia implies that norms and institutions anchored in tradition do not easily give way to new and exotic ones unless, as a prerequisite, the social forces that anchor them are weakened by changes within the same society. New norms and institutions only come in to fill a gap which they have not themselves created but which requires filling nevertheless.

What then are these social dynamics that significantly weakened the family institution and its cultural underpinning? Why and how did the orphanage emerge? What is the impact of the orphanage on children, the family, and communities? Is the orphanage a better alternative for care and protection of children than the family? What informs the ongoing deinstitutionalisation discourse and how is it likely to shape the national child protection policy?

Any attempt to effectively unpack the concept of deinstitutionalisation immediately demands an answer to the question of how the orphanage, in the first place, came to stealthily occupy the space for the care and protection of children traditionally reserved for the family.

The orphanage is primarily a western concept. In North America, orphanages first emerged in the early 19th century while in Europe they can be traced far back to the Roman Empire. In the mid-20th century orphanages were gradually phased out in the West and replaced with foster care and welfare systems. There exists two schools of thought concerning what motivated governments in the West to adopt deinstitutionalisation policies On one hand are arguments that the motivating factor was child welfare concerns informed by evidence of the long-term negative effects of orphanages on the developmental well-being of children while on the other are arguments that policymakers were more concerned by the high costs of orphanages as a model of care of children compared to foster care and provision of social services to needy families. Whichever the case, there is consensus that both factors played a role in the eradication of the orphanage in the West.

However, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc continued the use of orphanages under the communist regime until the fall of the Soviet Union. When the former Soviet countries started to join the European Union, they were given a precondition of eradicating orphanages and the practice of intercountry adoption. The EU supported these initiatives, and this saw the rise of the concept of deinstitutionalisation as it is understood today, which is a policy-driven and systematic process of eradication of child care institutions (orphanages) as a model of care for children who have lost or are at the risk of losing parental care.

The growth of the orphanage in Kenya

While countries in the West had gotten rid of orphanages and those in Eastern Europe were in the process of doing so, the opposite was happening in Kenya and Africa in general. Though there exists very scanty data on the growth of the orphanage in Kenya, it is believed that the Thomas Barnado House (now Kenya Children’s Home) was the first orphanage in Kenya. The Thomas Barnado House opened on or around independence to care for children born out of relationships between British colonial masters and Africans.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that the orphanage remained at the periphery of Kenyan society until late 1990s when the numbers began to swell rapidly, particularly in the wake of the AIDS pandemic that saw an increasing number of children losing their parents to the disease. Currently, there is no substantive evidence on the number of orphanages in Kenya though some studies indicate that there are 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered and unregulated ones.

Traditionally in Kenya, children were cared for within the extended family and the community. This tradition was slowly eroding in Kenya by the early 1970s and by the turn of the century it was almost on the brink of total erosion or so was the impression. This trend can be attributed to several factors. The global economic downturn in the 1970s saw fluctuating prices of the country’s major exports, low levels of technology and increasing debt. Other factors, such as drought and famine, high population growth, the collapse of the East African Community, high rates of urbanisation, and land fragmentation resulted in widespread poverty, food shortages and declining standards of living.

In addition, the country’s adoption of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in the late 1980s, which significantly impacted the government’s investments in social services, especially education and health care and which led to rising unemployment and retrenchments. Joseph Rono, in his paper, “The Impact of the Structural Adjustment Programmes on Kenyan society” states:

The SAPs are intended in the long run to improve the economy. However, in the short run, one area that suffers from the immediate consequences of the SAPs, which has been ignored, is the social aspect of human development; namely, the erosion of social services, especially among vulnerable groups, families and individuals.”

Further, in reference to their impact on the family unit, he states:

“Although the government was committed to the reduction and eventual eradication of poverty in Kenya immediately after Independence, it has experienced difficulties in implementing its plans. Consequently, poverty has not only persisted, it has also increased significantly in the I990s, negatively affecting all sectors of development and the family unit in particular.”

In addition, the HIV pandemic further complicated the capacity of the family in two ways. One, it aggravated the already bad socio-economic conditions of the affected families and communities. The most infected were between the ages of 15 and 49 years, which constitutes the productive demographic. Many families lost their breadwinners and in most of the cases, one member of the family was forced to cut down on work hours or leave work altogether to take care of the one who was ailing. The number of orphans increased significantly with most being left in the care of either their grandparents or older siblings.

Currently, there is no substantive evidence on the number of orphanages in Kenya though some studies indicate that there are 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered and unregulated ones.

Secondly, the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS was a direct affront on the kinship care previously attributed with caring for children who had lost their parents. While orphaned children would previously be absorbed into the extended family or close family friends, they were now shunned. In this state, the family institution was vulnerable to any external idea that would seemingly save these children.

As the pandemic quickly morphed into a humanitarian crisis, the Government of Kenya was understandably caught flatfooted. It had inherited the colonial philosophy that did not consider child care as a function of the state. As a result, Kenya didn’t have a credible child care and protection system to cater for the increasing numbers of children needing protection. This is a fact demonstrated by the laws concerning children that existed prior to 2001 when the Children Act was enacted.

The Adoption Act of 1959 was a law to govern the adoption of children. The Guardianship of Infants Act of 1959 was for guardianship and custody of infants and the Children and Young Persons Act was for the protection and discipline of children, juveniles and young persons. This implied that as the family became increasingly overwhelmed, there was no law or policy framework for services to support families in crisis or for alternatives in case the separation of children was inevitable.

In addition to introducing the term orphan in international development, the term’s definition was problematic in two ways. One, the definition branded the victim of the problem and not the problem itself. Secondly, the idea of orphan with its socio-economic connotations was hitherto alien to most African cultures.

In response to the crisis that had engulfed most African countries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) came up with the concept of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) in an attempt to raise the profile of the crisis on the international development agenda. The term single orphan was introduced to refer to a child who has lost one parent while double orphan referred to one who had lost both parents. As a result, the number of orphans shot up instantly.

In addition to introducing the term orphan in international development, the term’s definition was problematic in two ways. One, the definition branded the victim of the problem and not the problem itself. Secondly, the idea of orphan with its socio-economic connotations was hitherto alien to most African cultures. Evidence indicates that most African communities still define children left behind not based on their socio-economic deprivation but on their position within their community. In the Gikuyu community, for instance, the child is referred to as “Mwana wa ndigwa” or a child who has been left behind, implying a general understanding that the child had been left in the care of the extended family or the community.

Secondly, the wisdom of the concept of vulnerable children is questionable since its implication was that almost all children in sub-Saharan Africa became the target of interventions, consequently creating a false impression that the traditional child care and protection systems in Africa has completely collapsed. It’s no surprise then that evidence indicates that between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of children in orphanages today have at least one surviving parent.

This was quickly followed by the emergence of the orphancare movement within the American Evangelical church. Though the church in the West, due to the simple lack of the bureaucracy of governments and international development agencies, was the first to respond to the crisis by mainly building orphanages through their local affiliates, the orphancare theology marked a watershed moment. Founded on James 1: 27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world, this new gospel became the rallying call for Christians to commit to helping children out of the orphan crisis. With that, taking part in helping orphans in African and other developing countries became a measure of how Christian one was, and donations rose to unprecedented levels and so did the number of orphanages. In Kenya today, the majority of orphanages are operated by churches and Christian-based organisations with funding from mainly the US and Western Europe.

The Children Act 2001 and the official sanctioning of the orphanage

To further reinforce the position of the orphanage, the Children Act of 2001 was enacted, placing the orphanage at the core of the childcare system. Under the Act, a child must be placed into an orphanage before they can be placed for foster care or adoption. More fundamentally though, the Act was silent on the services to support vulnerable families and prevent separation or relinquishment of children.

Through the Children Act, the orphanage was thus officially and legally sanctioned as the default mode of care for children separated from their family while the family was left to its own devices. Stephen Ucembe, in his paper titled, “Institutionalization of Children in Kenya: A Child Rights Perspective”, notes that the reference to the orphanage as a charitable children’s institution in the Children Act 2001 clearly demonstrated the government’s abrogation of its role as the primary duty bearer of children’s rights – a fact demonstrated by the historical low budgetary allocation to the Department of Children’s Services and the National Council for Children’s Services. The government today only runs 26 statutory institutions meant for children in conflict with the law while churches and Christian organisations and individuals operate the 850 registered orphanages and an unknown number of unregistered ones. This is not surprising given the bizarre provision in the Charitable Children’s Institutions Regulations of 2005 that requires an orphanage to have at least 20 children before seeking registration. An orphanage simply needs to keep its numbers below this threshold and it can legally operate outside regulation.

Through the Children Act, the orphanage was thus officially and legally sanctioned as the default mode of care for children separated from their family while the family was left to its own devices.

Another key factor was the introduction of free primary education in 2003 which has been coupled with decreasing levels of funding for education, consequently reducing the quality of education in public schools. It’s estimated that 1 million primary school-age children were out of school by 2017. With orphanages either having schools within their precincts or securing sponsorships for children to attend private schools, impoverished parents relinquish their children and even ask them to lie that they are orphans to get into orphanages. Today, access to education is one of the leading reasons why children are in orphanages. Other reasons for placement of children in orphanages include abuse and neglect, gender-based violence, especially female genital mutilation, alcoholism and drug abuse, disability and discrimination.

What is the impact of orphanages on children, families and communities?

A 1999 study titled “Growth and Development of Abandoned Babies in Institutional Care in Nairobi” concluded that infants under institutional (orphanage) care have poorer growth and development compared to mothered infants. This is consistent with decades of research that has proven that care in orphanages has adverse impact on the cognitive, intellectual and social development of children, especially those below the age of three. The rule of thumb is that for every three months that a child below the age of three spends in an orphanage, he or she loses one month in development. Institutionalisation of children under the age of three is classified as a form of violence by the World Report on Violence Against Children.

In addition, evidence also demonstrates that violence against children is six times more likely in orphanages as compared to family settings – a fact not openly acknowledged due to the secluded nature of orphanages which allows most abuse to go unnoticed. Children in orphanages, their parents and the community also lack agency and are less likely to report abuse, especially if the benefactor is the perpetrator.

The orphanage perpetuates social isolation resulting in adjustment challenges once children exit. Care leavers lack social capital since they are cut off from their families and communities. They lack social skills to negotiate life outside the orphanage. Research indicates that they are more likely to end up in crime and prostitution, more inclined to suicide, while young women are likely to end up in abusive relationships and their children are likely to end up in an orphanage, thus perpetuating an endless cycle of poverty and institutionalisation.

Additionally, the orphanage infringes on children’s right to parental care, growth and development, freedom of association and of worship, particularly when children attend school and church within its confines. It also encourages discrimination and stigma against children.

The orphan ideology and the orphanage institution are a direct affront on the ideology and institution of the family. As indicated earlier, the idea of the orphaned and vulnerable child is not only foreign to African culture but also creates a false perception that the contemporary African family is irredeemably and inherently incapable, abusive, neglectful and exploitative towards children by classifying almost all children as being in need of care. For instance, there are reported to be 3.6 million orphaned and vulnerable children in Kenya out of which approximately 50,000 are in orphanages while between 400,000 and 500,000 live on the streets. Even if the number of children in orphanages was doubled to cater for those in unregistered orphanages, at least 83 per cent of these children would still be living with their families, though at risk of separation.

In a more direct affront on the position of the family, orphanage operators often refer to the orphanage as a family, and/or outrightly delegitimise the impoverished family. In a study titled, “Children’s Personal Data: Discursive Legitimation Strategies of Private Residential Care Institutions on the Kenyan Coast”, Njeri Chege notes that references to the orphanage as a family on orphanages’ websites are meant to legitimise the orphanage by attributing to it the authority of the family as a social institution. She highlights that the communication advances a rescue discourse that portrays the dysfunctional family as either an inherent threat to the child’s well-being or helpless. The orphanage is portrayed as the saviour and appropriate environment for the child. She further notes that communications by the orphanages only refer to unfit mothers with no mention of the fathers, while the extended family is only mentioned in situations where they are referring children to the orphanages.

Such narratives erode the legitimacy of the family both locally and abroad and further reinforce the impression of the hopeless African family created by the orphan and vulnerable children concept. This is especially potent for the younger generation of Kenyans born into the era of the orphanage and who because of the orphanage’s prominent presence and the repeated reference to it as a family end up internalising it as a legitimate or even better form of family while in actual sense it’s a much inferior alternative. The orphanage thus diverts resources that would be sufficient to provide social services to families at the community level. Evidence demonstrates that both provision of services at the community level and community foster care are more cost-effective than running orphanages.

Global an national policy shifts

The foregoing notwithstanding, the suitability of the orphanage is being questioned in Kenya today. This conversation has been driven by several factors at the international and national levels.

The Government of Kenya in 2010 formulated the National Social Protection Policy followed by the Social Assistance Act of 2013. The Act provides for, among other things, a cash transfer for orphaned and vulnerable children. The stipend is meant to enable vulnerable families to take care of their children. Other cash transfers include that for the elderly and persons living with severe disability.

In response to the United Nations Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2009, the government developed the Guidelines for the Alternative Family Care of Children in Kenya, which were launched in 2015. The guidelines recommend the development of a deinstitutionalisation strategy. Since then, there has been a consistent push by a section of civil society for the implementation of the guidelines, which culminated in the formation of the Association for the Alternative Family Care of Children in Kenya in 2016. The government, through the Department of Children’s Services and in collaboration with UNICEF Kenya and other partners, is currently piloting the guidelines in Kisumu County.

The Government of Kenya in 2010 formulated the National Social Protection Policy followed by the Social Assistance Act of 2013. The Act provides for, among other things, a cash transfer for orphaned and vulnerable children.

Perhaps one of the clearest indications of the inevitable change is the decision by the trailblazing SOS Children’s Villages Kenya to gradually shift focus from their villages to the integrated foster care model, which basically involves moving the family units from the centralised cluster and scattering them within the community, effectively eliminating social isolation and allowing children to better integrate into society.

At the global level, several developments have heightened the prospects of a global shift, which inevitably exerts pressure on national policymakers. These include the inclusion of orphanage trafficking as a form of modern day slavery in the Australian Modern Day Slavery Act in the midst of an initiative to have all Commonwealth countries enact modern day slavery laws. The resolution by the Commonwealth Youth Forum at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in 2018 calling on all member states to prioritise policies and programmes that prevent placement of children into orphanages. The latter is particularly interesting given that Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2020 will take place in Kigali, Rwanda, a country that is the trailblazer in deinstitutionalisation in Africa.

In 2018 the European Union placed its first ever call for proposals for deinstitutionalisation, signaling a possible intent to export its deinstitutionalisation policy position outside its jurisdiction, while the UN General Assembly selected “Children without Parental Care” as the theme for the Rights of the Child in 2019. All eyes will be on New York as it hosts the UN General Assembly in September 2019 when the resolution will be released.

Recruitment of children into orphanages has also become increasingly recognised in the US State Department’s Report on Trafficking in Persons. Most significant though is the recently launched US Government “Advancing Protection and Care of Children in Adversity’ Strategy 2019-2023”, which has “Put Family First” as one of its three core objectives. The strategy represents the most explicit and candid policy position by a major donor on the need to eradicate orphanages as a form of care.

Schools of thought and policy positions

In this context, it seems inevitable that the orphanage will inevitably either be eradicated or it may undergo some radical change. Undeniably, the actors in the country are aware of this and have embarked on initiatives to try and shape the discourse in their favour, either for self-preservation, positioning or even raw power play.

Three schools of thought or policy positions have emerged, each with a different motive, deinstitutionalisation ideology, and theory of change. The first policy position is the “conservative” position associated with the Association for Charitable Children Institutions in Kenya, which is the umbrella body for orphanages in Kenya. Unsurprisingly, this school of thought, though acknowledging the harm caused by orphanages, argues that the situation on the ground makes orphanages inevitable. “How do we take children back to the same families who abused and neglected them in the first place?” is their argument. Fundamentally though, they have redefined deinstitutionalisation to mean removal of children from orphanages through reintegration as opposed to removal of the orphanage from the childcare and protection system, effectively turning the orphanage system into a revolving door where children come in and out. Consequently, they are proposing the strengthening of orphanages to adhere to the National Standards of Care for Charitable Children Institutions and the strengthening of families at the same. They do not propose when and how the actual transition from orphanages to families will occur.

The second position is the “slash and burn” position whose proponent is the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. Though seemingly unrelated to deinstitutionalisation, this school of thought presents the most radical strategy for reintegrating children within three years, closing of all orphanages and replacing them with 47 mega foster care centres, one in each county. Funded by the national budget, construction of the facilities is currently underway in several counties. The second proposal is the centralisation of policymaking and service provision at the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. The argument is that a government agency will better guarantee child safety as opposed to private ones, which have been branded as rogue. However, evidence suggests that the key to safeguarding children lies in strict enforcement of sound regulations and presence of checks and balances at all levels and not necessarily whether the service provider is a state or non-state agency.

To justify overrunning of all the other players, this school of thought has adopted the emotive child trafficking in the guise of adoption narrative. It should, however, be acknowledged that adoption and child protection in general suffers deep systemic weaknesses that are beyond the scope of this essay, and not simply a matter of some alleged rogue players as the narrative seems to portray. The situation has further been aggravated by years of poor regulation, which has seen the rise of unscrupulous orphanage operators that expose children to abuse, neglect, exploitation and trafficking. This school of thought is focused on centralised regulation as opposed to reform.

The third position is the “care reform” position propagated mainly by the Association for Alternative Family Care of Children. In this case, deinstitutionalisation is just an entry point into broader social reforms aimed at provision of basic social services at the community level and resourced family-based alternatives. Though radical in its intended outcome, this school of thought is advocating for a more systematic approach encompassed in a clear strategy comprising political will for reforms, building the capacity of civil society organisations and the social workforce, building evidence through, among other avenues, piloting of the concept, and the securing of funding for reforms, including ring fencing of resources being channeled into orphanages currently. This position is informed by the model applied mainly in Eastern Europe and Rwanda and its main global proponents are tge international charities Hope and Homes for Children and Lumos, a charity founded by the iconic Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

Currently, this model is being piloted in Nyamira, Kisumu and Kiambu counties under the banner of Changing the Way We Care programme spearheaded by the Department of Children’s Services, Catholic Relief Services and Lumos. USAID, under the “Advancing Protection and Care for Children in Adversity” strategy mentioned above, is co-funding the initiative alongside the MacAuthor Foundation. A similar pilot is currently underway in Murang’a County under the stewardship of the Department of Children’s Services and the charity Stahili Foundation.

In his thesis titled, “For the Benefit of Children Alone? A Discourse Analysis of Policymaking Relating to Children’s Institutions in Indonesia, 1999-2009”, Brian Keith Babington examined the process of deinstitutionalisation policymaking in Indonesia and found out that the policy position finally adopted in the country was not informed by child welfare concerns but was a compromise between the policy positions adopted by different players, in addition to some influence from external development partners. The Kenyan situation is similar to that of Indonesia in terms of orphanage ownership, poor regulation, the emergence of different policy positions and the involvement of major development agencies. In addition, the robust civil space in Kenya makes policymaking highly participatory in most cases. It is, therefore, likely that in the long term, a compromise of the different policy positions and the influence of international development agencies will shape the final policy position adopted in Kenya.

In conclusion, it is evident that though the family was gradually weakened by socio-economic factors from the 70s, the tipping point was the HIV pandemic and the lack of a child care system at the time of its emergence. The interventions and narratives that followed, including the concept of the orphan and the orphanage, further aggravated the situation by affronting traditional child care systems and focusing on the symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself.

The ultimate solution, therefore, lies in changing the ideological foundation and narratives, policies and practices on child care to focus on the family and community. Rehabilitating the family and community child care systems will not only eradicate the need for the orphanage but will also solve the problem of children living on the streets, reduce abuse and neglect of children and improve the overall well-being of children, their families and communities. Failure to do this will only see the family, especially the impoverished one, increasingly fail in its child rearing role, which could be disastrous considering that children make up to slightly over half of the Kenyan population.

Against this backdrop, it is stark clear which of the policy positions is sounder from the perspective of the problem as defined herein.

This notwithstanding, the “slash and burn” position seems to have the support of the executive perhaps due to the proximity of the Child Welfare Society of Kenya to the First Family. The president was their patron at the time they were made a state corporation after succeeding his mother. The position by the Labour and Social Services Cabinet Secretary on the government’s plan to close orphanages therefore need not be interpreted as a sign of political goodwill for care reform but rather for a specific policy position within the broader care reform discourse. More interesting is the seeming difference in position between the Department of Children’s Services, on the one hand, and the Cabinet Secretary and the Child Welfare Society of Kenya, on the other.

The ultimate solution, therefore, lies in changing the ideological foundation and narratives, policies and practices on childcare to focus on the family and community. Rehabilitating the family and community childcare systems will not only eradicate the need for the orphanage but will also solve the problem of children living on the streets.

With all the pushing and shoving, the deinstitutionalisation policymaking process is likely to produce on the most dramatic and interesting policy processes witnessed thus far. It can only be hoped that in the end, the best interest of Kenyan children will prevail.

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Simon Njoroge is the Co-founder and Executive Director at Jabali Foundation a Kenyan non-profit that seeks to provide every child with a solid foundation to life which we believe is in a safe and loving family.

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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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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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