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Why Black Lives Don’t Matter in Kenya’s Colonial ‘Conservancies’

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The colonial powers that reside within the conservation sector often tout “alternative livelihoods” as key to the economic empowerment of pastoralist communities. But this flimsy window dressing barely hides the fraud within. Conservation interests have built a cauldron into which the extremely wealthy are pouring startling amounts of money to subvert systems, grab lands, and plunder resources.

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Why Black Lives Don’t Matter in Kenya’s Colonial ‘Conservancies’
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Mimi nimesema shamba ya Maasai ni ya Maasai.” I am saying that Maasailand is for the Maasai people.

As expected, this statement raised an uproar because of its tone and content. The volume of support for the speaker’s sentiments was only matched by the howls of protests at his perceived “tribalism” or “prejudice” – shop-worn fallbacks for an intellectually floundering society that is terrified of looking at itself in the mirror.

The entire sequence of events leading up to this strident declaration is symptomatic of an escapist society that continuously suffers trauma but remains unwilling to confront the source of the trauma. The reason for this is that Kenya’s formal education structures aren’t equipped (or intended) to have these discourses, so the issues remain unsaid. In this case, the issue is at hand is simply “whiteness”.

Whiteness is a mindset which decrees that land occupied by indigenous people is terra nullius (no one’s land) and is, therefore, available for occupation, acquisition or development. This term came from British settlement in Australia, which for nearly 200 years didn’t acknowledge the rights of the First Nations that preceded them.

There are obvious parallels with the acquisition of Kedong’ ranch for infrastructure development, with no regard to the needs of the many thousands of Maasai people and livestock that use it as a grazing area. This truly frightening challenge of loss of land and access to it is currently faced by the Maasai, pastoralists, and indigenous peoples in other parts of Africa, and has often resulted in violent resource conflict, leading to loss of lives and property, most notably livestock.

In Kenya, the typical responses to such crises is state violence at the flashpoint and vilification of the affected communities as “bandits” or “raiders”, accompanied by legal sanction of their leaders or representatives for their “belligerence” or “ethnic prejudice”. This simplistic approach to the issue speaks loudly of a state where the application of intellectual rigour to natural resource conservation and management is still widely regarded as anathema.

So, what is the true nature of this monster that so consistently defies our (remarkably primitive) attempts to manage its negative impacts? Firstly, the only reason why this challenge seems so intractable is the failure of our society to understand or define it. We are faced squarely with this deep malaise called settler colonialism, and the minutiae that vex us so deeply are merely the symptoms thereof.

Colonialism is a structure, not an event

What is settler colonialism?

In her 2015 paper, “Settler Colonialism”, Tate Lefevre elegantly defines settler colonialism as “a form of colonialism which seeks to replace the original population of the colonised territory with a new society of settlers. As with all forms of colonialism, it is based on exogenous domination, typically organised or supported by an imperial authority”.

The fundamental difference between settler colonialism and standard colonialism is that the latter merely seeks conquest and control, whereas the former seeks to supplant whatever preceded it, notable examples being the United States, Canada and Australia. Settler colonialism is enacted by a variety of means, ranging from violent genocide and disenfranchisement or depopulation of the previous inhabitants, to more subtle legal means, such as cultural assimilation or recognition of indigenous identity within a colonial structure, particularly as concerns land tenure.

In Kenya, the typical responses to such crises is state violence at the flashpoint and vilification of the affected communities as “bandits” or “raiders”, accompanied by legal sanction of their leaders or representatives for their “belligerence” or “ethnic prejudice”. This simplistic approach to the issue speaks loudly of a state where the application of intellectual rigour to natural resource conservation and management is still widely regarded as anathema.

The perceptive reader will notice that the enactment of settler colonialism as described herein bears an uncanny resemblance to the elaborate hoax commonly referred to in Kenya as “community conservancies”. The “recognition of indigenous identity”, for example, accurately describes the celebration of Maasai beadwork, dances and traditional garb within a colonial structure, namely, the “conservancy” within which they are not allowed to practise livestock production, unless under the structures imposed by a conservancy or a conservation NGO – the “colonial powers” in this arrangement.

The colonial powers that reside within the conservation sector often tout “alternative livelihoods”, such as tourism and beadwork, as key to the economic empowerment of pastoralist communities. But this flimsy window dressing barely hides the fraud within. The casual use of the term “alternative livelihoods” is actually a blatant admission of the intention to change what has been developed over many generations.

Livestock production, apart from being a livelihood providing an income far beyond what tourism offers, is an identity. This is what is under assault from settler colonialism – that identity that infuses pastoralists with pride, and makes it impossible to sway them with petty handouts that are de rigueur in the malarkey that styles itself as “community-based conservation”. Modern-day colonialism requires more cunning than violence, and its agents learned from their precursors that livestock is the “glue” that ties pastoralists to their homelands, the source of pride and identity that underpinned their resistance to invaders of all kinds. Maasai man with no livestock has no business in Maasailand and will probably end up working as a watchman in Nairobi, a dancer in Mombasa, or a curio seller on the streets of Cape Town.

These latter-day colonialists are also very well-read in history because they seem to understand how effectively the Native American nations were subdued two centuries ago by European invaders through the systematic elimination of their “livestock” (the bison). Once that task was completed, the impoverished and hungry Native Americans became pliable and were easily moved into small pockets of their former territories. These were called “Indian reservations” and bear an uncanny resemblance to what we in Kenya refer to as “community conservancies”, islands of contrived “self-determination” in the middle of entire landscapes annexed by outsiders.

The basis for negotiating and mitigating the plight of victims of this kind of disenfranchisement lies in understanding arguably the most profound statement on the subject: “Settler colonialism is a structure, not an event.” This hypothesis was proposed by the late Patrick Wolfe, an Australian historian who was an acknowledged authority on the subject.

Unlike other forms of colonialism, the imperial power in settler colonialism does not always represent the same nationality as the settlers. However, the colonising authority generally views the settlers as racially superior to the previous inhabitants, which may give settlers’ social movements and political demands greater legitimacy than those of colonised peoples in the eyes of the home colonies, whereas natural and human resources are the main motivation behind other forms of colonialism.

Many Kenyans and other people who were once colonised vehemently deny the profound negative impact of colonialism because they are either unwilling to accept or are intellectually incapable of understanding Patrick Wolfe’s basic hypothesis of colonialism as a structure. We can only address the vagaries of colonialism if we accept that it is a structure, rather than an event or an epoch.

The other difficulty facing Kenyans is their view of settlers as “racially superior”. In Africa, the advent of colonialism brought with it a clear colour bar, which in some countrie, actually got formally legislated and led to our initial basic understanding of “whiteness” and “blackness” as centered around our physical characteristics and peculiarities.

“Whiteness” as a policy position

However, it is now high time that natives of the Global South emerged from the Eurocentric silos of our respective reported histories to examine our condition. We urgently need to expand our temporal and geographical horizons in order to understand what ails us. We need to understand that in today’s Global South, “whiteness” is the senseless neoliberalism that only values our lands, our heritage (and even us!) through the prism of how much money a white man will pay to exploit it (or us).

The use of quotes in the word “whiteness” here is the deliberate elevation of whiteness into a policy and cultural position that transcends the race itself. “Whiteness” is not necessarily associated with skin colour, but with a worldview or a mindset. A logical question to ask at this point would therefore be: How does this hypothesis fit into the recent brouhaha pitting the Honourable Senator Ledama Ole Kina against so-called “outsiders” (mostly Kikuyu smallholder farmers) who are supposedly “taking over” Maasailand in Narok?

Put into perspective, Kenya, as a nation, is currently undergoing rapid changes driven by economic growth, misplaced economic pipe dreams, and several other factors. Any casual observer will notice that an inordinate proportion of the planned infrastructure in Kenya is targeted at the rangelands inhabited by Maa-speaking peoples and other pastoralists. The obvious and immediate impact of this is fragmentation and loss of grazing lands and stock routes. Opposition to these developments is always fronted by conservation interests who will speak ad nauseam about the loss of wildlife habitats, but won’t say a word about the negative impact on the livestock production chain or pastoralist livelihoods.

Many Kenyans and other people who were once colonised vehemently deny the profound negative impact of colonialism because they are either unwilling to accept or are intellectually incapable of understanding Patrick Wolfe’s basic hypothesis of colonialism as a structure. We can only address the vagaries of colonialism if we accept that it is a structure, rather than an event or an epoch.

The pastoralists are, therefore, caught between the hammer of infrastructure development and the anvil of avaricious conservation interests who want their land for conservation and tourism purposes. It isn’t difficult to see how this is a socially and economically perilous place to be. Both of these forces are extremely powerful, neoliberal and overwhelmingly white. To anyone who has been subject to this pressure and not yet taken the time to examine the issue critically, the reflex is to hit out at the nearest and smallest target. Sadly, these tend to be smallholder farmers from non-Maa communities who have bought land from willing sellers and are trying to produce crops for themselves and the markets, an overwhelmingly “black” activity.

Ecofascism

There is no doubt that pastoralists communities in Kenya are under relentless pressure from development and conservation interests, both of which are intent on taking control of their lands. However, the problem is a complex one, requiring a far more sophisticated approach than what we have witnessed thus far. More importantly, we need to understand that the vice squeezing indigenous peoples and their livelihoods is a global phenomenon driven by ecofascism, a global school of thought whose intellectual and financial underpinnings are often underestimated, to the detriment of indigenous populations.

The insatiable need that extractive industries have for natural resources isn’t anything new across the world, and communities in many resource-rich parts of the world have fought these industries for decades with varying levels of success. It is instructive to note here that even though these fights are sometimes violent and cost lives, they are honest fights, where the postures and needs of all the protagonists are clearly understood by all.

Apart from these conflicts, the greed of these extractive industries also led to the growth of the global environmental conservation movement and the advent of large conservation NGOs. These organisations have thrived for decades riding on a huge pool of goodwill drawn from the apparent nobility of their romanticised missions and visions. Only in the last decade or so have the white supremacist underpinnings of their images been acknowledged or confronted. For generations, art, fiction, media and even science normalised the absurd notion that wildlife in Africa is under constant peril from black Africans and that the intervention of white people is required in order to “save” this biodiversity.

This paradigm has grown and has now taken a distinct shape that can easily be recognised as ecofascism – defined by Michael Zimmerman (2008) as a theoretical political model in which an authoritarian government would require individuals to sacrifice their own interests for the “organic whole of nature”. Loosely described, this is the notion that any action in violation of human rights can be justified by the demonstration of its benefit to biodiversity or the natural environment in situ.

The pastoralists are, therefore, caught between the hammer of infrastructure development and the anvil of avaricious conservation interests who want their land for conservation and tourism purposes. It isn’t difficult to see how this is a socially and economically perilous place to be.

The majority of our society live on the periphery of these issues and would understandably be sceptical at the thought of such a flawed principle gaining any credibility or traction, but the reality is very different. Several decades of relentless promotion through the media, the arts, academia, and scientific publications has normalised an idea that is an absurdity at best and an injustice at worst.

The vilification of pastoralist communities is still the “default setting” for acquisition of their land from both sides of what is a two-pronged onslaught. “Development” and state and commercial interests maintain that pastoralism is “uncivilised” and that pastoralists’ lands need to be “developed”, while environmental and conservation interests maintain that pastoralists are “overpopulating”, “over-grazing” and “degrading” their land. This creates the absurd logic that conservationists have to somehow “take over” and “manage” these resources on their behalf (read: annex and exploit the said resources). The earlier stated position taken by capital is well known and widely acknowledged, but the position of the “eco-pirates” is often couched in feigned concern for the indigenous population, complete with local foot soldiers for window dressing purposes.

A recent incident in eastern Kenya is a prime example of how this typically plays out. On the 10th of March this year, two four-month old giraffe skeletons were found in Ishaqbin area in Garissa. The conservancy management (under the direction of the Northern Rangelands Trust) immediately issued a press release saying that the giraffes (a leucistic mother and calf) had been “killed by armed poachers” without giving any evidence whatsoever to corroborate this claim. The press release was carefully worded to imply that the two dead giraffes were two out of only three existing animals belonging to an extremely rare species. The key fact that they were simply reticulated giraffes suffering from a genetic disorder was studiously avoided. The BBC immediately started regurgitating the story through their international platforms and made a pointed reference to the fact that the giraffes “lived in an unfenced conservancy”, illustrating clearly that one of their main objectives was to justify the use of fencing here as a conservation tool.

Following the publication of the article, the expected global crescendo of condemnation for the “savage” poachers took hold. In India, for example, the BBC report was covered by the online publication Bhaskar.com and readers’ comments ranged from cursing the “poachers” to demands that they also be killed for their transgressions.

Biased reporting

Extrajudicial killings are a common human rights violation in the Global South, but this extreme reaction clearly indicates the power of biased reporting on African conservation issues. It is important to note that up to this point, the Kenya Wildlife Service has still not referred to this as a poaching incident, and its investigations thus far have not unearthed any evidence of crime. This report on “poaching” is, therefore, a fabrication by conservation practitioners on the ground that is amplified and distributed with the assistance of the BBC.

The power of this romanticised wildlife conservation narrative and its proponents cannot be over-estimated. The BBC is an outlet that is widely respected for its carefully cultivated and demonstrated penchant for objectivity, but this is instantly abandoned whenever it reports on wildlife issues in Africa. Examples of the BBC’s “whitewashing” of African wildlife reports abound, including Dr. Hans Bauer’s “discovery” of a lion population in Ethiopia (2016) and the false report by Dr. Mike Chase of an elephant “massacre” in Botswana (2018). The BBC also participated in the elaborate hoax surrounding the “extinction” of the northern white rhino with the death of “Sudan” (2018).

Interestingly, the same BBC is covering a much-touted project to find some remnant specimens of the species they reported as being extinct with such alacrity two years earlier. This unusual show of institutional weakness is actually just a submission to the needs of global capital. Ordinarily (or in a sensible world), sentiments like ecofascism are relegated to the peripheries of rational thought where other outlandish theories, like the belief in a flat earth, exist.

So, what could have driven the sudden incursion of these ideas into realms of rational thought? Increasing demand for money in the conservation world led to the professionalisation of fundraising and the engagement of marketing professionals in a field where there really isn’t any product to sell. These brilliant professionals came up with a valuable product to tap into the pockets (and guilt) of global capital for funds: a dose of guilt and an offer of self-actualisation (for a considerable financial consideration) as an antidote to the same. Suddenly, any self-respecting billionaire who could have anything had to have an environmental conservation project attached to his name. The only thing missing now was intellectual leadership with enough gravitas to take our minds off the unpleasant whiff of racism that pervaded this movement.

Enter Sir David Attenborough, with his famous breathless voice, brilliant documentaries, and Malthusian views on human population (except white people) and their impact on biodiversity.

The next challenge was capturing academia and those who saw themselves as beyond capture by images. Enter Edward Wilson, the famous Harvard sociobiologist who needed to retain some relevance in the twilight of his career by proposing the “Half Earth Theory” – the ludicrous idea that half the earth should be protected in its primordial state to save biodiversity. It is racism clothed in academic mumbo jumbo because it is obvious to any observer that the target of this “protection” is the tropics, which are home to black and brown people. There won’t be any biodiversity gains by turning London, New York (or Boston) into a protected area.

The vilification of pastoralist communities is still the “default setting” for acquisition of their land from both sides of what is a two-pronged onslaught. “Development” and state and commercial interests maintain that pastoralism is “uncivilised” and that pastoralists’ lands need to be “developed”, while environmental and conservation interests maintain that pastoralists are “overpopulating”, “over-grazing” and “degrading” their land.

With these ingredients, conservation interests built a cauldron into which the extremely wealthy are pouring startling amounts of money to subvert systems, grab lands, and plunder resources in the Global South. This money also captures the media and the arts, who cleanse all the injustices with glowing reports on conservation success or apocalypse, depending on whether white or black people are in charge.

All over Africa, the big international conservation NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy have captured state conservation organs using financial might conferred upon them by their corporate backers, and Kenya is no exception. Our rangelands, and the people who call them home are caught between the hammer of “white” destruction and the anvil of “white” conservation, neither of which have any time for “black” livelihoods. This can even be observed in the way the state (through Kenya Wildlife Service) is pursuing its conservation mandate. It allows “white” geothermal development and “white” music festivals in Hells Gate National Park, but “black” grazing of Maasai livestock or gathering of firewood in the same place can get one arrested or shot.

In 2017, violent clashes were witnessed when pastoralists from Samburu moved south into Laikipia with their livestock seeking pasture and routes through to grazing lands further south. The media (BBC included) talked at length about the lawlessness and violence, with numerous references to the pastoralists as “raiders” and “bandits”. What they did not mention was the fact that all of the Samburu pastoralists were coming from areas that were “community conservancies” – areas where all their dry season grazing reservoirs had been converted into conservation areas or tourism facilities.

Conservation interests must necessarily be treated with caution because they are the new face of imperialism and disenfranchisement. Awareness of this global challenge is growing through the work of organisations like Survival International. Indeed, international instruments, such as the “New Deal for Nature” merit close examination, as illustrated by Stephen Corry (2020) in the Medium journal.

Senator Ledama Ole Kina stood out back in 2017 because he was the only one who spoke out against this injustice at a time when pastoralism was a reviled and vilified livelihood in Kenya and around the world. This year he has spoken out again, and it is my fervent hope that his voice this time will initiate a conversation, because conversation is a quintessentially “black” method of conflict resolution.

This is my contribution to the much-needed conversation: Senator, we cannot afford to lose pastoralism for the sake of our identity culture or economy, but the two “white” prongs will destroy it if we let them. The capitalist development prong is harmful, but honest. You can negotiate with it because its objectives do not expressly require your subjugation. The conservation prong is lethal, because it comes smiling and it recruits your brothers to help rob you, and it will tell you that your brothers from other ethnic groups are your enemies. It is laughing as you attack smallholder Kikuyu farmers and Luo conservationists while it takes your birthright. To my pastoralist brothers, don’t be silent! Our ancestors will bless you for speaking out, and our children will thank you for it. For now, I only hope that my light has illuminated the face of your real enemy.

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Mordecai Ogada is a carnivore ecologist from Kenya and co-author of The Big Conservation Lie.

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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