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Revisiting the Goldenberg Ghosts

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The Goldenberg scandal did not just negatively impact the Kenyan economy, it also left in its wake damaged and destroyed lives. Central Bank of Kenya employees who raised queries about the massive fraud were quickly sacrificed. These individuals and their families have hauntingly traumatic memories of Moi and his government.

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As a curious child growing up in the early 1990s, I had a general idea from reading the newspapers that my father brought home that Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya was not a place to play around. Then, in August 1992, these abstract ideas became realities. One evening, my visibly distressed mother brought home a newspaper bearing the photo of her elder brother appearing unconscious and lying on a bed at Nairobi Hospital. The caption had my uncle’s name, Francis Lukorito (whom we called Uncle L), followed by an explanation that the hospitalised Central Bank of Kenya employee had been arrested days earlier in relation to the mysterious death of the multiparty stalwart Masinde Muliro.

Pius Masinde Muliro, the founding member of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), had been declared dead on a Nairobi-bound flight from London, where he had gone to fund-raise for the party. FORD was a serious contender in the 1992 general election following the repeal of Section 2(a) of the constitution, abolishing Moi’s one-party state. That newspaper, with the usually charming Uncle L appearing bruised, swollen and defeated, became part of family memorabilia, in remembrance of the day my uncle became an enemy of the state.

Uncle L was a tall, heavily built and worldly individual who people aspired to become. He finished his high school education at Lenana School and proceeded to undergraduate Bachelor of Commerce studies at the University of Nairobi. He was an impressionable 23-year-old when the Central Bank of Kenya came calling in 1976. He was first sent to Milan, then to Washington, D.C. for further training. Within a short period of time, he became the bank’s superintendent, then the senior Superintendent. The future was supposed to be bright – until August 1992 happened.

As narrated to the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair, where Uncle L took the witness stand on 14 January 2004, the truth was that Muliro and Uncle L came a long way. When Muliro was attending school in Tororo, Uganda, before proceeding to the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he made a habit of passing by my grandfather’s home at the Kenya-Uganda border, not too far from Tororo, where he spent time with my grandfather, who was his age-mate. Since then, Muliro remained a regular visitor to my late grandfather’s home, in the process becoming my uncle’s guardian.

On 14 August 1992, while minding his business at work, Uncle L received a call from a friend who informed him that Muliro was dead. Shocked and in disbelief, he left for Muliro’s Nairobi residence in Upper Hill, where he confirmed the news. As Muliro’s children contemplated their next move in dealing with their patriarch’s death, it was decided that Uncle L would become the treasurer for the funeral organising committee. Uncle L drove back to work, unaware that his association with Muliro was about to be conveniently used as a scapegoat to kick him out of the Central Bank – in a bigger game of chess that was being played at Moi’s State House.

Five days later, on 19 August 1992, three plainclothes policemen showed up at the Central Bank. With them was Mr. H. H. Njoroge, Uncle L’s head of division, and a Mr. Karanja, the bank’s chief security officer. The men requested Uncle L to accompany them. No explanations were given. Since the bank officials were aware of what was transpiring, Uncle L obliged. Outside the bank building, on Haile Selassie Avenue, Uncle L saw a Special Branch Peugeot 504 station wagon with two more men inside. There and then, in Moi’s Kenya of detention without trial, he knew his goose was cooked. Multiparty politics had been begrudgingly restored, and although it appeared the democratic space was expanding, in Uncle L’s world, there lurked a monster which was about to cripple the Kenyan economy, an ogre which he and a few others had tried to slay, but which had now come back to haunt them.

As senior superintendent, Uncle L had to scrutinise all export compensation scheme-related CD3 forms submitted to the Central Bank by commercial banks on behalf of their exporting customers. Uncle L worked with Mr. David Meader, an Australian national seconded to the bank from the International Monetary Fund. The duo flagged a whopping 17 billion shillings, which they considered an irregular payout to a company called Goldenberg International, which was purporting to be exporting massive amounts of gold and diamonds on a daily basis to Europe, the Middle East and Asia (even though Kenya had no known commercial deposits of either). For every US dollar earned in the purported sales abroad, Goldenberg was under a statutory export compensation claim where it was paid thirty US cents by the Central Bank in Kenya shillings as a reward for boosting Kenya’s exports.

However, proof of sales and exports of gold and diamonds later turned out to be forgeries.

By mid-1992, six months prior to the first multiparty presidential election in three decades, the flow of CD3 forms intensified. At that time, Uncle L and Mr. Meader raised red flags about what they believed was fraud by writing to the Central Bank’s chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office. As they kept scrutinising more CD3 forms, more anomalies surfaced. Unknown to Uncle L and Mr. Meader, the scheme involved some of the most powerful individuals in Kenya, including the Head of the Special Branch (Kenya’s intelligence service), who was a partner in Goldenberg International, a company owned by Kamlesh Pattni.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal, which was being executed right in front of their eyes. As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

Khaminwa: Why do you believe Mr. Riungu, Mr. Waiguru and Mr. Karanja were responsible for your arrest? 

Lukorito: Because when I was working on pre-shipment finance papers, Mr. Pattni was very close to Mr. Riungu. On a daily basis, Mr. Pattni would come and see Mr. Riungu. While working on the papers with Mr. Meader, I would see Mr. Pattni going into Mr. Riungu’s office next door.

Upon entering the Peugeot 504, Uncle L was driven to the Nairobi Area Police Headquarters, where he was taken to a basement office. There, he met three policemen – Mr. Kimurgor, Mr. Murage and Mr. Slim – who wanted to know how he knew Muliro, how he came to know about Muliro’s death, how close he was to the opposition leader, and whether he knew where Muliro stayed. Uncle L gave them the history by writing a 16-page statement.

Later that evening, he was thrown into the back seat of the Peugeot, where he was made to lie down on the vehicle’s floor. The policemen sat and stepped on him as they drove along. After a not-so-smooth drive, the vehicle slowed down at what seemed like the entrance of a building. As they pulled Uncle L out, he saw Hotel InterContinental’s beige façade. If he hadn’t expected the worst, then being in the precincts of Nyayo House gave him reason to be afraid.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal…As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

He was taken to an upper floor within Nyayo House where he met a new set of hostile Special Branch interrogators. This time, the story was that he was an opposition mole within the bank. He told them he wasn’t. The beating started. Uncle L collapsed. When he came to, he was in a dark room filled with water that made his skin itchy. His body was swollen and aching all over. Lucky for him, he was picked up later that night and delivered to Parklands Police Station.

The following morning, Uncle L was driven to Nairobi Area Police Headquarters. This time there was not much to talk about other than kicks and blows. He collapsed. When he came to, he found himself at Nairobi Hospital, where the photo in the newspaper my mother brought home was taken. How the media knew who he was, why he had been arrested and where he was hospitalised is anyone’s guess. Uncle L had not been charged with any crime, but he had been badly tarred with a broad brush – he was now a government official caught in the middle of the country’s “dangerous” opposition politics. He stayed bedridden for six days.

The impact of the beatings meted on Uncle L are captured in the 14 January 2004 proceedings of the Goldenberg Commission, which read: (The witness was then referred to a medical report signed by Dr. D. K Gikonyo, a physician and cardiologist, which showed that on admission, among other things, his blood pressure was extremely high – 230/130. (He has since become hypertensive.) After a mandatory two week sick leave, Uncle L was quickly interdicted.

“Following your arrest by the police on 19 August 1992, we write to advise you that it has been decided to interdict you with immediate effect in accordance with Rule 6.35 (b) of the Staff Rules and Regulations,’’ read the letter from the Central Bank of Kenya’s Administration Division, signed by Mr. C.K. Ndubai. ‘‘While on interdiction, you will be paid half your salary and you will be required to report on every working day to the Head, Security Division, where you will sign a register of attendance. You will not leave your place of work except with the permission of the Head of Security Division. The interdiction will remain in force until further notice.” 

This is how a lame game of ping pong at the highest level of Moi’s government started. On 21 September 1992, Uncle L received another letter, ostensibly reversing his earlier interdiction and requesting him to report to the Principal, Development Division, for assignment of duties.

“This is to advise you that it has been decided that your interdiction be lifted with immediate effect and that you report in your former Division. Accordingly, please arrange to report to the Principal, Development Division immediately for assignment of duties.”

On 8 July 1993, Mr. J. K. Waiguru, the Central Bank’s Secretary had some news.

“Following the lifting of your interdiction and posting back to your division, there has been further development in this matter. Would you please report to the Deputy Governor for further instructions.”

When Uncle L went to see the deputy governor, he was advised to go and see the head of the civil service, Prof. Philip Mbithi, who was stationed at Harambee House. Prof. Mbithi told Uncle L to go home and wait. Someone would be sent to him. Uncle L waited for over six months without pay. Then in February 1994, Prof. Mbithi sent someone to Uncle L’s Nairobi home to bring him over. On reaching Harambee House, Prof. Mbithi referred Uncle L to his personal assistant, Mr. S. Z. Ambuka. Mr. Ambuka showed Uncle L a letter dated 10 February 1993 – signed by Mr. Ambuka – addressed to Dr. Wilfred Koinange, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance.

You will recall that early this week, I talked to you about the redeployment of the above-named officer who previously worked with the Central Bank and whom we were asked to assist in re-deploying to any of the other banking institutions.

You asked me to check with the Central Bank and confirm [Uncle L’s] status with them before you could take over the case. I had discussions with the bank secretary who confirmed that:

(a) When [Uncle L] had a discipline case with them, he was struck off their payroll.

(b) However, when it was later decided that [he] be forgiven and rehabilitated, he was reinstated in the payroll.

(c) Later on, a decision was made that [Uncle L] be referred to the Office of the President for re-allocation of duties elsewhere. When he was referred to the Office of the President (and subsequently to Treasury), he ceased being in the CBK payroll.

(d) The Bank Secretary advises that [Uncle L] could apply for early retirement from the bank. This early retirement, if approved, would be frozen as [Uncle L] would not be entitled to any retirement benefits until he attains the mandatory age of 50 years.

(e) [Uncle L] would then be available for you to assist him get a fresh placement in any other financial institutions.

[Uncle L] has accordingly been informed and is herewith sent to you for the necessary assistance.”

There it was. Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House to enact the final chess move. It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Khaminwa: Were you forgiven and rehabilitated? 

Lukorito: I do not know that I was supposed to be forgiven because I had committed no offence.

Khaminwa: Something I don’t seem to understand. You were employed by the Central Bank, then how does the Head of the Public Service come into a corporate organisation like CBK?

Lukorito: I do not understand either.

Khaminwa: In Mrs. Mwatela’s statement in Exhibit 111, could you read what she says about you.

Lukorito: [Reads statement.] “I remember Mr. Pattni visiting me in my new office. He arrogantly and proudly reprimanded me for my alleged stupidity in questioning his affairs. He claimed that my stupidity would get me nowhere. I did not reply to him. He specifically referred to one Mr. Lukorito who had been sacked and informed me that no one played about with him and got away with it. I knew he had powerful connections and no purpose would be served in answering him.”

There it was, confirmed in black and white: Goldenberg. Uncle L’s mistake was that he had stood in the way of Kamlesh Pattni, who could leverage state power, including the Office of the Head of the Civil Service, to deal with him firmly.

Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House…It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi? More importantly, one may then want to ask: How did Uncle L try to interfere with the Goldenberg pay-outs, and did he have powers to stop Kenya’s biggest economic crime to date? The answer lies in an exchange between Uncle L and lawyer Cecil Miller, appearing for the Deposit Protection Fund at the Goldenberg Commission.

Miller: Mr. Lukorito, did you question the duplication of CD3s in writing?

Lukorito: Yes. They should be with CBK.

Miller: Who did you write to?

Lukorito: The chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office.

Miller: Did you get a response?

Lukorito: They did not come directly but they came in the form of whether we had agreed on the level of Treasury Bills that we were to advertise for the weekly tenders. If we all agreed on the amount, we would advertise. 

Miller: Am I right in saying that technically you were the final port of call in relation to CD3s and pre-shipment?

Lukorito: Yes my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 17 of your statement, you mention Exchange and Pan African banks. 

Lukorito: Yes my lords. 

Miller: You then proceed to say on page 18; “The funds would be withdrawn from CBK under a currency withdrawal scheme by the two banks and then the amount withdrawn by the beneficiaries at the bank.” Would you know who the beneficiaries were?

Lukorito: I would not know my lords. We would detect the money movement using the open market operations ledger. 

Miller: You raised a concern on page 39 – your memo – on the potential snowball effect on the banking sector. And you got a response which you say you were not satisfied with?

Lukorito: I was not my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 14 of your statement, you list the beneficiaries of the pre-export finance scheme. You left the bank in November 1994. 

Lukorito: I was arrested on August 19, 1992 and from that day I just used to report but I was not working within the bank.

Miller: So you would not know that three of these banks went into liquidation thereafter?

Lukorito: I wouldn’t know. 

Miller: And you would not know whether they had paid their pre-shipment funds by the time? 

Lukorito: I would not know. 

Dr. Wilfred Koinange seemed like a man of few words. ‘‘I have nothing to do with you,’’ he told Uncle L. With that, my uncle was forcibly retired from the Central Bank of Kenya aged 40, an age where he wasn’t entitled to a pension. This is how Kenya is known to treat its best.

‘‘That is all I wish to say in deciding to risk my life by becoming an actor instead of a privileged spectator in the fraudulent deals through CBK during my last years with them.’’ Uncle L told the Commission when wrapping up his testimony. ‘‘And while I can claim a background in central banking, I can only claim a very great interest in the fields of money, banking and finance which would have enabled me to contribute to the economic transformation taking place in our sub-region. It is my hope that someday I will have the opportunity to bring to consummation that interest.’’                                                            

*** 

Sometime in 2014, Uncle L pulled me aside during a family gathering, sat me under a tree and started reading to me a letter of solidarity sent to him during his travails at the hands of the Moi state by a mutual friend he shared with Muliro, who had since moved abroad. The letter was aged, worn thin by the elements and now turning brownish. As he read it, it was as if he was being transported into a different realm. Tears started rolling down his cheeks, but his voice didn’t falter. He was crying, but he wasn’t. I felt both sorry and proud of him, for his endurance, defiance and stoicism. It was an awkward yet special moment. As always, the conversation veered back to Goldenberg. He quickly dispatched his son to bring more documents. He wanted to show me the architects of the 1990-1994 Goldenberg fraud.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi?

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate), the scam transferring the equivalent of over 10% of Kenya’s GDP for the 5 years concerned into private hands. In the process, the Kenya shilling collapsed – dropping from 21 shillings in 1990 to 56 shillings in 1994 against the US dollar. Some of the names Uncle L mentioned, known to those who know within the banking system, left me dumbfounded. But then no one could talk. Those like him who dared speak were unceremoniously pushed to the gutter, their lives turned upside down.

The same fate befell Joseph Mumelo, the Central Bank’s Head of Foreign Exchange, who was married to my mother’s first cousin. As mentioned in the 8 February 2020 Saturday Nation article “Legitimate and dubious means Moi used to build empire”, Uncle Joe was asked not to interfere whenever money was siphoned through the Moi-affiliated Transnational Bank. In 1993, a terrified and non-cooperative Uncle Joe was arrested and detained before being kicked out of the bank.

When I joined Nairobi School in 1999, my family had already moved out of Nairobi, and so I spent my mid-term breaks either at Uncle Joe’s or Uncle L’s. They both had children my age. By then, Uncle L had long moved to his rural home. Uncle Joe retreated to his new home on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Whenever I visited, Uncle Joe and I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing Scrabble. He would open up to me about all sorts of things. Through him and Uncle L, I learnt the proper meaning of lying low. Just like Uncle L, Uncle Joe never drove any of his cars. He enlisted the services of a taxi driver who drove a Volkswagen beetle, and unless the guy showed up, Uncle Joe rarely left the house. On some nights, when he was brought home by his friends, Uncle Joe refused to get out of the vehicle until the song playing on the car stereo played to the end. His were little pleasures. Just like Uncle L, with his roaring voice, he cursed loudly at Moi and his men on the rare occasions he watched the news. Everyone knew to stay quiet.

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate)…

Seeing that Uncle Joe died before he could appear as a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, Uncle L decided to do family duty by adding Uncle Joe’s police statement at the time of his arrest as an annexure to his own, so that Uncle Joe could be heard posthumously. Below, the Commission’s Dr. Khaminwa questions Uncle L about Uncle Joe’s statement on the pay-outs.

Khaminwa: Would you look at your additional statement and read it. 

Lukorito: [Reads statement.]Further to my January 12, 2004 statement, I wish to state that sometime in July 1993, I learnt from the Central Bank of Kenya that one of my former seniors there, Mr. Joseph Mumelo had been arrested by police and was at Kileleshwa Police Station. I visited him and he told me that the previous governor Mr. Kotut had asked him to pass some cheques relating to some banks and when he later on put it in writing, the governor disowned him. I told him that I also had a similar problem with pre–export finance in relation to Goldenberg International. He told me he believed that it was the source of my problem with the bank. I later learnt that he was released and retired from bank service. I have been shown a statement recorded from the late Mumelo on July 23, 1993. The deceased shared the same views as those noted in my memo to Mr. Riungu on January 21, 1992. 

Khaminwa: You state that you had problems with Mr. Kotut regarding pre–export finance, could you remind us what the problem was? 

Lukorito: We got some applications from Goldenberg International but Mr. Riungu was absent. The papers were pushed to Mr. Kotut’s office but we never got any reply. We were not able to proceed because the papers were, to me, very suspect. They had the same CD3 serial numbers from different banks and the amounts were substantial. Mr. Mumelo appeared scared and told me that he was not staying at home because he had been threatened by powerful people. He was moving from hotel to hotel. He cautioned me and from July 1993, I never drove any of my vehicles.

Uncle Joe’s and Uncle L’s well-being – careers, livelihoods, health, family life and their wives’ and children’s welfares and futures – all became collateral damage because they raised queries which had the capacity to unravel Goldenberg. These are the hauntingly traumatic memories some families have of Moi and his government. Sadly, the Goldenberg culprits remain unpunished to date.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
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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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