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The New Frontier for Development and the Politics of Negation in Northern Kenya

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In this second part of a three-part series, DALLE ABRAHAM argues that the new mega infrastructure investments fueled by LAPSSET are a continuation of the perverse state policies on Northern Kenya adopted by post-colonial governments.

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The New Frontier for Development and the Politics of Negation in Northern Kenya
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“Literary critic Tom Odhiambo regards the NFD as a metaphor of negation, a liminal space where collective ‘Kenyan’ fears and anxieties are at once deposited and from whence they emerge”- Parselelo Kantai.

It’s Marsabit late in 2013. Nomadic girls dressed in evening dresses and cultural attires do clumsy catwalks with feet unused to high heels. They strut on a makeshift runway in front of the Catholic Church hall. The occasion is a glitzy second Miss Marsabit County beauty pageant. Kenya’s foremost stand-up comedian, Walter Mongare, aka Nyambane, whose parody of the banal cadence of Kenyan officialdom has become standard comedic practice in Kenya, is the MC. (Nyambane was part of the Redykulass comedy group. In this role, he had managed to fashion a remarkable Moi parody; he could talk, walk and even look like Moi.) He cracks jokes on walking styles and tribal clichés. A curious moment passes unnoticed when he declares that “Kenya mpya iko hapa!!” The new Kenya is here.

The beauty pageant, like LAPSSET (the Lamu Port and South Sudan – Ethiopia Transport corridor) was a pitiful attempt to “open up” a closed-up region. This preposterous idea is not any different from the “metaphor of negation” that it sought to transform. To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, Nkem Osodi’s analogy suffices: equate Northern Kenya to Eve in the Old Testament who is blamed for man’s woes in the Garden of Eden, rescue this image of a suffering Eve and redeem it in the New Testament through Mary, elevate her as the mother of God, and tuck her away in a nice corner of heaven where she is irrelevant.

How is the metaphor of negation now the glitzy developmental jewel?

A pervasive narrative defines Northern Kenya’s relationship with Southern Kenya. Northern Kenya is viewed as a land of misery, of death and of terror where Kenya’s hardships go to school – an area of darkness, this Kenyan “apocalypse” is by some ingenious design almost always shadowed by “potential”.   But when detached from this base, the narrative alters its shape and the region transforms into a treasure trove of unexplored potential and immense opportunity waiting to be exploited.

Recall that in 1965 capital concentration was to be centred around the former “White Highlands”, as articulated in Sessional Paper No. 10: African Socialism and its Application to Planning. However, today the country is making a clean 180-degree about-turn. President Uhuru Kenyatta has visited Marsabit County five different times in the past six years. Foreign envoys have warmed up greatly to Northern Kenya. Just last month, twelve European Union ambassadors were in Marsabit. This new attention and the grand nature of the new mega infrastructure developmental craze seems like “Kenya” is atoning for all its past sins. The initial excitement resulting from this new attention is, however, wearing off fast.

Positive policy steps have been taken. But Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 and The Special Districts Act of 1934 repealed 63 years later in 1997 were bad policies that had created an official attitude. In this new testament, the policy environment has changed. Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 was replaced 47 years later by Sessional Paper No. 8 of 2012, which was made by a special ministry for Northern Kenya Development, obvious in its intentions of affirmative action and “Releasing Our Full Potential”. These policy changes have been supported by Kenya’s Vision 2030, which lays out the country’s development blueprint on transforming the “special circumstances of previously marginalised communities” and “in this respect it offers a chance to turn history on its head”.

But have the negative attitudes towards the North been overcome?

The language of the old and new policies, when juxtaposed, are fundamentally different. But development plans, visions or policies can, on their own accord, turn “history on its head” and clean the stained slate of nationhood. Still, in their implementation, the North is witnessing the callous ways – informed by colonial perceptions and attitudes – in which development can exclude and alienate. Hidden in the folds of this grand development vision of LAPSSET is exploitation, oppression and dismissal of the North. The exclusionary tendencies bear the hallmarks of how history and tradition continue to define what and how things get done in Kenya.

The urgency of the national government in this experimental and magical “spatial fix” was a heady affair. The government introduced new projects: roads, airports, wind farms and resort cities – an investor’s paradise emerging out of the wasteland. How amazing, how great, this story of transformation was. But this idea of opening up the north is a cryptic code that has changed shape and form over the years. Spatial fixes as anywhere in the world are often wishful make-believes.

In an illustrative animated film shared by NEPAD, we are told that LAPSSET will encompass “international airports, resort cities, special economic zones, industrial parks, mineral exploration, and free trade areas which will generate and harness economic and business activities for the corridor”. LAPSSET, we learn from the video, is “an investor’s dream, backed by governments in the three countries and embedded in Kenya’s Vision 2030, a crucial de-risking step for investors” where “land acquisition and investments are secured not only by governments but also by the enthusiasm of the populations”. Viewed through this lens, “Kenya estimates that the core LAPSSET projects will generate and inject up to 2% to 3% of the GDP into the economy and 8% to 10% of the country’s GDP”.

The urgency of the national government in this experimental and magical “spatial fix” was a heady affair. The government introduced new projects: roads, airports, wind farms and resort cities – an investor’s paradise emerging out of the wasteland.

At the macro level, the vision was generous, and its beneficiaries were spread across Eastern Africa. For South Sudan, LAPSSET was projected to “consolidate the peace process in the country and build a sound foundation for sustainable growth”. For Ethiopia, “LAPSSET will enhance the current bold political and economic reforms in the country”. For the whole continent, LAPSSET will fulfill the African Union’s dream of “a peaceful, prosperous and fully integrated continent by 2063”.

This grand vision is replete with ambiguities, a pastiche of grand and micro intentions. At the macro level, Kenya wants to send a statement on the continent but at home LAPSSET is articulated as a plan to open up Northern Kenya as a way to tap the resources in the North. So far the conviction has made it look like the “opening up” of the hitherto “closed” Northern Kenya is a seamless and accepted undertaking. Even the old acronym, NFD, has been repurposed to reflect the new possibilities; Northern Frontier District (NFD) has become the New Frontier of Development, and its caustic version, the Northern Forgotten Districts, has effectively been forgotten.

This plan of “opening up” has come with some apprehension for people from Northern Kenya. Fear and economic anxiety are some of the markers of this ambivalence. The new impatience and anxieties in the region are discernible. The actual LAPSSET projects being implemented are coming to a place and a people who have certainly been waiting for and dreaming about development, hoping for all the new attention.

But when “development” began, it did so in lofty ways, not as the locals had conceived it. Instead of hospitals, classrooms, clinics and water points, fiber optic lines, international airports, oil pipelines, mineral licensing, huge electric pillions, wind power projects of reputable grandeur and plans for resort cities with world class golf courses and massive trains were erected.

Meanwhile, the leaders from the area are like antelopes caught in the headlights of an oncoming train. In the bulas scattered around Isiolo town, in little double-roomed wooden houses, there were talks of the place’s immense economic potential and of the coming opportunity, of employment, of land prices going up, of corporate social responsibility, of foreign scholarships, and of new investors coming. In neighboring Marsabit County, The Cradle carried a front-page splash of an artistic 3D impression of a future city envisioned for Moyale, which in Uhuru’s words, will be “the future Dubai”. The grandness and generosity of this vision can only be equated to Dubai, which has slowly become Africa’s developmental true north and the template of transformational ambitions. Dubai had turned “history on its head”.

Development for whom?

The gist of all these interventions lies in the intent. The “unpeopled wasteland” needed to be roped into the Kenyan political economy. These interventions, if distilled down to their bare essentials, were asking, nay, forcing Northern Kenya to take up the duties and dynamics of a key player in the regional political economy without the necessary participation of its leaders and/or the consideration of its people’s needs. This vision was not an organic one; it was not of the people and for the people. Its conception was not arrived at slowly and imperfectly. The plan to “open up” Northern Kenya was not preceded by years of activism and it was not an affirmative response to the cries of Northern Kenya’s leaders on marginalisation. Its origin lay elsewhere.

Kenya’s “new frontier of development” was radically unmoored from the reality of the Northern Frontier Districts. When viewed through Northern Kenya’s old image, the sound and conviction of its single-minded believers was heartening. LAPSSET, and its language of “new”, “development”, “opening up”, “opportunity”, “investors”, “markets”, and “mega infrastructure” felt like a dream come true. Its springboard was the depressive narrative of death, misery and terror that had seeped into the collective Kenyan psyche. While the thing that we were laughed at in Kenya was some kind of social dislocation, now we were being praised and made to feel important in a different interventionist way. The misery, the deaths, history itself can be supplanted by LAPSSET.

The tone of hope and conviction had a faint ring to the cavalier tones that created the old Northern Kenya’s dominant image of an “apocalypse”. In time the apocalypse and now the “utopia” spoke not of the place as it was; one simplified and flattened the place while the other elevated and embellished its complex socio-political and economic dynamics.

These interventions, if distilled down to their bare essentials, were asking, nay, forcing Northern Kenya to take up the duties and dynamics of a key player in the regional political economy without the necessary participation of its leaders and/or the consideration of its people’s needs.

The quixotic idea and process of transforming Northern Kenya into a developmental utopia happened with some level of internal conflict. The government and its agents tried to make these dreamy interventions important by downplaying the underlying issues. The technical nature of the project’s large ambition also further obscured any meaningful contributions from Northern Kenya’s leaders who spoke of land, employment, scholarships, corporate social responsibility and compensation. Sometimes, their voices were unanimous that there was no participation but in other instances the leaders spoke as people warming up to and fully acquiesced to the LAPSSET perks. They spoke in the inductive tone of “opportunity” of “potential”, and in those instances, pastoral nomadism as a lifestyle seemed a distant idea.

These inductive tones were forgotten and anger took its place, as was the case earlier this year at the Pastoralist Leadership Summit when the elected leaders resolved, amongst other things, to stop all land acquisition for LAPSSET until all community land is registered. They were a little too late. A gazette notice for LAPSSET’s land acquisition was already in circulation as they made their resolution.

An old anxiety

This developmental frenzy and its attendant worry reminds me of a past cautionary tale of Israelis wanting to buy the fertile soil around Mt. Marsabit. When I heard this in the early 2000s, I wondered why anyone would want to buy soil.

Then this rumour changed shape and became scarier. The Israelis would be given a 99-year lease to start farming in Northern Kenya. When we heard this, we were at once regaled and worried. Back then, I wondered how this mass resettlement will be undertaken, and kept asking myself where we shall all go.

But this story of Israelis, which could not be corroborated, was an inchoate articulation of a deeply ingrained fear in the psyche of the pastoralists in Kenya – that their land will be taken. An anxiety that was always within reach. Seen in history and in the present, from the 20,000 Maasais forcefully resettled twice from their ancestral land to pave way for colonial settlers in the early 20th century to the over 607 km² land acquired for the Lake Turkana wind power project, which sits on only 162 km² of the land acquired. From the oil blocks in Turkana, the mineral prospecting blocks across the North to the four military bases that sit on huge tracts of land in Isiolo and wildlife conservancies supported by well-funded NGOs, there was an encore of fear and anxieties that continue to give the Northerners sleepless nights.

LAPSSET amplified and gave currency to this old anxiety. The Errant Native movement that spoke of imperial demands and of deeply hatched plans was a deeper articulation of this old fear. The curious and distant anxiety of my childhood informed by rumours of Israelis was now an immediate fear. Land for LAPSSET, land for conservation, threats to rangelands, destroyed pasturelands. The ever-present anticipation of some kind of invasion was now turning depressive. This fear gave us enough reasons to believe that anyone who purported to improve or invest in our land was suspect. All this attention without giving the locals a chance to have their views heard was scarier than the promised joy of development “goodies”.

When viewed through Northern Kenya’s old image, the sound and conviction of its single-minded believers was heartening. LAPSSET, and its language of “new”, “development”, “opening up”, “opportunity”, “investors”, “markets”, and “mega infrastructure” felt like a dream come true.

LAPSSET’s initial steps and projects have revealed a wide gap between the intention and its consequences. The projects that came never compensated the communities whose land was acquired for its expansion, such as the airport in Isiolo that kicked out squatters living and farming in that area for the past 60 years. The manner in which land acquisition was being undertaken, the ugly site of extraction, the dust, the vibrations and blasts, the gaping holes in grazing lands, these consequences of development were unknown. Ridyukulass comedy turns to a question…Na hiyo ni maendeleo?  

Commitment beyond optics

Evidently, changes to whole regions like Northern Kenya come based on commitments. The problems in Northern Kenya are a result of negligence. Government interventions are almost always reactionary. Even the new capital being thrown into the region, as my friend puts it, is “superficial cosmetics” without any meaningful benefits to the people. It is called economic exploitation.

The pipeline from Lokichar drained the oil wells to the port at Lamu. The huge electric pillions traversed 400 kilometers of unelectrified lands to join the national grid at Suswa. Northern Kenya’s dissatisfactions and the only visible effort to try and reclaim and possibly reinvent the manner of the intervention has often been hijacked or met with serious rebuke. Turkana County Governor Josephat Nanok’s verbal exchange at a public function in Lodwar expressed his dissatisfaction with how the oil revenue was being manipulated. “We oppose the reduction of the [Lokichar oil] revenue percentage to be allocated to the county, which has been capped from trillions to 22 billion, and even the benefit to the community from 10% to 5% then capped to 3 billion, that’s my problem.” Nanok’s sentiments and request to Uhuru “to help us to oversee these resources and save it for the future…and if you help us do that, you will be listened to.”

The president’s reactions to Governor Nanok was illustrative of the tone that had put Northern Kenya where it had always been. “Mtu akisimama hapa aseme Uhuru ana haja na mafuta ya wengine…..ashindwe na …… shetani Mshenzi……….alafu mjinga anakuja kusema ni mimi nafanya mambo ya…..eh!   hiyo siwezi…” If someone stands up to say Uhuru has interest in other people’s oil…devil…uncouth…stupid person says I am doing…I can’t…

Insulting a respected leader in front of his own people by calling him “shetani” “mshenzi” and “mjinga” does not foster trust in the government. Moreover, Uhuru failed to understand that Nanok’s dissatisfaction was not mere apprehension; his words drew their credence from a collective discontent in Northern Kenya. But Nanok’s insistence for higher perks was in Uhuru’s indecorous riposte received as an atypical expectation; it went against the narrative of what the government expected from the Northerners. It was markedly different from the assurances that the government was giving to investors through LAPSSET.

More indignities are probably in the pipeline. The centre doesn’t respect these people who are now asking to be consulted. “Tuwaulize nyinyi kama nani?” is the tone of the government. This is Kenya.

Nanok’s request and the court case from the community at Sarima over the land acquisition for the Lake Turkana wind power project are demands for a certain type of visibility in Kenya. This fight for visibility is often expressed in bitter tones. The protracted legal battle is again indicative of how unrelated the projects are to people’s needs.

On the ground, the articulation on LAPSSET has taken the same tone of bitterness. What the communities in Northern Kenya want is simple recognition – that they are a people and anything to be done on their land has to be through them. It is a simple enough request; to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected and be duly compensated for any disruption in their livelihood.

Insulting a respected leader in front of his own people by calling him “shetani” “mshenzi” and “mjinga” does not foster trust in the government. Moreover, Uhuru failed to understand that Nanok’s dissatisfaction was not mere apprehension; his words drew their credence from a collective discontent in Northern Kenya.

The numerous cases presented at the National Environmental Tribunal (NET) speak of this need for participation. But the government’s attitude can be seen in the three-judge bench that recused itself from the ongoing case on the Lake Turkana land acquisition. The government is buying time but the people are patient, even as key witnesses are dying.

This agitation and the fight for land in Kenya is everywhere. The Maasai case in Laikipia, the MRC Pwani si Kenya campaigns and land agitations in the Rift Valley areas speak of a familiar Kenya. Parselelo Kantai, in his paper “In the grip of the vampire state”, says, “The Maasai campaign speaks of the State’s failure to institute a new constitutional order. It was born of a realisation that the State whether in its colonial or its postcolonial phase was not just unwilling to address the community’s grievances, but had an active interest in perpetuating them.”

Despair

I have been to forums on LAPSSET in which the overriding sentiments of the community reflect impatience, anxiety, fear and resignation. Protest against LAPSSET component projects is registered in one of these shades of despair. In a protest that had blocked road construction two years ago along the A2 road in Marsabit, an elder had spoken about how the Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale road had destroyed water pipes and denied his village members access roads to their residences, and about the excessive dust and noise at night. The village elder had told me that they had had seven meetings with the county commissioner and the district commissioner about the matter and that they were now very tired. He said, “We shall see if the government will put all of us in the same mortar and pound us.”

This same emotion is witnessed among squatter groups kicked out of the Isiolo airport. This despair is often articulated as the loss of traditional culture or heritage. Whenever I think about this despair, the image that comes to mind is that of a Maasai moran seated on a narrow path, his head bowed, his hope and pride gone, the carcasses of his dead cows strewn across the path, cows that were shot dead by the Kenyan police for “invading” private ranches.

This shooting of livestock was for a long time legal in Kenya. Before it was repealed in 1997, the Special District Act stated that “an administrative officer, police officer or tribal police officer in charge of a party or patrol may destroy or order the destruction of any cattle seized, detained or taken in charge by that party or patrol if, in the opinion of that officer, and after exercising all reasonable diligence for the safeguarding of the cattle, it would endanger the party or patrol, or any member thereof, to attempt to retain the cattle alive.”.

Who benefits?

The vision for LAPSSET comes from a specific place and history. Unless it confronts that history without wishing to turn it on “its head”, it will always be problematic. No matter how gorgeous the stories sound and how glamorous the pictures coming out of the North are, the fact remains that the primary beneficiaries of these “developments” are the elites in Nairobi. Marsabit, while sending 310MW of clean energy to Nairobi, uses diesel-powered and rationed electricity. There are all the hallmarks of exploitative development: oil from Lokichar, wind power from Marsabit, and an airport in Isiolo for miraa and meat exports.

A retired major in Isiolo, who I have had conversations with on land, the Northern Rangeland Trust’s conservancy model, and LAPSSET gets visibly angry with the idea of “opening up” the North for investors.“Who said the investors have to come from outside? Have we been taking care of these lands for others to now come in to take over without consulting us?”

This anger lies simmering just below the surface. Ideas about foreigners coming to “to play golf in our pasturelands” and of “our men becoming watchmen and cleaners in the big hotels” speak about bigger unaddressed questions. This vision of development was sold incoherently to the people.

I have been attending almost all the meetings on environmental impact assessment studies and seen how the LAPSSET vision and strategy were unfamiliar to the residents. The worries and anxieties about LAPSSET were couched in the language of despair and sometimes came out as threats. The answers the local communities received have been elusive. Questions about benefits accruing to the communities have not been adequately addressed. No one speaks about corporate social responsibility.

This anger lies simmering just below the surface. Ideas about foreigners coming to “to play golf in our pasturelands” and of “our men becoming watchmen and cleaners in the big hotels” speak about bigger unaddressed questions. This vision of development was sold incoherently to the people.

LAPSSET is an unfair construct. Its exploitative details and tendencies is structured in such a way that the communities affected won’t benefit and their expectations won’t be met. The multinational investors who arrive in this “investors’ paradise” know this very well and are known to throw a few millions shillings to the community as diversionary measures through highly publicised corporate social responsibility projects. The inchoate articulation couched in the request for “corporate social responsibility” calls for allies. Leaders, NGOs, the media, activists, policy makers and even academics need to move with the community into a more inclusive thought process, which is necessary for the conception of development of the North, a process that recognises and respects different socio-economic lifestyles.

Organised resistance

Past political resistance in Northern Kenya has been crushed by an overbearing centre and that experience continues to mark the relationship between the North and the central government. The trauma of the Shifta wars and of the Wagalla and other massacres is within living memory.

Even so, communities, when resisting this imposed development, speak about culture and heritage. But through writing complaint letters, public protests and filing their dissatisfaction with the heavy-handed manner and the back-handed dismissal of their concerns, an environment for an organised resistance is being cultivated.

Between Prof. Lonyangapuo saying, “Never ever make decisions while swinging in your armchair while seated in Nairobi” and the village elder in Marsabit invoking mortar and pestle as metaphors of state power, something needs to be registered.

That the government is investing in such mega infrastructure without a proper buy-in from the communities is a recipe for future disaster. Those investments are easy targets for expressing dissatisfaction with the government for the economic exploitation that is being undertaken in the name of development and of opening up. The fire next time is a matter of conjecture. All the elements are slowly falling into place. A time will come when the people will be angry and willing enough to face the mortar and pestle of state violence.

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The author is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya.

Politics

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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Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons
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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.


This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

 

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The Irrelevance of NGOs

NGOs have been notably absent in the fight against COVID-19, despite claims they exist solely to ensure accountability and transparency by government.

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The Irrelevance of NGOs
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Nothing has exposed neoliberalism as a hoax as intelligently and most strikingly as COVID-19 has done. (Though at the expense of millions infected and hundreds of thousands dead.) All over the world, people have come to depend almost exclusively on their national governments not only to stay safe against the deadly pandemic but also for economic survival. Against a painful history of relentless assaults on so-called “big government,” COVID-19 has grown the size of government bureaucracies and budgets in size to what was hardly imaginable only a few months ago.

This change has brought about another debate about the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Nowhere is this debate about NGOs more palpable than in my home country of Tanzania, where at the time of writing the East African nation had recorded a total of 480 confirmed coronavirus cases, 18 deaths and 167 recoveries. The situation here seems to be getting out of control as more fatalities continue to be reported, exacerbated by the increasing tendency of hospitals, especially in the country’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam, to reject patients suspected of having the coronavirus disease. Several people (see here and here) have reported having their relatives turned away by hospitals, after which some died. The government has been trying hard to underestimate the magnitude of the pandemic, including by underreporting the number of fatalities and doing night burials.

Nearly every action taken by national governments throughout the world in their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, and thus to save lives and communities, goes directly against the dictates of neoliberal fundamentalism. For a number of decades, advocates of this ideology would propose murderous cuts in public spending on critical sectors like health and education. In addition to the breakneck privatization of public services was the massive growth of NGOs whose missions varied widely; from those advocating for government accountability and democratic institutions to those championing girls’ rights, citizens’ agency, and countless others providing services.

This is no coincidence. The missionaries of neoliberal evangelism have been pushing for the social services provision role of governments to be replaced by NGOs and private individuals, arguing that this will ultimately improve service efficiency for governments. Perhaps there’s no stauncher proponent of that argument in Tanzania than former President Benjamin Mkapa—or at least until recently. It was under Mkapa’s administration that both privatization and NGO growth in the country took root. “Soon after assuming office, in November 1995,” said Mr Mkapa in his speech at the official launch of Tanzania National Business Council (TNBC) on April 9, 2001, quoted in “A Capitalizing City” by Dr. Chambi Chachage, “I realised the need to change the way the national economy is managed. This need was made more acute by the fact that our country was moving from a public sector led economy to a private sector driven market economy.” (Later, Mr. Mkapa would describe the privatization drive unleashed by his administration as the “worst mistake” of his presidency in his memoirs My Life, My Purpose.) In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, however, both NGOs and the private sector have been conspicuously absent on the frontlines where the war against the virus is being waged.

The role of NGOs in Tanzania has been made more interesting both by the Tanzanian government’s handling of the pandemic (which I discuss here), and NGOs’ responses (or lack thereof). So far, the responses of NGOs to the pandemic have been simply bewildering, opaque, and ambiguous. Part of this ambiguity, I think, is due to both the history of NGOs in Tanzania and the issues that they continue to remain deadly silent about. In this latter category is what seems to be an almost unanimous agreement among the NGOs, with very few exceptions, of forgoing what they claim to be their main mission, that is: to cultivate a culture of accountable governance as well as the building of strong democratic institutions in the country. This abandonment is disappointing and surprising at the same time, because during a crisis like the one we are in now, one would have expected that the NGOs, far from pretending as if they no longer exist, would double, or even triple, their efforts to force those in power to act more responsibly and deliver to their constituents.

But from the way things appear on the ground, it is as if the coronavirus disease has forced the NGOs to take some time off their work and give the government, whose handling of the pandemic has made Tanzania the laughing stock of the world, a free reign to act as it wishes. One area of concern is the way the government has entirely left people to fend for themselves amidst the crisis. In fact, instead of helping its people, the government’s asking the people to donate to it! The fact that no NGOs have so far called the government out means that the people have not just been abandoned by their government, but also by the organizations that claim to work on their behalf.

The NGOs have failed to condemn President John Magufuli’s statements and actions that threaten to put the lives of thousands at risk. These statements include the recent one he made during a televised address from his hometown of Chato, in the Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where the president has been “self-isolating” since the pandemic started. There he urged Tanzanians to consider inhaling steam from a boiling pot of water as a means to cure coronavirus, a suggestion medical doctors have nevertheless advised against. During the rare address, President Magufuli also dismissed the exercise to disinfect public spaces as “nonsense.” Earlier, President Magufuli took to Twitter to declare three days of national prayers “to help defeat coronavirus,” and his government even organized a national prayer to save Tanzania from the pandemic. All this had Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, concerned, according to journalist Geoffrey York who reported via Twitter. In another address, where Mr. Magufuli accused Tanzania’s lab technicians of conspiring with “imperialists” to sabotage the country by increasing the number of positive cases, something which led to the sacking of the national community health laboratory director Dr. Nyambura Moremi, the President said that his government would dispatch a plane to fetch the herbal treatment for the coronavirus touted by the president of Madagascar despite a warning from the WHO that a herbal tonic cannot cure the disease. (One observer of Tanzanian politics described the address as “totally reckless” and even called on people to boycott Magufuli’s subsequent addresses on the coronavirus pandemic lest they go bonkers.) Dangerous and irresponsible as these statements and measures seem, not a single NGO that works in the area of public health—and there is no shortage of them—uttered any public criticism of Magufuli.

Nor are the democratic-championing NGOs concerned by the government’s resolve to centralize the flow of information on coronavirus. No NGO, for example, has come out against the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority’s (TCRA) directive to members of WhatsApp groups to screenshot “fake information” posted in these groups and report it to authorities. No NGO seems bothered by the Tanzania Police Force’s irresponsible act to storm and interrupt a press conference by the main opposition party CHADEMA intended to give Tanzanians an alternative appraisal of the coronavirus situation from that given by the government. (The party was subsequently able to organize a press conference where its national chairperson Freeman Mbowe outlined twelve issues that he thought were fundamental in the fight against the pandemic.) The same silence on the part of the NGOs was noticeable after a cabinet minister suggested that people should consider using honey when responding to a spike in the price of sugar. (Following a backlash, however, the government later announced a cap on sugar prices.)

While everybody was busy examining their role in combating the coronavirus in the country, some of Tanzania’s “top-notch” NGOs were spotted presenting the government with a 79 million Tanzanian shillings check (about US$34,000) to help fight the virus. The NGOs did that while little or nothing at all was known in the general public of the government’s strategy or even how the money will be used.

I find the move disturbingly ironic, however, given the fact that this money was originally supposed to come directly from the donors to the government coffers but the “development partners” gave them to the NGOs because, as shown above, they are thought to be best placed to deal with social problems. It is also mind-boggling to find the NGOs donating to the government amidst a funding crisis that has hit NGOs across the continent. If the NGOs themselves are convinced that the Tanzanian government can deal with the COVID-19 crisis far better than they can to the extent of giving it money, what does it say of their ideological justification to exist? To their credit, since then a coalition of Tanzania’s NGOs released a position paper and “strategic areas” on COVID-19. In the paper, the NGOs confess to have been caught “unprepared” by the pandemic, something that hampered their ability to respond “promptly.”

A close friend of mine, who works in Tanzania’s NGO sector, thought it was a bad idea for me to go ahead with this piece, saying it was unfair to criticize the NGOs given the fact that I understand the political environment within which the organizations operate and the repression unleashed on them by the state. For a moment I thought this friend of mine was right because it’s true that they work in a tough environment. But then I thought: wasn’t this very attitude on the part of the NGOs to allow themselves to be pushed around by the government responsible for their own miseries, and ultimately, their failure to do what they were founded on?

This led me to revisit 2007, when acclaimed legal and development scholar Professor Issa Shivji published a book, Silences in the NGO Discourse, which served as advice on how Tanzania’s NGOs can remain accountable. He wrote then that if the NGOs are to live up to their missions, which include ensuring democratic reforms in the country, then their entire strategy of engagement with the state would have to change radically. For example, in place of stakeholder conferences, there should be protracted public debates, wrote Shivji. Where previously the NGOs used to dialogue with the state “in five-star hotels,” now there should be demonstrations, protest marches and teach-ins in streets and community centers to expose serious abuses of power and bad policies. “Democratic governance would be an arena where power is contested, not some moral dialogue or crusade for good against evil, as the meaningless term ‘good governance’ implies … You cannot dialogue with power,” the renowned author writes poignantly.

In the wake of the ongoing debate on the role and relevance of NGOs amidst a global pandemic, and the government’s ambiguous response, it appears that more than ten years since Shivji’s book, the country’s NGOs have not been able—or willing—to learn a lesson. Nor, telling from the way they behave amidst the current crisis, is there any indication that they will do so in the near future.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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