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Body Shaming in Prophet Owuor’s Misogynistic Ministry

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The policing and the objectification of women’s bodies must be understood within the context of not just a patriarchal Kenyan society, but also within a particular masculine brand of Christianity in which “Men of God” continue to perpetuate and espouse behaviour and theologies that are disadvantageous to girls and women.

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Body Shaming in Prophet Owuor’s Misogynistic Ministry
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While churches in the wealthy democracies are emptying or folding up, those in the global South – Africa, Latin America and the Oceania – are full to capacity. Similarly, Pentecostal and charismatic churches have mushroomed all over the African continent. Alongside the explosion of these spirit-filled churches, the so-called “Men of God” have become doubly influential, not just in the political sphere, but also in the socio-economic sphere, including in women’s and gender issues. Few of these churches are engaged in the gospel of social responsibility, such as building hospitals and schools (which the state has neglected); rather, the majority of these churches preach a life of spiritual abundance and prosperity.

These powerful men – and women – of God live a life of abundance and opulence, even as their many followers wallow in abject poverty. Many of these church leaders, who come with many fancy titles, such, as overseers pastors, prophets, and more recently, “God’s generals”, and “the oracles of God”, are benignly referred to as “Men of God”. They are immensely powerful politically and have perfected the art of preaching about prosperity, otherwise known as the health and wealth gospel. Their preaching and teachings have wide reach that is not limited only to Sunday mornings and mid-week services; their sermons are often broadcast live on national TV and radio to hundreds of thousands of people.

To supplement the TV and radio broadcasts, they also package audio tapes and books – many of them ghost-written – alongside other imported spiritual books, church magazines, websites and social media pages that equally reach a wide range of audiences beyond their congregations. The bulk of their sermons are uploaded on YouTube.

Pentecostal churches on the African continent are male-dominated institutions, especially in leadership, even though thousands of women and youth fill their pews or tents every Sunday.

Self-proclaimed Prophet David Ujiji Owuor frequently holds humungous crusades that attract thousands of people. His sermons and healing crusades are often streamed live on TV and uploaded on YouTube. In his thousands of churches (also called “altars” to distinguish them from ordinary churches), not much preaching takes place. Owuor, like many “Men of God”, talks about a patriarchal and masculine God.

My research on the gendered discourses of Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity shows how these Men of God promote a particular brand of “Masculinity Christianity” couched in African and Christian patriarchal forms of dominance. Here, I adopt Akosua Adomako Ampofo’s understandings of masculinity, which refers to a cluster of norms, values and behaviour patterns expressing explicit expectations of how men should act and represent themselves to others.

In his thousands of churches (also called “altars” to distinguish them from ordinary churches), not much preaching takes place. Owuor, like many “Men of God”, talks about a patriarchal and masculine God.

And while some types of masculine brands espoused by the Men of God encourage a sort of “soft masculinity” (behavior that can be beneficial to women, such as eschewing violence, advocating monogamy and love and care for the family), many also preach that women are the weaker sex both emotionally and intellectually. As Akosua Ampofo aptly points out when referring to Ghanaian Pentecostal and charismatic churches, “many sometimes emphasise women’s limitations, leading to a devaluing of women, re-inscribing male domination and undermining female autonomy”. Though there are female-founded and female-led Pentecostal and charismatic churches in Kenya, the majority of these outfits are led by men and the dominant voices on the religious sphere are male. Their prominent focus and value judgments are, however, directed at female bodies.

They are also increasingly portraying themselves as experts, not just on spiritual matters, but also on women’s and gender issues, including female sexuality, advising women and youth on how to deal with their intimate and sexual lives, for instance. Their teachings and theologies are not just troubling but are also sexist. Yet, these so-called Men of God remain highly influential voices on gender issues.

The good wife

These preachers have carved a niche for themselves as the go-to specialists for people seeking to improve and renew their relationships, hence reconstructing sexual and intimate citizenships, gender, sexuality and women’s reproductive health rights. In fact, many of their pulpits, which attract thousands of female followers, are spaces where women’s and gender issues are constructed/deconstructed and assigned new meaning.

In many of these churches, a monogamous marriage is portrayed as the ideal achievement that every woman and girl must aspire to. It is a privilege to get married, women and girls are taught. In one sermon at a Pentecostal church in Nakuru and attended by this researcher, the pastor said to an ecstatic crowd:

It doesn’t matter how beautiful you are, how educated you are, how big your boobs and backside are! If you are not married, if no man has seen you, you are going to stay single and miserable for the rest of your life. And it’s not funny being an old spinster! Just ask that bunch of old unmarried women in your neighbourhood! The Bible says, he who finds a wife finds a good thing! Sister, don’t be influenced by these crazy feminists who hate men! Without the love of a man, you will grow old and die a miserable spinster! And for those who are married, please understand that you are highly favoured of God. Take care of that man! Please remember that there are more women than men in Kenya according to the latest census.”

The pastor then mocked young girls who did not know how to cook ugali, a popular staple food in East Africa and beyond.

If you are here and you can only cook spaghetti, shame on you! Your husbands will return you back to your mother to teach you how to cook and look after a man! Don’t feed your husband with rubbish. Sister, go back and learn how to cook proper food from your mum. And when you have learned how to cook, also learn to how to serve him like a king! Treat him well otherwise you will lose him to someone who can cook and treat him better! Am I talking to somebody here? Please shout halleluiah!

Such messages are replicated in many Pentecostal churches where I have carried out research, as well as in public and private discourses. These messages reinforce women’s position in society as subordinate domestic workers. In many Christian churches, marital violence is considered un-Christian behaviour yet scores of women I spoke with told me that they have endured violence and were badly treated by their Christian spouses. One woman told me that her being “saved” or “born again” has not insulated her from intimate partner violence, which has reached alarming proportions in Kenya and globally, according to recent data from the United Nations, which suggests that the home is emerging as the most dangerous place for women and girls.

Yet, such religious messages can further reinforce violence against women. In his book, Till Death Do Us Part, Bishop Charles Agyin-Asare, the founder of one of Ghana’s mega churches, had this to say about abuse in marriage:

You are not the first woman to be beaten by your husband and you will not be the last…Rise up with the word of God and use your spiritual weapons…Keep going to church, listen to tapes, pray, notice the blessings around you, and keep your vows.”

Many pastors in Pentecostal churches preach that God hates divorce. They encourage women who seek advice about what to do when they experience domestic violence to keep praying and keep waiting for God to change the man. Some women I interviewed told me that their pastors advised them to change and become good wives – a message that suggests that women are abused by their spouses because they are not behaving like good wives.

This idea is embedded in Proverbs 31 Woman, a biblical verse that embodies the qualities expected of every good Christian woman/wife. A lot of discourse on Proverbs 31 focuses on marriage, and preparing women to be good wives, good mothers, and pure girls. The Proverbs 31 woman rises early to fend for and feed her family. Such teachings and discourses on women’s domestic roles are repeatedly replicated in many church pulpits, suggesting that women have no value outside of marriage and family life. And they also have no value within it beyond providing domestic services.

Kenyan women, like all other women in Africa and in other parts of the developing world, carry incredible responsibilities for keeping their marriages and families intact, even if it means sacrificing their own personal well-being and safety. Scores of women I interviewed appeared to have internalised the teachings of these churches and many blamed themselves for the violence they endured in their homes.

Sexual sin and the purity culture

However, it is the sexualised view of women’s bodies and the purity culture espoused by Prophet David Owuor and his Ministry of Repentance and Holiness (MRH) that I find most disturbing. Prophet Owuor, whose key messages are centred around repentance and holiness, as reflected in his ministry’s name, seems to be mainly concerned about sexual purity, morality and immorality. These teachings occupy much of the teachings in MRH, which border on obsession. Prophet Owour squarely places women’s bodies at the centre of an erotic economy.

The sexual purity gospel espoused by Owuor is akin to the evangelical purity culture popularised in evangelical circles in the USA in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. In this purity culture, men and boys are viewed as sexually weak and women and girls are seen as the upholders of sexual purity. Women are also responsible if men fail to observe sexual purity and for the sexual thoughts and feelings of boys and grown men. Followers are taught that men and boys are visually-oriented and are thus easily aroused by the site of women’s flesh. Women must, therefore, keep male sexual desires in check by covering up lest they provoke men who can’t control their sexual urges. For the same reasons, Owour has prescribed a dress code for his female followers that explicitly forbids the wearing of sleeveless tops, hemlines at or above the knee, slit skirts that expose the knees and thighs, open shoes, bare legs and make up. In his church, women dress in heavy curtain-like materials that flow from the neck to the tips of the toes. Every part of the women’s bodies is covered except for the face.

These messages reinforce women’s position in society as subordinate domestic workers. In many Christian churches, marital violence is considered un-Christian behaviour yet scores of women I spoke with told me that they have endured violence and were badly treated by their Christian spouses.

Women are further urged to adopt certain mannerisms and practices that are deemed appropriate for a religious holy life. Speaking about women’s bodies and dressing, Owuor often quotes biblical verses, such as Hebrews 12:14: “Make efforts to be holy, for without holiness, no one will see the Lord!”, and 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”

Applying these verses to his female followers while speaking at a prayer rally, Owuor said: “When you cover your body, you are saying: I respect and honour my body which is the temple of the Lord. So make sure you do not defile the house of the Holy Spirit by dressing indecently.”

In a series of sermons titled “Purity in the Church and How God Looks at Sexual Sin”, as well as in numerous interviews with his followers and non-followers, Owuor frequently depicts women as prostitutes and temptresses, and as the chief cause of “men’s sexual sins” and “lack of sexual control”. He often evokes biblical narrative and paraphrases, some like the book of Proverbs, Chapter 6: 24-26: “Keep yourself away from the immoral woman and from the smooth tongue of the wayward wife. Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes. For the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread and the adulteress preys upon your very life.”

According to Owuor, “The Bible says that based on the way a woman is dressed, she can be called a prostitute.” (There is no such verse in the Bible.) “This is how God looks at sexual sin,” he adds. “Look, men are affected by what they see. Some women dress to get the attention of the pastor.”

Followers are taught that men and boys are visually-oriented and are thus easily aroused by the site of women’s flesh. Women must, therefore, keep male sexual desires in check by covering up lest they provoke men who can’t control their sexual urges.

Owuor’s preaching makes fluent transitions from biblical texts to the contemporary context and back again, reinforcing negative images of women as adulterers and prostitutes and as dangerous and potentially fatal sources of temptation. I have even heard prophet Owour telling women not to use good old Vaseline on their bodies. (This is preposterous. Vaseline is a popular balm for cracked lips and is also used to moisturise legs and hands.)

The purity culture espoused by Owuor is about how a woman needs to be a good Christian by protecting men from the threat of women. This message suggests that women’s bodies and sexuality are a threat to Christendom and men. Therefore, it is women’s and girls’ responsibilitiy to dress right, and in an acceptable manner. They must also sit right, talk right and not reveal themselves so as not to tempt men. If they don’t, then they risk being called prostitutes and impure harlots. Women are responsible not only for their own sexual purity, but that of men too. As such, gender and sexuality are deeply intertwined in MRH.

In MRH, women’s bodies are depicted as locus of impurity, lust, sin, and temptation. The burden of proof of holiness appears to lie primarily with women. Of course, from a gender or feminist perspective, it is easy to see in MRH’s teachings the workings of patriarchy, with women’s bodies being made sites of surveillance, regulation, control, and power. Indeed, Owuor’s project of moral regeneration echoes wider patterns in colonial and post-colonial Africa, in which women’s bodies, in particular, have become symbolic sites of contestation over authenticity, decency and purity. As South African feminist scholar Desiree Lewis points out: “The centrality of patriarchy in the control of women’s bodies is evident in the policing of women’s gender roles in many African countries requires a highly visible and explicit performance of prescribed gendered behaviour.” Owour’s sermons on women bodies are not just disturbing but they are also sexist and aim to control women’s intimate lives.

Ironically, Prophet Owuor’s ministry has been embroiled in sex scandals. Even his personal life has been the subject of controversy, including rape and domestic violence allegations against him raised in the United States. On his own admission, he has also fathered a child in Israel and abandoned both the mother and son in unclear circumstances.

Recently, one of his close associates was expelled from his ministry and the altar was burned down because he sexually molested three female followers who he used to invite to his house for “prayer and anointing with oil”. Apparently, he did more than just “anoint” the women. Three of these women gave harrowing testimonies of sexual abuse at the hands of a pastor of a church where the majority of sermons are about sexual sin.

These insidious pastors preach a dangerous and sexualized view of women’s bodies, as if women do not exist outside of their reproductive roles. In many of his rambling sermons that are also uploaded on YouTube, Prophet Owuor promotes an extreme form of purity culture and sexualisation of women bodies that is ultimately harmful to women and girls. According to Galia Sabar, a distinguished Professor of African Studies and the President of the Ruppin Academy Centre in Tel Aviv, Israel, Prophet Owour’s sexualised view of women’s bodies might have been influenced by an extreme form of ultra-Jewish orthodoxy in Israel that polices and requires women to keep off from everything and anything when menstruating, including being checked by an old woman to determine if there are any blood stains in their vaginas after menstruation. Only when it is determined that they are no longer menstruating are they allowed to touch anything and get intimate with their spouses.

Owuor’s preaching makes fluent transitions from biblical texts to the contemporary context and back again, reinforcing negative images of women as adulterers and prostitutes and as dangerous and potentially fatal sources of temptation. I have even heard prophet Owour telling women not to use good old Vaseline on their bodies.

This influence is not far-fetched considering that Owour spent a considerable amount of time in Israel for his post-graduate studies and by his own admission nearly converted to Judaism and had a child with a Jewish woman. Influences of Judaism are evident in his ministry: he obsesses about kosher food and the state of Israel.

Like Catherine Woodiwiis, who grapples with many questions in her article, “In the Image of God: Sex, Power and ‘Masculine Christianity”, I also ask myself many questions around these teachings. Why are women so devalued in Kenyan society? Why do women subject themselves to this kind of control? How can young men learn to respect women when their popular and influential pastors consistently preach about women as the weaker sex whose value is only reproductive and domestic? How can boys and girls think positively about female leadership when women are said to be unfit to lead a church or preach in public? How can young men support women’s aspirations to serve in public offices when they have been bombarded with messages of women’s place as being in the kitchen? How can young men learn not to abuse women when they are simultaneously modelled on the behaviour that leads to it? How can young men become leaders of integrity when the likes of Nganga and Owour are celebrities? Why have women, both young and old, internalised and normalised abuse not just in the home sphere but also in church spheres? Do Christian clergy even rethink their sermons and the impact that their teachings have on women? More fundamentally, is the notion of women’s bodies, religious authority and how the so-called “Men of God” control, regulate, construct, and deconstruct women’s bodies being challenged?

Body shaming

In many Pentecostal and charismatic churches in Africa, the female body is portrayed as the site of demonic attacks, immorality, sexual sin, tension and violations and one that is trapped in secrecy and shame. It is a locus for sexual sin, impurity and uncleanliness. The purity culture advocated by Owour not only body shames women but is unhelpful and damaging in a country where gender-based violence is rampant. The purity culture does not celebrate women as human beings who are deserving of dignity, respect, protection, love and care. The church and the purity culture dictate how a woman ought to be. Yet, the policing and the objectification of women’s bodies must be understood within the context of not just a patriarchal Kenyan society, but also within a particular masculine brand of Christianity in which “Men of God” continue to perpetuate and espouse behaviour and theologies that are disadvantageous to girls and women.

The purity culture shames women and in countries like the US, it has fuelled an exodus of young women from evangelical churches. It aims to sexually control women’s bodies and creates deep and long-lasting shame among women who internalise such teachings. Many young women (university students) I interviewed who left Pentecostal churches have narrated to me how the purity culture has created deep shame in how they view their bodies and has made them suffer sexual anxieties in their current relationships. Linda Kay, author of Pure: Inside the Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, shows how damaging this purity culture is for women and young girls. It is paramount that the clergy rethinks the impact of such toxic theologies, even as they seek to reconstruct society and hopefully help create a better country in which women are respected not shamed.

Recently, one of his close associates was expelled from his ministry and the altar was burned down because he sexually molested three female followers who he used to invite to his house for “prayer and anointing with oil”. Apparently, he did more than just “anoint” the women.

After all, sex is not the biggest sin in Kenya. The country is riddled with massive corruption, poor governance, greed, poisonous food, poverty, food insecurity, and poor social services. In a country where women experience tremendous discrimination and violence, I have never heard Owuor condemn any form of violence against women, including forced prostitution of women, sex trafficking or even sex tourism. Neither have I heard him speak up against any social injustices rampant in Kenyan society that deny women their humanity and justice.

Often Kenyan women and girls have been publicly stripped, even sexually abused, because they wore tight jeans/skirts, dresses. And a section of the public has justified this by saying that the women asked for it because they were skimpily dressed. Yet my experience working with women who have suffered years of sexual abuse and violence suggests that dressing is not the cause of sexual and gender-based violence. In fact, it is a lazy and weak explanation that is not backed by any scientific evidence but has however been used to justify violence against women. This is unacceptable especially in a country where one out of every three women has experienced sexual and gender-based violence. Sexual and gender-based violence is about fear of losing control. More importantly, it is about power.

It is also a symptom of a crisis of masculinity and social and religious control of women. Thankfully, the ongoing global media coverage of clerical abuse of children and nuns in the Catholic church has helped to shift the narrative to the perpetrators.

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The author is a lecturer and researcher in Religion and Gender Studies.

Politics

The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration

The responses to the information disorder adopted in Kenya have been largely ineffective. Multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively stand a higher chance of success and will result in a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.

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The information disorder (i.e., mis- and disinformation) pervasive on social media has arguably interfered with democratic processes across the world. As public authorities and political actors continue to embrace social media as a broadcast and civic engagement tool, the potency of manipulated narratives online is further entrenched. This is debatably truer in electoral contexts where issues are perhaps more emotive and divisive. For example, in the run-up to Kenya’s general elections, a notable amount of mis- and disinformation on social media was observable. As Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal noted, doctored images of crowds during political rallies, mild deepfake videos, doctored photos, and fake accounts passing off as political actors or mainstream media were just some of the categories of mis- and disinformation observable on social media. These observations tie in with earlier research by Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo, highlighting the practice of using bloggers for disinformation campaigns. During the actual elections, the EU Election Observer Mission also observed “manufactured amplification and coordination of messages online by fake accounts and malicious, bot-driven activity in support of the presidential candidates”.

The impact of the information disorder on democracies has been extensively discussed and will not be the subject of this article. Instead, this article focuses on the diverse responses which have been mooted and implemented in Kenya by policy makers, media, civil society, and social media platforms in response to the information disorder. In particular, this article argues that these responses are largely ineffective when used in isolation and suggests that collectives comprised of a broad range of multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively are likely to have a higher chance at success. One such collective, Fumbua, was established in the run-up to the 2022 general elections in Kenya, and this article argues that the frameworks for collaboration it established can be repurposed to address the information disorder in numerous contexts.

Contextualizing the information disorder on social media

The proliferation of mis- and disinformation on social media is made easier by the fact that such platforms, by nature, enable peer-to-peer engagement with little to no gatekeeping. While this characteristic has also meant that these platforms have served to create room for civic engagement and act as an equalizer, such civic engagement is often undermined by the harmful content that is prevalent. In recognition of the potential for harm their platforms pose to democratic processes, numerous social media platforms have adopted policies and tools specifically designed to address election-related mis-and disinformation. Comparatively, the content moderation tools applied in the Global South have arguably been scant. For example, in Brazil, the individuals tasked with enforcing Twitter’s policies during the presidential election only got access to the necessary internal tools a day prior to the election, and only in a limited capacity. Twitter allegedly utilized automatic enforcement technology and third-party service providers. According to numerous commentators, it is not uncommon for content moderation efforts in the Global South to be below par. From automatic enforcement tools trained on datasets lacking in local context, to human content moderators facing the same challenge, these platforms’ efforts to curb the information disorder are handicapped from the outset. These challenges are exacerbated in electoral contexts. Recent developments have shown that it sometimes takes third parties such as researchers or civil society pointing out harmful content for platforms to act.

It is generally agreed that mis-and disinformation was prevalent on social media during Kenya’s August 2022 general election. For example, the EU Election Observer Mission indicated in its report that it had identified hundreds of misleading Facebook and Twitter profiles. Platforms triggered their civic integrity policies a few weeks prior to the election and set up information centres and moderately labelled misleading content. However, these labels were not consistently applied and were in fact only deployed during the election tallying process. Stakeholders seemingly lacked a clear solution to address the information disorder on social media. The lack of sustainable and scalable solutions is not unique to Kenya and the region. It is certainly a global problem and a key step in the right direction is securing more transparency from platforms in relation to their enforcement processes as this will enable stakeholders to co-create solutions. However, in the interim, the information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed. One way to accomplish this is through multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua.

Addressing the information disorder

Fumbua is a collective of media and media-related organisations which came together in the run-up of the 2022 general election with a view to addressing the information disorder as it relates to political campaigning. The efforts to address the information disorder in Kenya’s 2022 general election can largely be categorized into actions taken in anticipation of the mis- and disinformation (pre-emptive measures) and actions taken in response to the information disorder (reactive measures). Fumbua brought together organisations involved in both areas, such as fact checkers, “pre-bunkers” and traditional media. Both these reactive and pre-emptive measures are discussed below.

The information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed.

Mis- and disinformation has reportedly featured in Kenyan elections since 2013. Consequently, with each passing cycle, stakeholders have been able to understand its nature and develop solutions which are alive to Kenya’s specific context. Unfortunately, due to the rapidly evolving nature of mis- and disinformation practices, the solutions developed have often been reactive in that they seek to get rid of such harmful content or undo its effects after the fact. For example, by criminalizing false content through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, by fact checking such content, by using labels to warn audiences of the nature of the content, and by obtaining the takedown of such content from social media sites.

Fact checking has perhaps been the most prevalent or visible response to the information disorder. It essentially entails systematically breaking down the validity of claims made by public officials, institutions, and political actors with a view to identifying whether the claim is factual or not. In Kenya’s elections, various fact-checkers were active. These included independent media, the fact-checking desks of mainstream media, and collectives or associations. To name a few, Africa Check, Africa Uncensored, Pesa Check, Media Council of Kenya, Kenya Editors Guild and The Star were involved in fact-checking claims made during the Kenyan elections. While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder, especially when empirical evidence on the subject is divided. In highly politicized environments, it is unlikely that being exposed to verification of claims will affect an audience’s world view. This is more so the case where the objectivity and impartiality of the fact-checkers are in question. Fact-checkers often must compete with an audience’s confirmation bias and their credibility is often questioned due to the conflict their narrative poses to the world view of some audiences. This is not made easier by the fact that fact-checking is a difficult, time-consuming, and labour-intensive process which cannot compete with the speed at which false information is spread through social media. Add in the fact that false information more easily captures attention due to its ability to trigger negative emotions and one can understand why the utility and efficacy of fact-checking is limited. Fact-checking claims made through social media have also been especially difficult in Kenya due to the minimal and often performative support given to fact-checkers by social media platforms.

For fact-checking to be effective, it must offer an alternative narrative to that which it is disputing. The challenge is that such a narrative must exist in the first place and must be capable of being accepted by an audience. Where such a narrative exists, there is a risk that it may come with “political baggage” and as such be difficult to accept. In such cases, the efficacy of fact-checking is limited, and this is essentially the challenge faced by fact-checkers – purveyors of false information are not bound by the same rules. Despite all this, fact-checking has been found to positively affect audience beliefs notwithstanding pre-existing beliefs and whether an alternative narrative was presented. However, these credentials are limited as the effects on belief are weak and gradually becoming negligible. Additionally, they do not always translate to downstream effects (i.e., changing of votes).

For a long time, stakeholders seeking to curb the information disorder have found themselves on the back-foot, always responding after the fact. By the time interventions such as fact-checks, social media takedowns, and flags are deployed, harmful content has likely taken root. With this in mind, some pre-emptive solutions have been contemplated and used by stakeholders. These are discussed below.

While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder.

As discussed earlier in this article, fact-checkers often face the challenge of having to overcome an audience’s inherent biases and the political baggage accompanying the alternative narratives they seek to put forth. In seeking to overcome this reactionary approach, Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden argue that it may be more effective to inoculate audiences against harmful content by priming their minds to anticipate it. This has come to be referred to as prebunking, and it essentially entails exposing audiences to watered down versions of false or misleading content with a view to highlighting the tactics used by purveyors of such content. Prebunking efforts recognize that the information disorder may not necessarily be solved by disseminating more accurate information given that harmful content is often consumed in highly politicized contexts. Instead, these efforts seek to redesign information architecture through behavioural interventions (i.e., changing how audiences consume information). In Kenya, Stop Reflect Verify was the first publicly documented election-related prebunking program. It offered a misinformation quiz focused on the Kenyan elections.

While prebunking seemingly promises to reduce the reactionary nature of stakeholder efforts, there is insufficient proof that skills learned in prebunking programmes are applied in practical situations. Counterfactual thinking may be a useful strategy to incorporate into prebunking efforts. Counterfactual thinking involves stimulating an audience’s mind to consider alternative facts and hypotheses when presented with information in a bid to logically deduce the likely truth. The lack of consensus on the utility and efficacy of prebunking as an alternative to fact-checking points to the need for the deployment of multiple interventions in a coordinated fashion, and this is where multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua come in.

Building in sustainability 

Periodically, civil society, media practitioners, and the donor community focus their efforts on election-related programmes in a collaborative manner (for example the media’s collaboration during presidential debates). In most cases, the collaboration does not survive the post-election period. As a result, these election stakeholders have to start anew during each election. A considerable amount of time and resources are dedicated to establishing the frameworks for collaboration, taking away from the potential impact these programmes may have. With collectives such as Fumbua, stakeholders are able to repurpose the goodwill that fostered collaboration during elections to continue to address the information disorder in other contexts. By sustaining the collaboration, stakeholders would be able to leverage on incremental gains and make a more impactful change. In relation to the information disorder, they would be better able to move towards how media is generated and consumed. The effect of this would be a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.

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Politics

The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy

Crisis is the new constant and advocacy efforts should seek ways of growing public awareness through civic education.

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Are East African countries ready to face the next crisis or are they simply keen to go back to how things were? What does a new normal mean when speaking about public finance management (PFM)?

In continuing the struggle for structural transformation, economic justice efforts must work towards developing a new citizen and preparing for unpredictable or unforeseen events, more so those with extreme socio-economic and political consequences.

This is because, besides known challenges posed by existing inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out how “unusual circumstances such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes, disease outbreaks and warfare … depress the ability of citizens to engage in economic activity and pay taxes as well as that of governments [capacity] to collect revenue [or] provide services”.

Such circumstances therefore demand more inclusion of human rights-based approaches in economic justice efforts to champion greater fairness within existing financial architecture.

Disasters should, therefore, not obliterate human rights but should heighten the need to respect, protection, and fulfilment of obligations through prioritizing expenditure on service delivery, as well as all elements of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) to “boost the capacity of residents to withstand shocks” by improving coping mechanisms.

Promotion of fair taxes among other broader economic justice initiatives within PFM should consequently adapt towards championing ESCRS within the context of more disruptive and unexpected incidents. Crisis is constant in the new normal.

Fiscal democracy and civil protection: Recovery, resilience, and transformation

Currently, conversations on recovery are focused on tackling reduced tax collection; slowed growth; depressed formal or informal productivity; exploding unemployment; diminished remittances; persistent poverty; decline in energy access; and escalating food insecurity.

This emphasis seeks to reverse the effects of various lockdown policies that placed restrictions on businesses, mobility, movement within and across international borders, [plus] public gatherings. However, it speaks mostly of a desire to return to pre-COVID levels of economic activity while vital systems in tackling the next crisis such as water, education, or health remain unaddressed.

Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda. This will then speak to the resilience, and transformation needed to ensure PFM works for Africans in good times or bad.

Understanding fiscal democracy takes the form of better prioritization, response to problems, and improved sanctions for mistakes in the revenue cycle.

Advocacy for increased domestic opportunities, promotion of childhood development, enhanced socio-economic mobility, support for workers, motivation of local entrepreneurship, diversification of public infrastructure from mega projects, as well as increased innovation through subsidized research and development should be at the heart of economic justice efforts.

Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda.

Civil protection gives a new framework of planning by envisioning contexts or processes in which a series of unfortunate events can emerge, thus providing adequate responses without breaking the social contract.

Transformation therefore occurs when both go hand in hand so that public facilities are not overstretched in the event of crisis. Hence, in looking at the impact of Covid-19, across the East Africa region, we must ask ourselves: How transformative are the current recovery efforts underway? Will they offer a new resilience?

The salvage job: Economic sustainability through reliefs, guarantees, subsidies, and funds

Responses have clearly been driven by the urgency to overcome the pandemic and the need to forestall outright disaster or collapse. The “short-term rescue mode” has seen efforts to ensure vaccine access and bolstering of public health systems.

On the economic front governments “Have sought debt relief, implemented corporate tax deferrals plus exemptions, made direct citizen transfers and interest rate adjustments. [They have also] implemented guarantees and subsidies, liquidity support and food relief … [with] examples of support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Cash transfers and other safety nets for poor and vulnerable populations are critical for an integrated … response. While not transformational, they are building blocks for a basic level of resilience to external shocks.”

The fact that these efforts are not transformational must motivate the infusion of a justice quotient in recovery efforts. This will enable a movement beyond an emergency-oriented recovery that recognizes existing modern challenges such as climate change, population growth, scarce resources, man-made or natural calamities.

In the case of tax justice, to make the linkages that will establish economic sustainability in East Africa, it is important to understand the effect of recovery efforts in relation to public debt; the tax burden on individuals or households; illicit financial flows; harmful tax practices; economic growth; and resource distribution.

Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities. Concerns were looming over the fact that 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan African countries were in or at high risk of debt distress. Between 2010 and 2018, public debt in East Africa grew rapidly as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – National Debt to GDP Ratio

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

In this time, East African Community (EAC) governments failed to mobilize sufficient revenue despite an overall increase in taxes. The situation was therefore exacerbated by COVID-19, the consequence being that these countries are now stuck in a situation where they must tax more to bridge revenue gaps.

Basically this, first and foremost, creates a context of unfair tax policies in the region that burden their respective citizens, does not enhance service delivery, and is exclusionary in how debt repayment strategies are developed.

Lack of open debate about a country’s fiscal priorities within the existing PFM system neglects the needs of youth who constitute the majority of the population among other segments of society, curtails ideas on how to increase resources needed to provide for new economic opportunity(ies) and respond to the next emergency.

Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities.

Secondly, an environment or ecosystem of illicit financial flows (IFFs) that constitutes the formation of International Financial Centres (IFCs) in Kigali and Nairobi plus the signing of numerous Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) continues to perpetuate itself thereby providing loopholes within the tax architecture that undermine efforts at domestic revenue mobilization (DRM) because the monies going out of countries are so massive, outweighing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).

This is thanks to “Constitutionalism [among other legal questions] plus demands to implement new public finance management principles, growth in trade and services across countries in the region or with other countries across the globe, and discovery of natural resources requiring more inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI).”

On average IFFs accounts form 6.1 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) thereby impeding economic development and sustainability. For instance, since 2011, Kenya is estimated to lose KSh40 billion annually “as government, local firms and multinationals engage in fraudulent schemes to avoid tax payments”. As of 2021, The State of Tax Justice Report indicates this has grown to an estimated KSh69 billion annually at current exchange rates.

Third, growing account deficits and rising external debt are heavily limiting to economic growth. Increased spending on debt repayment is restricting prioritization on essential public goods and services while borrowing remains one of the key sources of budget financing.

In as much as Kenya cancelled its recent pursuit of another Eurobond, the about-turn towards borrowing domestically following a surge in yields within international markets because of the Russia-Ukraine war is still going to punish the country’s citizens by squeezing them out of access to credit.

Lastly, the debt burden is disempowering the citizen. Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable. This is further worsened by limited access to information on debt or public spending. Moreover, there is weak oversight by parliaments as executives take full control of processes.

Policy-making processes during cascading crises: Fiscal Consolidation, Special Drawing Rights, and Open Government

By understanding that crisis is constant, and that it is likely to manifest as confluence events — merging risks of mitigatable disaster(s) — or major confluence events, that is, the combination of potentially unmitigated risk(s) at any one point in time, how does policy making at such a time help to prepare for the emergency next time?

For example, what does Kenya’s fiscal consolidation programme — which comprises of reforms to improve oversight, monitoring, and governance of state-owned enterprises; improved transparency of fiscal reporting; and comprehensive information of public tenders awarded including beneficial ownership information of awarded entities — have to do with preparing for the next series of cascading crises?

Several emergency relief funds have been established to address the impact of COVID-19, such as the Rapid Credit Facility, the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, and the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).

However, these efforts are not likely to unlock the existing “trilemma” of solving the health plus economic crisis and meeting development targets while dealing with a tightening fiscal space. This is because they are stuck in the present circumstances with no consciousness of how much the challenge is likely to prevail into the future.

East African Community governments, in this time, failed to mobilize sufficient revenue, despite an overall increase in taxes.

Adopting fiscal democracy not only provides a new agenda determining organizing principles, but it has the potential for establishing a new citizenship through further entrenchment of human rights-based approaches in economic justice, and commitment to open government principles.

It will also anticipate and prevent the disaster capitalism witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many African countries seem to be in a constant state of crisis, thus allowing for IFFs through PFM malfeasance that locks corruption and fraud into procurement through bid rigging or collusion.

Principals of public participation, demands for accountability, championing non-discrimination, advocacy for empowering programing, and legitimacy through the rule of law should set standards on beneficial ownership while open contracting, open data for development, legislative openness, improving service delivery, access to information, and access to justice will help build resilience in government.

A call to civic education: Revenue rights and obligations

Somewhere along the way, capacity building and training programming took prominence over civic education. Advocacy efforts should look for ways to bring back more popular public awareness. Denial of resources for these kinds of activities has been a major blow for PFM advocacy among other activist efforts.

Civic education will re-establish links between individual claims to service delivery and assigned duties in the fulfilment of public demands. Citizens will be able to identify how the problem manifests and engage on the immediate, underlying or root causes of an issue.

Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable.

It will also allow them to establish the patterns of relationships which may result in the non-fulfilment of rights or absconding of obligations. This will enable them to assign appropriate responsibility by identifying the relevant authorities. It will keep an eye on resources through participating in decision making.

Governments and political leadership should therefore work to improve their communication capabilities in engaging the public so that once this new citizenry is involved, they can work together to achieve representative priorities for action.

This article is based on a presentation and comments made at the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Debt Conference, Towards strengthening accountability and transparency around public debt management and the use of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in Eastern and Southern Africa, 20–21 June 2022, Nairobi, Kenya.

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‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’

Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.

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‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
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Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.

Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.

The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.

Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.

On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.

Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.

Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.

This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.

Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.

It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.

At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.

A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.

More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.

Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.

Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.

This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.

Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?

***

The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.

Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.

“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.

A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.

At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.

Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.

None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.

***

The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.

My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.

Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.

In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.

Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.

Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.

A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.

***

As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?

None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.

To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?

Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.

For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.

Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).

What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.

Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.

In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.

Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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