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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

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

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

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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

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

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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