In the midst of the 2008 US presidential election, both sides of the campaign faced a pastor problem. For Barack Obama, it was Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the man who had officiated his wedding with Michelle Robinson, and baptised both their daughters. The future president had to distance himself from Rev. Wright when clips of the pastor saying “anti-white, anti-American” things became the subject of national conversation.
For the John McCain campaign, it was Bishop Thomas Muthee, a Kenyan pastor who had prayed for McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, in 2005. Muthee came up in the campaign after Palin started reviving Obama’s connection to Wright, which had come up in February that year.
There were two videos. In one, from 2005, the Kenyan pastor prays for Sarah Palin, who was then the Mayor of Wasilla. He “anoints” her political ambitions, and “rebukes every form of witchcraft”. Two days later, Palin announced her candidacy for the governorship of Alaska, which she ultimately won. In the second video, shot in mid-2008, Palin recalled the 2005 encounter and attributed her political successes to the anointing.
In the typical fervent opposition research of American presidential contests, details of Muthee’s work and claims over the years came up in different publications. Most of them centered around a foundational claim of his ministry – that he had chased away a witch in Kiambu, bringing down the crime rate, alcoholism, and boosting the economy. He had made the claim many times before, and it had been covered extensively as early as 1999.
This story caught my attention not just because we were all invested in the Obama campaign, but also because I spent a significant part of my childhood in Muthee’s church. I’d heard the story of the witch numerous times, repeated as fact. The characters in the story, including the alleged witch, Mama Jane, but excluding the pet python (this comes up somewhere in the many retellings), were a familiar aspect of my short-lived experiment with faith. Mama Jane lived somewhere on the outskirts of the town in what looked like a walled commune for Akorinos.
As a child, it was easy to miss all the nuances that drove the success of the narrative of the witch-hunt. The events described supposedly took place in the late 80s and early 90s, a time when the world was in flux. Kenya was an economic mess grappling with structural adjustment programme (SAP)-triggered reforms, a new multiparty era, and just about every possible disruption imaginable.
As if that wasn’t enough, the last surviving safe space of the tired citizen – sex – was no more. HIV/AIDs had taken that away, bringing fear and panic to one of the most basic of human activities. What society needed, and what many churches were built on from the mid-80s, was a source of all answers. A simple solution for complex questions.
The Owuor brand
A few months ago, an opinion piece by Njoki Chege on Dr. David E. Owuor, one of several in recent times, triggered a monumental backlash, at least online, mainly in defence of the bearded tunic-donning preacher. It even included a response from Daily Nation’s public editor essentially saying that the opinion piece should not have been based on opinion.
Owuor has been the subject of media attention for the last decade or so. Recently there was a 37-minute investigative documentary by Mark Bichachi that aired in December last year. At the heart of the interest (and controversies) are Owuor’s prophecies and supposed miraculous powers, which include doomsday predictions and (a) resurrection. Buried a layer beneath are questions about his source of wealth and seemingly insurmountable hold not just on his followers, but also on politicians and businessmen. It is a question of the role of religion in modern life, and why, despite our seemingly high literacy levels, we still seem beholden to what amount to fantasy and spectacle.
But nothing Owuor does is essentially new in the religio-political sphere of Kenyan life. Others before him have built similar movements on almost similar frames of thought, with a specific focus on going beyond psychological comfort and belonging. They’ve offered families beyond a bloodline meaning, where marriage is, for example, a carefully curated experience that drives both recruitment and loyalty.
As if that wasn’t enough, the last surviving safe space of the tired citizen – sex – was no more. HIV/AIDs had taken that away, bringing fear and panic to one of the most basic of human activities.
The attention and publicity of such religious figures and groupings tends to focus on their dogmatic quirks, ignoring the socio-economic roles they play. Religion also fulfills an economic role as employer or reference, a social one as friend and family, and a political one as a place to explain the meaning of divine authority and other complexities. To get here though, it needs to first distinguish itself from others pushing essentially the same message. It is not enough to fight Satan as a concept, but also his supposed personification in human and social form.
For early Christians in Kenya, it was the concepts and practices of traditional religions. Then it moved to witches, poverty, and demonic possession, which were also common pivots in the wave of new evangelical churches of the 1980s. They didn’t leave established churches behind, as the composition of the infamous Devil Worship Commission proves. But they went a step further in seeking new platforms, abandoning the traditional pulpit, at least initially, for new ways of reaching audiences. These included open-air crusades, evangelical missions in public spaces, such as markets and buses, and eventually televangelism.
Unlike traditional clergy, they shunned ceremonial robes and chose smart, professional attire instead. They also added even more spectacle to the rituals that older churches had stopped doing frequently – baptism in a river or a pool, for example. If an early Christian time-travelled to our modern age, a lot of what these new churches are doing would look very familiar, including the total immersion baptism.
In the tumultuous 90s, in both urban and rural areas, they explained away social ills as manifestations of a dark force. Anything from crime waves to drug addiction and political corruption could be explained away simply on this basis. The case of the Kiambu pastor is interesting because it was not just dressed as warfare for spiritual health, but for social good – reduced traffic accidents and crime. It also spoke about “powerful people” who had been visiting the witch, implying a direct connection between the socio-economic carnage and politics. Even more importantly, it was geographical pivot for the church itself, and its subsequent growth in Kiambu, its links with international ones, and the centering of this new breed of church as a “meaning maker” replacing the public intellectual in society.
Other churches designed their messaging in a similar way, focusing on issues affecting their primary audience and tailoring spiritual solutions for them. The model encouraged personal testimony led by religious leaders who spoke frequently about their own transformation and “calling”. Many of these churches would try to create a niche for themselves while trying to maintain a respectable perspective of others in the business. It was essentially an oligopolistic market where open conflict was discouraged. The familiar threads also encouraged a form of cross-pollination that hadn’t been possible with the stricter distinctions within older forms of Christianity.
As the economy improved and things eased a bit, the messaging in the most successful churches shifted more towards a liberal theology, emphasising prosperity and purpose-driven lives, with clergy men and women exemplifying such success. Their suits got sharper, their cars got bigger, their homes got grander, and the competition for souls exploded.
By 2007, there were 8, 520 registered churches, 6, 740 pending applications, and 60 new applications being filed every month.
Owuor unsettles this uneasy calm that has existed among different Christian denominations. To drive recruitment and differentiate himself, he routinely riles against sin, specifically sexual sin. In 2015, Owuor was in the midst of an open-media war with Margaret Wanjiru, the epitome of the wave of preachers who emerged in the 80s and the 90s. Wanjiru exemplifies everything that has helped Owuor distinguish himself by fighting rich, preacher-politician identity with a self-confessed “witch” past. She also exemplifies the established clergy that Owuor says shunned him when he begun preaching in 2004/5, although there’s no evidence the two ever crossed paths. This period is important because, as Dauti Kahura rightly observes, it marked the beginning of the end of the common (wrong) view that the church was a neutral arbiter. Within no time, the church would be in the thick of the referendum debate, a short-term battle it won without realising it was losing a much larger one.
Despite this open declaration of war, Owuor’s brand is still rooted in established religious practices. He preaches nothing new and similar movements and doomsday cults are a dime a dozen even today. The difference between him and others is that he has capitalised on the disillusionment of his would-be followers. He keeps his message simple, as exemplified by the name of his organisation – The Ministry of Repentance and Holiness. His primary enemy is not necessarily the concept of Satan, but his fellow preachers and other churches. He uses the same pivots that they did, but disagrees, at least in his sermons, with the direction they took their faith and lives. In the things he still does (that they also do), he goes for spectacle. Whether it’s the motorcades or the open-air crusades or even the things he says.
As the economy improved and things eased a bit, the messaging in the most successful churches shifted more towards a liberal theology, emphasising prosperity and purpose-driven lives, with clergy men and women exemplifying such success. Their suits got sharper, their cars got bigger, their homes got grander, and the competition for souls exploded.
But even beyond this is his ability to create and push a personality cult, one rooted in Christianity but spirited in a way most other denominations haven’t been since the 90s. It is more the spirit and spectacle of the man than the actual content that makes him who he is today. He is a modern brand that has become more familiar in the age of Donald Trump; one built not on substance, but on opposition and display. Owuor’s brand also demands exclusivity from its followers, and then works like a niche, complete with a sub-economy as well as socio-political networks.
Owuor initially rooted his churches in open-air, accessible locations. He himself, however, mostly drives his message and influence through well-choreographed, much-publicised public rallies. In this way he works like a politician in fervent campaign mode. The rallies are not novel, like many things about the Owuor brand, but they are different in the way they are marketed and executed. They are often preceded by weeks, at times months, of marketing in every conceivable social space (even pushed by police officers in uniform), and then aired live for maximum effect. Even this isn’t new, as it was introduced in Kenya by foreign preachers in the Moi era who got similar publicity, police protection, and political networking.
Fresh sermons are given at rallies, with his churches (known within as “altars”), and media houses airing his sermons. Owuor’s organisation also runs a website, a magazine and a radio station. All three run his content almost exclusively, with a heavy bent on his rallies, prophecies, and “miracles.” He has become what scholars see as a “religio-political figure”, a “multi-disciplinary phenomenon.”
Other than this Digital Age aspect of his brand’s growth and protection, Owuor is really an Elijah Masinde or an Onyango Dunde, or a Mary Akatsa for the modern age. His brand combines both the mythical influence of traditional beliefs with the modern opportunities of technology and access. He occupies the helm of his fringe movement as a spiritual figure rooted in Christian beliefs, but with the added advantage of being a living, breathing, intelligent man. In his work he combines social, spiritual, political and moral narratives with which his followers can reinterpret world events.
Whether this is a good thing is as controversial as the man. Different schools of thought, even from random comments on Twitter, show a general discomfort with the power he wields.
Weaponising intimate citizenship
While intimate citizenship – a concept that seeks to explain the conflicts of personal decisions – is an aspect of most religions, there’s something more pronounced about how fringe movements use and weaponise them. Religious leaders and the movements they build tend to seek power over who and when people meet, date and marry. The centrality of this core aspect of the individual is an extension of the family, and used over a period of time – a brilliant way of shoring up numbers and maintaining an in-group.
Intimate citizenship became particularly important after the mid-1980s as HIV/AIDS ravaged society and the political class refused to respond effectively. Politicians and clergymen, faced with a problem for which there was no direct answer or cure as there had been for sexually-transmitted diseases before, at first shied away from the topic. At one point, President Daniel arap Moi even asked why people couldn’t abstain from sex for two years, and Cardinal Maurice Otunga burnt piles of condoms at Uhuru Park. The vacuum that the destruction of social structures had created widened, and there were no easy, obvious answers.
At the Jerusalem Church of Christ (JCC), led by Mary Akatsa, congregants were encouraged to marry outside the church, with approval of course. The design here is that Akatsa christened herself “Mummy” and her followers became “Children of Mummy”. Intermarriage between them would therefore be equal to incest, a crime which she once used to launch a hostile takeover of the leadership at her previous church.
In contrast, in Owuor’s church, members are encouraged to marry fellow believers. Owuor has also switched some of the inherited norms of the church marriage, for example, by making the bride arrive at the church before the groom.
To standardise the ranks even more, such fringe sects also insist on uniforms. Such uniforms and other church materials provide for a sub-economy since they can only be bought directly from the organisation or from ordained tailors. The tailors who dress Owuor’s congregation, for example, cannot dress any outsider. Owuor’s church, like Akatsa’s, bans miniskirts, high heels, trousers, shorts, make-up, and a litany of other things.
One of the most misunderstood aspects of adulthood is the idea that we are all, past a certain age, independent, free-thinking beings, that we desire choice in every aspect of life, and always know we can decline. But basic sociology on the power of in-groups in the life of an individual, defined by codes, uniforms and familiar rituals, shows it’s not that easy.
At one point, President Daniel arap Moi even asked why people couldn’t abstain from sex for two years, and Cardinal Maurice Otunga burnt piles of condoms at Uhuru Park. The vacuum that the destruction of social structures had created widened, and there were no easy, obvious answers.
In Akatsa’s church, lateness is punished on the spot. Lewdness in any form, even implied, is a no-no. She also regularly humiliates her congregants by insulting them, slapping them, making them kneel, and punishing them for indiscretions.
The question then is, is it dangerous?
There have so far been few signs that what Owuor preaches is outrightly dangerous to anything or anyone except perhaps other versions of charismatic Christianity. One sign is that the hold Owuor has on his followers, and the amount of weight he places on his persona and mortality, make his demise a dangerous prospect.
Like many others before him, he routinely refers to his own mortality, casting aspersions that others would/will kill him for his message. By doing so, Owuor inadvertently sets his followers on the warpath with anyone who challenges his legitimacy, whether from a religious or non-religious angle. At times, he directly leads these crusades. In 2016, for example, he held “repentance prayers” for “evil media”, borrowing from a government-led onslaught on the media (and civil society) that began with Jubilee’s election in 2013. That year, his followers also wrote an open letter to The Wall Street Journal. In 2015, a man was sued for hacking Owuor’s email and in 2018, his subordinates sued two bloggers for defamation.
All these attacks come at a time when Owuor, and by extension his followers, have been receiving unprecedented coverage for use of state resources, fraud, drama, exile, an attempted suicide and a warning against environmental degradation.
Another more pressing danger is just how much damage his faith-healing crusade can do not just to his congregation, but to the societies they live and work in. The rise of charismatic faith-healers in the 80s is linked, although not entirely, to the carnage that HIV/AIDS caused in almost all aspects of social life, beginning with intimate citizenship. Having a cure for the virus, whether in the form of spiritual or medical cures, such as Prof. Arthur Obel’s series of failed cures, meant speaking to something that knew no socio-economic distinction.
Owuor understands modern medicine more than anyone else by virtue of his past as a molecular geneticist. He has also among his ranks a retinue of trained doctors and scientists who routinely “confirm” his miracles. Doctors and police officers use their credibility to defend his miracles. His second-in-command, Dr. Paul Onjoro, is a lecturer at Egerton University’s Department of Animal Science.
One social fear is that the church has the building blocks to mutate into something more potent, and perhaps even dangerous to its followers and those they interact with. East Africa still carries the trauma of the mass murders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, a Ugandan doomsday sect formed in the 80s. In February and March 2000 the church leadership systematically murdered between 500 and 1,000 people in a secret campaign that culminated in a church inferno. It was the second worst mass carnage of its kind after the infamous Jonestown mass suicides of 1978 where 914 people died in Guyana.
What in the world is happening?
The democratisation of the media (and the economy) has reduced the monopoly that political leaders once had on national spectacle. Preachers know that, to paraphrase Howard French, “Africans love a spectacle”. The spectacle offered by politicians is infrequent or repetitive, as any cursory glance of a week’s headlines shows, while preachers can satisfy it in some way every week, and cap it off with a major display every once in a while. The best part is that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel; the raw materials are already in place.
But there’s something else at the heart of this rise in spectacle – boredom. Research shows that boredom renders people more positive to their in-groups and more negative toward out-groups. Human beings built social groups out of a need for common survival when it was mostly to satisfy the needs of nourishment, security, and procreation. In a world where democracy is on the decline, economies are struggling, and everything feels like its about to explode, all these needs are under threat. And just like it happened in the 1980s, human beings are seeking the safety and belonging of in-groups, and religion has more experience than anything else in how to build and shape them.
These trends are all over the world, and personalities like Owuor are a dime a dozen in many societies. What’s even truer is that they count among their followers even people you would assume would not be easily swayed by charismatic individuals. Former Malawian President Joyce Banda made seven trips in 20 months to TB Joshua’s church in Nigeria, which she has since equated to a pilgrimage. Joshua’s hold also includes Tanzanian President John Magufuli, whose son was supposedly healed of asthma in 2011. And Frederick Chiluba, the former President of Zambia, said in 2009 that he watched Emannuel TV-TB Joshua’s television channel daily.
It is a precarious time to underestimate the power of religious groups, particularly evangelicals. They voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the US, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Traditional centres of power, especially religio-political ones, are on a fast decline as others rise to take their place. But that previous statement is only true for developed, aging societies. The Catholic church grew by 238 percent in Africa between 1980 and 2015, and only by 57 percent across the world. Africa and Asia now export priests.
The democratisation of the media (and the economy) has reduced the monopoly that political leaders once had on national spectacle. Preachers know that, to paraphrase Howard French, “Africans love a spectacle”.
While politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro, among many others, have benefitted from Christian support, there are some who are seeking to upend it. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has made a habit of pissing off the Catholic church. More than 80 per cent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic, making the Phillippines the most predominantly Christian country in Asia. In any other context, Duterte’s attacks on the church would be suicidal. Yet despite calling priests “sons of bitches”, threatening to behead one, calling the Christian God “stupid” and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity “silly”, he remains immensely popular.
The reasons are multiple. First, the Roman Catholic Church is facing its biggest threat to its millennia of success with multiple clerical sexual abuse scandals across the world. Duterte is a victim of such abuse, which he openly talked about as he campaigned for the presidency in 2015. He brought it up again several times, and in 2018, confessed that as a teenager, he tried to molest a maid as she slept.
Second, his primary war on drugs and upending of traditional centres of power is a relief to a population that is dealing with many problems. “At a time when democracy is in retreat in many parts of the world, this case illustrates how popular harsh punishment can be in states that have failed to meet their citizens’ hopes for freedom, economic growth, and security,” two University of Hawaii scholars wrote late last year.
It is a precarious time to underestimate the power of religious groups, particularly evangelicals. They voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the US, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Fear is perhaps the most deeply wired reaction we living things possess. It is not just that it evolved as a survival mechanism, but that it is so emotionally consuming and confusing. If we feel the safety we so deeply desire, and deserve, then the same things that fear triggers in us become a heightened arousal state. If our fundamental fears are solved by someone else, like the zoo owner who builds a cage for a lion, then instead of being afraid we feel other strong good things, like curiosity and risk-taking.
The independence generation, which is in power today in politics, religion and almost every other aspect of organised life, understands this quite well. Collective fear is a thing to be deployed strategically, to keep a young population in check, to bring them out to vote, to keep them from the streets. Instead of the witches, miracle healing, and other foundational stories that built careers in the 80s, we now have too many things to be afraid of, including ourselves. The solutions though, do not lie in finding a firm hand to guide us in our adulthood, whether it is an autocrat or the rituals of religion.
Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.
The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.
Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.
I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.
Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges
Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.
Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.
While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.
While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.
The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.
Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.
In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.
Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.
After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.
Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.
Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.
Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.
Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.
Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.
Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.
The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.
Enablers and drivers of development
The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.
From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.
The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.
The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.
Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.
Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.
As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.
The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.
Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.
The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.
Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.
Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.
The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.
In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.
Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.
This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.
Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons
Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.
The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.
Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”
However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.
As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.
Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:
Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”
It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:
Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.
Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.
Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.
In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.
Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:
Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.
This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.
However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.
Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.
Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.
While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.
This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.
This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.
In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.
This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.
But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”
These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.
“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”
Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.
It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.
The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid
Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.
The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.
Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.
In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).
In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.
Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.
These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.
Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.
Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’
Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’
When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.
One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.
Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.
From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.
Why money is never free
‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.
Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.
All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.
Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.
All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?
Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.
By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.
Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid
‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.
As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.
Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.
How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.
By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.
Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.
Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.
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