As the United Nations General Assembly convenes for its 74th session in New York this month, issues such as climate change, sustainable development, the refugee crisis, and catastrophes confronting an increasingly fractured world will no doubt take centre stage. World leaders will present their countries’ achievements and challenges, lobby groups and NGOs will advocate for more funding for this or that cause, and dictators will try and whitewash their failures and human rights abuses while their wives go on shopping sprees in Manhattan. New York’s 42nd Street, where the UN’s headquarters is located, will be abuzz with foreign dignitaries and diplomats, all jostling for a space to be heard.
Amid all the cacophony of voices, the ones that will be drowned will be those of former UN employees who suffered at the hands of the UN’s management when they tried to report wrongdoing within the UN, or those many thousands of victims of UN actions that have yet to have their day in court or to be compensated.
A poor scorecard
The UN’s scorecard since its founding 75 years ago has been a mixed bag. Despite considerable achievements in the areas of human development and humanitarian assistance, the UN has failed to prevent wars and protect human rights in several countries. It has failed to avert genocides and mass human rights violations in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, and Myanmar, among many other countries, even though its stated goal when it was founded after the Second World War was “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”..
In addition, the UN Security Council – ostensibly the peacekeeping body of the UN – has not been able to avert or reduce the current conflicts in Syria and Yemen, partly because the five permanent members of the Council (United States of America, Britain, France, Russia and China) have directly or indirectly fuelled, funded, participated in or supported these conflicts, and have not suffered sanctions as a result due to their veto-holding powers in the Council. On the contrary, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen have resulted in a refugee and humanitarian crisis that has not been witnessed since the Second World War, and have further given rise to draconian anti-refugee policies in Europe and elsewhere, thereby negating the very essence of international cooperation upon which the UN was established.
The UN’s scorecard since its founding 75 years ago has been a mixed bag. Despite considerable achievements in the areas of human development and humanitarian assistance, it has failed to prevent wars and protect human rights in several countries.
What’s worse, UN employees, including senior managers, have in recent years been mired in corruption scandals and other acts of wrongdoing that have made security more precarious and tarnished the legitimacy and reputation of this intergovernmental organisation.
Furthermore, UN employees implicated in wrongdoing get away scot-free because the UN Charter accords them immunity from prosecution in national courts. What’s worse, those who report wrongdoing usually suffer retaliation, despite a UN whistleblower protection policy that was adopted by the UN in 2005, and a revised one that was enacted in January 2017.
UN whistleblowers are thus forced to rely on the UN’s internal oversight mechanisms and tribunals to settle disputes, which presents a serious conflict of interest as the UN is both the judge and the defendant in every case. As UN employees cannot approach national courts with their cases, UN whistleblowers and those who have suffered as a result of UN employees’ actions, have no means of obtaining justice, except through the UN’s internal oversight systems, which are heavily flawed and biased. (For more on this, read my book
Moreover, acts of corruption or misuse or diversion of funds within the UN are extremely hard to monitor as there is no independent external auditing mechanism in place that regularly monitors and reviews how the billions of dollars that the UN’s various programmes and agencies receive are managed or used; nor are there any effective means to bring the culprits to book. (This level of lack of oversight is not even prevalent in some of the most authoritarian governments in the world.) This means that funds intended for UN programmes and projects can easily end up in the wrong hands, thereby depriving the world’s most vulnerable people of much-needed assistance.
The new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has promised to improve transparency and whistleblower protection at the UN. He has also said that he is committed to seriously tackling sexual harassment within the organisation, which apparently has reached crisis levels. An internal UN survey, conducted by Deloitte, whose results were released in January this year, found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed.
The UN Staff Union further noted that sexual harassment was only one among many abuses of authority that take place at the UN. Results from its own survey which was conducted in November 2018 before the Deloitte survey, showed that sexual harassment makes up only about 16 per cent of all forms of harassment; 44 per cent of those surveyed said that they had experienced abuse of authority and 20 per cent felt that they had experienced retaliation after reporting misconduct. The survey also found that a large number of complaints were never investigated; when they were, the complainants were not informed of the outcome of the investigations.
“The results confirm that this has a debilitating effect on staff morale and work performance, and that there are continued barriers to reporting, including fear of retaliation and a perception that the perpetrators, for the most part, enjoy impunity,” admitted Guterres in a letter to UN staff after the survey’s results were revealed.
What hope is there that the UN Secretary-General will succeed in reforming the UN when all his predecessors have failed in this endeavour, and given the UN’s own record in not protecting those who report criminal or unethical practices? How can the UN claim to be a champion of human rights when its own employees have violated these rights in countries where they are stationed, and have not been reprimanded or punished as a result?
Let me give you a few recent examples that illustrate how difficult it is to obtain any kind of accountability or justice in the UN system.
Case 1: No justice for cholera victims in Haiti
In 2010, UN peacekeepers from Nepal were implicated in spreading cholera in Haiti, which killed more than 8,500 people. Despite investigations that showed that the strain of cholera in Haiti matched the one prevalent in Nepal at the time, the UN failed to take responsibility for the deaths. Ironically, Haiti had not experienced a cholera outbreak for decades until the Nepalese peacekeepers arrived.
The class-action suit filed against the UN by the affected victims and their families was dismissed by a court in the United States in August 2016 on the grounds that the UN and its employees enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Although the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, finally expressed regret about the role of UN peacekeepers in spreading cholera in Haiti, and promised to increase funding to address the cholera epidemic, his apology came too late, and none of the victims have so far received any compensation for their loss or suffering.
Case 2: Shooting the messenger
When Anders Kompass, the director of field operations at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported to the French authorities that French peacekeepers operating under the authorisation of the UN Security Council in the strife-torn Central African Republic were sexually exploiting boys as young as eight years old, the UN’s senior managers responded by asking Kompass to resign. When he refused to do so, they suspended him for “unauthorized disclosure of confidential information”, and, in a typical case of “shooting the messenger”, they directed their internal investigations towards him rather than towards the peacekeepers who had allegedly abused the children.
Thanks to intense public pressure following media reports about the scandal, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ordered an independent inquiry into the child abuse allegations. The inquiry’s report concluded that the UN’s failure to respond to the child abuse allegations amounted to “gross institutional failure”. The report also exonerated Kompass of all charges. However, because his experience with the UN had been so traumatic, Kompass resigned from the UN shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, the French troops accused of sexually abusing the boys were sent home to face charges. However, in January 2017, the Paris prosecutor’s office ended the investigations into the case, citing “insufficient elements” to press charges.
Case 3: The Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal
In 1991, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iraq after the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The negative humanitarian impact of these sanctions was to be alleviated by the UN’s 64-billion-dollar Oil-for-Food Programme, which did not allow Iraq to sell its oil commercially, but allowed it to sell oil to purchase food and medical supplies for the Iraqi people under the UN’s watch.
However, what on paper appeared to be a well-coordinated, transparent deal, was in reality one of the biggest scams the world has ever witnessed. Reports by UN whistleblowers and investigations carried out by the Volcker Commission in 2004/2005 showed that Saddam used the programme as a money laundering scheme and that more than 2,000 companies and individuals from 66 countries had paid bribes or received kickbacks. Billions of dollars were lost as a result. Interestingly, several UN staff members had tried to alert the UN Secretariat in New York about the theft, but their warnings were not heeded; in fact, the contract of one of these staff members was not renewed after he sent a complaint to the UN Secretariat.
In the end, the Iraqi dictator was not tried and executed for the crimes he committed under the UN’s Oil-for-Programme, but for other atrocities he had inflicted on the Iraqi people. And the Volcker Commission’s report remained just a list of names of people implicated in the scandal, the majority of whom never faced a judge or a jury.
The immunity from prosecution clause
The main reason why UN officials get away with crimes such as fraud, sexual exploitation or corruption is that Article 105 (Chapter XVI: Miscellaneous Provisions) of the UN Charter accords them immunity from prosecution, not just in the country where they are posted, but also in their own countries. Article 105, paragraph 2 of the UN Charter states that “representatives of the Members of the United Nations and officials of the Organization shall…enjoy such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the independent exercise of their functions in connection with the Organization”.
In essence this means that UN officials and representatives are “above the law” in every country. They do not even face the “court of public opinion”; public exposure of UN scandals has rarely led to the voluntary resignation or dismissal of those implicated.
The original intention of inserting the immunity clause in the UN Charter was to prevent governments from unnecessarily detaining or arresting UN officials while they carried out their official duties, especially in war zones and countries with authoritarian regimes. However, as the cases above have shown, this privilege is often abused.
The main reason why UN officials get away with crimes such as fraud, sexual exploitation or corruption is that Article 105 of the UN Charter accords them immunity from prosecution, not just in the country where they are posted, but also in their own countries.
If UN officials are implicated in a criminal activity, they cannot be arrested or tried in the country where the crime took place, nor can they be repatriated to their own countries to face trial there – unless their immunity is waived by the UN Secretary-General, which rarely happens.
UN Staff Regulation 1.1 (f) states: “The privileges and immunities enjoyed by the United Nations by virtue of Article 105 of the [UN] Charter are conferred in the interests of the Organization…In any case where an issue arises regarding the application of these privileges and immunities, the staff member shall immediately report the matter to the Secretary-General, who alone may decide whether such privileges and immunities exist and whether they shall be waived in accordance with the relevant instruments.”
When the Secretary-General decides not to lift the immunity of the implicated UN staff member (which is almost always the case), there is no real avenue of appeal against the Secretary-General’s decision for an adversely affected party. This has allowed all manner of crimes to take place under the blue UN flag.
This kind of diplomatic immunity (i.e. impunity) is not even accorded to diplomats and ambassadors, who, according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, may escape prosecution in the countries where they are posted, but can face prosecution in their home countries if they are implicated in criminal or illegal activities.Paragraph 4 of Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) states: “The immunity of a diplomatic agent from the jurisdiction of the receiving State does not exempt him from the jurisdiction of the sending State.”
Little, if any, protection for whistleblowers
UN whistleblowers are routinely retaliated against because they are seen as an “existential threat” to the UN’s moral authority and legitimacy. Former UN employees have reported a flawed internal justice and grievance system that is stacked against the victims. Yet whistleblowers are the only “accountability mechanism” that the UN has.
In 2005, in the wake of the Oil-for-Food scandal in Iraq, the UN established a whistleblower protection policy and an Ethics Office in response to the many whistleblower cases that staff felt were not being handled appropriately. One of the Ethics Office’s core mandates is to receive complaints of retaliation from UN whistleblowers. However, most of these complaints never get investigated. In fact, an analysis of cases received by the UN Ethics Office between 2006 and 2014 conducted by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a Washington-based watchdog organisation, revealed that the Ethics Office substantiated retaliation in less than 4 percent of the cases it received, which means that the vast majority of UN whistleblowers receive little or no relief or support from this office.
UN whistleblowers are routinely retaliated against because they are seen as an “existential threat” to the UN’s moral authority and legitimacy. Former UN employees have reported a flawed internal justice and grievance system that is stacked against the victims. Yet whistleblowers are the only “accountability mechanism” that the UN has.
The UN’s 2005 whistleblower protection policy was revised and adopted in January 2017. However, it offers even less protection to whistleblowers than the 2005 policy as it places the onus of establishing misconduct on the whistleblower, and even threatens to “discipline” the whistleblower if his or her allegations or complaints are found to be false.
Paragraph 2.3 of the revised policy states: “Making a report or providing information that is intentionally false or misleading constitutes misconduct and may result in disciplinary or other appropriate action.” This means that if a staff member suspects wrongdoing in his or her office or department, and makes a complaint so that further investigations can be carried out, and then it is determined that no wrongdoing took place (which usually happens as the UN is adept at covering up wrongdoing), that staff member could face disciplinary action, the threat of which would most likely silence or deter most would-be whistleblowers.
The revised policy is an improvement on the old policy in that it does allow UN whistleblowers to approach an external entity or individual if they believe that the internal justice system has failed them or is unlikely to protect them. However, it severely limits the kinds of information they can divulge and the types of entities and individuals that they can approach. Section 4 (a) (ii) of the revised policy states that an individual can only report misconduct to an external entity or individual if the report does not cause “substantive damage to the Organization’s operations”. So, for instance, if a whistleblower reports to a donor that the donor’s funds are being misused or stolen, the UN could argue that by reporting this to the donor, the whistleblower jeopardised the UN’s operations as the donor might stop funding its projects. What’s more, the UN could “discipline” the whistleblower for spreading “rumours”.
In essence, these conditions constitute a gagging order on whistleblowers – a significant step backwards from the 2005 policy, which provided qualified protection to UN whistleblowers who spoke to outsiders or the media. The revised policy appears to give whistleblowers greater leeway in reporting wrongdoing, but takes away this freedom through stringent conditions, thereby reinforcing the UN’s culture of impunity.
No external oversight on how financial resources are managed or used
The UN’s Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), whose mission is to “promote effective programme management by identifying, reporting on and proposing remedies for problems of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement within the Organization”, has had little success in ensuring that those UN staff members implicated in fraud, corruption, abuse of office or other criminal or unethical activities are punished or made to account for their actions. (Yet in many UN Member States, theft of public money is treated as a serious crime where the perpetrators are handed stiff penalties, including the death sentence.) In some cases, senior managers have been known to exert pressure on OIOS to look the other way in cases incriminating them.
One of the reasons why UN employees get away with theft, fraud and other criminal activities is because there is no external monitoring of UN projects and activities and there are no accessible and transparent accounting and auditing systems available for scrutiny to the public or even to donor countries. Thus it is relatively easy for UN staff members to get away with financial mismanagement and misdemeanours; an unscrupulous finance or procurement officer, a project manager or someone in charge of budgets can easily divert, mismanage or misreport UN funds, including donor (taxpayers’) funds, and be opaque about how those funds have been allocated or used.
Moreover, if senior managers are implicated in theft or fraud, they can use their authority to subvert or manipulate the evidence, for example, by threatening whistleblowers with the sack, or coercing junior staff members not to cooperate with an internal investigation.
Despite being among the biggest donors to the UN, the European Union (EU) has abdicated its role of monitoring funds that it gives to the UN. The European Commission (EC), the EU’s administrative arm, has little oversight authority over how the UN spends its money. The EC’s 2003 permits UN organisations to “manage EC contributions in accordance with their own regulations and rules”. In addition, EC’s reporting guidelines for the UN state that “tailor-made reports are not required for specific EU-UN Contribution Agreements” and that “where they meet the EU’s needs, the Commission will rely on the reports produced by the United Nations for other donors”.
One of the reasons why UN employees get away with theft, fraud and other criminal activities is because there is no external monitoring of UN projects and activities and there are no accessible and transparent accounting and auditing systems available for scrutiny to the public or even to donor countries.
FAFA thus essentially allows the UN to monitor itself. This means that UN agencies monitor, evaluate and audit their own EU-funded programmes and projects, often without recourse to an external auditor or evaluator.
This lack of transparency is perpetuated by the UN’s lack of democratic accountability. As the lawyer Matthew Parish, a former UN peacekeeper, stated on his blog, this happens because “there are no disaffected voters to de-select the UN’s senior management on the grounds that they are wasting money”.
So what can be done to make the UN more accountable? Following are four recommendations to make the UN more efficient, transparent and accountable to its Member States and to the citizens of the world who fund it.
If implemented, these recommendations will go a long way in making the UN more efficient and effective in carrying out its mandate. They will also make the UN less prone to waste, fraud, corruption and mismanagement, which have tarnished this intergovernmental organisation’s reputation and negatively impacted the people and countries that depend on the UN for protection.
RECOMMENDATION 1: Define the application of paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 105 of the UN Charter in order to limit the immunity accorded to UN officials and representatives, including UN peacekeepers.
Article 105 in Chapter XVI of the UN Charter (under Miscellaneous Provisions) states:
- The Organization shall enjoy in the territory of each of its Members such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the fulfilment of its purposes.
- Representatives of the Members of the United Nations and officials of the Organization shall similarly enjoy such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the independent exercise of their functions in connection with the Organization.
- The General Assembly may make recommendations with a view to determining the details of the application of paragraphs 1 and 2 of this Article or may propose conventions to the Members of the United Nations for this purpose.
While paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 105 accord privileges and immunity to the UN and its officials and representatives, paragraph 3 offers a window of opportunity to limit this provision, as it allows the UN General Assembly to make recommendations with a view to determining the details of their application. If sufficient pressure is put on the UN, through the General Assembly, Member States and lobby or pressure groups, among other groups interested in UN reform, the “details” of the application of paragraphs 1 and 2 could restrict or redefine the immunity and privileges of UN officials and representatives so that they are in line with the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that states that “the immunity of a diplomatic agent from the jurisdiction of the receiving State does not exempt him from the jurisdiction of the sending State”.
The details of the application of paragraphs 1 and 2 could state that UN staff members implicated in wrongdoing or criminal activities should only be tried in their home countries and that they should only be referred to a national court or justice system if the external arbitration tribunal (described below) fails to settle their cases or if the tribunal makes a specific recommendation that they be referred to a national court, especially in cases where the suspects are accused of serious crimes. These measures could serve as important deterrents to those who intend to carry out criminal or unethical activities while working for the UN.
RECOMMENDATION 2: Replace the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal to settle cases involving UN whistleblowers.
The UN Ethics Office has failed in its mandate to protect UN whistleblowers. In fact, the majority of UN whistleblowers receive little or no relief or support from the UN Ethics Office. It is, therefore, recommended that the UN Ethics Office be replaced by an independent external arbitration tribunal that is not funded by the UN and which is not beholden to any one donor or government. This would eliminate issues of conflict of interest that prevent so many UN whistleblower cases from being heard.
The main purpose of this independent external tribunal would be to hear cases involving UN whistleblowers. Such an external arbitration mechanism would also allow those who are not employed by the UN and external entities or individuals who have been adversely affected by the UN’s or its personnel’s actions to obtain justice outside the UN system.
This is in line with the UK House of Commons report last year that made a recommendation to establish “an independent aid ombudsman to provide the right to appeal, an avenue through which those who have suffered [at the hands of aid organisations] can seek justice by other means”. This recommendation, if also applied to the UN, would provide UN employees another channel through which to seek justice.
This independent external tribunal should ideally be funded by private foundations and individuals, philanthropists, non-governmental organisations working towards improving governance, and any other entity or individual interested in improving accountability and transparency at the UN. UN Member States would not be exempt from funding such a tribunal, but their contributions would be voluntary and subject to conditions. Rules would be put in place to ensure that donors do not influence the outcome of any case brought before the tribunal.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Revise the EC’s Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement that allows UN organisations to manage EU contributions without any external oversight.
The European Union (EU) is among the biggest donors to the UN’s various programmes and projects, and so has a vested interest in ensuring that European taxpayers’ money is utilised well and efficiently. However, the European Commission’s 2003 Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement (FAFA) permits UN organisations to “manage EC contributions in accordance with their own regulations and rules”. In addition, the EC’s reporting guidelines for the UN state that “tailor-made reports are not required for specific EU-UN Contribution Agreements” and that “where they meet the EU’s needs, the Commission will rely on the reports produced by the United Nations for other donors”.
FAFA should be revised so that EU funds donated to UN agencies are subject to regular audits and oversight by external organisations/entities or by the EC’s own auditors. Through the EU’s example, other big donors to the UN might be encouraged to institute similar external auditing and monitoring mechanisms, thereby ensuring that funds given to the UN are not stolen or mismanaged and are used more efficiently.
RECOMMENDATION 4: Withdraw funding from UN agencies that do not protect whistleblowers or which do not take cases of wrongdoing, including sexual harassment, seriously.
In January 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill – the first of its kind – which forces the US State Department to withdraw 15 percent of US funding from any UN agency that fails to adhere to best practices for whistleblowers. According to the law, the 15 percent US contribution to the UN or any of its agencies will not be obligated until the State Department reports that they are implementing best practices for whistleblower protection, including: protection against retaliation for internal and lawful public disclosures; legal burdens of proof; statutes of limitation for reporting retaliation; access to independent adjudicative bodies, including external arbitration; and results that eliminate the effects of proven retaliation.
However, I believe that this bill does not go far enough in that it does not threaten to withdraw all US funding from an agency that does not adhere to best practices for whistleblowers, nor does it guarantee that UN agencies can be trusted to accurately report to the State Department that they are protecting whistleblowers.
Other countries are considering taking even more drastic actions against aid organisations that allow sexual harassment and other wrongdoing to continue. For example, the United Kingdom has threatened to withdraw UK funding from aid and humanitarian organisations that do not take sexual harassment or abuse seriously. If this policy could be applied to the UN, then it might encourage UN agencies to be more diligent about how they treat sexual harassment and sexual abuse cases.
Given the stifling bureaucracy at the UN, and its propensity to cover up scandals that make the organisation look bad, the most effective strategy to curb wrongdoing at the UN could be for donors to withdraw funding from any agency where criminal or unethical practices have been reported and have not been dealt with adequately. There is no bigger incentive in the UN to reform itself than the threat of dwindling resources due to donor disgust.
Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
10 min read. The rise of right-wing populist leaders in many countries across the globe suggests that democracy’s days are numbered. However, as PATRICK GATHARA argues, populism is less a cause of democracy’s demise than a consequence of it.
“Anyone can cook,” declares Chef Auguste Gusteau in the 2007 Pixar classic, Ratatouille, one of my favourite animated movies. The film tells the tale of an anthropomorphic French rat with a passion for haute cuisine, who against all odds, makes it from foraging in the garbage to cooking at a high-end restaurant and being declared “nothing less than the finest chef in France”. It is an inspiring story with valuable lessons about bravery, determination and following one’s dreams. Yet it comes with a caveat, as explained by the funereal critic, Anton Ego, at the end of the movie: “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Across the world today, democratic societies appear to have taken Gusteau’s maxim but not necessarily with Ego’s qualification. In Kenya, the death of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, has occasioned a by-election in which the ruling Jubilee Party has fronted a professional footballer who has spent much of the last decade in Europe and who, until a few weeks ago, had never even registered to vote or expressed any interest in politics.
“The world is going the Wanjiku way,” Mike Sonko, the populist Governor of Nairobi declared recently on the Sunday show, Punchline. “Take the example of the Ukraine. The President of Ukraine is currently is a comedian. They voted for a comedian. Because the Wanjikus were fed up with the leadership of that country. They were fed up with the politicians…Go to Liberia. They elected a footballer to be their president. Madagascar for the second time have elected a DJ, Rajolina, to be their president”.
He is not wrong. From Donald Trump in the United States to Bobi Wine in Uganda, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with and distrust of career politicians and the nebulous “establishment”. In Kenya, this manifests in a contest between the so-called “dynasties” (the wealthy families that have dominated the country’s politics for nearly 60 years) and the “hustlers” (the political upstarts who claim to not be a part of the establishment). It is evident in the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President, respectively, and their open feud with Deputy President William Ruto, the self-declared head of the “hustler nation”.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
Yet this democratisation of governance has created fears of its contamination by the unwashed and uneducated masses. A famous quote from the early twentieth century US journalist, Henry Mencken, encapsulates these fears: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” The quote is taken from Mencken’s piece originally posted in the Baltimore Evening Sun in July 1920 in which he rails against the candidacies of Republican Warren Harding and his rival, James Cox, for the US presidency, which he saw as proof of the tendency of democratic competition to result in a race to the bottom.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
“The first and last aim of the politician,” he wrote, “is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes – to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”
Arguing that “this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon,” he goes on to assert that as politicians increasingly pander to electorates, then “the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life” and the field is left to “intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes” – those without convictions and those willing to hide them.
Many recognise the fulfilment of Menckel’s prophecy in Donald Trump’s presidency, though it is notable that it had been applied to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him. However, it is clear that Mencken had a low opinion, not just of politicians, but of electorates as well. In fact, in his view, it is the ignorance and stupidity of the masses that, in a democracy, makes morons of politicians. And moronic politicians love ignorant voters as evidenced by Trump’s declaration during the 2016 presidential campaign: “I love the poorly educated.”
Menckel’s view is also echoed by a common maxim spuriously attributed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, is the slide into populist idiocy the inevitable fate of democracy? Can anyone cook? Or is Ego right that while good governance can come from anywhere, not everyone can be a great leader?
“Democracy is hard,” notes Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola. It “requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.” For most voters, this constant vigilance is a tough ask. In fact, for most, getting to grips with the issues and personalities is not worth the hassle.
As Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, puts it, “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all… there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election.”
And that’s not all. Even if one were inclined to be immersed in the policy debates and to investigate candidate platforms, the sheer size of modern government and the scale and impact of its activities means that one could not hope to monitor more than a tiny fraction of what the state gets up to.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma” (Father has read it). Baba is a reference to Raila Odinga, perhaps the best known politician in the country and the voters, many of whom had little knowledge of constitutionalism, were opting to take their cue from him. Others chose to follow the musings of pundits and other self-appointed “experts” or journalists or even comedians. The problem here, as with following politicians, is you do not know whether what you are getting is the truth, the real truth and nothing but the truth.
However, that turns out to be less of a problem than one might at first suppose. Truth (shock, horror!) is not always the reason one follows politics – or politicians. Prof. Somin notes that political supporters tend to behave very much like sports fans – less interested in the merits of arguments or how well the game is played than in whether their side wins. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of electorates voting against their own interests. For example, in the US, older voters tend to support the Republican Party, which takes a dim view of government entitlement programmes like Medicare and Social Security that primarily benefit the elderly.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma”.
Even the few neutrals out there tend to talk only to like-minded others or follow the game through like-minded media. In either case, there is little scope for voters to have their views challenged or their horizons expanded. As the former British Prime Minister put it, “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh… before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”
A civic ritual
If voters don’t care about politics, why do they even bother to vote? According to Prof Somin, “The key factor is that voting is a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues. For many, it is rational to take the time to vote, but without learning much about the issues at stake.”
Voting has thus become a civic ritual, much like going to a football game and cheering your favourite team. It provides the satisfaction of participation – one can brandish a purple finger as a marker of having fulfilled one’s duty without actually doing the hard work of wrestling with the issues. Voters pick their teams based less on ideas than on arbitrary considerations, such as ethnicity or place of birth.
The media exacerbates this trend in two ways; both in the content of their reporting and in the manner they do so. By far, the mainstream press is the most important avenue through which people access and organise information about what is happening in the world. Despite the growth of the internet, which has enabled many more people to get in on the act, news is still largely what the media says it is, whether it is an earthquake or a war in some far-off place or the latest tweet by Donald Trump.
However, as Prof Cas Mudde of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia writes, the media tends to report the news, rather than analyse and explain it. The addiction to scoops and “breaking news” and the competition to be first even when every outlet will have the story in the next few minutes and though social media means there is less attention paid to “trends behind the day-to-day news”. Further, in order to attract a larger audience and sell more advertising space or more newspapers, the media prioritises what is sensational over what is important and stays away from anything that cannot be reduced into a soundbite or squeezed into a two-minute news segment.
It also propagates and perpetuates false notions of “objectivity”, presenting itself as a reliable neutral observer rather than as an active participant. Yet through its curating and shaping functions, the media wields tremendous influence not only on how events unfold but also on how on they are perceived. Like a chef, the media takes events and fashions out of disparate events, to be served up to audiences in bite-sized chunks on its many channels.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity. If the world is so simple, then fixing it requires no specialised knowledge. Anybody can cook.
It is no wonder then that today there is a lot of angst about the state of democracy and fears that the ship of liberal democratic constitutionalism is floundering on the rocks of populism. The emergence of right wing populist governments and movements in countries as far removed as Brazil, Italy and the Philippines, and in Western countries once thought to hold the high ground for liberal democracy, such as the UK (which is steeped in a constitutional crisis over Brexit) and the US (where President Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry) has many thinking that democracy’s days are numbered.
William Galston has called populism an internal challenge to liberal democracy. Populists, he says, weaponise popular ignorance “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism”. Liberal norms, institutions and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people and thus should be set aside.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity.
Populism, though, is less a cause of democracy’s demise than it is a consequence of it. Democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time. Galston blames this on immigration which, he says, has not only upset the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites – where the former would defer to the latter as long as they delivered economic growth and prosperity – but has also profoundly challenged existing demographic and cultural norms, leaving many feeling dislocated in their own societies.
However, it is that compact that is at the root of the crisis, transforming as it does the understanding of democracy from a system where people participate in governance to one where they elect others to govern them. Further, the gnashing of teeth over historic decline in voter turnout blinds many to the fact that, like populism, it is also a symptom and not the problem.
As Phil Parvin notes in his paper, Democracy Without Participation, the decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens and the eclipse of broad-based citizen associations by professional lobby groups have resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections. Participation in governance in the periods in between elections is actively discouraged. Those who are dissatisfied with government policies are routinely told to shut up and await the opportunity to do something about it at the next election.
This model of democracy as reality show, where elites compete on who gets a turn at the trough (with the media providing a running commentary and the public choosing the winner) is at the root of the malaise. The professionalisation of democratic participation – outsourcing it to politicians and activists – leads to an increasing polarisation and tribalisation, with everyone claiming to be the authentic voice of the silent and silenced population. Alienation, as political debate focuses on the problems of elites rather than those of the people, becomes inevitable.
It is into this void that the populists have stepped, claiming to do away with the edifice of “the establishment” when in fact, they are seeking to entrench elite rule by doing away with even the appearance of popular consultation. This is what they mean when they evoke the idea of a “strong leader” – one who is not bound by the charade of democratic politics and can thus instinctively channel a pure form of the people’s will. But, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says, this is to ignore the lessons of history. Strongmen, as Africans know from bitter experience, tend to reflect, not the aspirations of their people, but their own.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections.
The solution may be to do away with elections altogether as a means for selecting decision-makers. In any case, what is required is not less popular participation, but more. We can no longer afford to continue to treat governance as something voters get to participate in once every election cycle, to pretend that democracy is a fire-and-forget proposition. Constant vigilance requires citizens at all levels willing to get their hands dirty, learn about issues, debate openly and engage with representatives – citizens who collectively insist on being heard and who demand accountability from those in power, not simply wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.
Paradoxically, the internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, to participate in petitions and to organise outside the parameters set by the elite or by the state. The question for societies with democratic aspirations should be how to make the voices and concerns of ordinary folks, rather than just their votes, count and not be drowned out by the din of elite politics. How do we truly get to the public interested in the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests
8 min read. Africa is losing its forests at an alarming rate, yet the very forces that claim to be protecting them are responsible for their destruction.
“When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”
As the trade war between the world’s superpowers continues, the global South is the one getting the short end of the stick. The economy of most African countries depends on massive exportation of raw materials, usually controlled by large foreign companies. The exploitation of the local resources, such as wood, never seems to stop, even if massive deforestation in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia is bound to have catastrophic economic and environmental consequences.
Who are the main (local and foreign) players behind the progressive loss of forested areas in East and South Africa? What are the causes and, more importantly, the effects of this apparently unstoppable exploitation of land on local economies and climate change? How much is corruption responsible for this devastation? Are there any virtuous players trying to staunch this wound, or is it just the usual Western hypocrisy that preys on the unavoidable dependence on “development aid”?
Land grabs and exploitation
The Western world’s hunger for African resources, including land, has only grown more intense due tp the increased demand for carbon and biofuels. The whole continent becomes more dependent on overseas trade day after day. Internal trade between African countries is extremely weak, and most of these countries are large importers of pricey finished goods and services provided by other global partners. Most African countries are exporters of raw materials that generate profit margins that are quite small on their own and are made even smaller by the fact that most of the lands where these goods are produced rest in the hands of large transnational companies.
In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best. In exchange for an alleged economic return that in many cases never follows, national governments exempted foreign companies from repatriated profits on taxes and taxes on imports of capital goods. All these land grabs are notoriously unjust to the original inhabitants of these lands – usually small farmers and pastoralists who, in some cases, have even forcefully been evicted with the help of the army.
The largest African and global development institutions, such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the World Bank, always sold this process as a much-needed transformation to help the growth of less developed countries. The idea of shifting toward large-scale commercial exploitation of lands and resources has been presented as the perfect recipe to overcome the stagnation of African economies; a transformation that would bring progress, modernity, and riches to all the impoverished lands and populations of the global South. Now the whole continent has been integrated into the global trade system with a relationship of complete unilateral dependence, chained to the volatile prices of commodities, enslaved by continuous “development aid”, and bent under the weight of totally asymmetrical agreements.
The effects of foreign liberalism
The free market didn’t help low-income to countries flourish; the only economic effect was purely cosmetic in nature. The shift towards large-scale commercial exploitation of lands came with promises of better employment opportunities, improvement of existing infrastructure, new opportunities for development, knowledge transfer, and professional specialisation. We saw this happen elsewhere as well, such as in Central America – all these promises eventually turned out to be empty, and only resulted in more poverty, hunger, and unfair exploitation.
In a continent where the vast majority of the population depends on agriculture for a living, uncontrolled liberalisation is nothing but a recipe for disaster. Even the most developed nations of the West know the limits of free markets very well and keep sustaining their own farmers with generous subsidies.
In many countries, such as Ethiopia, the laws that regulate land leases have been extremely generous to foreign investors. The land is leased for negligible rents, especially in remote and sparsely populated areas, and the approval process for investment proposals is superficial at best.
For example, Ethiopia’s annual GDP growth rate kept increasing by nearly 9% between 2004 and 2014, but very few Ethiopians enjoyed the benefits of this growth. Nearly 80% of the population is still composed of farmers and pastoralists whose livelihoods are even more precarious than before after their land was impoverished – their income still incredibly low, at $0.14 per day in some areas. The rural population has been marginalised even further, and local labour is often hired only on a seasonal basis, leaving very little opportunities for the professional and economic growth of all these vulnerable households. Knowledge is kept in the hands of the Western professionals, and their investments on ameliorating the infrastructure are too minuscule to represent a valid trade-off.
This non-inclusive model largely depends on the constant flow of capital, which necessarily come from foreign investors, creating an unbreakable cycle of dependency. Technology-based land exploitation has caused the environment to be degraded, and has substituted traditional sustainable and labour-intensive agriculture with intensive use of fossil fuels, pesticides, and widespread deforestation. The loss of biodiversity of large-scale monocultures and the destruction of large forested areas weakened the ecosystems against unexpected weather changes and other natural disasters.
Deforestation and greed
The constant demand for crop and grazing land, as well as wood for fuel and construction, have a tremendous impact on soil conservation and weather management. Deforestation, in particular, is one of those problems that, if left unchecked, may cause a planetary disaster.
Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ethiopia’s forest coverage reached almost 40%. Year after year, almost 200,000 hectares of forest were lost; by 1987 it was reduced to just 5.5%, and in 2003 it had gone down to a mere 0.2%. According to Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA), between 2000 and 2010, Uganda lost forests at a rate of 2.6% every year. Over the last century, West Africa has lost almost 90% of forest coverage.
Losing forests has devastating effects on the indigenous population, the local ecosystem, and the global environment as well. Forests are critical to lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, to stabilising the weather, and preventing soil erosion. Among the highest causes of carbon emissions from human activity, deforestation is the second after burning fossil fuels, accounting for approximately 20% of world greenhouse gas emissions.
Soil erosion alone may cause the drying of lakes, such as in the case of the three lakes in the Rift Valley that recently dried up. As the soil is massively washed into the lake, the water is pushed up to a larger surface and rapidly evaporates. Without water, droughts ensue, causing famine, starvation, and poverty.
An estimated 100 million African people rely on forests for support and finding freshwater, food, shelter, and clothing. Forests support biodiversity as well, and many plants and animals only exist in these regions. Without forests, many animal species, such as chimpanzees, are endangered since they can’t survive without their habitat, and entire towns are at risk of rainforest flooding.
Africa’s tropical rainforests include the Guinean forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, which comprise the second-largest forest cover in the world. However, according to Professor Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest, this immense “world’s set of lungs” is rapidly disappearing.
But the ecological devastation caused by the alleged modernisation of agriculture is not the sole reason behind the massive deforestation occurring in Africa. African forests store 171 gigatons of carbon, and there is a wide range of different interests swarming around them. Everybody wants to put their hands on this gigantic loot, no matter the consequences for the local populations or climate change.
The frequent conflicts that ravage the continent take their toll on forests as well. For example, after the South Sudan crisis in December 2013, nearly one million refugees, mostly women and children, have sought shelter in nearby Ethiopia and Uganda. Once there, they started chopping wood to build their encampments and to fuel their stoves. This had a significant impact on local forests, according to experts.
The impact of corruption on deforestation
Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss. The estimated value of illegal forest activities accounts for more than 10% of the value of worldwide trade in wood products. And corruption in the forest sector may increase the cost of forestry activities by about 20%.
Most countries in Central and Western Africa that are particularly rich in forests and other resources score particularly low on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), a global index of public sector corruption established by Transparency International. Without a transparent and democratic administration whose framework is built on solid ethical principles, the land rights of local communities and marginalised groups are constantly violated. In sub-Saharan Africa, one citizen in two had to pay a bribe to obtain a land service, such as registering land for his household.
The forest sector is especially vulnerable to grand and petty corruption activities because of the non-standardised but high-priced timber products and low visibility. Government officials often collude with powerful European, American, or Asian companies since they offer forest as a highly valuable commodity in exchange for power and money.
Many indigenous populations have no access to information and justice, cannot claim their rights, and have no chance but to bend the knee when land grabbing laws are enforced by corrupt governments. Foreign companies know how easy it is to violate national regulations and often do so with total impunity knowing that punishment would probably be very light. Funds generated from the profit of the forests are usually embezzled or siphoned out of the continent to be laundered through complex schemes of multi-layered shell offshore businesses. Money that could be invested in social services, jobs, and better infrastructure ends up being devoured by greedy officials, money-hungry corporations, and shady smugglers.
Reforestation and other plans to restore Africa’s forests
Luckily, not all is as bad as it seems. Ethiopia has just started a restoration process that includes a reforestation programme that should replace 22 million hectares of forests and degraded lands by 2030. Even better, in 2018, the government finally revised the National Forest Law to provide better recognition to the rights of local communities and acknowledge their importance in managing lands and crops. The new law also includes much more severe penalties for those who endanger forest ecosystems or who extend farming into natural forests.
Corruption has a tremendous impact on global deforestation. With 13 million hectares lost each year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has identified the illegal timber trade as one of the principal causes of forest loss.
In Uganda, Project Kibale focuses on restoring the Kibale forest and has managed to restore 6,700 hectares of forest so far. On lands owned by subsistence farmers, the Community Reforestation project coordinates hundreds of small community-based tree planting, education, and training initiatives. Similar projects are in operation in Kenya as well, such as Carbon Footprint, B’n’Tree, WeForest, and the Green Initiative Challenge.
Although certainly commendable, many of these reforestation efforts simply seem to be a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The core problems – corruption, grossly uneven distribution of power among players, and poorly-designed regulations – are not addressed at all. The handful of trees that get planted only help these parasites to get more wood to harvest in due time.
It can also be argued that many of these brave steps toward sustainability are nothing but green rhetoric spin for Western audiences. Wilmar’s hypocrisy, for example, was exposed back in 2015. The multinational of palm oil had abused human rights in Indonesia for years, expropriated lands with no qualms, polluted the environment, and destroyed crops and forest in large areas. After being named by Newsweek as “the world’s least environmentally-friendly company” in December 2013, the palm oil giant adopted a “no deforestation, no peat, and no exploitation policy” and became a champion of environmentalism. However, this was just window-dressing that was rapidly unmasked in subsequent years by NGOs in Uganda, Nigeria, and Liberia. The icing on the cake? In previous years, Wilmar was financed by none other than the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
When the rules are made by those who dominate the markets, globalisation becomes a source of profound inequalities. The blatant asymmetry in bargaining power between the global superpowers and the global South has all but abolished the few safety nets that national laws could provide. All the regions that are rich in resources and commodities are quickly transformed into no man’s lands where the indigenous populations become unwanted guests to be displaced. Entire ecosystems are ravaged and exploited, no matter the consequences. And when newer, fairer rules are established by a more ethical administration, they are rapidly dismantled by leveraging corruption and bribes.
The word “development” has been mentioned so many times that it is now empty and meaningless. Nonetheless, the only way to shift toward a more sustainable economic system is to focus on the real development of African countries. Reforestation is just palliative therapy that is trying to heal some of the wounds of an already terminally ill patient. Africa can flourish only through a more radical approach that allows Africans to grow, develop, and fully exploit the immense value of their enormous resources instead of leaving them in the hands of foreigners and global corporations.
The Persistence of Small Farms and the Legacy of the Monoculture Mindset in Kenya
12 min read. PAUL GOLDSMITH explores the evolution of agriculture policies in Kenya that failed to recognise the importance of smallholder farming, which has proved to be more resilient than large-scale agriculture projects.
I once drove up the eastern side of Mt Kenya with a manager working in the California horticulture industry. We passed through the Mwea irrigation scheme’s mosaic of rice plots and the smallholder coffee zone in Embu. After crossing the Thuchi River, we transited through the mix of tea farms, coffee plots, and patches of small fields of maize, pulses, and bananas framed by the heavy tree cover blanketing the hills and valleys. The Meru lowlands stretched out to the east, the miraa-dotted slopes of the Nyambene Hills loomed close as we approached Meru town. In the space of three hours we had transected one of the region’s most agriculturally variegated and productive landscapes.
Two days later we drove across the northern saddle of the mountain, leaving the smallholdings created by late colonial-era settlement schemes before cruising past the wheat fields of Kisima and Marania farms and their neighbours. The road carried us past the uniform blocks of horticulture farms and greenhouses stretching across the high plains of the mountain’s northwestern quadrant en route to Nanyuki. Over a plank of some insanely delicious beef at one of the town’s famous local nyama choma joints, my guest tells me she was impressed by the kick-ass agriculture she saw during our trip.
I remarked that we had crossed an area that produces the world’s best tea, some of the planet’s premier Arabica coffee, and the country’s most sought-after potatoes, French beans and other vegetables that grace European tables. I also informed her that we had skirted the range hosting Africa’s most sophisticated agroforestry system, home to the Horn region’s most prized Catha edulis.
“That’s interesting,” she said, clarifying that she was referring to “the area of proper farms we passed through this morning”.
Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings. Approximately 26 per cent of the earnings are indirectly linked to the sector through linkages to agro-based manufacturing, transport, and trade.
The sector is a major employer, with an estimated 3.8 million Kenyans directly employed in farming, livestock production and fishing, while another 4.5 million engaged in off-farm informal sector activities. Agriculture remains a key economic sector with significant unexploited potential for adding value through post-harvest processing.
The relationship between large-scale and small-scale producers in Kenya continues to evolve. Smallholder farmers generate the larger portion of overall agricultural value; large farms are still critical contributors to domestic food security and export production while pioneering new technologies and marketing arrangements.
Kenya’s agriculture generates approximately 24 per cent of the country’s GDP, 75 per cent of its industrial raw materials and 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings.
The economists and policy-setting bureaucrats at the World Bank and other important financial institutions, however, now question the small farm sector’s capacity to satisfy Africa’s future needs. The experts have tacitly supported the controversial trend of external investors’ acquisition of the continent’s underexploited land to develop capital-intensive plantations and ranches. Agricultural progress means big fields, straight lines, greenhouses, and large grids of sprinklers, as the comments of the manager reaffirmed.
The rise of monoculture
Assumptions about the superiority of large-scale agriculture have remained unchallenged since the migration of Europeans to the Americas, Asia, and Africa. They came, saw, conquered, and converted the wide open spaces they found into plantations producing sugar, cotton, rubber, tobacco, soybeans, and a long list of other crops for export to the industrial world.
When European diseases decimated the indigenous inhabitants in the New World, the planters plundered Africa to replace them. Steam powered the Industrial Revolution; colonial plantations and mines provided the raw materials. The textile mills of Lancashire generated the profits financing Great Britain’s global empire, and America’s South supplied the cotton.
Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry. The reign of King Cotton, for example, relied on increasing quantities of land and imports of African labour to compensate for rapid soil fertility decline. Southern land owners were poor farmers who added little value to the development of their agriculture beyond the use of the whip and the noose.
Class dynamics also contributed to the rise of the large commercial farm. The working conditions of the working-class adults and children working the looms was only marginally better than that of the slaves producing the fibre. Growing numbers of the freehold farmers in Europe who were driven off their land avoided this fate by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, attracted by the US government’s recruitment campaigns offering access to land. The industry of the displaced farmers powered the nation’s westward expansion. The American Civil War decided the contest over which system – freehold or plantation – would dominate in the virgin lands beyond the Mississippi River.
Large-scale agriculture’s global hegemony grew out of military firepower, capital, technology and ruthless exploitation of labour, not superior crop and animal husbandry.
The outcome was the same. Within several decades, the massive herds of bison were decimated and the indigenous inhabitants reduced to paupers on reservations. Science and technology came into play. The impressive advances generated by agronomic research and mechanisation extended the ascendency of commercial farms and plantations into the modern era. Economies of scale enabled by railways and the steamship extended the dominance of single commodity farming systems across the world.
Relegation of pre-industrial agricultural populations to the status of pre-scientific peasants preceded the imperial occupation of Africa. The Europeans established their plantations and large farms across the continent’s savanna and highlands. Like the colonialists before them, both capitalist and socialist governments’ rural policies were predicated on the need to introduce modern scientific agriculture. The choice was as basic as the difference between a tractor and a short handle hoe.
The Kenya conundrum
A matrix of physical, climatic, spatial, and social factors complicated the installation of large-scale agriculture production in Africa. Agriculture played a singular role in the development of the modern Kenyan economy, but commercial agriculture and ranching developed by European settlers are only partially responsible for the sector’s progress.
Free land and inexpensive labour facilitated the establishment of commercial farms during the early decades of colonial rule. Drought, locust invasions and crop losses to pests and wild animals, and to vector-borne diseases posed a serious challenge. The effects of the latter were minimised by quarantining the locals in native reserves and demarcating the band of ranches that ring-fenced the so-called White Highlands. Not all the white settlers survived; some left to start over in colonies to the south, but those who stayed on prospered with the assistance of the colonial state.
After World War I the government offered land concessions to war veterans boosting the population of approximately 6,000 white settlers in 1917 to 20,000 in 1936. This abetted the diversification of the new estate sector, which came to encompass coffee, tea, cattle, sisal, cotton, wattle, and other export commodities that sustained the colony’s finances. Expansion raised the demand for African labour while fueling frictions over land between settlers and their African neighbours. It also made managing settlement considerably more difficult for the government and civil servants in the countryside.
Indigenous producers evolved intricate mechanisms of adaptation and risk management to shifting environmental conditions and chronic climatic instability. The over 100,000 African squatters on European farms by 1947 demonstrated their resilience in new circumstances. Despite the restrictions they faced, they out-performed the owners in many ways. The surplus reinvested in livestock led to competition for pasture on the estates, and this prompted restrictions limiting the size of cultivated plots and the number of livestock the Africans were allowed to keep. The number of days of labour owed to the estates also increased over time, doubling from 90 to 180 days a year.
Dependence on native labour in effect led to the parallel development of two distinct large-scale and small-scale systems on the same landholdings at the same time. The contradictions inherent in this situation, combined with the political threat of the Mau Mau, forced a rethink that led to the Swinnerton Act in 1954, which opened the way for the production of export crops in the African reserves.
The sectoral duality generated by these developments has vexed Kenya’s agriculture policy ever since. Kenya gained independence committed to preserving the economic stability provided by the estate sector while satisfying the political expectations of its citizens. The latter translated into the transfer of settler lands under the Million Acre Scheme, support for the cooperative movement, and the deployment of small farmer extension services.
The structural inequalities symbolised by the contrast between the landed elite and the masses nevertheless fueled strident opposition to the Jomo Kenyatta government. Kenya’s status as an island of stability in a turbulent region encouraged international support for the development of schemes and projects mirroring a succession of theories and economic models debated by academics and institutional experts.
One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme. Attempts to rectify flaws in the Bura Irrigation Scheme, the world’s most expensive at the time, proved futile when the Tana River changed course.
How do we explain the failure to acknowledge the results of such “experiments”?
In a 1988 article, Goren Hyden attributed the syndrome to Africa’s monoculture legacy, which he defined as “mono-cropping in agriculture, single fixes in technology, monopoly in the institutional arena, and uniformity in values and behavior.” The rise of hegemonic economic monocultures, he went on to observe, are usually preceded by a period of competition and experimentation.
No such selectionary forces informed the large-scale solutions designed to alleviate Africa’s agriculture malaise. The continent’s initial conditions were different. The unique regional political economies of the precolonial era did not count. The formal protocols governing exchange among diverse communities were obsolete. The need to differentiate between size and scale did not apply.
Small as the new big
Africa’s lost decade highlighted the neglect of small-scale farmers. In an article in the same edited volume featuring Hyden’s monoculture legacy thesis, Christopher Delgado noted, “It is unlikely that more than 5 five cent of current African food production comes from large farms. A 3 per cent growth of productivity of smallholders would be equivalent to a 60 per cent growth of productivity on large farms.”
This point segued into the large body of empirical evidence marshalled in support of a new policy focus on the smallholder sector. But there was a problem, as he and other pro-smallholder analysts recognised: The high variability in conditions and circumstances within and across African countries complicated cost-effective delivery of the services, inputs, incentives, and infrastructure need for the interventions to pay for themselves.
One critic of international development accurately described these interventions as policy experiments. Some worked and many did not. The funding flowed despite the repeated failures epitomised by the large agricultural projects dating back to the doomed Tanzania Groundnut Scheme.
Asia’s breakthrough was an outgrowth of substantial international research supported by national research centres into two basic commodities. The same approach has not worked in Africa because technical enhancements need to contend with multiple crops systems, variations in soils, spatial differentials complicating access to water, markets, and service, local pests and diseases, transport and communications infrastructure, and political variables linked to ethnic constituencies, to name a few of the factors determining the productivity of small farmers.
Research attesting to the more efficient per capita and land unit output of small farms also indicated that there was still considerable scope for raising household incomes by enhancing the productivity of labour. The Kenyan government’s support for small-scale dairies, tea production, and the efficacy of extension services furnished proof. Like the case of colonial squatters before them, smallholder producers began outperforming the large farms and plantations.
Kenya and its bimodal policy frame was often cited as a success story at the time, but was this because government policy focused on concentrating the limited resources available in relatively fertile areas? The failure to replicate these successes further down the ecological gradient invoked a more complicated set of variables.
Other state-supported initiatives, such as smallholder cotton, floundered, and even a tested policy like fertilizer subsidies proved difficult to implement because the cost of delivering the input to small farm households often ended up cancelling out the benefits, especially during years when low rainfall or other external factors reduced output.
During the early 1980s Kenya’s agricultural sector reached the zenith of its development under state control. A matrix of factors, including lower prices and higher market uncertainty, declining civil service terms of pay, gradual closure of the agricultural land frontier, and the highest demographic growth rate in recorded history explain subsequent developments.
Institutional entropy set in. The food security problem became a full-blown national crisis around the same time as government mismanagement of strategic maize reserves exacerbated the impact of the 1984 famine. The food catastrophe marked a turning point, concretising the case for the structural adjustment policies that came into effect during the following years.
The donor-mandated policies included foreign trade liberalisation, civil service reforms, privatisation of parastatals, and liberalisation of pricing and marketing systems, which later involved relaxing control of government agricultural produce marketing and reforming cooperatives.
Increases in quality and efficiency tend to translate into lower commodity prices over time, and the same appeared to hold for institutional reforms. In any event, the policies designed to increase efficiency and decrease state involvement in the economy did not reverse the decline in agricultural production. Declining prices for traditional agricultural commodities and Africa’s terms of trade in general was seen as emblematic of a larger malaise stemming from poor governance and economic mismanagement in Kenya and other African countries.
Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society” qualifying the observation Thomas Picketty offered in his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty First Century: “wealth accumulated in the past will inevitably acquire disproportionate influence”.
In Kenya, the consequences included the revolt of smallholder coffee farmers in Nyeri, the burning of sugarcane fields in western Kenya, the collapse of cooperatives, an increase of subsistence production on small farms, the commercialisation of livestock raiding in the rangelands, and the rise of cartels that seized control of export commodities and local produce markets.
The situation in Kenya was symptomatic of the forces that eroded the impact of the pro-small-scale agriculture policy framework that had gained traction during the same period.
The release phase and agrarian transition
Subsequent developments in rural Kenya invite us to revisit Picketty’s choice of words in the observation cited above: the reference to “quasi-stagnant” is indicative of a larger dynamic. From an ecosystems perspective, the turbulence arising across Kenya’s agricultural sector and the hollowing-out of state institutions corresponds to the release phase in ecological cycles.
The role of forest fires that remove old growth, allowing regrowth and revival of species suppressed by the canopy of large trees, is the standard example used to illustrate the release function. In the context of human societies and other complex systems, it refers to transitional episodes in “an adaptive cycle that alternates between long periods of aggregation and transformation of resources and shorter periods that create opportunities for innovation.”
For present purposes we can equate Picketty’s quasi-stagnation with the onset of a transitional phase of reorganisation leading to renewal. Support for importation of large-scale capital-intensive agriculture to meet Africa’s future needs, in contrast, correlates with the old school ecological succession model. The degradation of rangelands resulting in the replacement of overgrazed grass and shrubs by less nutritious invasive species is a common example.
The African land grab by foreign investors now taking place in many sub-Saharan countries is in effect a case of replacement substituting for the adaptive processes underpinning indigenous African production systems. The government’s willingness to allocate large tracts of Tana Delta land as an incentive for foreign government investment in the LAPSSET mega-project is an example of this replacement strategy in Kenya.
I was part of a team that undertook a three-year study of commercial agricultural models in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia. Initially motivated by the problem of large-scale agribusiness investments, the research design focused on three models: large commercial farms, plantations, and contract farming. The team’s general conclusion underscored the emergence of large- and medium-size commercial farms in the three countries.
Although most Kenyans blamed the Daniel arap Moi government, the less than creative destruction wrought by the penetration of capital and primitive accumulation by state-based actors was the real culprit responsible for the economic carnage that followed in its wake. The outcome was “a quasi-stagnant society”…
My personal take was slightly different, and although they may be particular to our Kenya research, two issues warrant mention. The first is the resilience of smallholder households in our surveys and life histories.
Without getting into the intricacies of the data, several factors support this. The time series data showed improved food security for most of the households sampled, and a corresponding decline in conflict over land: only one respondent complained about the ownership of the large farms and plantations in the area.
While the poorer families were hard-pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.
High levels of mobility within the region and a general trend of reversed urban migration add further support to this point. For example, urban unemployment rates of 19.9 per cent for 2009 and 11.0 for 2014 per cent were about double of rural rates.
The process of consolidation underpinning the large farm formation across agro-ecological zones is underway, but it is slowed by the reluctance to sell land and a correspondingly high incidence of leasing land. This is also true for large holdings outside our Mt. Kenya research area, such as the Rift Valley, where owners are holding on by leasing out parcels to smallholders. The successful estates and horticultural firms have developed mutually beneficial links with their smallholder neighbours. This is based on outsourcing production, the sharing of technological innovations from the production of certified seed potatoes to electronic wallets facilitating rapid and verifiable payments to contract farmers, and multi-stakeholder participation in the management and conservation of water sources.
While the poorer families were hard pressed to make ends meet, the diversification of income generation strategies indicate that even a small half-acre plot defrays the cost of food purchases while providing a base for participating in the rural economy.
Our sample divided the household into two categories: those involved with the large commercial farms and those who remained independent. The scores for involved households were significantly higher for crop yields, fertilizer use, income, and most other variables. All of these observations attest to the synergies generated by the large-scale small-scale symbiosis that began to emerge during the final years of the colonial era.
This brings us to the second point – the enduring influence of the monoculture mindset. It resurfaces in the World Bank’s categorisation of both large and small organisational units’ contribution to the continent’s socio-economic transformation. Dualities deceive; learning by trial era works.
The elephantine LAPPSET project, the hallucinatory Galana-Kulala scheme, the government’s Big Four agenda, all suggest that the Chinese version is more of the same.
Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
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