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Geothermal Development in Kenya: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

13 min read.

Geothermal development in Kenya is widely welcomed as green, clean and good for the country. But behind the glowing publicity is a hidden story of forced relocation, human rights abuses, land loss, shattered lives, joblessness, deepening poverty, and serious negative impacts on the health of local people and their livestock.

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Geothermal Development in Kenya: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
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Geothermal development in Kenya’s Rift Valley is expected to reap enormous energy benefits for the nation as a whole. Geothermal energy is widely seen as green and clean, a superior alternative to other forms of renewable energy that is sustainable and environmentally friendly with low carbon emissions.

However, new research by an international collaborative team that includes Kenyans shows that the impacts of this industry upon local communities (in this case, in the Ol Karia area of Nakuru County) are often negative. The research also provides evidence that geothermal expansion, which took off here in the 1970s, has led to many divisions and ongoing conflicts, including conflicts over equitable resource use. Other issues of concern include environmental degradation, the negative health impact on humans and animals, forced resettlement, increasing poverty, lack of access to benefits, including jobs, houses and profit-sharing, violation of human and land rights, and the absence of community representation in the geothermal companies (largely KenGen, the Kenya Electricity Generating Company).

The negative impacts of the geothermal industry on local communities are rarely, if ever, listed among its disadvantages. Issues of greatest concern to companies and funders have more to do things like high up-front costs, technical challenges, and high risks faced in the early stages of development. Too often, the negative impacts on humans, livestock and the environment seem to be regarded as collateral damage.

Many questions have been raised about the role of the state and international financial institutions in this scenario, which this story will go on to discuss. From my observations as an academic researcher who has studied imperial history, there is more than a whiff of colonial arrogance in the behaviour of major lenders, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank, which have both invested heavily in the geothermal industry at Ol Karia, the latter since the early 1980s. As I pointed out in person to EIB and EIB-Complaints Mechanism (EIB-CM) staff at an NGO workshop in Brussels earlier this year, decisions made in European and other foreign capitals can have life-long and devastating impacts on what funders call “project-affected persons” (PAPs), long after investors and other international players have left the scene. What the banks regard as “completed” is never over for PAPs on the receiving end. (These staffers did not look me in the eye, or respond.)

At the grassroots level in Ol Karia, accusations of nepotism, corruption and discrimination also abound. Some indigenous residents (such as the Turkana and the Samburu) accuse the majority Maasai of doubly marginalising them in the scramble for rights and benefits. Though Maasai representatives have made repeated formal complaints to the banks concerned, and some contentious issues have been addressed, people face serious ongoing challenges that leave them impoverished, frustrated and despairing. Our research showed that youth, women, non-literates, the poorest and elders (apart from those on village and other liaison committees, who tend to be relatively well-off and well-connected) have been hardest hit.

From my observations as an academic researcher who has studied imperial history, there is more than a whiff of colonial arrogance in the behaviour of major lenders, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank, which have both invested heavily in the geothermal industry at Ol Karia.

In East Africa as a whole, electricity demand is expected to quadruple by 2033, with geothermal, wind and hydropower seen as important means of meeting that demand. For Kenya, geothermal (which literally means “earth’s heat”) is now officially favoured over hydropower because of the climatic changes that hydropower is susceptible to.

By April 2020, Kenya had risen to seventh place in the list of top geothermal power producers, the only African country on the list. Kenya is Africa’s largest producer of geothermal energy. Geothermal power is flagged in Vision 2030, the Government of Kenya’s vision for the future, as a central plank in the development of the country.  Kenya aims to produce 50 per cent of its energy from geothermal sources by 2025, and 100 per cent by 2050. Geothermal now accounts for 30 per cent of Kenya’s total installed power capacity of 2,700MW, with the remainder taken up by hydropower, wind, solar and thermal power. The benefits are not only for the national grid; other uses of geothermal energy include powering some Naivasha flower farms. A group of Nakuru farmers has also signed a deal with the parastatal GDC (Geothermal Development Company) that allows them to use geothermal energy in agriculture.

Threats to marginalised people and lands

The extractive industry, together with large-scale infrastructure projects of various kinds, have become increasingly invasive of the lands and other natural resources of indigenous and marginalised communities across Africa and other parts of the world. Lands once considered worthless have become sites of intense interest to states, investors and other players because of the rich resources they contain. Unsurprisingly, this has triggered acute contestation over natural and cultural resource rights.

Historical marginality often places indigenous and marginalised people at a distinct disadvantage when they try to articulate their concerns and fight their corner. Forced resettlement to make way for extractive industries has involved human rights abuses. Governments, industries and funders often fail to abide by the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), or to consult sufficiently with affected communities before geothermal projects start, or even to follow their own policies on indigenous peoples, which the World Bank has admitted failing to do at Ol Karia. The other foreign banks involved in funding this project agreed to follow World Bank policies rather than their own.

Although it didn’t matter for the purposes of this project, the EIB also decided that the Ol Karia Maasai did not meet its criteria for indigenous peoples and chose to classify them as “vulnerable” instead. This does not provide anything like the same level of protection, and has proved disastrous for this community.

Forced resettlement to make way for extractive industries has involved human rights abuses. Governments, industries and funders often fail to abide by the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), or to consult sufficiently with affected communities before geothermal projects start…

The EIB has explained (in responses to me and Bankwatch) that it decided not to classify these Maasai as indigenous in 2009 (when it was making plans to fund the power plant Olkaria IV) because it believed that “tribal sentiments were still on the rise” after the post-election violence of 2008. It believed that such a classification might lead to more ethnic strife. This nonsensical interpretation demonstrates how little the EIB understands Kenyan politics, and the socio-political climate in which it operates. From observation and written evidence, its so-called “experts” on the ground are anything but. One, an official mediator between the Maasai and KenGen, even expressed shockingly derogatory remarks to me about the alleged “backwardness” of the Maasai, views which hardly make him suitable as a mediator. Maasai informants said they regarded the mediators as “KenGen’s spies”.

It is important to note that although the community is predominantly Maasai and Maa-speakers (people who speak the Maa language but who are not necessarily Maasai) who have lived here for centuries, it also includes members of other ethnic groups who have intermarried and inter-settled with the Maasai over many years. The community is, therefore, a microcosm of multicultural Kenya. Some Maasai rights activists tend to ignore this fact for obvious reasons: it does not fit their mono-ethnic narrative.

Recent history, some impacts

Geothermal exploration first began in this area of Naivasha Sub-County in 1956 with exploratory drilling. But it was not until the 1970s that geothermal development began to intensify. Olkaria I was the first power plant in Africa, commissioned in three phases starting in 1981. There are now five geothermal plants in the Greater OlKaria (sic) Geothermal Complex, with others planned or in development. (Other plants, either built or planned outside this Complex, follow the line of the Rift Valley.) Akiira One is not built yet, partly because the company behind it, Akiira Geothermal Ltd. (AGL), is mired in issues around alleged human rights abuse against squatters it forced off its land with the aid of police and county officials. European funders of AGL, including the EIB, are investigating. (I say more about these events below.)

Three of KenGen’s five plants have been built in Hell’s Gate National Park. These plants have devastated this once beautiful heritage site. Large areas of the park now look more like an industrial estate than a protected area: plants and wells constantly gush steam, the well-heads make deafening 24-hour noise, huge pipelines snake across the landscape, roads are choked with company and subcontractors’ lorries and machinery, water sources are polluted, and the air around the plants stinks of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide). After just a couple of weeks’ fieldwork, I fell ill with respiratory problems.

However, what I endured is nothing compared to what the people who have to live here permanently have to go through. A 44-year-old Samburu blacksmith told me: “I have done an experiment – I sent my children to Samburu, and when they came back they were very healthy. After a few weeks of staying here, their faces have changed, and skin rashes have started appearing on their bodies. They’re suffering a lot of coughing and common cold almost every day.” Locals blame geothermal for the rise in respiratory illness and miscarriages, among other things.

Complaints

A number of formal complaints have been made to KenGen and the external funders’ complaints mechanisms: the World Bank Inspection Panel (WB-IP) and the EIB Complaints Mechanism (EIB-CM). Many of the complaints relate to the forced resettlement in 2014 of four Maasai villages to a new settlement called RAPland (RAP stands for Resettlement Action Plan), a remote area next to the Akiira One/AGL concession. This was done to make way for Olkaria IV. Some 1,000 people were moved to new two-bedroom houses in RAPland, each on a 0.41-hectare plot. But this move involved swapping an area of 4,200 acres for just 1,700 acres. Many people complain about the houses, which are not built in a traditional culturally-acceptable style, which cannot accommodate extended families, and which are more expensive to furnish and run.

Moreover, the new land is much less productive than the one they were forced to leave. It is full of steep gullies into which cattle regularly fall and injure themselves, or even die. The pasture is poor and soil erosion is rife. Worst of all, the area is fenced in, which is antithetical to free-roaming pastoralism. “They have put us in a fence like animals in a zoo,” said one informant. People are also very unhappy about the communal leasehold land title that KenGen has given them, and claim it is not what was promised. The document does not refer to RAPland but to a totally different geographical area.

Three of KenGen’s five plants have been built in Hell’s Gate National Park. These plants have devastated this once beautiful heritage site. Large areas of the park now look more like an industrial estate than a protected area…

Other complaints include those relating to the loss of cultural sites and livelihoods, the remoteness of RAPland, which is far from shopping centres and other urban services (KenGen has refused to allow a commercial centre to be built), lack of public transport, (which forces people to use very expensive private transport), KenGen’s failure to employ many Maasai, other than in insecure, low-paid, low-skilled jobs, corruption, nepotism and discrimination (which have fouled the process of awarding compensation to PAPs), and failure to fully implement a May 2016 Mediation Agreement between the community and KenGen. (Though Maasai representatives signed this, they are deeply unhappy about how it has unravelled. Some call the mediation process “a hidden wolf”.)

On the positive side, KenGen has provided the new houses, and built facilities including a school, dispensary, community hall, roads, bridges and water points. They have, to some extent, acted upon the complaints. The Maasai did agree to the move, but our research shows that many people did not fully understand the long-term implications. Failure to communicate in the Maa language led to many people being excluded from the consultations (the World Bank has admitted this). Some folk have complained that they failed to get new houses despite being eligible. As a result, several poor widows, and indigenous people who are not Maasai, have been forced to squat with relatives in RAPland after being made homeless. One Samburu widow, 46, whose family has broken up as a result of the resettlement, said: “We are scattered like the faeces of a high-flying bird.”

Responses

In 2015, the EIB-CM and the WB-IP carried out a joint investigation into the complaints, Two reports, in 2015 and 2016, admitted that serious mistakes had been made, and some of the complainants’ allegations were founded. I counted eight incidences of admitted “non-compliance” with World Bank protocols in the 2015 report; there may be more.

Notably, the World Bank admitted failing to apply its policy on indigenous peoples (Operational Policy 4.10). This led to “significant shortcomings regarding consultation, the cultural compatibility of the resettlement, benefit sharing…The Panel believes applying the Policy might have avoided or mitigated some of the harms caused by the Project”.

Most importantly, by not classifying the Maasai as indigenous, the banks failed to draw up an Indigenous Peoples Plan, as they normally would, and to secure Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from the community – a prerequisite in funding projects of this kind. In a series of email exchanges with the EIB over many months, it could not tell me why it classified the Maasai in this way, nor explain the reasoning behind its definition of indigenous peoples, which (as I pointed out to them) contains criteria not used by the World Bank or any other international organisation. I got the impression it has no idea what indigeneity means, and relies on ill-informed staff who know nothing about indigenous peoples and their rights in international law. On telling them this, all the EIB could do was crossly accuse me of unethical academic practice, and of maligning one particular staffer. Not true. I was simply asking legitimate questions of a bank that purports to be transparent and accountable.

The EIB-CM and the WB-IP initiated a mediation process, starting in August 2015, with the aim of reaching agreement between KenGen and the complainants on remedial actions. KenGen pledged, among other things, to improve roads and water supplies, take action on soil erosion and gullies, transfer communal land titles for RAPland and another area called Cultural Centre (the site of a village that was razed to make way for Olkaria IV), build more houses, assist people in marketing their cultural wares, and re-examine the cases of people who claimed to have been unfairly treated in censuses that took place before the resettlement. KenGen is still carrying out some remedial work, such as road repairs and bridge building.

The project also involved other external funders. Our research (and that of other scholars such as Jeanette Schade) shows there is a risk in having multiple funders since lines of responsibility can become blurred. For example, the EIB told me that the French development agency AfD (Agence Française de Développement) was the lead agency responsible for due diligence and safeguarding at Ol Karia, therefore it was not responsible. Efforts to find out from the AfD how they had monitored due diligence, and to access their post-project assessment reports (if they even exist), came to nothing.

What else people told us

Most informants said the funders and companies had exploited existing divisions in the community, for example by siding with one group against another, and favouring individuals with special privileges. They complained that engagement mechanisms, such as liaison committees, created as part of the resettlement process to help PAPs engage with the companies, are deeply flawed (something the World Bank has recognised), and characterised by nepotism and bribery. Few people trust their elected community representatives, who tend to be male village elders who often shout women down. Neither do they trust the welfare society at RAPland, made up of selected “community trustees” to whom the land title was given.

Non-Maasai communities, including members of other indigenous groups, blame the Maasai for discriminating against them. One example is 54-year-old Fatuma Hitler, who claims she is discriminated against because she is a divorced Muslim Samburu; she believes this is why she wasn’t given a new house despite being a PAP. “But if I go to complain [to KenGen] I will be like a barking dog, because of this corruption.” In other words, she thinks she won’t get a hearing, and believes corruption – both within the geothermal companies and the local community – works against powerless women like her.

Eviction of the Lorropil villagers

Lorropil village, a tiny settlement commonly referred to by locals as Kambi Turkana because some of its residents were Turkana, used to lie just outside the RAPland perimeter fence on land owned by the geothermal company AGL that was excised from Kedong Ranch. After repeated threats of eviction, police swooped suddenly in the early hours of 3 November 2019, working in collusion with AGL to not only evict the villagers, but also burn the village down.

A day later, police went after the evictees and teargassed them, burning their remaining belongings. I have seen photographic evidence of all this.

Activists, lawyers and human rights defenders were alerted, and complaints made to AGL and its funders, which include the EIB. Though AGL claims it “consulted” the villagers beforehand, the villagers refute this. There was no attempt by AGL to treat them as PAPs, or to follow due process over the eviction and resettlement of squatters; several of AGL’s funders, including the EIB, have clear policies on this, which AGL did not abide by. The company accused its critics, which included me, of being “malicious liars”. It attempted to counter the allegations and buy good publicity by using local reporters to write stories favourable to AGL, which contained factual errors and painted the evictees as fraudsters and “fake squatters”. I complained to the national newspaper editors concerned about shoddy journalism; they did not respond.

The evictees (who included a number of children) ended up squatting in RAPland, where they were forced to live out in the open until a local pastor opened his church to them. Adding insult to injury, the Kenya Red Cross, alerted by villagers and their supporters, made an initial assessment a few days after the eviction, but then disappeared, failing to deliver humanitarian aid or follow up in any way. I mailed their directors, accusing them of failing to abide by the Red Cross mandate. This had an immediate effect: they swung into action. The repercussions of this eviction are ongoing; European funders of AGL are still investigating what happened.

Bankwatch report on the EIB

In a new report, “Can the EIB become the ‘EU Development Bank’? A Critical View on EIB Operations Outside Europe”, the NGOs Bankwatch and Counter Balance jointly examine EIB-funded projects in Kenya (and elsewhere) that include Olkaria IV and the Nairobi-Mombasa Road. It asks whether the EIB, which plans to “step up its development role”, is up to the task. The answer, by and large, is no. Some of the report’s key points that are relevant to this case study include:

  • The EIB “ultimately exacerbates inequalities rather than alleviates them”;
  • It makes “empty promises on human rights” and must introduce a “proper human rights due diligence system”;
  • Human rights abuses are “largely unknown” and often addressed only after they occur;
  • There is a large gap between EIB policies and implementation on the ground;
  • Its existing social standards on human rights, environmental and social principles must be replaced; they fail to prevent such things as forced eviction, or protect the most vulnerable stakeholders;
  • It has a long way to go on transparency, and lags behind the transparency and disclosure practices of other multilateral financial institutions.

The report calls the RAPland resettlement case a “scandal”. It supports my claim that the EIB uses incorrect criteria in its definition of indigenous peoples, and calls on the Bank to review this. Its case study on Ol Karia supports our research conclusions, and states: “The non-recognition of Maasai as indigenous peoples as well as several other breaches resulted in serious negative impacts on the resettled communities, which have not been fully addressed.”

In its response to Bankwatch, the EIB claims that the report contains inaccuracies, and that the Bank is “constantly improving and further developing its approach to essential issues such as human rights, environmental and social impacts…”.

And so it goes on…

As I finish writing this story, RAPland elders have sent more complaints to the funders that reiterate much of what they raised before. They are particularly upset about the failure to fully address the issue of livelihoods lost as a result of resettlement (which funders had pledged to do), and the dodgy RAPland land title.

The elders were responding to the World Bank’s “final” report of June 2020 on the progress of mediation. It maintains that “all the agreed livelihood activities have been completed”. It blames a “clerical error” on the fact that the title refers to the wrong piece of land; the Bank says it supports the PAPs’ request to convert it to freehold.

RAPland elders have sent more complaints to the funders that reiterate much of what they raised before. They are particularly upset about the failure to fully address the issue of livelihoods lost as a result of resettlement (which funders had pledged to do), and the dodgy RAPland land title.

It is clear from the report that the IEB, which insists that the Management Action Plan (MAP) for RAPland is “completed”, sees this as the end of its obligations to the PAPs; now it’s up to KenGen to resolve outstanding issues that are broader than the Bank’s MAP. But for the community (and the former Lorropil villagers, who have submitted a separate complaint to the EIB-CM), this isn’t over by a long way. To sum up community sentiments: “We feel that the banks value their business more than our lives and wellbeing,” said the RAPland resident and human rights activist Daniel Ntanana Ole Shaa.

Furthermore, plans are now underway for a new 140MW KenGen plant, Olkaria VI, on the site of the village of Olomayiana Kubwa, which lies near the four villages whose residents were moved to RAPland. This public-private partnership project will involve another forced resettlement. From reports received, there is no evidence that the company, funders and other groups involved are following due process, abiding by protocols and fully consulting the PAPs.

Have no lessons been learned? A distinct sense of déjà vu hangs over the steaming, stinking plants of Hell’s Gate.

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Dr Lotte Hughes is an historian of Kenya and empire, and a journalist, who has written extensively about Kenya. Her publications include Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure (2006). Academic profile: https://open.academia.edu/LotteHughes

Politics

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.

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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.

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Politics

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.

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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

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

Source: Individual Country Central Banks

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.

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‘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.

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‘They Cannot Represent Themselves, They Must Be Represented’
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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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