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Nairobi’s Slum Dwellers Mired in Filth

13 min read.

Nairobi’s growth has been exponential but poor waste management infrastructure has left the city’s slum dwellers living in a highly polluted environment without adequate supplies of clean water.

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Nairobi’s Slum Dwellers Mired in Filth
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Tucked away in Nairobi’s Dandora Phase 4 slum is a shanty that Lucy Wanjiru, 28, calls home, one of the many tiny, poorly lit structures built with scraps of corrugated iron sheets and metal.  At Lucy’s doorstep is a vegetable garden littered with dozens of mostly empty jerricans that can find no storage space in her small room. To the side is a large pumpkin plant. A pile of old croc shoes that she uses as cooking fuel sits beside the three stones on which Lucy sets her pot to cook the family meals.

Just nearby is a shared pit latrine; in place of a door is a piece of sack billowing in the wind.

“I do not have a special toilet like the rich people. I use the pipe toilet,” the mother of two who earns a living washing clothes and who moved here seven years ago after getting married tells the Elephant.

A pipe toilet is a pit latrine with a pipe attached to it. When you pour water to flush, the faecal matter passes through the pipe and drains directly into the nearby Nairobi River from which Lucy draws water to grow her vegetables, do the laundry and bathe because she cannot afford to buy enough domestic water from vendors.

This is a major health risk to Lucy and her family as the river water can transmit diseases such polio, diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, as well as cholera, which averages 3,500 cases annually and costs Kenya about US$2.2 million. But Lucy says she has no alternative.

“I can stay thirsty for a few days but I am a woman, I need to bathe. What other choice do I have? Now I have vegetables, and the little money I get, I buy maize flour and cooking oil. I don’t have to buy paraffin, my husband brings old shoes from the Dandora dump site where he works,” says Lucy, who caught typhoid three times in 2021.

Lucy is not the only one in this situation. Here in Dandora, home to more than 140,000 Nairobi residents, clean water, sanitation and waste disposal facilities are a luxury.

Residents are forced to buy costly water from cartels that have privatised the water supply and discharge all their waste into the river they depend on for bathing, washing clothes, cleaning, and for crop and livestock farming, endangering their lives and harming the environment in the process.

Known for its crime, poverty and as the city’s main dumpsite, the Dandora slum suffers from a severe water shortage. Yet it sits on the banks of Nairobi River, a biodiversity-rich source of clean water a century ago. But explosive population growth, industrialization and lack of waste management infrastructure in Nairobi have left the river very sick.

Billions of shillings have been spent by the government and other institutions in an effort to clean up the river, revamp the city’s sewerage system and provide clean water to the city’s residents with little success; the condition of the river continues to deteriorate.

Experts say this is because the full context of the problem is ignored; slum dwellers, one of the chief drivers of river pollution, are not involved yet their participation is critical to improving the health of the river.

Sam Dindi, an environmentalist and co-founder of Mazingara Yetu, a community-based organisation, has for years been part of the Ngong River Restoration initiative under the Nairobi City Regeneration Programme (NCRP), and the restoration of the Ondiri wetland, the source of the Nairobi River.

Speaking to the Elephant, Dindi observed that Kenya is a water-scarce country where pollution and climate change have exacerbated water scarcity. “We’re losing much needed water but you cannot clean the river without addressing the source of its pollution. Slum dwellers are a major polluter and most affected.

They have no water, toilets, sewage or solid waste disposal systems and housing conditions and planning are extremely poor and hazardous. All their waste ends up polluting the river, environment and creating water scarcity.

To rehabilitate the river, we need proper urban planning, sanitation systems and recycling facilities then we’ll know this waste is going here, and this is going there. We’ll even create jobs but putting on an overall and heading to the river to remove solid waste is just a PR exercise. It’s a waste of time.”

The story of Nairobi River 

Nairobi River is the main river of the Nairobi River Basin comprising Ngong, Nairobi, Mathare, Kiu, Riara and Gatharaini rivers. In Ondiri, Kikuyu, Kiambu County where the Nairobi River originates, the water is clean and clear. During a field visit in November last year, I found a man dipping his water bottle and drinking water directly from the river; he has done this since childhood.

But as the river winds downstream across the city, passing through residential areas, factories, industries, hospitals and businesses including in the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD), the industrial area and the highly populated informal settlements like Dandora, the river gathers all manner of waste that now threatens its existence.

Putting on an overall and heading to the river to remove solid waste is just a PR exercise. It’s a waste of time.”

It is here in Dandora Phase 4 where Lucy lives that the Mathare River meets and joins the Nairobi River, draining into the Athi River east of Nairobi, and eventually into the Indian Ocean as the Galana River.

The Nairobi River and all its tributaries are heavily polluted with sewage from open sewers and industrial waste that is illegally channelled by unscrupulous developers. So bad is the pollution that studies have declared the waters too toxic for any useful purpose.

Acute water shortage in Dandora

Mwaura’s shanty in Dandora is just a few metres from Nairobi River. The 72-year-old says he does not pay rent because he owns the land. He however does not have a title deed.

Mwaura was born and raised in the shanty he calls home. Yet he could be uprooted at any time; like many others in the slum, his house is built without government approval and is considered illegally constructed as the government owns the land.

For years, Mwaura has tried to install piped water without success, forcing him to buy water from vendors, kiosks and water cartels at exorbitant prices. “The river water is black and poisonous. I cannot use it but if I had 10,000 shillings, I would pay this man in the neighbourhood who lets people connect pipes from his house to their homes. But that amount is too high. I cannot afford it,” says the former watchman.

Charlie, a recently widowed father of two, considers the river too toxic, “Water is everything but I will not endanger my children. I struggle daily wondering why I have to choose between buying food, paraffin or fetching water. Life was easier when my wife was here because fetching water is a woman’s duty.”

The Nairobi River and all its tributaries are heavily polluted with sewage from open sewers and industrial waste that is illegally channelled by unscrupulous developers.

He is fortunate however not to have to pay rent since his former landlord disappeared years ago. Charlie soon erected two shanties that he rents out to feed his family but to date, he is unable to install piped water because it is too expensive, he says.

Kenya’s constitution recognises that access to adequate food, housing, reasonable standards of sanitation and clean, safe water in adequate quantities is an economic and social right for every person. Dandora’s residents, however, say these rights are just on paper.

According to UN Habitat, only 22 per cent of Nairobi’s slum dwellers have piped water. Seventy-five per cent of residents buy water from vendors, paying more for water than those living in middle or high-income areas.

In 2020, UN Human Rights reported that the price of piped water in Nairobi’s middle class neighbourhoods ranged between KSh34 and KSh53 per cubic metre (1000 litres) whereas residents of informal settlements paid between KSh10 and KSh50 for a 20-litre jerry can.

Drawing data from Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) between 1985 and 2018 and Global Human Settlement between 1975 and 2014, a recent study further highlighted inequality in water distribution, access and cost between Nairobi’s high-income and low-income areas. According to the study, slum dwellers are unlikely to receive the 1,500 litres of water every month per person recommended by World Health Organisation (WHO), unlike residents of high and middle income areas who are four or six times more likely to receive the recommended amounts.

Kenya Vision 2030 targets 100 per cent provision of safe water and access to basic sanitation services by 2030, the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). Yet, today, just 50 per cent of Nairobi has piped water coverage, with only 40 per cent receiving water on a 24-hour basis.

Following extended periods of drought, the government introduced water rationing in Nairobi in 2017, with residents receiving water on specific days. Some residents have access to water for only a few hours a day while others receive water at least three times a week, leaving many at the mercy of water cartels.

According to NCWSC, which is mandated to provide the city with water and sewage services, Nairobi’s water needs have grown to more than 810,000 cubic meters daily against an installed capacity of 525,600 cubic meters.

“The demand is higher than supply. We are 20 years behind,” NCWSC Managing Director Nahashon Muguna said in an interview.

No waste facilities in Dandora

Mwaura’s pit latrine collapsed just a few days after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya. Now, every time he or his family needs to use the toilet, he must ask permission from his neighbour. “It sank to the ground but nobody was injured. This was my first toilet, a bit old but it was still my toilet and never drained to the river like the rest in the area,” Mwaura said.

The father of four says that many years ago he and his family used to practice open defecation because at the time, “there were bushes and the area wasn’t as populated as now”. A field visit to Dandora is an obstacle race over rocks, logs, open trenches filled with wastewater, human waste and heaps of garbage, all of which finally ends up in the Nairobi River.

The makeshift structures along the banks of the Nairobi River, including homes and businesses, all have pipe toilets that discharge waste directly into the river. Residents without pipe toilets—or who are not connected to sewer lines because of lack of money—confided that when their toilets are full, they empty them by scooping the waste with buckets and discharging it into the river.

Traders in Dandora, including those selling food, go about their business amidst the stench of sewage flowing through broken sewer lines, narrow open trenches, and overflowing manholes, all leading to the river.

Nairobi’s water needs have grown to more than 810,000 cubic meters daily against an installed capacity of 525,600 cubic meters.

“I’ve had typhoid several times this year [2021], but it wasn’t this food, it was from drinking that water,” Esther Muthoni, a resident told the Elephant as she pointed at the water pipes in the mess of sewage. The World Health Organisation warns that wastewater can seep into the water supply through damaged pipes making it undrinkable.

Everything is a risk here. But we’re used to the filth,” Muthoni said as she stuffed boiled potatoes in chicken necks to make kuku chipo ya kuchemsha for her clients.

People can be seen defecating in the open areas and near or in the river even as others wash themselves or clean their clothes, oblivious of the danger they pose to those using the water. The situation is no different in Korogocho, Kamukunji (Shauri Moyo) and other areas near Gikomba market.

According to Unicef, Kenya is one of 26 countries in the world that are responsible for 90 per cent of open defecation with an estimated five million Kenyans practising open defecation. The practice costs the economy KSh8 billion every year with approximately 19,500 Kenyans, including 17,100 children under the age of five years dying annually from diarrhoea according to the Ministry of Health Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Strategic Framework (KeSSF) 2016-2020 report.

Kenya plans to eliminate open defecation by 2025. To do this, some 1.2 million latrines—at a cost of KSh1,530 each—are required. Overall, the ministry says, Kenya loses an estimated KSh27 billion (US$365 million) annually due to poor sanitation, about 1 per cent of the national GDP.

In another area of Dandora, David, barely two years old, is playing in the open trenches outside his family’s single room home. His sickly and heavily pregnant mother rushes to pick him up. Three days earlier, David had been taken to hospital at night following three days of diarrhoea, a leading cause of death and disability in Kenya. “I am tired of going to the hospital. But what do I do? He wants to play but there’s no space. It’s worse when I have to go work,” the mother of four lamented.

In Kenya in 2018, 1,499,146 cases of diarrhoea were reported among children under five years, with Nairobi accounting for 136,028 cases. 25.6 per cent of children living in the informal settlement had diarrhoea.

Kenya is one of 26 countries in the world that are responsible for 90 per cent of open defecation with an estimated five million Kenyans practising open defecation.

Residents of Dandora told the Elephant that they have nowhere else to take their waste and the river made sense as waste would “flow downstream” or “get washed away by the rain”.  Some thought the river was just an open sewer.

With funding from the Africa Development Bank (AfDB), the Nairobi Sewerage Improvement Project, which is part of the larger Nairobi River Basin Rehabilitation and Restoration Programme, has developed wastewater facilities and increased the city’s sewage coverage from 40 to 48 per cent.

The AfDB says that infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing population, industrialization and urbanisation, which has led to heavy pollution of Nairobi’s rivers, including Mathare, Ngong, Athi and Kiu, the main source of water supply for the city. Domestic and industrial waste is discharged directly into the rivers without being treated, which has an adverse impact on the river ecology.

Currently, Kenya’s urban areas host 12 million people and the number is expected to triple to 40 million by 2050. And as Nairobi grows, the World Bank says, more poor urban dwellers are pushed into low-income settlements, where there is little or no water or sanitation.

Residents of Dandora told the Elephant that they have nowhere else to take their waste and the river made sense as waste would “flow downstream” or “get washed away by the rain”.

According to the Nairobi County Assembly, 60 per cent of Nairobi’s 4,397,073 residents live in slums and informal settlements and occupy only 6 per cent of Nairobi’s total land area.

“It’s difficult to provide social amenities at a pace that matches the population growth hence facilities like water and sewerage have been overstretched,” the Nairobi County Government said in its 21/22 development plan.

Kenya’s capital Nairobi generates 525 million litres of wastewater daily, less than 200 million litres of which are treated. The city’s main treatment plants, Dandora Estate Sewage Treatment Works (DSTW), which was built in 1975, and Kariobangi Sewerage Treatment Plant, which was built in 1960 and started operating in 1963, have been overwhelmed. “The effluent from the treatment plant, which is discharged into Nairobi River for reuse, currently does not meet required quality standards due to overloading,” the Dandora treatment plant reports on its website.

The city also generates an estimated 2,400 tonnes of solid waste daily yet only 45 per cent is recycled, reused or transformed into a form which can yield an economic or ecological benefit. The rest finds its way into waterways like the Nairobi River, which provides a livelihood for many residents as a source of water for farming, domestic use, industrial use, and at recreation facilities such as the Dandora Waterfall and the Fourteen Falls in Thika.

Polluting companies 

Although residents living along the banks depend on the health of Nairobi River, factories and drainage have heavily polluted its waters for decades. Household and human waste, pharmaceutical and industrial waste, chemicals and heavy metals are among the pollutants that are discharged into the Nairobi River on a daily basis. Since 2019, 21 dead bodies—16 infants and 5 adults dumped in the river to rot—have been retrieved so far.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Keriako Tobiko, has directed that individuals, companies and public institutions discharging raw waste into Nairobi River be charged and prosecuted. The Technical Director of Nairobi Water and Sewage Ltd was arrested after the CS found sewer lines discharging waste to the river.

In mid-2020, the National Environment Management Authority identified 148 polluters who were to be arraigned in court. Companies and factories, including Apex Coating East Africa, Kamongo Waste Recycling Company and Associated Battery Manufacturers (ABM), have been shut down by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) for discharging untreated effluent into the river.

Since 2019, 21 dead bodies—16 infants and 5 adults dumped in the river to rot—have been retrieved so far.

During the “Ng’arisha Jiji” programme, former Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko also directed the closure of 25 companies and hospitals for discharging raw sewage and aborted babies into the river. According to environmentalist Sam Dindi, sewage trucks empty waste into the river instead of taking it to designated waste disposal sites.

Toxins and diseases 

Many Nairobi residents are not aware that they could be eating vegetables that are killing them, or are using non-woven shopping bags scavenged from dumpsites like Dandora and washed in the Nairobi River.

Scientific studies show that lead and cadmium levels are 13,500 ppm (parts per million) and 1,058 ppm respectively along the riparian areas where farmers have channelled the river water into their farms, including in the Dandora dumpsite area. They rear animals, grow maize, arrowroots, Napier grass and vegetables that are later sold in the area, in estates nearby and in markets like Ruai, Muthurwa and Gikomba.

“I see the dirt as fertiliser and you can see vegetables are green and healthy,” says Willy, a farmer in Dandora Phase 4 who uses the river water. He says he made a killing last year selling traditional vegetables and even managed to pay college fees for his young cousin. While Willy moves from door to door in Dandora selling his vegetables, farmers in the neighbouring Lucky Summer Estate have established their stalls just outside the estate gates.

According to the environment CS, the river pollution and consumption of food produced with polluted water undermines the realisation of universal health and food security, which are among the country’s Big Four Agenda.

The pollution creates clean water scarcity, degrades the environment, and exposes people to heavy metal poisoning. The bacteria, sewage, chemicals and plastics suck oxygen from water supplies and transform water into poison for humans and ecosystems. Lab analyses of water collected at different points in the river showed that the amounts of lead, copper, chromium, zinc and manganese were greater than the limits set by the WHO and NEMA.

High manganese concentrations can cause liver damage, neurotoxicity, chronic respiratory inflammation and birth defects such as cleft lip, heart defects, imperforate anus and deafness, in addition to causing aggressive behaviour and libido disturbances. “The concentration of lead, one of the most insidious of all environmental hazards, was also above the NEMA limit of 0.01 mg/L for effluent discharge into the environment in all the sampling points,” the findings say.

Antimicrobials in the river have driven the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) where bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites have built resistance to the drugs used for treatment of diseases.

Efforts and solutions 

The first attempt at rehabilitation and restoration of the Nairobi River Basin took place between 1999 and 2001, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The second ran from 2001 to 2003 while the third was between 2004 and 2008.

In 2017, the fourth attempt kicked off with the aim of improving Nairobi city water, sanitation facilities, waste management, and roads and housing, especially in the slums and informal settlements. However, these initiatives have had very little success and the situation is deteriorating by the day.

Lack of community engagement and participation has contributed to the limited success, according to Josephat Karomi, Chairman of Kamukunji Environment Conservation Champions (KECC), a community-based group that turned the Kamukunji grounds on the banks of the Nairobi River from a dumpsite into a clean environment.

Many Nairobi residents are not aware that they could be eating vegetables that are killing them.

“Often, issues are discussed in closed offices and riparian communities are overlooked,” Karomi said. A multi-agency team involving residents, national and county governments, the private sector, NGOs, community groups, and community leaders would combat the crisis however, he said. Karomi believes that by forging partnerships, residents can create wealth from collecting, sorting and selling waste to recyclers as much of the waste discharged into the river could be recycled.

According to Sam Dindi, to accommodate the large number of households living near the river without toilets and sanitation facilities, the government should build public toilets and facilities for washing clothes, with the grey water directed to sewer lines. “This will give the clean-ups a meaning,” he said.

Wastewater can generate wealth as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are recovered as fertiliser and treated wastewater is used for agriculture.

Experts have attributed the stalling of the renovation and reclamation of Nairobi River to lack of funds and political will. However, in some areas like Kibera, through which the Ngong River passes, the regeneration project has shown positive signs. Fifteen community ablution blocks have been built and new sewer lines have been laid, with old lines being rehabilitated.

The Dandora Sewage plant is getting a facelift under the KSh1.3 billion Nairobi Water Project. The construction of seven ponds of 20,000 cubic metres capacity each at a cost of KShI billion and the erection of a perimeter wall on the 4,000 acres of land at a cost of KSh300 million are underway.

The World Bank has also provided sustainable access to sanitation and water services in selected low-income areas under the Nairobi Sanitation Project at a cost of US$4.8 million and says that more needs to be done otherwise experts say projects like the KSh82 billion Thwake Dam may turn out to be white elephant if the matter is not attended to urgently.

Research for article was carried out with the support of a fellowship from the Media Hack collective.

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Naipanoi Lepapa is a freelance investigative and feature journalist based in Nairobi Kenya. She is interested in under-reported stories and writes about gender, human rights, health and environmental stories. She also writes about culture and technology.

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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