The much anticipated ruling of Malawi’s Constitutional Court was somberly delivered to an anxious, tense, and polarised nation on February 3, 2020. In a unanimous decision, the court nullified the hotly contested and rigged presidential election of May 21, 2019. It was a brilliant legal victory for the opposition parties, and a profound political watershed for the country.
The level of public anticipation and apprehension was so high that in many parts of the country businesses, schools, offices, and public transport were closed or suspended. It felt like a national holiday. Like millions of spellbound Malawians at home and in the diaspora, I was glued to the radio. It made watching the impeachment trial of President Trump in the US Senate – where the Republicans, save for two, refused to allow additional witnesses and documents – seem farcical in comparison. So much for mature and emerging democracies!
In a lengthy judgement comprising more than 500 pages, but summarised in a proceeding that was broadcast live to an anxious nation, the court noted that it was alive to the enormous importance of the case given that this is the first time in the country’s history that a presidential election has been subjected to a court dispute and ruling. The court stressed that the Constitution calls for an open, transparent and accountable government through the democratic choice exercised by its citizens. The right to vote is guaranteed and entrenched in the Constitution under the Bill of Rights.
It affirmed that elections must be managed with all due diligence and integrity, and conducted in a fair and transparent manner. Clearly, this was not the case with the May 21 presidential election. In more than ten hours of reading the summary judgement, the court systematically demolished the arguments of the respondents. There was substantial compromise of citizens’ voting rights and the principles and processes of free and fair elections. The magnitude of the irregularities and anomalies were so widespread, systematic and grave that the results were compromised, and could not be trusted as a true reflection of the will of the voters.
In a meticulous and masterly exhibition of jurisprudence and judgement, the judges painstakingly outlined and analysed all the issues in contention and the applicable laws, and interrogated relevant legal precedents from other countries. The defence of the respondents against the charges of the petitioners was left in tatters. They lost on the important issues of proof in an election case and the processes of election management. The court found the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) committed multiple breaches against several pertinent sections of the Constitution, and even created illegal processes, thereby raising serious doubts about the validity of the election results. In its ruling, the court called for the appointment of new officers for the commission.
On May 27, 2019, the deeply compromised Electoral Commission had declared the incumbent, Professor Peter Arthur Mutharika of the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP), the winner, with 38.57% of the popular vote, against 35.41% garnered by Dr. Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), the age-old independence party, and 20.24% for Dr. Saulos Chilima of the insurgent United Transformation Party (UTM) formed in 2018 by the country’s former Vice President. The rest was shared by four other minor candidates.
The court found the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) committed multiple breaches against several pertinent sections of the Constitution, and even created illegal processes, thereby raising serious doubts about the validity of the election results.
The results provoked angry nationwide protests led by the followers of the two main opposition parties and civil society organisations, most notably the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, which paralysed the major cities in the months that followed. The protesters accused the DPP and MEC led by Dr. Jane Ansah of gross electoral fraud. They called for the ouster of President Mutharika and Dr. Ansah, the latter under the #AnsahMustFall campaign, and demanded fresh elections. DPP supporters responded with counter-demonstrations, state-sanctioned intimidation, and support rallies for the beleaguered Chair of MEC led by women functionaries of the regime. Sporadic violence broke out in several areas.
The country was on fire, staring at the abyss of ungovernability. Public order virtually collapsed in some parts of the country as the discredited police lost their credibility and authority. Even the president could no longer travel freely to many parts of the country outside his ethnic laager, including the capital, Lilongwe, without a convoy of heavily armed military vehicles. The popularity of the Malawi Defence Force rose, and a few misguided elements even seemed to yearn for the dangerous respite of a military coup. Predictably, businesses and the economy were shuttered.
The other institution in which the disaffected and inflamed masses placed their political desires and demands for electoral justice was the judiciary. Within a week after the general elections were held, the two opposition parties filed separate petitions with the High Court for the nullification of the presidential elections over alleged irregularities and mismanagement of the electoral system.
The odour of electoral malfeasance began days after the election as stories of rigging started circulating, buttressed by delays in announcing the results. Soon a new word entered Malawi’s political vocabulary: Tip-ex, a correction fluid used to alter vote results sheets. The elections were Tip-exed, Mutharika was Tip-Ex president. The overwrought social media went into overdrive. On May 25, UTM called for nullification of the election, while the DPP requested the immediate release of the election results, and MCP applied for a judicial review of the presidential election results from several districts and constituencies.
MEC proceeded first to release the results of the parliamentary election, and briefly withheld results of the presidential vote for a few more days, which raised much suspicion. The influential and quasi-religious body, Public Affairs Committee (PAC), issued a press statement on May 30, 2019, stating categorically that the elections lacked credibility. The next day, on May 31, the two main opposition parties filed separate election cases, which were consolidated by the High Court four days later because they were similar.
Efforts by lawyers for the Electoral Commission and the ruling party first to dismiss the case and later to extend the time for disclosures of documents and information by the 2nd respondent (Malawi Electoral Commission) to the 2nd petitioner (Lazarus Chakwera of MCP) were curtailed. The case was referred to select High Court judges sitting as a Constitutional Court (such a court doesn’t exist as a separate entity). The court also dismissed several applications by the Attorney General in August and September for sanctions and an injunction against political demonstrations.
The drama continues
Thus began the months-long election case that was broadcast live and transfixed the troubled nation. The hearing of the case commenced on August 8 and ended on December 20, 2019. The hearings lasted 61 days and, according to the Constitution, judgement had to be rendered within 45 days. February 3, 2020 marks the 45th day. The court hearings, with all their gravity and levity, enraptured the population as no other event since the transition from one-party dictatorship to multiparty democracy in the early 1990s. It raised national awareness about election laws and processes, and democratic rights and responsibilities. The country’s crass and corrupt ruling cabal was exposed for all its impunity, iniquity, and ineptitude.
Some lawyers and pundits were applauded; others damaged their reputations for their mediocrity and mendacity. Similarly, some witnesses were celebrated and others were ridiculed into ignominy. The latter included an insufferably arrogant cabinet minister who flaunted a fake doctorate degree (an unearned accolade so beloved by African elites), but couldn’t mention his alma mater, a term he didn’t seem to know! In the meantime, large demonstrations and counter-demonstrations continued.
The country seemed to be spiralling out of control and the acrimony between the ruling and opposition parties intensified. PAC called for dialogue on the electoral stalemate to no avail. Appeals for an open and inclusive dialogue by the foreign diplomatic missions of Germany, Ireland, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States also proved ineffectual.
The court hearings systematically revealed blatant manipulation and mismanagement of the electoral process and system. The submissions by the lawyers of the opposition parties vigorously argued that the Electoral Commission had breached its duty and infringed on the petitioners’ and citizens’ political rights under various sections of the Constitution. They concluded; “The irregularity and fraud in the elections were substantial and significant that they affected the integrity of the elections.”
The country seemed to be spiralling out of control and the acrimony between the ruling and opposition parties intensified. PAC called for dialogue on the electoral stalemate to no avail.
The petitioners sought nullification of the presidential election of May 21, 2019 and the declaration of Peter Mutharika as president-elect as invalid, null and void. In their lengthy submissions, the respondents accused the petitioners of relying on hearsay evidence, and claimed “there were no irregularities or other factors that beset the election and that even if any were there, they did not affect the result of the election.” They requested dismissal of the petitions with costs.
In January 2020, the drama continued as the nation eagerly awaited the ruling of the Constitutional Court. Two particular events caught public attention and wrath. One was a visit by the European Union’s election observation mission. They announced plans to release their report on the May 21 election, which was met with outrage by the opposition parties, civil society, and the general public; the EU team was forced into a hasty retreat.
The second was a shocking leak in mid-January 2020. It was reported that on November 28, 2019, the Chief Justice had lodged a formal complaint with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) about a bribery attempt targeting the judges hearing the case for the nullification of the presidential election. On January 22, the ACB ordered the arrest of Mr. Thom Mpinganjira, a leading business tycoon. But later that same night, Mr. Mpinganjira’s lawyers managed to get an order from a magistrate in another city quashing the arrest warrant. Several days later, on January 28, a High Court judge ordered the re-arrest of Mr. Mpinganjira, and called for disciplinary action to be taken against the errant magistrate and lawyer. The case underscored both the rot and rectitude of the country’s besieged judicial system.
Pivotal moments in Malawi’s history
As February 3, 2020 approached, everyone wondered which face of the courts would show up. There are few dates in any nation’s history that mark pivotal moments. In Malawi’s history they include February 3, 1915, when the leader of the first major uprising against colonial rule, John Chilembwe, an American-educated Baptist pastor, was killed. Chilembwe Day is commemorated every January 15. Another key date is March 3, 1957, the day the British colonial government declared a state of emergency to quell nationalist agitation by arresting leading nationalists, which provoked more protests. The day is marked as a national holiday called Martyrs’ Day in honour of nationalist heroes who sacrificed their lives in the protracted struggle for decolonization.
Then there is of course July 6, Malawi’s Independence Day. In the postcolonial era, June 14, 1993, marks a significant day when a referendum was held to abolish President Banda’s ruthless MCP dictatorship and introduce multiparty democracy. The referendum was approved by nearly 65% of the voters. My parents’ generation had fought for the “first independence”; mine was at the forefront of the “second independence”. In recognition of my own role in the democratic struggle, the opposition party, the United Democratic Front appointed me Shadow Minister, but I turned down a Cabinet appointment when the party won the elections in May 1994. Unfortunately, my initial misgivings about the leadership and integrity of President Bakili Muluzi’s ten-year corrupt and lacklustre administration were borne out.
A day of infamy in Malawi’s political trajectory under the “Second Republic” is July 20, 2011, when nationwide protests broke out against economic mismanagement and creeping political authoritarianism by the DPP government led by President Bingu wa Mutharika, the elder brother of the current president. The draconian crackdown against the demonstrations over the next several days resulted in nearly 20 people killed and another 58 injured and up to 275 arrested. The country was shaken to its knees. The hapless president never regained his political footing, and less than a year later, on April 5, 2012, he died of a heart attack at the age of 78.
The landmark verdict nullifying the presidential election will mark February 3, 2020 as another milestone in the history of this incredibly beautiful, but badly governed, and desperately poor country. One of Malawi’s most renowned intellectuals, Thandika Mkandawire, noted for his caustic wit, told a Malawian friend that visiting Nairobi in December 2019 served as a grim reminder of Malawi’s lost fifty years of independence; much as one might find visiting the Asian economic tigers a sobering testimony to Africa’s lost years of independence.
The Kenya case
Malawi follows Kenya, where on September 1, 2017, the Supreme Court annulled the country’s presidential election held on August 8, 2017. In fact, in its judgement, the Malawi Constitutional Court frequently referred to the Kenya case. Cancelling presidential elections is extremely rare given the high levels of substantiality of evidence required in such cases. Thus Malawi has joined an exclusive club of world democracies. Annulment of an election represents a grave indictment of the electoral body. The Constitutional Court was unsparing in castigating the Malawi Electoral Commission for its incompetent and improper management of the entire presidential election process.
The court called for fresh elections within 150 days. The offices of the President and Vice President were returned to the status quo before the May 21 election, thereby reinstating Vice President Chilima and retaining President Mutharika till new elections. Parliament was urged to meet within 21 days to pass legislation on new presidential, parliamentary, and local elections and maintain the principle of concurrent tripartite elections every 5 years.
Malawi follows Kenya, where on September 1, 2017, the Supreme Court annulled the country’s presidential election held on August 8, 2017. In fact, in its judgement, the Malawi Constitutional Court frequently referred to the Kenya case.
As happened in Kenya after the presidential election was annulled on September 1, 2017, the annulment in Malawi will be greeted with jubilation by the leaders and followers of the opposition parties, and with trepidation by those affiliated to the ruling party, including some professionals and former activists who sold their souls for tarnished pieces of silver. In the days leading to the Constitutional Court ruling, political and religious leaders, the security services, foreign diplomatic missions, as well as the United Nations and the African Union, appealed for calm and urged citizens to accept the court’s decision.
One hopes President Mutharika will try to salvage his tattered reputation by gracefully accepting the court decision, as his predecessors, President Banda did when he lost the 1993 referendum, and President Muluzi lost an ill-guided attempt at a third term.
As became evident in Kenya, annulling a presidential election does not guarantee a smooth re-election process. In fact, the opposition in Kenya proceeded to boycott the repeat election in October, which led the incumbent, President Uhuru Kenyatta, to cruise to victory unopposed. This is unlikely to happen in Malawi. In fact, what might be in question is not whether the main contending parties will contest the fresh presidential election, but how. Will the opposition parties proceed separately as before or form an electoral alliance to fight the fresh election?
In its ruling, the Constitutional Court found that no candidate in the May 21, 2019 presidential election had secured a majority and proclaimed that from the next election only a candidate who secured 50+1 would be deemed elected as President. Parliament was asked to make the necessary amendments to the electoral law. In 2017 the DPP, supported by a minority party, had blocked the Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Government Amendments Bill that would have allowed a 50+1 electoral system.
The court ruling might facilitate much-needed political realignment. The two leading parties, UTM and MCP, must seriously pursue forming a possible coalition to beat the DPP and any coalition it might cobble together. Malawi cannot afford to mortgage its future to the DPP, a party that has degenerated into an incompetent, sleazy, tribalistic, nepotistic, and kleptocratic cabal. Creating meaningful and durable political coalitions require statesmanship and compromise that is quite rare among politicians.
Malawi has been offered a historic opportunity to reclaim its future, to change direction and to fulfill the dreams of millions of its people who fought for the “second independence”. The opposition parties and politicians who succeeded in nullifying the presidential election must not seek to become a reincarnation of the discredited DPP regime, greedily awaiting their chance to “eat” from the paltry state coffers. They owe it to history, and to the past, current and future generations of citizens of this aggrieved country to pursue and realise persistent yearnings for an inclusive, integrated, innovative and sustainable democratic developmental state and society.
As we’ve learned from development studies and histories and economies of some Asian countries, creating such a state and society is not a mystery: it is not a matter of ethnicity or race or nationality, neither is it dictated by the peculiarities of culture or the imagined genius of a particular civilization, let alone the endowments of natural resources. Rather, it is determined by the quality of institutions and leadership, the development of human capital, and the prevalence of the social capital of trust. The future will centre on confronting many challenges and seizing new opportunities. Two stand out.
First, there is need to undertake profound political reforms, including of the electoral system. There are, of course, many other electoral systems, including single member or multi-member constituencies under which there are several variants; they can also be complemented by majoritarian or proportional or mixed majoritarian and proportional features. Malawi must introduce an electoral system that best promotes proportionality of seats to votes, accountability to constituents, inter-ethnic and inter-religious conciliation, and minority office holding. The decentralisation and devolution of power from a highly centralised presidency should also be on the table.
The newly empowered masses must maintain pressure on the politicians to embrace the politics of policy differences rather than that of ethnic chauvinism and personal self-aggrandizement. They must resist the self-serving machinations and shenanigans of the political class. As we have learned in African studies and from the rise of contemporary political populisms around the world, ethnicity (or race), overlaid by all manner of regionalisms, is often a more powerful predictor of political loyalties and voting behavior than class and social interests.
But ethnicity itself is a complex phenomenon. “Moral ethnicity” differs from “political ethnicity”. The former represents a complex web of social obligations and belonging, while the latter reflects the competitive confrontation of “ethnic contenders and constituencies” for state power and national resources. As I wrote elsewhere, “Both are socially constructed, but one as an identity, the other as an ideology. Ethnicity may serve as a cultural public for the masses estranged from the civic public of the elites, a sanctuary that extends its comforts and protective tentacles to the victims of political disenfranchisement, economic impoverishment, state terror and group rivalry. In other words, it is not the existence of ethnic groups (or racial groups) that is a problem in itself, a predictor of social conviviality or conflict, but their political mobilisation.” This is the struggle Malawians committed to a more inclusive future must fight.
Malawi’s current first-past-the-post or winner-take-all system is one of the root causes of political instability. It facilitates minority presidencies. Since the dawn of multiparty democracy in 1994, there have been six elections. Only in two of these did the elected president garner more than half the votes of the electorate (1994–Bakili Muluzi 46.15%; 1999–Bakili Muluzi 52.34%; 2004 Bingu wa Mutharika 35.97%; 2009 Bingu wa Mutharika 66.17%; 2014 Peter Arthur Mutharika 36.4%; 2019 Peter Arthur Mutharika 38.57%).
The newly empowered masses must maintain pressure on the politicians to embrace the politics of policy differences rather than that of ethnic chauvinism and personal self-aggrandizement. They must resist the self-serving machinations and shenanigans of the political class
Incidentally, it is the first-past-the-post system that allowed the election of President Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote to Senator Hilary Clinton by a margin of 2,868,686. Similarly, commenting on Brexit a day after Britain left the European Union, a British journalist wrote in The Guardian: “How did a matter of such momentous constitutional, economic and cultural consequence come to be settled by a first-past-the-post vote and not by a super-majority?…There is much that is historically unjust about the British state, but very little of that injustice derives from the EU…It was the task of the Brexit campaign to persuade the electorate otherwise. In the referendum they succeeded with 37%, enough to transform our collective fate for a generation at least.”
Second, the awakened citizenry must force the political class to attend to the country’s tenacious crises of mass poverty, low economic growth, and rising inequalities. There is a pressing need for strategic and sustainable interventions in the traditional primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors, and what some call the quaternary sector or the knowledge sector comprising high quality education and training, research and development, and the advancement of science, technology and innovation.
In short, a future democratic government will need to focus steadfastly on economic growth and transformation by overcoming the country’s enduring legacies of underdevelopment as it simultaneously embraces, even if belatedly, the unrealised potentialities of the old industrial revolutions and the possibilities of the fourth industrial revolution. At stake is the need to raise the country’s human development index by ensuring the provision of what the United Nations Development Programme calls basic capabilities while moving towards enhanced capabilities. Especially critical is reducing power imbalances and gender inequalities, as well as promoting youth employability and decent work.
Malawi’s development deficits are glaring indeed, ranging from persistent poverty among the rural and urban masses, to poor physical and social infrastructure, abysmally low levels of education at all levels, and extensive unemployment and underemployment. Each time I visit the country, I am struck by how little the cities where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s have changed. I joke to my relatives and friends that I cannot get lost in Lilongwe, Blantyre, or Zomba, although I left the country 43 years ago! When I visited last December, together with my family, including my son and his fiancée, it was disconcerting to see that the primary and secondary schools I attended look so dilapidated; they are depressing and pale replicas of the fine institutions I attended.
Thus, getting the politics right is only a prelude to getting the economics right for the well-being and dignity of Malawian citizens. The good news from the ruling of the Constitutional Court annulling the presidential election is that an indispensable first step has been taken. This day will be remembered as a turning point in the country’s tortured political history. Perhaps it will be known as Constitutional Democracy Day.
One of my relatives, a young, bright and highly educated professional, said the whole saga had left her proud to be a Malawian. This is a moment of reckoning for the country, she said, when Malawians became active citizens, abandoning the docility of bystanders in the political game created, controlled and manipulated by self-serving, cynical, corrupt and crafty politicians. Her fervent hope is that the citizenry, now informed and inspired by their active involvement in a signal political event, will not retreat to the political sidelines as passive observers. That, too, is my hope and the hope of many in this land of the lake, the Warm Heart of Africa, to use the country’s much beloved national moniker.
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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
‘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.
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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