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Immunity or Impunity? Four Ways to Make the UN More Accountable

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The United Nations will not become more efficient, transparent or accountable unless its internal governance and oversight systems are overhauled and/or transformed, says former UN staffer RASNA WARAH. Whistleblowers are the only “accountability mechanism” that the UN has, but even they are routinely punished for reporting wrongdoing.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.

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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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