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Jesus Christ, the Feminist Who Unlocked Women’s Potential

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The Bible paints a picture of Jesus Christ who was not just pro-women, but who included and recognised women’s full potential and humanity. What lessons can African Christian churches draw from the extraordinary life of Jesus and his relationship with women?

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Jesus Christ, the Feminist Who Unlocked Women’s Potential
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The face of the Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa is heavily female. A cursory look at hundreds of church services in Kenya and elsewhere suggests that there are more women than men in both mainstream, as well as the Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic churches. Are women more religious than men in Africa? The jury is still out there. What is not in doubt though is that the church in Africa is profoundly feminine in its rank and outlook, but heavily male in its leadership and ethos.

Sociological research suggests that African women are the backbone of African Christian communities. Despite their numerical strength, women’s voices are not only marginal in many churches but their contribution to African Christianity is hardly ever recognised by the church leadership, particularly at the level of decision making and preaching. In many Christian denominations in Kenya and beyond, ordination of women as adjunct leaders and pulpit preachers is still being discussed. Even in the public spheres, people still debate whether women should be allowed to preach, lead and found their own churches.

The Catholic Church, for example, still does not ordain women to ministry, neither can women administer or preside over the Holy Communion. Other churches are gradually ordaining women, while others cannot even discuss or consider women’s ordination. In many established Pentecostal churches, women are still not ordained to leadership positions despite the so-called democratisation of the charisma. Nevertheless, women are moving out to establish their own churches. They then invite their former bishops to ordain them, which is paradoxical.

Except for Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical churches, where women have successfully founded and carved out their own ministries, women in male-founded churches hardly ever rise to leadership positions. In all other churches, and as far as the leadership of spiritual communities are concerned, women’s voices remains at the fringes or margins, especially in masculine spiritual spaces – at least at the level of church leadership and decision making.

This is despite studies upon studies suggesting that women are a significant majority and part of the powerhouse of African Christian spirituality. Women not only fill the pews of African churches every Sunday, they also carry out incredible responsibilities for the survival and sustenance of those churches. My ethnographic research suggests that many women spend incredibly long hours in churches, putting in time and money in unpaid hours cleaning, ushering, organising, receiving guests, singing, leading praise and worship, teaching Sunday school, cooking for guests, collecting offerings, prophesying, praying, and offering social and spiritual support to the sick (physically and emotionally).

Except for Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical churches, where women have successfully founded and carved out their own ministries, women in male-founded churches hardly ever rise to leadership positions.

In church spheres, they also create and generate tremendous social capital, creating community prayer cells, mobilising resources to form networks for support, fund-raising, forming wedding committees for members, arranging funerals, joining merry-go-rounds, and generally looking out for the welfare of members. Much of this replicates the domestic chores they undertake at home. As such, they are fundamental to the very life and sustainability of their churches. I believe that many churches would not function without the work, time, varied gifts, talents and abilities and the immense social capital that Christian women generate for their church communities.

Why do women do so much for churches that do so little for them? I asked scores of women. What is in it for them that makes them spent so much time in church?

The women I interviewed shared with me some of the reasons why they gravitate towards church and why they give so much of their time to churches that seemingly do little for them. I found out that churches are more than just spiritual spaces; they are also spaces for the creation of community, where social capital is generated, where they fellowship and share sisterhood, a space for emotional and momentarily release, where they cry to God about their many vulnerabilities, a space for spiritual growth and spiritual nourishment.

The women told me they flock to churches in search of healing – physically, emotionally and psychologically. They also go there in search of deliverance from spiritual and earthly demons and from the fear of curses and witchcraft. Many others go to church in search of companionship and love. Others go to church because they have been socialised from childhood to attend church and because “it is the right thing to do”. Many others told me that they cannot fail to go to church because it is the Christian thing to do. Many others go there to be away from the home sphere and escape from violence and toxic home spaces. Yet many also go there because they simply love God and want to grow in their Christian faith and in communion with fellow believers.

Yet, churches have treated and continue to treat women badly: they ignore them, objectify them, abuse them, assault them, oppress them and then attempt to use theological and patriarchal ideas to rationalise their actions. “It is written in the Bible”, “the Bible says”, “It is our culture and traditions” are common dictums of explanations and justification in the Kenyan social and religious sphere. This is not surprising as both Christianity and African culture have long been used to manipulate and reinforce the sorry treatment of women in Africa. African (male) clergy and men are seen as ideal spiritual leaders, while women are there to submit to men’s authority both at home and in church.

In church services, sermons about male headship and female submission are common. This has resulted in the smothering of women’s gifts of pastoral leadership and ministry. Women are further excluded from leadership roles and their gifts, talents and wisdom have been often dismissed. Pentecostal Christians leaders have perverted the gospel in favour of the gospel of money and fake miracles and the control and objectification of women’s bodies and sexuality. In her article titled, The Neck That Turns the Head, Brandon Ambrosia talks about this and speaks about the power of the good Christian woman as one that is submissive to her husband. I have heard Pentecostal pastors teach about men as the head and women as the neck that supports the head, instead of speaking about companionship.

The church continuously thinks of women as the weaker sex, even when women have shown that they can be presidents, astronauts, doctors, engineers and people who manage millions of dysfunctional homes every day. In fact, Christian women are everywhere except at church pulpits.

Besides, many churches, just like Kenyan and African society still frown on female religious leadership. That is true for the Catholic Church that is heavily male and gerontocratic, and also misogynistic. Pentecostal and evangelical churches are led by men who serve with their wives as co-pastors, mostly leading women’s wings of the ministry. These wives are known as “First Ladies” to entrench the important place they occupy in their husbands’ ministries. A case in point is the Women Without Limit Ministries led by the flashy Rev Kathy Kiuna and many other small women-led ministries within their husbands’ churches. Women’s wings within the larger church polity are meant to leverage the large numbers of female patrons in such churches, as well as provide a pseudo-empowerment fellowship for scores of women.

The church continuously thinks of women as the weaker sex, even when women have shown that they can be presidents, astronauts, doctors, engineers and people who manage millions of dysfunctional homes every day. In fact, Christian women are everywhere except at church pulpits.

Yet this move is a smart way to keep female worshipers in church both for respectability of the church – and in particular, for the pastors’ wives prestige – and to look like they are catering to women’s needs. And while many such women’s wings are said to empower women in spiritual spaces using spiritual resources, such ministries rarely ever scratch the surface to tackle the myriad of social and structural challenges facing women in Kenya and beyond. These challenges include domestic violence, family break-ups, poverty, sexism, and patriarchy.

Instead, they gloss over real and tangible issues that affect women and create a sort of motivational speak, the kind of feel-good sermons about building self-esteem and confidence without ever thinking of delving into the reasons why many women feel inadequate, lack proper education and struggle financially. The kind of preaching that goes on here is that of overcoming the demons of poverty, adultery, needs and wants, and of miraculously getting miracle visas to the United States and Europe and many other mundane wants. Much of the preaching revolves around the power of the praying wife, partner, and mother.

In nearly a decade and a half of research on Pentecostal churches, I have never come across a single message condemning violence and the many layers of discrimination holding women back from attaining their full potential. Nor are there sermons that tackle the social and structural issues that many women grapple with, such as gender-based violence, intimate partner violence, lack of decision making roles and women rights. What we see is a gospel where every imaginable challenge, including serious ailments such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, malaria, and other communicable ailments and global epidemics, are all viewed through spiritual lenses.

The church’s deafening silence on women’s issues

Yet, the status and roles of women in churches mirrors that of the general status of women in the larger Kenyan society. The biggest purpose and most important role of the church is to preach the good news to the laity and set captives free. How is it that the church does not speak when women and girls continue to be subjected to sexual abuse? Why is the church silent when scores of women and young girls are brutally murdered almost weekly or when little girls are raped by their fathers or guardians? Why is the church silent in the face of tremendous corruption that is killing the future of Kenyan women, youth and children?

Kenya is a heavily patriarchal society where women and girls, in particular, grapple with multiple layers of discrimination, marginalisation and stereotypes. Patriarchal, cultural and religious ideals and beliefs, as well as deeply entrenched gendered social norms, continue to portray women as inferior to men.

The Kenyan Parliament, for example, totally disregards the constitutional two-thirds majority rule that would have seen an increase in the number of women serving in Parliament and public life. While some progress has been achieved in Kenya in the last couple of years, Parliament is still debating the roles of women in the legislature, a decade after the passage of a liberal constitution with an excellent Bill of Rights. This blatant disregard for the constitution is not only suggestive of the condescending attitude of male leaders towards female leadership, but also shows how Kenyan society still struggles with the idea of women leaders in a largely male-dominated legislature. Interestingly, the church has not raised its voice about this, which is hardly unsurprising given that the Kenyan church leadership largely mirrors our political leadership, if not worse.

The church in Kenya treats women even worse than the state. Church spaces are no longer safe for women seeking spiritual sustenance and refuge. Women are physically and sexually abused in church; their bodies are used as porn for the healing and miracle industry. The voluntary work they put in brings no immediate value to them outside of their spiritual life. At the same time, church spaces are masculine spheres in terms of leadership, but heavily female in respect of congregational composition. The church’s restriction and control of women’s leadership and decision making should be questioned.

Churches are also becoming increasingly violent spaces for women, in terms of violent theologies of women’s bodies and spaces where women have been physically and sexually abused. Churches are not just violent masculine spaces, but also patriarchal and dangerous spaces. This is not surprising, given that the Bible itself is a patriarchal document interpreted through patriarchal lenses. At the same time, churches treat women the way the Kenyan communities treats them: they frown on single women, widows, divorced mothers, unmarried mothers and their children.

The church in Kenya treats women even worse than the state. Church spaces are no longer safe for women seeking spiritual sustenance and refuge. Women are physically and sexually abused in church; their bodies are used as porn for the healing and miracle industry.

Given this scenario, how can we foreground a church that is on the side of women and one that can move the middle to treat women as God’s children? How can we unlock the power of women in churches? What lessons can we borrow from Jesus’s extraordinary treatment of women? How did Jesus model behaviour that could guide the church and society on how to treat women better? How can the life of Jesus model for us a women-centric theology of human flourishing where women are treated the way he treated them? How can the church become a progressive space that puts women’s welfare at the centre of a theology of care, one that respects them, includes them and allows them to use all their mental resources and abilities to build the kingdom of God as well as the earthly kingdom?

Unlocking the power of women, as Jesus did

There is a need for the church in Africa to rethink and unpack a theology of women flourishing, one that unlocks the power of women in Africa and one that would bring about a transformation in the lives of African women. Here, I would like to propose a new imagination that would unlock the power of women, a new narrative, new conversations about the role of women that allows them to flourish at home, church and society.

The Bible and the life of Jesus Christ allows us to foreground such a possibility. It gives us the tools to recreate a new future, another world for African Christian women. The Bible, which occupies a central role in the lives of millions of African Christians, foments many examples of female biblical heroines who did exemplary works that are recorded by the Bible’s narrators. The Bible itself is full of instances in which women rose to leadership positions that could be modelled to create a theology of women leadership that helps women shift the needle in spiritual leadership. Queen Esther saved the Israelites from their enemies, Deborah was a judge who ruled Israel, just to cite a few.

The Jesus of the Bible suggests that women are much more than the weaker sex. Women are messengers of God and the gospel and prophetesses of the resurrection story. Women were the first to declare that Jesus has risen, women were the deacons who supported and led the early Christian church. The church, as well as theologians, must begin to reimagine a women-centred theology of human flourishing that lifts off the heavy burdens placed on women by both church and society.

Jesus Christ modelled for us a theology that is women-centric, a theology of solidarity and affirmation for women. Jesus refused to normalise the treatment of women as inferior, as insignificant voiceless people. Instead he treated them with respect and dignity, frequently stopping to listen to their cries and concerns, affirming their voices and right to be heard in a way to suggest that their voices and opinions mattered to him.

The narrators of the Bible portray Jesus as a man who was at home in the company of all women – mothers, widows, prostitutes, bleeding and menstruating women, daughters, sisters, grandmothers. He, for example, stepped forward in a crowd of mourners to speak with the widow at Nain and called her son back to life in Luke 7: 11-17. He healed a woman who had been crippled for 18 years, laying his hands on her in the temple saying, “Woman, you are free”. And he did that without drama. He left her feminine dignity intact. There was no reeling on the ground, no fainting, no melodrama, no violent slapping. It was just a kind gentle touch that restored her health and dignity. He told her to go. That she was free from the burden of disease and disability. He set her free from crippling disease and restored her dignity, taking away her stigma and burden. He did not violently push her to the ground in the manner of Pentecostal clergy who stage-manage deliverance services, creating migraine-inducing headaches and a lot of noisy drama as they outdo each other trying to demonstrate manufactured spiritual power to hapless followers.

There is a need for the church in Africa to rethink and unpack a theology of women flourishing, one that unlocks the power of women in Africa and one that would bring about a transformation in the lives of African women.

Contrast that with Jesus’s gentle and respectful touch, a total departure from Apostle James Ng’ang’a, whose deliverance theologies leave many women stripped of their personal and bodily integrity. Jesus’s touch was a touch of love, respect and recognition of a female humanity, where women are children of God, worthy of a life of health, dignity and flourishing. Jesus, a friend of women, was also a respecter of women.

When the leaders of the synagogue questioned why Jesus had healed a woman on the Sabbath, Jesus answered in a way that affirmed the woman even further. He called her a daughter of Abraham (Luke 13:16). Here is another example of a theology of affirmation, dignity and flourishing. In Jewish culture, as well as in many patriarchal cultures in Africa, girls are not very much valued. Hence, by calling this woman a daughter of Abraham (the patriarch of the Abrahamic faiths), Jesus affirmed the place of girls in the family and society. Women had never been called daughters of Abraham before.

There are many other scores of instances in which Jesus helped forge new spaces and thinking for women, engaging them, listening to their stories and needs, giving them not just a listening ear, but also voice and agency. In many of these instances, he was telling the women: I hear you, I see you, I feel you, you are important, your story is important and valid, and you deserve to live a life of dignity, health and well-being. Your humanity as a daughter of Abraham is valid and your voice matters and must be heard by all, including, the Pharisees and Sadducees and the clergy-bishops, prophets, pastors, apostles, archbishops, and that they have a space and voice in that arrangement. Jesus held affirming dialogues with women.

Consider the story of Jesus holding affirming dialogues with a Samaritan woman. In the Jewish traditions, just like in many African cultures, women’s testimonies in Jewish religious thought was not trustworthy. They were also counted alongside children because no one considered their contribution, including witness contribution, as valid or even of substance. In many Kenyan cultures, such as the Maasai and Kalenjin cultures, women were counted and equated to children and the property of her husband. But Jesus modelled a different perception of women as people who are worthy. He held respectful dialogues with women, affirming and entrenching their space in society as valid witnesses.

In all these and many other examples of how he treated women, Jesus modelled a different trajectory and narrative: a trajectory of compassion, respect, value, voice, agency and dignity. He viewed women in their totality as human beings, not as unclean and unworthy witnesses. Menstruating women were considered ritually unclean in Jewish society. Such women were not allowed to participate in rituals because they were considered unclean. Jesus affirmed their biological and bodily integrity, affirming their natural menstruating bodies as clean and worthy.

More importantly, Jesus held a moment of dialogue with such women. Women prostitutes were friends of Jesus. One oiled Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume and used her hair to wipe his feet. Women were the first people to witness the resurrected Jesus and were the last at the grave where he was buried.

Jesus helped unlock the power of women both in church and society. Can the Kenyan church, broadly conceptualised, unlock the power of women in church and society and create affirming conversations, alternative theologies of women’s dignity and flourishing? How can Kenyan Christian women use these theological conversations to create spiritual resources to reclaim respect and space and contest theological discrimination? The Bible paints a picture of Jesus Christ who was not just pro-women, but who included and recognised women’s full potential and humanity.

While we live in a heavily patriarchal culture and church polity, there are excellent lessons from Jesus’s examples to borrow from. Many women I spoke to feel invisible, unheard, objectified, disrespected, excluded. Many told me the Church no longer speaks the language of Jesus, a language of inclusion, empowerment, human flourishing, respect, dignity and voice. Jesus did not only recognize the power of women, but viewed them wholesomely and designed for them to prosper and flourish. The Church should not only include women, but must also recognise their inclusion, voice, gifts and creativity.

How can the African Church become a progressive inclusive church that puts women at the centre of a theology of care and respect? A theology that sees women’s bodies as sites of the Holy Spirit and not homes to demons? What lessons can African Christian men draw from the extraordinary life of Jesus and his relationship with women? The African Church could do better with women followers by simply listening to them and creating women-centric theologies.

The women I spoke to deeply love Jesus and as their father, brother, husband, father to their children, provider and companion. Many painted a man who would be saddened by violent husbands, deadbeat irresponsible fathers, fading partners, discriminative bosses and rogue clergy. Many believe that Jesus deeply loves them and they love him back and they want to live a life of dignity as Jesus desired for them.

Why does the church exclude women in its leadership, despite the pivotal role they play in the very life and sustenance of churches? Why is it silent in the face of so much suffering, pain and violence? Why is it not ordaining women? How can the church become progressive and radical in its thoughts and put the welfare of women and children at the centre of its theologising?

In the words of Dorothy Sayers, perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the cradle and last at the cross. They had never known a man like Jesus – a prophet and teacher who never nagged them, never flattered them, never dismissed their voices and talents, never patronised or cat-called them. For the Christian woman, Jesus is not just the ideal friend and companion, he is also the one who has their backs.

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

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

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

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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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