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Kenya’s Opaque Procurement Deals: The Case of G4S

13 min read.

The opaqueness of public procurement may be losing Kenya much needed tax revenues that would greatly ease the tax burden on ordinary Kenyans.

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Kenya’s Opaque Procurement Deals: The Case of G4S
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In 2016, ActionAid and Tax Justice Network reported that Kenya loses an estimated KSh100 billion (Currently US$1 = KSh110) annually to tax incentives – reductions in corporate income tax, customs duties or VAT ostensibly provided to encourage investment – that often benefit foreign corporations. This amount represented 5.8 per cent of that year’s KSh1.7-trillion government budget.

That same year, former head of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) Philip Kinisu reported that Kenya loses about KSh600 million to corruption each year. At the time, this translated to about a third of the entire national budget. Earlier this year, the president said that over KSh2 billion is stolen every day from government coffers. Granted, this sparked quite the reaction on social media, but nobody really knows how much Kenya actually loses to graft. One of the main reasons for this is the opaqueness of public procurement.

For the government to provide services to the citizens of Kenya, it is at times necessary to contract with private entities to deliver goods or services. Indeed, the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act (Procurement Act) of 2015 provides a framework for efficient procurement by public entities. Under this framework, it is crucial that such procurement is conducted or implemented in a transparent manner. This is especially crucial when dealing with foreign-registered companies. Some may remember the story of CMC Ravenna, the Italian company that filed for bankruptcy in its own country shortly after it had received a KSh15 billion down payment by the Kenyan government for the construction of Arror, Kimwarer and Itare dams. The total value of the three contracts was KSh150 billion.

In 2013, Washington, DC-based think tank Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimated that the Kenyan government lost potential revenues of KSh97 billion for the year to trade misinvoicing of which KSh21 billion was attributed to uncollected corporate income tax. Meanwhile, Kenya’s budget has been steadily increasing from KSh2.2 trillion for the 2015/16 financial year to KSh3 trillion for the 2019/20 financial year. And of course, most of the tax burden falls on ordinary Kenyans and is supplemented by heavy borrowing, which citizens eventually have to pay for.

So, how is it that multinational corporations are able to siphon so much money out of the country? And why is it that our government keeps dealing with them? To answer this question, I looked into one well-known multinational company with a strong base of operations here in Kenya: G4S.

Public procurement transparency and the case of G4S

Why G4S, you ask? G4S, recently acquired by Allied Universal for £3.8 billion (Currently £1 = KSh150), is a giant global multinational corporation. The world’s largest security firm, it is active in over 90 countries across six continents. In 2019 it reported annual revenues of £7.8 billion, equivalent to 40 per cent of Kenya’s budget and about 60 per cent of the government’s projected tax revenues for the same year. This figure is expected to shoot up to £13.5 billion following the acquisition. In Africa, where it is the largest private employer, the firm reported revenues of £405 million in 2018, which is roughly equal to the Kenyan government’s entire allocation to the health sector that year. Their most lucrative operations on the continent were in South Africa and Kenya.

Half the company’s global subsidiaries are registered in tax havens — a red flag for tax avoidance — and its Kenyan subsidiary is almost wholly owned by a Dutch holding company. Despite this, G4S has been awarded several contracts by public entities in Kenya such as Kenya Power, the Ministry of Energy, and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). All this, combined with the presence of two prominent politicians on G4S Kenya’s Board of Directors, makes it the perfect case study of why we need more transparency in public procurement.

Poor track record

The company has a poor track record in several of the countries in which it operates. In the United Kingdom where it has its headquarters, G4S was in 2011 contracted to run Birmingham Prison for a period of 15 years. However, halfway into the contract period, in 2018, the British government had to take back control of the prison following a rise in violence, substance abuse, and three self-inflicted deaths within an 18-month period. The company also came under fire in 2011 after a Kenyan asylum seeker died while in their custody, just a year after an Angolan deportee died after being held down by three G4S guards on a plane, with fellow passengers hearing him cry out: “I can’t breathe”.

In Jordan, all six United Nations agencies reportedly cancelled their contracts with the firm after human rights activists highlighted the firm’s complicity in “Israel’s grave violations of Palestinian rights and international law through its partnership with Israel’s police.” A 2019 assessment of G4S’s operations in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates led to Norway’s US$1.1 trillion wealth fund, the largest in the world, excluding the company from its investments because of “unacceptable risk that the company contributes to, or is responsible, for serious or systematic human rights violations”.

The company also came under fire in 2011 after a Kenyan asylum seeker died while in its custody.

In Africa, the company has been implicated in the use of violence, including electrocution and beatings, to subdue prisoners in South Africa’s Mangaung prison. Here in Kenya, G4S has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Some readers may remember the string of robberies back in 2011 that earned them the moniker “Gone in 40 Seconds”. In 2019, part of the KSh72 million cash in transit stolen from G4S by police impersonators was found buried in one of the perpetrators’ father-in-law’s backyard. A former employee was awarded KSh35 million in damages after being fired for rejecting the sexual advances of her superior. The company’s workers have repeatedly gone on strike due to low pay and inhumane working conditions. G4S security personnel beat up and caused grievous harm to refugees picketing outside UNHCR offices in Nairobi, and there have been accusations of G4S security personnel demanding bribes from refugees in Daadab seeking entry into the main UNHCR compound.

Government contracts

Yet despite all the negative publicity, the Kenyan government keeps entrusting G4S with taxpayer money through contracts that are not published in accordance with public procurement and access to information laws. In many jurisdictions, the principles of public accountability demand transparency in government spending, with very few exceptions, for example, on matters of national security.

Private companies in Kenya are legally entitled to a measure of confidentiality and the Access to Information Act does not expressly impose proactive disclosure obligations on private bodies. However, according to the Commission for Administrative Justice (the Ombudsman), “the requirements [of the Act] can be extended to private bodies that receive public resources and benefits, provide public services or [are] in possession of important public information”.

In any case, both Kenya’s Access to Information Act and a 2018 Executive Order from the President require all government agencies to “maintain and continuously update and publicise . . . complete information of all tenders awarded”.

Source: Executive Order No. 2 of 2018 – Procurement of public goods, works and services by public entities

Source: Executive Order No. 2 of 2018 – Procurement of public goods, works and services by public entities

At the very least, one would expect government entities to publish their tender adverts and awards on the public procurement information portal (PPIP), which was created for exactly that purpose. However, when I went to search for contracts awarded to G4S, I only found two published contracts – one of very low value and one that did not even indicate the contract amount.

Source: https://tenders.go.ke/website/Suppliers/SupplierDetails/7173

Source: https://tenders.go.ke/website/Suppliers/SupplierDetails/7173

If the news articles and press releases on their website are anything to go by, G4S does a substantial amount of business with the government of Kenya, so a search on the PPIP should have yielded more results. This definitely heightened my curiosity even more, so I went a step further and conducted a good ‘ole google search: “Government contracts awarded to G4S” – I used different variations of the same search phrase, and while I found more results, none of them appeared on the PPIP.

For example, Kenya Power, the state corporation in charge of distributing electricity, has been consistently publishing each month’s tender awards on their website since March 2018. They published two awards to G4S in December 2019 and March 2020 worth KSh2,693,520 and KSh117,302,726 respectively. This is one example of a public entity that meets the legal threshold of publication under section 138 of the Procurement Act and section 131 of its attendant Regulations of 2020. However, it is unclear whether failure to publish on the portal would attract any penalty. The Ombudsman, which has been mandated with enforcing the Access to Information Act, did not respond to my query on this issue.

Additionally, G4S reported on its website that the Ministry of Energy awarded them the contract to secure the Lake Turkana Wind Farm Project (LTWFP), Africa’s largest wind power project. The details and value of the contract are undisclosed and unpublished. There are also several internet search results indicating various direct contract awards to G4S Kenya between 2015 and 2019, but the links are broken. None of these contracts has been published on either the Procurement Portal or the Ministry’s website, which is the minimum requirement for publication.

G4S Contracts
The two internet search results below also indicate that the Ministry of Energy may have awarded at least two contracts to G4S Kenya in 2017 and 2018. As with the above however, the links are inaccessible. They are also not on the PPIP or the Ministry’s website.

G4S Contracts
When I sent an email to the Ministry of Energy requesting copies of documents containing information on the total number of contracts awarded by the Ministry of Energy to G4S Kenya Ltd or any of its affiliates between 2014 and 2019, the Ministry’s response was, “Please note that we do not have such documents.” A follow-up request was ignored.

G4S also reported being awarded a 2-year contract worth KSh81 million to store, secure and deliver laptops to 8,600 primary schools under the digital literacy programme through which the president had promised to issue each standard one pupil with a laptop. Again, this tender award was not published by the public entities involved. However, I dug further and found that the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) had published an article on their website indicating that they would be partnering with G4S and four other institutions to implement this project.

G4S’s role in this consortium was to distribute the devices to the schools. I wanted to understand how JKUAT, a public institution, arrived at the decision to contract G4S for this public project, and so I sent an information request to the corporate email indicated on their website. To their credit, I received an instant response from one Dr Ngonyo, directing me to the “directorate concerned who will be in a position to respond” to my enquiry. The email that I was given was not functional, and so I wrote him again, requesting an alternative email. Again, he replied instantly. This time, the email he shared did go through, but I have not received a response to date, not even an acknowledgement of receipt.

The digital literacy project ultimately fell short of expectations, with problems such as fewer devices being delivered than had been promised, lack of complementary infrastructure such as electricity, and inadequate ICT training of teachers. In the wake of COVID-19, the entire 2020 school year was cancelled, and public school pupils lacked the resources, or devices, to proceed with e-learning.

I also had the advantage of accessing a data leak from the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMIS), a financial management system that was rolled out by the government to enhance transparency and accountability in public procurement. The data showed that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) made payments of KSh5,548,930 to G4S between 2014 and 2017. These contracts have neither been published on the procurement portal nor in the IEBC’s reports. For instance, the IEBC’s annual report for the 2014/15 financial year included, on page 67, a list of all contracts fully executed between June 2014 and June 2015. There is no mention of contracts for the provision of security services, yet the IFMIS data shows that a total of KSh3,260,280 was paid to G4S between 28th October 2014 and 31st March 2015.

So what’s their secret?

As part of my research, I interviewed the operations manager of another established private security company operating in Kenya. Wishing to remain anonymous to protect the company’s business, my contact said that it is difficult to get government contracts, which are mostly awarded based on political connections. The manager indicated that many private security companies in Kenya are owned by ex-police officers and MPs, which gives them an advantage when bidding for government contracts.

I was unable to verify this information given that beneficial ownership disclosure was not legally required at the time of this investigation. This has recently changed, and companies had until 31st January 2021 to update their beneficial ownership information with the Registrar of Companies. However, by the time of this publication, it is not yet possible for citizens to submit beneficial ownership requests through the eCitizen platform. Companies have now been granted a grace period up to 31st July 2021 before the Registrar starts enforcing for non-compliance.

However, through the PPIP and the official companies search available on the eCitizen platform, I was able to determine that at least two politicians sit on G4S Kenya Limited’s board.

The first is Moody Awori, a 92-year old veteran politician who once served as Vice President under President Kibaki. He also served as MP for Funyala Constituency and as Minister of Home Affairs. He is credited with introducing prison reforms that improved conditions for inmates, but he was also implicated in the Anglo Leasing corruption scandal. According to his autobiography, Riding on a Tiger, Awori was appointed to the board of G4S, then Securicor Services, soon after it was registered in Kenya in 1963. In June 2021 he was still listed by the PPIP as one of the company’s directors.

1 Accessed from https://tenders.go.ke/SupplierDisplay on 24.06.2021

1. Accessed from https://tenders.go.ke/SupplierDisplay on 24.06.2021

According to former Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics John Githongo’s Anglo-Leasing report, the department of immigration was directly under Awori’s purview. He authorised a contract for printing of passports that was allegedly inflated to three times the cost. Even after a due diligence check by Mr Githongo and then Minister of Energy Hon. Kiraitu Murungi revealed that the contracted company did not exist, he authorised payments anyway. Awori still insisted he did no wrong and refused to resign from his position. At the time of this publication, the contents of the Anglo-Leasing report are the subject of a court dispute.

2. Excerpt from the Anglo Leasing Report

2. Excerpt from the Anglo Leasing Report

The second G4S Kenya director is John Matere Keriri, who was an active politician from the late 80s up until 2007. He was voted in as MP for Kirinyaga Central Constituency, formerly known as Kerugoya/Kutus Constituency in 1997, and was appointed as State House Comptroller by President Kibaki in 2002. Just before his dismissal from State House in 2004, he was approached by Dutch businessman Carlo van Wagenigen to assist with getting government approval for feasibility studies and government guarantees against financial risk for a business idea that would later become the Lake Turkana Wind Farm Project (LTWFP). According to Wagenigen’s account, his “good friend” Keriri set up a meeting with then Permanent Secretary for Energy Patrick Nyoike, who gave the green light for the project.

There is no mention of contracts for the provision of security services, yet the IFMIS data shows that a total of KSh3,260,280 was paid to G4S.

Upon his dismissal from State House in 2004, Keriri was appointed the Executive Chair of the Electricity Regulatory Board (ERB), which was succeeded by the Energy Regulatory Commission, and subsequently by the current Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority. The ERB was established to regulate the generation, transmission, and distribution of electric power in Kenya. This included setting, reviewing, and adjusting tariffs, as well as approving electric power purchase contracts between and among electric power producers and public electricity suppliers.

Incidentally, the power purchase agreement between LTWFP and the Kenyan government included a take-or-pay clause that saw taxpayers foot the bill for a KSh1 billion fine when the government delayed in building a transmission line to connect the wind farm to the national grid. The World Bank had earlier expressed concern over this clause that would burden consumers, and withdrew its support in 2012. According to Biashara Energy Solutions Ltd, a renewable energy SME where Keriri was a director, he was “one of the Chief Financial Advisors for Turkana Wind Power project who is attributed for structuring new financing model after the announcement of the World Bank to pull out of the project financing.”

Two years later, after almost a decade of feasibility studies and investment negotiations, project construction started and G4S announced that they had been awarded a contract by the Ministry of Energy to secure the wind farm on a three-year rolling basis for a period of 15 years. Available records show that Matere Keriri joined the board of G4S Kenya Ltd a year later, sitting from 2015 to 2017, though a search at the Company Registry conducted in May 2020 indicated that Keriri was still on the board. G4S has won tenders from the Ministry of Energy, under which the ERC falls, during Keriri’s tenure on its board. The details of these contracts, including the monetary value, are only visible as internet search results whose links are broken. They have not been published on the PPIP or the Ministry’s website as per the public procurement transparency requirements.

This should matter. The lack of information on contracts awarded to G4S and their monetary value obscures a high risk of conflicts of interest or, worse, may indicate that collusion, cronyism, kickbacks, or some other form of corruption was instrumental in G4S’s financial success. The Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act tries to prevent this by prohibiting public officers from taking part in any procurement process in which they have an interest, and also expressly forbids inappropriate influence in procurement decisions.

Under section 176 of the Act, any person found guilty of violating this law faces up to 10 years of imprisonment or a fine of up to KSh4 million, or both. Should the offending party be a body corporate, then a fine of KSh10 million will apply. The Act also requires procuring entities to publish tender notices and awards. This means that any public entity that has failed to publish contracts awarded to G4S and other public entities is in breach of the law. However, the Act is unclear on whether this is a punishable offence.

Source: Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act, No. 33 of 2015

Source: Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act, No. 33 of 2015

Given the lack of publicly available information, Kenyan citizens have no way of checking whether they are getting the best value for their money with regard to these contracts.

G4S’s questionable corporate structure

According to records filed with the Company Registrar, G4S Kenya Ltd is 82 per cent owned by a Dutch holding company. In the world of financial crime and illicit financial flows, “Dutch holding company” is a red flag for tax avoidance. The snapshot below shows that the G4S structure comprises of a series of subsidiaries and holding companies ultimately owned by G4S plc based in the United Kingdom.

Source: G4S Company Scan by The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO)

Source: G4S Company Scan by The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO)

This should concern Kenyan taxpayers. This company structure raises questions of tax planning and tax avoidance, especially since Oxfam ranked the Netherlands third out of fifteen countries that “facilitate the most extreme forms of corporate tax avoidance”. The European Parliament has also labelled it a tax haven. Corporate tax havens have been known to help big business cheat countries out of billions of dollars every year and in fact, a 2016 study by Oxfam Kenya shows how companies in the extractives industry use conduit companies in the Netherlands for tax avoidance.

If public procurement continues to be shrouded in secrecy, then citizens will have no way of finding out whether G4S and other multinationals are indeed cheating the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) out of much-needed taxes, or whether they are relying on political patronage to win government contracts paid for by taxpayer money.

The need to strengthen the access to information regime in Kenya

When I reached out to G4S to clarify some of the points raised in this article, they told me that I had no written authority to write about G4S, and should I attempt to publish anything without their written authority, it would “cost me”. When private companies have dealings with the government, when they have prominent politicians sitting on their board of directors, and when they play critical public roles such as the provision of security, then citizens and especially journalists should have the right to look into their affairs, and the veil of secrecy ought to be lifted.

There is a need to demand increased accountability for companies that conduct business with government agencies. Without full disclosure, there is a potential risk that Kenya may be losing much needed tax revenues that would greatly ease the tax burden on ordinary Kenyans.

In the world of financial crime and illicit financial flows, “Dutch holding company” is a red flag for tax avoidance.

I also contacted the Commission on Administrative Justice, otherwise known as the Ombudsman, the agency in charge of enforcing the Access to Information Act of 2016. After my requests for information to JKUAT and the Ministry of Energy were denied, I asked the Ombudsman whether they could offer any redress mechanisms to citizens who are denied their right to information, or if government agencies faced any penalty for failure to disclose information. Ironically, I was informed that I had to write a formal letter on the letterhead of the organisation that I represented, which would then go through their internal processes before eventually landing on the relevant officer’s desk. As of the writing of this article, my request is still pending. Nonetheless, the Ombudsman indicated through their official twitter account that requests for information are valid as long as they provide sufficient details of the information sought. Furthermore, such requests do not have to be in writing.

Unless the government starts respecting the constitutional right of access to information, we shall continue to lose billions that could have gone towards the public good, such as for example, providing social services in education, healthcare, or social welfare cushions for small business owners that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 control measures.

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Jacqueline Wahome is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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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The Next Emergency: Building Resilience through Fiscal Democracy
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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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