The world has been teetering on the precipice ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan city in Hubei province, China. Since then, the disease has been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), leading to countries adopting drastic measures to combat it.
In a majority of countries, state security institutions have been activated and deployed to help enforce the lockdown, and the stay-at-home and social distancing policies. Inasmuch as these strategies are practical measures to combat COVID-19, they have inadvertently created opportunities for authoritarianism. Jared Rodriguez aptly surmises the situation: “The pandemic creates extraordinary circumstances for restricting civil liberties, free speech and human rights while intensifying the possibilities of an emerging authoritarianism.”
In countries like Zimbabwe, which are rife with authoritarianism, it seems the pandemic has provided a perfect opportunity to checkmate the ever nagging opposition and civic movement. The strategies adopted so far by the government point only to one goal: achieving unimpeded imperial rule for the incumbent.
The responses of the pro-democracy movement have been largely premised on a neoliberal framework to politics and state-craft despite the existing material and social conditions pointing otherwise. The pro-democracy movement has mainly pursued constitutional reformism and electoralism in an economy that is predominantly agrarian, informal, and dominated by natural resource extraction and the service industry. This brings into question these strategies, and more importantly, the future of democratic politics in Zimbabwe.
Democracy under threat
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed democracy under one of its biggest threats. Authoritarian strategies have become the de facto norm adopted by governments. Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, makes an important observation on the three pillars that may make any country manage to respond effectively to Covid-19: “In fact, this is an acid test for every single country’s quality of healthcare, standard of governance and social capital. If any one of the pillars in the tripod is weak, it will be exposed, and exposed quite unmercifully by this epidemic.”
It is important to note that governance is one of the key pillars for the state’s capacity to respond effectively to COVID-19; a failure within that realm may mean disaster in the end. In this case, governance speaks to how public power and policy are deployed and used within the state. This poses questions on how public officials and institutions are operating and guiding their conduct in seeking to enforce laws meant to contain and suppress the spread of the virus. There have been widespread reports of heavy-handed approaches that have seen the rise of what Jared Rodriguez calls the “…support for pedagogical apparatuses of spectacularised violence, fear mongering and state terror…”, thus “…creating fertile grounds for the cultivation and inclusion of authoritarian politics…”.
China instituted a total lockdown of the country that has been reported to have been accompanied by the erosion of people’s freedoms in the name of fighting the virus. Human Rights Watch has accused China of resorting to “automated tyranny”. Reason Foundation’s Shika Dalmia argues that beneath the veneer of China’s so-called impressive response to combat the virus, the Chinese authorities used a variety of tools to infringe on the privacy of people, including pharmacies to spy and collect data on customers, social platforms AllPay and WeChat to install tracking software on their users, and China Telecom colour-coded phones to screen people. It also paid close to 300,000 volunteers to spy on residents and report to the police, and rewarded neighbours to spy on each other. The police barged into homes to forcibly take away suspected COVID-19 patients.
China instituted a total lockdown of the country that has been reported to have been accompanied by the erosion of people’s freedoms in the name of fighting the virus. Human Rights Watch has accused China of resorting to “automated tyranny”.
These tactics mirror heavy surveillance of citizens in Nazi Germany. The reports of China building a hospital in 10 days whilst democracies such as the United States of America, United Kingdom and India dithered on responses inadvertently led to a discussion on which form of governance is better. The net effect has been lethal propaganda that created a fallacy of an efficient system, especially after reports of China building the hospital. Western media and scholars fell for this propaganda charm offensive that projected the Chinese system as efficient and superior while Western democracies were seen as slow and sloppy. For instance, Yale professor, Nicholas Christakis, ran a thread on Twitter praising China’s collectivist culture and authoritarian government as unprecedented and impressive.
Yet, the global media and leading scholars have been silent on how democracies like Taiwan, Iceland, South Korea and Germany have managed to successfully and effectively respond to combating COVID-19. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa undertook widespread consultations with a wide variety of key stakeholders, and cobbled a national consensus with the opposition, civil society, churches and business leaders. In addition, the country adopted an open and transparent information management system and tapped into expert scientists for advice. By the 9th 0f April, South Africa was reported to have increased its testing capacity of 5,000/day by six-fold after adding 60 more mobile testing units to the existing 7, combined with 180 testing sites and 320 testing units across the country.
Similarly, according to Don Reisinger, “Germany has had remarkably few Covid-19 deaths, which experts attribute partly to its high number of hospital beds and ICU beds”. Despite having a high numbers of people infected by the coronavirus, Germany has managed to lower its fatality rate, which in March 22 stood at 0.3 per cent. The death rate as of 29 March 2020 was much lower than that of China, Italy and many other countries around the world. Germany is stated to have “8.1 hospital beds per 1,000 people and 6.1 ICU beds per 1 000 people”, something highly remarkable in comparison to “Italy has 3.2 hospital beds per 1 000 and 2.6 ICU beds per 1 000”. It is these positive stories from democracies that have not gained prominence in comparison to the ones from the Benevolent Brutal Dragon’s propaganda.
Africa’s emerging trend of authoritarianism
Images of security forces beating and torturing civilians to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa have been dominating social media. Trevor Nnabugu of Ventures Africa, an online news site, provides a chronicle of human rights abuses in Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. In these cases, security forces are accused of using indiscriminate and disproportionate force, including murder, rape, beatings and public humiliation, in a bid to enforce the lockdowns. The rising cases of police brutality in Africa, while not unique to the region, signify the tendency of our security apparatus to revert to the default logic of violence.
In Zambia, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) took no time to suspend the licence of Prime TV on the 9th of April 2020 on the basis that it was unpatriotic and threatening public safety after the media outlet refused to air the government’s COVID-19 commercials for free. Before that, the government had banned its officials from conducting business with and appearing on Prime TV broadcasts. It also barred Prime TV’s journalists from attending official events. In addition, on 27th March 2020, Top Star Communication Limited Company, a partly state-owned television signal carrier, informed Prime TV that it would stop carrying its broadcast in a bid to blackout the television as punishment for its consistent criticism of the ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF). In all these acts, the hand of the state is quite visible in attempting to close an independent media that has always been critical of government.
Images of security forces beating and torturing civilians to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa have been dominating social media. Trevor Nnabugu of Ventures Africa, an online news site, provides a chronicle of human rights abuses in Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria.
A leading African Women’s Rights Activist, Nancy Kachingwe, quipped on Twitter: “Dear African leaders, a pandemic isn’t a war, it’s a public health crisis made worse by your failures to build strong public health systems you’ve not been attacked, you’ve been found wanting batons & beatings solve nothing…”
The tweet surmises the logic and attitude of African leaders, where every solution is perceived as a nail and that needs a hammer.
We have to guard, organise and push back against what I see as an opportunistic clawback of civil liberties in the days of disease emergencies, as well as human rights violations. And I have already talked about default police brutality, which is already the default of many of our states with a legacy of repressive regimes. So that is something which I think particularly organised civil society has to be very vigilant because you can see some of these people cynically even using this to suspend civil liberties. They have been trying to do it, even before coronavirus. So now they have this perfect excuse to do what they want.
Nowhere does this warning ring more true than in Africa, and more specifically in Zimbabwe. The beleaguered Harare regime has wasted no time to use the opportunity availed by COVID-19 to usurp legislative authority at the expense of promoting executive authority in a patently unconstitutional manner and to decimate the opposition and civil society.
Zimbabwe, the unrepentant child
On Friday, the 27th of March 2020, President Mnangagwa announced a 21-day national lockdown to be implemented starting from midnight of 30th March 2020. This move came after some dithering by the Harare authorities, which were heavily criticised for failing to prepare for an impending medical disaster.
The announcement of the lockdown was positively received and praised across the political divide, a rare moment in Zimbabwe’s political history. However, the positive vibe and bipartisan consensus, and the possibility of an elite cohesion towards cobbling a national response, was quickly lost. The Ministry of Information Secretary, Nick Mangwana, through his TL @nickmangwana forewarned what was to come: “The total lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 will start at midnight with the Government passionately calling on citizens to comply with the directive and instructions from security personnel deployed to enforce the law.”
Already the government was psyching itself into a combative mood. The Presidential Spokesperson, George Charamba, through his TL @jamwanda2, threatened the unleashing of the army in the low-income suburbs: “MaFACE angu ekumaGhetto, kindly note that pranks and drinking sprees in streets this evening will come to grief!!!! THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!!!!! Loosely translated: My friends from the low income suburbs, kindly note that pranks and drinking in streets this evening will come to grief!!!! THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!!!!!
Indeed, soldiers were deployed and immediately the cries of agony echoed all over the country, as videos of residents being either beaten or tortured by security forces started to circulate on social media.
The announcement of the lockdown was positively received and praised across the political divide, a rare moment in Zimbabwe’s political history. However, the positive vibe and bipartisan consensus, and the possibility of an elite cohesion towards cobbling a national response, was quickly lost.
In Karoi, Masvondo, a local resident, had to petition the court after some members of the Zimbabwe National Army allegedly barged into her homestead and assaulted everyone within her household under the guise of enforcing a lockdown. In Mutare, police burned agricultural produce headed for the markets, insisting that everyone should observe the stay-at-home instruction. Harare’s popular vegetable market, Mbare Musika had saddening stories of farmers and vegetable vendors, whose produce was getting rotten because of lack of access to the market.
The government had to recant some of its policy directives after there were huge outcries, even from its traditional support bases. The planning and implementation of the lockdown was not well thought-out, hence the disastrous results from the onset. As of 16th April, the Media Institute in Southern Africa-Zimbabwe (MISA-Zim) had recorded several cases of downstream vendors whose rights had been violated under the pretext of enforcing the lockdown.
Most journalists have been facing harassment over accreditation, despite the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) having acknowledged to have failed to approve the registration of journalists for the year 2020. Pursuant to that, the ZMC issued a communique that journalists’ 2019 accreditation had been automatically renewed and could be used for the year 2020. Despite this policy position of the authorities, the security services have been acting on the contrary and continue to harass journalists. Even the pro-government newspaper, the Herald, had to break with tradition and pen an editorial comment on the 13th of April 2020 rebuking and questioning the motives of the police. The Zimbabwean High Court also went further by barring the police’s heavy handedness.
The judiciary in Zimbabwe has also come under heavy criticism during the pandemic after issuing a judgment that has fundamentally reconfigured the opposition in Zimbabwe. Earlier on, the judiciary had issued a notice that it was suspending court processes and would only attend to urgent cases related to the implementation of lockdown measures. Bail hearings were suspended and even new cases were not going to be dealt with until after the end of the lockdown.
Interestingly, Dr. Thokozani Khupe, one of the claimants to the heir of the Movement for Democratic Change, tweeted on the 31st of March that the Supreme Court will deliver judgment on the long standing matter on the legitimate heir to the throne after the death of founding leader Morgan Tsvangirayi on the 14th of February 2018. What followed became an intriguing and choreographed series of events that cast further doubts on the independence of the judiciary.
Dr Alex Magaisa of Kent University in the United Kingdom gives a nuanced analysis of this drama in his Big Saturday Read blog. He summed it as compromised and selective. State security institutions have been heavily compromised and made partisan, and this has been very evident during their operations during COVID-19. Ever since the Supreme Court judgment, dramatic and bizarre events have followed, where the main opposition MDC Alliance has lost its elected representatives (Members of Parliament and Councillors) and party offices to a party that it contested against in the 2018 elections. A significant number of lawyers associated with the MDC Alliance have also been arrested and charged with spurious allegations. Three ladies from the youth assembly who dared to protest were abducted from police custody and sexually abused, and also later arrested for violating lockdown rules despite the government failing to come out clean on the abductors.
Blessed Mhlanga, one of Zimbabwe’s top journalists, through his TL @bbmhlanga on the 16th of April 2020, tweeted the case of Senator Tofa from the leading opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance who was barred by the police from donating humanitarian aid to the needy. In the same tweet, Mhlanga further claimed that the police went further to instruct millers not sell Honourable Tofa any mealie-meal. Earlier, on the 8th of April 2020, Honourable Caston Matewu of Marondera Central constituency claimed that the police in Marondera had refused his donation to fight COVID-19 on political grounds. Such stories are not surprising in Zimbabwe, where state security institutions have been compromised by the ruling party.
A close reading of these cases and many others show that the security services are using the logic of force to deal with purely civilian issues. A tweet by @matigary, a pro-government online troll, surmises the thinking in government: “SA military SANDF is kicking ass & bashing heads. I am inviting Dewa Mavhinga & his nywe nywe (talk too much) human rights crowd to test SANDF by defying the lockdown.”
This celebration of spectacularised violence within the security services’ response to public health issues, which are largely civilian, are very worrying and also indicate that Zimbabwe is still an unrepentant child, despite claims of a “New Dispensation” after the fall of Robert Mugabe.
An alert but limited pro-democracy movement
Zimbabwe has had an alert and very lively pro-democracy movement that has managed to successfully call out the government and ruling party whenever they fall out of line. This pro-democracy movement has been composed of the loose alliance of the main opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and democracy and human rights advocacy NGOs.
For instance, during this COVID-19 lockdown, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) has been at the forefront of providing legal defence to human rights defenders, journalists and ordinary citizens who found themselves at the mercy of authorities. The ZLHR has also funded public interest litigation that has also seen the High Court directing the Ministry of Health to provide professional protective equipment (PPE) to health workers and roll out testing to the public. A significant number of NGOs and business and church leaders have also come to the fore, establishing charity platforms to mobilise humanitarian aid to support the vulnerable and refurbish medical centres and equip them with the necessary resources to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
A close reading of the responses of the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe clearly shows that it is very active and vibrant but always gets checkmated by its limited approach in dissecting national questions. Civil society in Zimbabwe has hardly questioned the role of the state, focusing more on legalism and litigation to discipline the errant state. This has seen the promotion of civil liberties at the expense of material and cultural rights.
It is abundantly clear that from the foregoing observations that the current architecture of the state has put into sharp relief the limitations of the neo-liberal state and markets. The question therefore, that beckons is: How do post-liberation movements deal with the question of material rights and redefine themselves? This is the elephant in the room that the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe has to tackle.
The responses to COVID-19 require to be put in a broader structural framework that is historical and not only driven by the moment. As Dr. Balakrishnan cautioned, “But let me tell you as a doctor, these are things you cannot just build up overnight. It takes years and years of investment in people, in systems, in capacity.”
A close examination will reveal that the countries that have managed to effectively respond to the pandemic are those with strong investments in public health. This brings us back to the question of the role of the state.
Civil society in Zimbabwe has hardly questioned the role of the state, focusing more on legalism and litigation to discipline the errant state. This has seen the promotion of civil liberties at the expense of material and cultural rights.
Zimbabwe’s economy has been largely agrarian, natural resource dependant, dominated by the service industry and characterised by high levels of informality and precarity. The labour force survey of 2014 estimated that 94.5 per cent of Zimbabweans earned their living in the informal sector. In 2017, artisanal/small-scale miners accounted for more gold output than large-scale miners. In 2012, the Environmental Management Agency of 2012 estimated their number to be around 500 000, a figure that should have grown by now.
In the 2018-2019 season, tobacco farmers recorded an all-time high yield of 258 million kilogrammes. Estimates put the number of small-scale farmers to between 80,000 and 90,000. Professor Brian Raftopoulos in his 2013 article, “Zimbabwean politics in the post 2013 election”, asserts that the country’s political economy had been reconfigured, giving rise to a new social base and thus calling for new forms of organising. This new social base is characterised by high levels of de-industrialisation and informality. The coming of the COVID-19 pandemic further problematises the role of the state and politics of public goods, especially in highly informalised economies like Zimbabwe. It’s quite clear that the issue of public goods can no longer be reduced to either the magic of the market or benevolent philanthropy and celebrity activism.
It is patently clear that the COVID-19 response in Zimbabwe has seen an absent state. The state has largely relied on benevolent philanthropy and celebrity activism whilst looting the public purse. The Ministry of Health and NatPharm (the national pharmaceutical company, a public enterprise) have been embroiled in one looting scandal after another. An investigation and expose by two online websites, ZimLive and The Zimbabwe Morning Post, implicate high profile government officials and the president’s children in fleecing the treasury through overpricing of medical supplies under the guise of dealing with COVID-19-related emergencies. These corruption scandals even gained the attention of Interpol, the international police agency, after a two-week-old company got paid US$2million by the Zimbabwe government.
A close examination will reveal that the countries that have managed to effectively respond to the pandemic are those with strong investments in public health. This brings us back to the question of the role of the state.
Meanwhile, the opposition has failed to make the government accountable as it is embroiled in internecine fights arising from the Supreme Court judgment of 31st of March 2020. At best, the main opposition has managed to issue a series of press statements without showing any clear direction on how to move forward.
Looking ahead, Zimbabwe’s pro-democracy movement may need to learn from Professor Issa Shivji’s wise words extensively quoted below:
The contemporary neo-liberal discourse has one fundamental blind spot. It treats the present as if the present has had no history. The discourse on democracy in Africa suffers from the same blindness. The struggle for democracy did not begin with the postcold war introduction of multi-party system. The independence and liberation struggles for self‐determination, beginning in the postworld war period, were eminently a struggle for democracy. Neither formal independence nor the victory of armed liberation movements marked the end of democratic struggles. They continued, albeit in different forms…the great democratic struggles of the African people expressed in their independence and national liberation movements remain incomplete. The so-called democracy constructed on ahistorical and asocial paradigms of neo-liberalism are an expression of renewed imperial onslaught, which is profoundly anti‐democratic…
This would mean a return to a political economy for the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe, which should begin to articulate the democratic struggle within the lived realities of the cross-border trader, the vegetable and fruit vendor, the small-scale farmer, the artisanal miner, the slum dweller in Hopley, the informal taxi operator, the menial worker and all the subalterns within Zimbabwe’s informalised economy. Doing so means bringing in class analysis and social and economic justice-based solutions to the core of public policy.
The current COVID-19-induced response of the state has shown why the pro-democracy movement should disentangle itself from the fallacious promise of neoliberal democracy and the magic of the market. Only when and until the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe realises that democracy needs to shift from just fighting for civil liberties to articulating how public goods and services can be rescued from the profit motive to bring about a better quality of life to humanity can it checkmate the reigning authoritarianism. This is the same way that the liberation movement was able to checkmate the Rhodesian Gulag State, despite its last leader, Ian Smith, proclaiming that “never in a thousand years”, will there ever be black rule.
The struggle for democracy is primarily a political struggle on the form of governance, thus involving the reconstitution of the state. No one claims that democracy means and aims at social emancipation. Rather it is located on the terrain of political liberalism so, at best, creating conditions for the emancipatory project. This is important to emphasize in light of the hegemony of neoliberal discourse, which tends to emasculate democracy of its social and historical dimensions and present it as an ultimate nirvana.
The question is: What would state reconstitution look like? Is it a return to socialism, the democratic developmental state or the social democratic state? The answer lies in any path that straddles through any of those types of state or their combination.
However, it is clear from the foregoing that the neoliberal state is not the solution. To respond to the rising authoritarianism, the pro-democracy movements need to return democratic politics to the core of delivering public goods and services and not servicing profits and the market. Doing so may mean designing critical intellectual projects meant to push back nationalist authoritarianism, increasing public ligation on the enforcement of the expanded bill of rights in the 2013 Constitution, building people’s movements anchored in collective action and solidarity around public goods rather than electoralism, and shying away from oligarchic tendencies.
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The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
The responses to the information disorder adopted in Kenya have been largely ineffective. Multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively stand a higher chance of success and will result in a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.
The information disorder (i.e., mis- and disinformation) pervasive on social media has arguably interfered with democratic processes across the world. As public authorities and political actors continue to embrace social media as a broadcast and civic engagement tool, the potency of manipulated narratives online is further entrenched. This is debatably truer in electoral contexts where issues are perhaps more emotive and divisive. For example, in the run-up to Kenya’s general elections, a notable amount of mis- and disinformation on social media was observable. As Wambui Wamunyu and June Okal noted, doctored images of crowds during political rallies, mild deepfake videos, doctored photos, and fake accounts passing off as political actors or mainstream media were just some of the categories of mis- and disinformation observable on social media. These observations tie in with earlier research by Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo, highlighting the practice of using bloggers for disinformation campaigns. During the actual elections, the EU Election Observer Mission also observed “manufactured amplification and coordination of messages online by fake accounts and malicious, bot-driven activity in support of the presidential candidates”.
The impact of the information disorder on democracies has been extensively discussed and will not be the subject of this article. Instead, this article focuses on the diverse responses which have been mooted and implemented in Kenya by policy makers, media, civil society, and social media platforms in response to the information disorder. In particular, this article argues that these responses are largely ineffective when used in isolation and suggests that collectives comprised of a broad range of multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively are likely to have a higher chance at success. One such collective, Fumbua, was established in the run-up to the 2022 general elections in Kenya, and this article argues that the frameworks for collaboration it established can be repurposed to address the information disorder in numerous contexts.
Contextualizing the information disorder on social media
The proliferation of mis- and disinformation on social media is made easier by the fact that such platforms, by nature, enable peer-to-peer engagement with little to no gatekeeping. While this characteristic has also meant that these platforms have served to create room for civic engagement and act as an equalizer, such civic engagement is often undermined by the harmful content that is prevalent. In recognition of the potential for harm their platforms pose to democratic processes, numerous social media platforms have adopted policies and tools specifically designed to address election-related mis-and disinformation. Comparatively, the content moderation tools applied in the Global South have arguably been scant. For example, in Brazil, the individuals tasked with enforcing Twitter’s policies during the presidential election only got access to the necessary internal tools a day prior to the election, and only in a limited capacity. Twitter allegedly utilized automatic enforcement technology and third-party service providers. According to numerous commentators, it is not uncommon for content moderation efforts in the Global South to be below par. From automatic enforcement tools trained on datasets lacking in local context, to human content moderators facing the same challenge, these platforms’ efforts to curb the information disorder are handicapped from the outset. These challenges are exacerbated in electoral contexts. Recent developments have shown that it sometimes takes third parties such as researchers or civil society pointing out harmful content for platforms to act.
It is generally agreed that mis-and disinformation was prevalent on social media during Kenya’s August 2022 general election. For example, the EU Election Observer Mission indicated in its report that it had identified hundreds of misleading Facebook and Twitter profiles. Platforms triggered their civic integrity policies a few weeks prior to the election and set up information centres and moderately labelled misleading content. However, these labels were not consistently applied and were in fact only deployed during the election tallying process. Stakeholders seemingly lacked a clear solution to address the information disorder on social media. The lack of sustainable and scalable solutions is not unique to Kenya and the region. It is certainly a global problem and a key step in the right direction is securing more transparency from platforms in relation to their enforcement processes as this will enable stakeholders to co-create solutions. However, in the interim, the information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed. One way to accomplish this is through multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua.
Addressing the information disorder
Fumbua is a collective of media and media-related organisations which came together in the run-up of the 2022 general election with a view to addressing the information disorder as it relates to political campaigning. The efforts to address the information disorder in Kenya’s 2022 general election can largely be categorized into actions taken in anticipation of the mis- and disinformation (pre-emptive measures) and actions taken in response to the information disorder (reactive measures). Fumbua brought together organisations involved in both areas, such as fact checkers, “pre-bunkers” and traditional media. Both these reactive and pre-emptive measures are discussed below.
The information disorder can be addressed by effecting incremental and sustainable changes to how media is produced and consumed.
Mis- and disinformation has reportedly featured in Kenyan elections since 2013. Consequently, with each passing cycle, stakeholders have been able to understand its nature and develop solutions which are alive to Kenya’s specific context. Unfortunately, due to the rapidly evolving nature of mis- and disinformation practices, the solutions developed have often been reactive in that they seek to get rid of such harmful content or undo its effects after the fact. For example, by criminalizing false content through the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, by fact checking such content, by using labels to warn audiences of the nature of the content, and by obtaining the takedown of such content from social media sites.
Fact checking has perhaps been the most prevalent or visible response to the information disorder. It essentially entails systematically breaking down the validity of claims made by public officials, institutions, and political actors with a view to identifying whether the claim is factual or not. In Kenya’s elections, various fact-checkers were active. These included independent media, the fact-checking desks of mainstream media, and collectives or associations. To name a few, Africa Check, Africa Uncensored, Pesa Check, Media Council of Kenya, Kenya Editors Guild and The Star were involved in fact-checking claims made during the Kenyan elections. While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder, especially when empirical evidence on the subject is divided. In highly politicized environments, it is unlikely that being exposed to verification of claims will affect an audience’s world view. This is more so the case where the objectivity and impartiality of the fact-checkers are in question. Fact-checkers often must compete with an audience’s confirmation bias and their credibility is often questioned due to the conflict their narrative poses to the world view of some audiences. This is not made easier by the fact that fact-checking is a difficult, time-consuming, and labour-intensive process which cannot compete with the speed at which false information is spread through social media. Add in the fact that false information more easily captures attention due to its ability to trigger negative emotions and one can understand why the utility and efficacy of fact-checking is limited. Fact-checking claims made through social media have also been especially difficult in Kenya due to the minimal and often performative support given to fact-checkers by social media platforms.
For fact-checking to be effective, it must offer an alternative narrative to that which it is disputing. The challenge is that such a narrative must exist in the first place and must be capable of being accepted by an audience. Where such a narrative exists, there is a risk that it may come with “political baggage” and as such be difficult to accept. In such cases, the efficacy of fact-checking is limited, and this is essentially the challenge faced by fact-checkers – purveyors of false information are not bound by the same rules. Despite all this, fact-checking has been found to positively affect audience beliefs notwithstanding pre-existing beliefs and whether an alternative narrative was presented. However, these credentials are limited as the effects on belief are weak and gradually becoming negligible. Additionally, they do not always translate to downstream effects (i.e., changing of votes).
For a long time, stakeholders seeking to curb the information disorder have found themselves on the back-foot, always responding after the fact. By the time interventions such as fact-checks, social media takedowns, and flags are deployed, harmful content has likely taken root. With this in mind, some pre-emptive solutions have been contemplated and used by stakeholders. These are discussed below.
While fact-checking has increasingly become common, it would be improper to conflate its growing prominence with its ability to address the information disorder.
As discussed earlier in this article, fact-checkers often face the challenge of having to overcome an audience’s inherent biases and the political baggage accompanying the alternative narratives they seek to put forth. In seeking to overcome this reactionary approach, Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden argue that it may be more effective to inoculate audiences against harmful content by priming their minds to anticipate it. This has come to be referred to as prebunking, and it essentially entails exposing audiences to watered down versions of false or misleading content with a view to highlighting the tactics used by purveyors of such content. Prebunking efforts recognize that the information disorder may not necessarily be solved by disseminating more accurate information given that harmful content is often consumed in highly politicized contexts. Instead, these efforts seek to redesign information architecture through behavioural interventions (i.e., changing how audiences consume information). In Kenya, Stop Reflect Verify was the first publicly documented election-related prebunking program. It offered a misinformation quiz focused on the Kenyan elections.
While prebunking seemingly promises to reduce the reactionary nature of stakeholder efforts, there is insufficient proof that skills learned in prebunking programmes are applied in practical situations. Counterfactual thinking may be a useful strategy to incorporate into prebunking efforts. Counterfactual thinking involves stimulating an audience’s mind to consider alternative facts and hypotheses when presented with information in a bid to logically deduce the likely truth. The lack of consensus on the utility and efficacy of prebunking as an alternative to fact-checking points to the need for the deployment of multiple interventions in a coordinated fashion, and this is where multidisciplinary collectives such as Fumbua come in.
Building in sustainability
Periodically, civil society, media practitioners, and the donor community focus their efforts on election-related programmes in a collaborative manner (for example the media’s collaboration during presidential debates). In most cases, the collaboration does not survive the post-election period. As a result, these election stakeholders have to start anew during each election. A considerable amount of time and resources are dedicated to establishing the frameworks for collaboration, taking away from the potential impact these programmes may have. With collectives such as Fumbua, stakeholders are able to repurpose the goodwill that fostered collaboration during elections to continue to address the information disorder in other contexts. By sustaining the collaboration, stakeholders would be able to leverage on incremental gains and make a more impactful change. In relation to the information disorder, they would be better able to move towards how media is generated and consumed. The effect of this would be a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.
The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy
Crisis is the new constant and advocacy efforts should seek ways of growing public awareness through civic education.
Are East African countries ready to face the next crisis or are they simply keen to go back to how things were? What does a new normal mean when speaking about public finance management (PFM)?
In continuing the struggle for structural transformation, economic justice efforts must work towards developing a new citizen and preparing for unpredictable or unforeseen events, more so those with extreme socio-economic and political consequences.
This is because, besides known challenges posed by existing inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out how “unusual circumstances such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes, disease outbreaks and warfare … depress the ability of citizens to engage in economic activity and pay taxes as well as that of governments [capacity] to collect revenue [or] provide services”.
Such circumstances therefore demand more inclusion of human rights-based approaches in economic justice efforts to champion greater fairness within existing financial architecture.
Disasters should, therefore, not obliterate human rights but should heighten the need to respect, protection, and fulfilment of obligations through prioritizing expenditure on service delivery, as well as all elements of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) to “boost the capacity of residents to withstand shocks” by improving coping mechanisms.
Promotion of fair taxes among other broader economic justice initiatives within PFM should consequently adapt towards championing ESCRS within the context of more disruptive and unexpected incidents. Crisis is constant in the new normal.
Fiscal democracy and civil protection: Recovery, resilience, and transformation
Currently, conversations on recovery are focused on tackling reduced tax collection; slowed growth; depressed formal or informal productivity; exploding unemployment; diminished remittances; persistent poverty; decline in energy access; and escalating food insecurity.
This emphasis seeks to reverse the effects of various lockdown policies that placed restrictions on businesses, mobility, movement within and across international borders, [plus] public gatherings. However, it speaks mostly of a desire to return to pre-COVID levels of economic activity while vital systems in tackling the next crisis such as water, education, or health remain unaddressed.
Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda. This will then speak to the resilience, and transformation needed to ensure PFM works for Africans in good times or bad.
Understanding fiscal democracy takes the form of better prioritization, response to problems, and improved sanctions for mistakes in the revenue cycle.
Advocacy for increased domestic opportunities, promotion of childhood development, enhanced socio-economic mobility, support for workers, motivation of local entrepreneurship, diversification of public infrastructure from mega projects, as well as increased innovation through subsidized research and development should be at the heart of economic justice efforts.
Economic justice initiatives should therefore embrace fiscal democracy and civil protection as goals or appendages in achieving the structural transformation agenda.
Civil protection gives a new framework of planning by envisioning contexts or processes in which a series of unfortunate events can emerge, thus providing adequate responses without breaking the social contract.
Transformation therefore occurs when both go hand in hand so that public facilities are not overstretched in the event of crisis. Hence, in looking at the impact of Covid-19, across the East Africa region, we must ask ourselves: How transformative are the current recovery efforts underway? Will they offer a new resilience?
The salvage job: Economic sustainability through reliefs, guarantees, subsidies, and funds
Responses have clearly been driven by the urgency to overcome the pandemic and the need to forestall outright disaster or collapse. The “short-term rescue mode” has seen efforts to ensure vaccine access and bolstering of public health systems.
On the economic front governments “Have sought debt relief, implemented corporate tax deferrals plus exemptions, made direct citizen transfers and interest rate adjustments. [They have also] implemented guarantees and subsidies, liquidity support and food relief … [with] examples of support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Cash transfers and other safety nets for poor and vulnerable populations are critical for an integrated … response. While not transformational, they are building blocks for a basic level of resilience to external shocks.”
The fact that these efforts are not transformational must motivate the infusion of a justice quotient in recovery efforts. This will enable a movement beyond an emergency-oriented recovery that recognizes existing modern challenges such as climate change, population growth, scarce resources, man-made or natural calamities.
In the case of tax justice, to make the linkages that will establish economic sustainability in East Africa, it is important to understand the effect of recovery efforts in relation to public debt; the tax burden on individuals or households; illicit financial flows; harmful tax practices; economic growth; and resource distribution.
Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities. Concerns were looming over the fact that 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan African countries were in or at high risk of debt distress. Between 2010 and 2018, public debt in East Africa grew rapidly as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 – National Debt to GDP Ratio
In this time, East African Community (EAC) governments failed to mobilize sufficient revenue despite an overall increase in taxes. The situation was therefore exacerbated by COVID-19, the consequence being that these countries are now stuck in a situation where they must tax more to bridge revenue gaps.
Basically this, first and foremost, creates a context of unfair tax policies in the region that burden their respective citizens, does not enhance service delivery, and is exclusionary in how debt repayment strategies are developed.
Lack of open debate about a country’s fiscal priorities within the existing PFM system neglects the needs of youth who constitute the majority of the population among other segments of society, curtails ideas on how to increase resources needed to provide for new economic opportunity(ies) and respond to the next emergency.
Recognizing the prevalent debt crisis even before the pandemic struck is important in informing economic justice movements and their activities.
Secondly, an environment or ecosystem of illicit financial flows (IFFs) that constitutes the formation of International Financial Centres (IFCs) in Kigali and Nairobi plus the signing of numerous Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) continues to perpetuate itself thereby providing loopholes within the tax architecture that undermine efforts at domestic revenue mobilization (DRM) because the monies going out of countries are so massive, outweighing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA).
This is thanks to “Constitutionalism [among other legal questions] plus demands to implement new public finance management principles, growth in trade and services across countries in the region or with other countries across the globe, and discovery of natural resources requiring more inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI).”
On average IFFs accounts form 6.1 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) thereby impeding economic development and sustainability. For instance, since 2011, Kenya is estimated to lose KSh40 billion annually “as government, local firms and multinationals engage in fraudulent schemes to avoid tax payments”. As of 2021, The State of Tax Justice Report indicates this has grown to an estimated KSh69 billion annually at current exchange rates.
Third, growing account deficits and rising external debt are heavily limiting to economic growth. Increased spending on debt repayment is restricting prioritization on essential public goods and services while borrowing remains one of the key sources of budget financing.
In as much as Kenya cancelled its recent pursuit of another Eurobond, the about-turn towards borrowing domestically following a surge in yields within international markets because of the Russia-Ukraine war is still going to punish the country’s citizens by squeezing them out of access to credit.
Lastly, the debt burden is disempowering the citizen. Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable. This is further worsened by limited access to information on debt or public spending. Moreover, there is weak oversight by parliaments as executives take full control of processes.
Policy-making processes during cascading crises: Fiscal Consolidation, Special Drawing Rights, and Open Government
By understanding that crisis is constant, and that it is likely to manifest as confluence events — merging risks of mitigatable disaster(s) — or major confluence events, that is, the combination of potentially unmitigated risk(s) at any one point in time, how does policy making at such a time help to prepare for the emergency next time?
For example, what does Kenya’s fiscal consolidation programme — which comprises of reforms to improve oversight, monitoring, and governance of state-owned enterprises; improved transparency of fiscal reporting; and comprehensive information of public tenders awarded including beneficial ownership information of awarded entities — have to do with preparing for the next series of cascading crises?
Several emergency relief funds have been established to address the impact of COVID-19, such as the Rapid Credit Facility, the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, and the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).
However, these efforts are not likely to unlock the existing “trilemma” of solving the health plus economic crisis and meeting development targets while dealing with a tightening fiscal space. This is because they are stuck in the present circumstances with no consciousness of how much the challenge is likely to prevail into the future.
East African Community governments, in this time, failed to mobilize sufficient revenue, despite an overall increase in taxes.
Adopting fiscal democracy not only provides a new agenda determining organizing principles, but it has the potential for establishing a new citizenship through further entrenchment of human rights-based approaches in economic justice, and commitment to open government principles.
It will also anticipate and prevent the disaster capitalism witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many African countries seem to be in a constant state of crisis, thus allowing for IFFs through PFM malfeasance that locks corruption and fraud into procurement through bid rigging or collusion.
Principals of public participation, demands for accountability, championing non-discrimination, advocacy for empowering programing, and legitimacy through the rule of law should set standards on beneficial ownership while open contracting, open data for development, legislative openness, improving service delivery, access to information, and access to justice will help build resilience in government.
A call to civic education: Revenue rights and obligations
Somewhere along the way, capacity building and training programming took prominence over civic education. Advocacy efforts should look for ways to bring back more popular public awareness. Denial of resources for these kinds of activities has been a major blow for PFM advocacy among other activist efforts.
Civic education will re-establish links between individual claims to service delivery and assigned duties in the fulfilment of public demands. Citizens will be able to identify how the problem manifests and engage on the immediate, underlying or root causes of an issue.
Rising public debt may result in poor public participation in the management of fiscal policy, and weak structures for keeping governments accountable.
It will also allow them to establish the patterns of relationships which may result in the non-fulfilment of rights or absconding of obligations. This will enable them to assign appropriate responsibility by identifying the relevant authorities. It will keep an eye on resources through participating in decision making.
Governments and political leadership should therefore work to improve their communication capabilities in engaging the public so that once this new citizenry is involved, they can work together to achieve representative priorities for action.
This article is based on a presentation and comments made at the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Debt Conference, Towards strengthening accountability and transparency around public debt management and the use of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in Eastern and Southern Africa, 20–21 June 2022, Nairobi, Kenya.
‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
Beyond service delivery, refugee-led organizations are increasingly involved in advocacy yet the current set-up within the field of humanitarian governance continues to relegate them to the role of mere beneficiaries.
Ever since it appeared in the epigraph of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western “experts”, Orientalism, Marx’s dismissal of the French peasantry has come to stand for everything wrong with a certain type of condescending political crusade: elites speaking on behalf of groups viewed as incapable of articulating their own interests.
Commonly known in the humanitarian world as “saviourism”, this patronizing tendency is entrenched within the field of displacement governance, where highly placed individuals employed by donor agencies regularly devise policies on behalf of downtrodden communities whose circumstances are remote from their own.
The dramatic rise to prominence of RLOs (Refugee-led Organizations) presents an important challenge to the paternalism of this order.
Within a short space of time since 2018 when an historic summit in Geneva was convened by refugee leaders from across the world, demands for “a seat at the table” have been recognized at the highest level. In 2019, the UN invited RLO representatives to its own Global Refugee Forum. In 2020, Canada announced an advisory role for a former refugee to observe its international protection meetings; Germany and the USA have since followed suit, underlining the growing acknowledgement of the legitimacy and significance of refugee leadership.
On the surface, these developments would seem to suggest the RLO phenomenon is a rare example of successful “localization”—the transfer of resources and decision-making power to stake-holding communities.
Yet little is known about the regional trajectories of RLOs. This despite the fact that local (or “glocal”) actors in the Global South laid the foundations for the aforementioned developments on the world stage. Without data on the impact of RLOs in camps, settlements and cities where their most important work takes place, their contributions and the obstacles they face remain poorly understood.
Having worked for an international organization as a migration specialist in Kenya and visited Uganda, I’m struck by the vibrancy of RLO mobilization in both countries, as well as the persistent challenges they face. Their successes and their struggles reflect the specificities of displacement governance in East Africa and the surrounding regions—the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda each host some of the largest refugee populations in the world. Conditions and regulatory frameworks vary and are far from perfect for RLOs in these countries. For the most part, however, they shoulder their “burdens” without succumbing to the anti-immigrant xenophobia rife in more affluent nations. Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda each have lived experience of exile, a fact that reflects a certain acceptance of displacement as a mundane reality rather than an alarming aberration.
This context has important implications for the political agency of refugees. For whilst their participation in public life remains limited and is at times curtailed, RLOs in this region are particularly dynamic and advanced. It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa. Studies have identified between 20 and 30 such groups operating in Kampala, home to some 80,000 refugees. The precise number is difficult to ascertain given that RLOs vary in size and visibility.
Defined loosely as organizations established and led by refugees, RLOs include well-established NGOs with transnational networks, funding partnerships and global profiles such as HOCW (Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence), whose capacious premises in Kampala are not so different from the national or indeed international NGO offices that I have visited in Asia and Africa.
It is no coincidence that Ugandan RLOs, where refugees enjoy freedom of mobility and association, have played a leading role in the movement for refugee participation in Africa.
At the other end of the spectrum, RLOs can be small, informal, community-based “self-help” groups that operate without donor funding or formal membership. Between these two poles are medium-sized operations that lack substantial funding but are registered and possess formal membership structures.
A recent study by refugee researchers, which identified 63 RLOs in Uganda and 138 in Kenya, claimed beneficiaries report positive experiences with RLOs because they treat them with greater dignity and understanding of their needs than larger humanitarian agencies. Service delivery is adapted to local conditions and as a result, targeted towards the needs of groups and individuals. It also tends to be less bound by bureaucratic rules, reaching the newly arrived who lack documentation—often the most vulnerable.
More than mere service-delivery, RLOs are increasingly engaged in advocacy. HOCW’s Congolese founder, John Bolingo Ntahira, contributed to the inaugural Global Refugee Summit in 2018, and remains on the Global Refugee Network’s steering committee, underlining East African RLOs’ pivotal role in driving the international movement for refugee representation in policy-making.
Together with a handful of other pioneering RLO leaders, Bolingo set up RELON (Refugee-Led Organizations Network) in 2017, a network headquartered in Kampala that has branched out into other African countries.
Expanding through international gatherings and leveraging connections in the African Union are high priorities for RELON, which is keen to develop a continental voice. It has campaigned successfully in host countries on issues such as refugees’ access to vaccines, travel documents, and the registration of SIM cards.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs. As transnational actors with diasporic links and cosmopolitan sensibilities, refugee leaders I met are well-travelled, well-networked and inclined towards Pan-African solutions. Unlike many career diplomats who might claim the same, the continental coalitions they build are comprised of people with lived experience of the challenges faced in exile—individuals like Bolingo who shared a home with 70 compatriots in an old bus converted into a make-shift shelter in the early 2000s.
This penchant for building solidarities across borders and working at multiple scales of governance holds the key to the innovative potential of RLOs.
Who better to address the interests of displaced persons than men and women who have themselves experienced or witnessed mortal threats, precarious border-crossings and destitution first-hand, and who still dwell among refugee communities?
The UNHCR has taken various strides toward enabling meaningful RLO participation, such as issuing innovation awards to RLOs for their work during the pandemic and piloting small grants. More generally, the working relationship between RLOs and big players within the international humanitarian order expands daily with new initiatives documented on social media amidst smiles and handshakes. The former wish to project themselves as legitimate actors on the world stage, in close proximity to the latter, who in turn find it increasingly incumbent upon them to demonstrate awareness of the importance of RLOs.
Yet, beneath the surface of these exchanges lies a simmering tension. Several refugee leaders I interviewed made allegations of bad faith against powerbrokers in the humanitarian field, accusing them of condescension and placing obstacles in their path: actively undermining their access to funding and/or oppressively “micro-managing” them in exploitative unequal “partnerships”, and excluding and patronizing them at every turn.
“Our ‘big brothers’ don’t want to recognize us,” said a key figure in Kenya bitterly. He is convinced that those who currently control the purse strings “fear” losing privileged positions over organizations such as his own. Others who stopped short of explicit accusation made their sentiments known through body language: brows furrowed, jaws clenched at the mere mention of the behemothic agencies, donors and organizations that comprise the humanitarian establishment.
A 2020 article by Oxford researchers lifts the lid on the history of this encounter with sordid allegations against at least one UNHCR IP (Implementing Partner), InterAid, which stands accused of setting up a fake CBO (Refugee Now) run by its own staff to create false evidence of “community” engagement. If the truth of such matters is difficult to verify, their legacy of mistrust and grievance is clear.
At a conference on localization last March in Nairobi during NGO week, refugee leaders and their allies lamented the lack of structural transformation when it comes to funding flows and decision-making in the humanitarian field. Attendees and speakers included Jean Marie Ishimwe, founder of Youth Voices Community, a Kenyan RLO, and INGOs such as Trócaire, an Irish charity committed to localization.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable. RLOs complained of being instrumentalized or ignored altogether by most big donor agencies and their IPs. Too often, they said, “inclusion” takes the form of tokenism: invitations to participate in activities typically expect them to mobilize their communities for the realization of projects that have already been designed. Offers of “capacity-building”, meanwhile, rarely consider the pedagogical potential of RLOs, whose local knowledge and lived experience of displacement is often lacking among so many of their expat counterparts employed by international and national NGOs. They lamented the lack of multi-year funding for the development of their administrative capacity, a gap that leaves them unable to hire or retain qualified professionals that might boost their ability to attract funding independently, reinforcing their dependency on larger organizations.
Frustration that growing RLO visibility during the pandemic has failed to alter mind-sets and bottom lines when it comes to partnerships and budgets was palpable.
None of this will surprise observers of localization given the almost complete failure to implement the “Grand Bargain” of 2016, which promised to funnel a quarter of humanitarian funds directly to national and local actors within the field of humanitarian governance but delivered a mere 0.5 per cent of tracked funding in 2019.
The hesitancy of large donors to fund RLOs stems at least in part from genuine constraints. RLOs, they say (in private), can be too small and unprofessional to manage and effectively spend large grants that require complex financial auditing. A related concern is the perception that RLOs are unstable given the changing personal trajectories of staff and/or founders, whose individual asylum and resettlement claims can mean suspending operations mid-way through funding cycles. Then there is concern about the potentially distortive impact of funding RLOs, whose ethnic, religious and/or national affiliations arguably make them unsuitable for serving broader, diverse refugee publics.
My own inquiries confirmed what researchers have already documented: that none of these charges should be dismissed, because each contains a grain of truth.
Most RLOs do begin as CBOs catering for specific ethnic and national groupings; oftentimes they possess limited administrative capacity. Those that do manage to grow in size and ambition do indeed tend to be headed by well-educated men. Moreover, it is not unknown for the personnel of RLOs to be resettled in the course of funding cycles. I also heard several references to “founder’s syndrome”, a psychological disorder among some egoistic individuals who struggle to detach their personal interests from those of the organization they have established.
In view of such challenges, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
COHERE, an INGO with offices in Kampala and Nairobi, has thrown its full weight behind putting refugee-led organizations “in the driving seat”. It does this through training and advice to RLOs on how to attract funds, how to implement and document project work effectively, and how to plan strategically in the longer term. If in its advocacy COHERE counters prejudice among RLO-sceptics, much of its daily work addresses donors’ concerns through corrective measures that acknowledge the need for work on all sides.
Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of refugee leadership are seeking to bridge the gap between RLOs and the powerbrokers that perpetuate their exclusion constructively.
Herein lies the difference between COHERE and reactionary big players dragging their feet on localization: Where the latter use RLOs’ weaknesses as justification to prolong a status quo in which the former can only ever be “beneficiaries”, tokens and symbols in projects they design themselves, the former view them as obstacles that can and must be removed to create a more level playing field.
A glimpse at COHERE’s network provides strong evidence of RLOs’ ability to grow and develop in ways critics seem reluctant to acknowledge. In Kampala, I visited Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre, founded by a Congolese priest now resettled in Canada. Far from parochial, its young staff and membership was diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity: many of those it supports are from Burundi and Rwanda, and like many refugee businesses in Kampala, it even provides employment for Ugandan citizens. The founder’s resettlement seems not have had adverse consequences.
As an expat employed by an international organization engaged in advocacy, refugee leaders’ critiques of the humanitarian sector’s paternalism can feel close to the bone. When they fume against the condescension of do-gooders who represent their interests without walking in their shoes, are they talking about me?
None of the refugee leaders I interviewed for this article said so (explicitly), and it would be easy enough to join them in pointing fingers elsewhere. More challenging than “speaking the truth to power”, however, is speaking it to oneself: to admit that the entrenched privilege they seek to dismantle includes my own.
To the legions of foreign “experts” whose postings in the Global South involve analysing, shaping or influencing policies that do not directly affect us, RLOs pose questions we should be asking ourselves everyday about our long-term presence and role in the Global South. Above all: What are we doing to devolve power and resources to present and future generations of stakeholders?
Signatories of the Charter 4 Change such as COHERE and Trócaire have committed to channelling a quarter of humanitarian funding directly to national and/or local NGOs. But many larger bureaucratized entities with decades of heritage and established identities have shown little urgency in adapting to a world in which refugees are partners rather than beneficiaries. Despite many words and some (limited) deeds, commitment to structural reform remains unproven and there is scant evidence of the soul-searching that should be taking place.
For African NGOs, a different kind of self-reflection may be required. Although “local” in terms of registration, these tend to be staffed by highly educated professionals hailing from host country elites, among whom lived experience of exile is rare. It is easier for them to attract donor funding than RLOs, which can cause resentment and rivalry. One refugee leader I interviewed seethed as he recounted rebuffing an invitation from a national NGO to participate in a project as a beneficiary: “We’ll get our own funding to work on this issue,” he scoffed, insisting he could have implemented the same project more effectively.
Devota Nuwe, acting Co-Director of The Refugee Law Project, a highly respected national NGO based in Kampala, has occasionally found herself on the receiving end of such sentiments in the course of her career as a displacement specialist. The kinds of remarks directed at her and her colleagues by individual refugee leaders aggrieved at salaried professionals whose job it is to support them suggest a frankness rarely directed against INGO workers. (“Those clothes you’re wearing, it’s because of us!”).
What such sentiment fails to acknowledge is that there are contexts in which refugees cannot easily represent themselves—in which they must be represented by non-refugees. Defending or appealing on their behalf in courts of law, for example, is specialized work that requires qualified professionals acquainted with the host country’s legal system and political context.
Perhaps this explains Nuwe’s relaxed attitude towards the rise of RLOs, whom she and her colleagues have welcomed into their industry, despite the occasional criticism that comes their way. “There’s room for all of us,” she chuckles, when I ask her if she ever gets anxious about the prospect of a competitive threat from individuals who openly tell her they should be in her place.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs. The same can be said of INGOs already cooperating in partnerships with RLOs, in which each plays a distinct but complementary role to achieve common objectives.
In truth, national NGOs that enjoy the trust of their stakeholders have nothing to fear from the rise of RLOs.
Indeed, there is something to be said for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s oft-cited commitment to making humanitarian action “as local as possible, as international as necessary”. The trouble with the current setup is that it under-utilizes the potential of refugees, and is far more international than it needs to be. In the words of John Bolingo Ntahira: “No one understands refugees’ problems better than we do”. Those of us who profess expertise on displacement would do well to acknowledge this basic fact and its transformative potential.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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