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Navigating the Institutional Lives of an African University

12 min read.

Institutions, including universities, have internal and external lives that are mutually constitutive. Institutional cultures reflect and reproduce prevailing and intertwined national and global contexts, challenges, and opportunities. USIU-Africa’s institutional culture exhibited the complexities and contradictions of its history, location, and aspirations.



Navigating the Institutional Lives of an African University
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The Poverty of Low Expectations

There is a peculiar, if predictable, malaise that afflicts many African postcolonial societies and the mindsets of institutions and individuals: an unsettling sensation of being less than, combined with a desperate yearning to become like them—the former colonial masters—that generates perpetual mimicry and underperformance. This is what underscores the imperatives of existential, epistemic, and economic decolonization.

I commented in an earlier reflection on USIU-Africa’s duality, as a Kenyan and an American university, which is as seductive as it is debilitating, a source of both innovation and inertia. It engenders a perpetual search for a cohesive identity, a precarious institutional culture characterized by uneven expectations, the warring demands of Africanness and Americanness, in which their respective perils, rather than their possibilities, tend to be accentuated.

I frequently encountered and countered the proverbial “African time” by participants and invited speakers turning up late at campus meetings and events, and students complaining about lecturers who came late to class or not at all. I was often surprised by the poor quality of annual reports from some departments and divisions, and delays in the work of several institutional committees and projects. The University Council didn’t acquit itself well either: its committee meetings were often cancelled due to lack of quorum, and in many meetings, it was clear to management that some members had not read the reports we painstakingly prepared.

I repeatedly made it known that I valued timeliness, rigorous standards, robust deliberations, and adherence to high expectations, ethical behavior, and exceptional performance. It was gratifying to see some met the demands of institutional excellence, but many others did not. As is often the case, the laggards were the loudest complainants, who sought to fuel a culture of intolerance, incivility, and illiberalism that reflected the dysfunctions of the larger national polity.

At stake was a battle against the culture of mediocrity evident in all manner of spaces and organizations. The brilliant, young Kenyan journalist, Larry Madowo, incisively captured the culture of low expectations in an article in The Daily Nation of November 15, 2016, titled “Why do Kenyans accept such low standards in everything?” He called it “the at least mindset.”  It is worth quoting at some length.

“This ‘at least’ mindset Kenyans have is just an apology for low standards…. When we are surprised that anything begins on time, we unconsciously allow the organizers of future events to be tardy because we’ve already made it acceptable. We are not outraged when a notorious politician does objectively horrible things because “at least” he cares for the people.

We make excuses for bad behavior because “at least” they haven’t killed anyone. We make excuses for grand corruption even in the face of incontrovertible evidence because the other side is just as bad…

When you criticize anything in Kenya, there is never a shortage of people who will tell you to be positive and stop being so pessimistic. The argument is always that “at least” something is being done.

We accept bare minimums when we are entitled to so much more. Optimism cannot, and should, not be a substitute for a solid critique… You can’t build a merit-based society if any effort demands to be applauded, however little. We scrape the bottom of the barrel so many times, come up with almost nothing and are still pleased that ‘at least’ it’s not entirely empty.”

The following year, in his commencement address at USIU-Africa, the Chief Executive Officer of the Commission for University Education (CUE), Dr. Mwenda Ntarangwi, quoted Madowo’s article above. He implored the graduating students to eschew the “at least mindset.” “Does patriotism mean accepting low standards?” he asked. “Should it not be the other way round, that patriotism means we love this nation so much that we accept nothing but the best from it and that we also give it the best? As you leave here today let me ask you to please change this culture of ‘at least’ and model and expect excellence in all that you do.”

I was troubled by the culture of authoritarianism and discretionary decision making I found, in which the vice chancellor made all decisions even on petty matters. I commented in previous reflections on the debilitating cultures of xenophobia, sexism, and unethical research practices.

The Seductions and Sanctions of Ethnicity

The biggest elephant in the room was ethnic chauvinism, dubbed “tribalism”, a colonial construct that reduces Africans to members of atavistic “tribes.” It is a sad commentary on the endurance of colonial civilizational conceits that many in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent uncritically embrace the term “tribe” for their ethnic groups or nations. I told my students not to use it in my classes for its racist origins and offensiveness to describe African identities that elsewhere are dignified by terms such as ethnicity or nationality and are not mutilated by suffix “tribe” after the name. Who would describe an Englishman or Englishwoman a member of the English tribe?

There is a large literature on the colonial invention of “traditions” and “tribes” that many contemporary Africans swear by to invoke some imaginary precolonial cultural authenticity. A distinction is often made between moral ethnicity (ethnicity as a sociocultural identity) and political ethnicity (ethnicity as a political ideology). As an identity ethnicity is not the problem, it acquires its disruptive poison through political mobilization in contestations for power and privileges.

Such is the pervasive and perverse conceit in constructions of cultural and political hierarchies that the marshaling of ethnic identities in national and institutional life is seen as an African pathology. Yet, in the United States and other multicultural societies in the global North ethnicity is substituted by race. As the Trump presidency made it abundantly clear to those who had drank the kool-aid about American democracy, white supremacy is alive and well. Racist politicians routinely mobilize racial difference for the lethal concoction of discrimination, inequality, and disenfranchisement for racialized minorities. As the latter grow, political revanchism escalates, as evident in Trump’s and post-Trump America.

In an online essay posted in late December 2007, written during Kenya’s descent into the abyss of post-election violence, titled “Holding a nation hostage to a bankrupt political class,” I commented on the destructiveness of the country’s politicization of ethnicity. So, I was not surprised by the distractive and disruptive power of ethnicism when I was vice chancellor at USIU-Africa.

As is the case at the national level, the politics of ethnicity at the university reared its ugly head over appointments, promotion, and representation. The higher the position the more fraught the internal contestations and grandstanding. One of the most contentious was for the appointment of an acting Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs. Two substantive appointments had turned down the offer.

A cabal from one ethnic group held secret meetings to push the candidacy of one of their own, who had applied but was rejected by the search committee that included members of the faculty, staff, student, and university councils, as well as some members of management and the deans’ committee. An influential member of the University Council pushed for his own favorite candidate who was not qualified for the position.

Fortunately, the appointment of the DVC and other members of management was my prerogative as vice chancellor based on recommendations from the search committees. I used the appointment of the vice chancellor as a template in which as candidates we went through various stages concluded by on campus meetings with several groups of the university community. This search was novel in Kenya but common in the United States where I relocated from.

Management and I instituted a transparent process of appointments and promotions for senior administrative and academic positions. As I noted in an earlier reflection, each academic department and school formed an appointment and promotion committee. For heads of key administrative departments, management interviewed the candidates as well.

In 2018-2019, we embarked on a staff redeployment exercise in which about three dozen people were transferred to other departments. Human resource experts recommend such periodic redeployments as an effective tool of talent retention and management. It helps re-energize employees by offering them an opportunity to learn new skills and even assume higher positions and saves employers the high costs of redundancies and recruitment of new employees.

In our case, through the Tuition Waiver Program many employees had earned bachelor’s or master’s degrees ill-suited for the positions they occupied. Management was also keen to break the ethnic enclaves that had emerged over the years in various administrative divisions and departments that were often dominated by members from one or a couple of ethnic groups.

This was initially met with some resistance, but many of the individuals involved increasingly expressed satisfaction with their redeployment. We manage to loosen the stranglehold of ethnic cabals, but they were by no means broken. The ethnic chauvinists looked for every opportunity to attack members of management. Revealingly, they focused their ire on the highly accomplished and effective women in management who were in their early 40s. In my case, this was overlaid by xenophobia, which underscores the fact that layers of bigotry cascade and overlap.

The Blinkered External Gaze

Despite popular mythology, universities have never been ivory towers splendidly isolated from their societies and the wider world. Their values, missions, and institutional cultures reflect their times and locations. The few colonial universities that were established in Africa sought to reproduce the colonial order, while the explosion of universities after independence reflected the expansive dreams of development. Similarly, in the United States it is now widely acknowledged that many of the country’s most prestigious universities were built with enslaved labor, or benefitted from the proceeds of slavery, and laid the intellectual and ideological foundations of American racism.

Prior to my time as vice chancellor, I had written extensively on the entangled, complex, and conflicted relationship between African universities and various external stakeholders. The honeymoon of the early post-independence years wilted as the drive for Africanization or indigenization of the public service was achieved, and as the unforgiving conditionalities of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) imposed with fundamentalist zeal by the international financial institutions wrecked African economies and tore asunder the independence social contract.

At a conference of African vice chancellors in 1986, the World Bank baldly declared the continent didn’t need universities; some architects of the Washington Consensus had discovered social rates of return were higher for primary than higher education, voilà! Beleaguered African states facing mounting struggles for the “second independence” arising out of the collapse of the nationalist promises of development and democracy, often led by workers, the youth and university students, were only too happy to dismantle universities as viable spaces of critical knowledge production. So, began the slide towards underfunding at the same time as the number of universities expanded to meet rising demand.

By the time I joined USIU-Africa in January 2016, the hand of the state over the higher education sector had loosened considerably. The president of the republic was no longer chancellor of all the public universities. Regulatory authority rested on an increasingly professional agency, CUE. Private universities were allowed to operate, although doubts about their quality lingered in the public mind and among their alumni as I observed. Moreover, as we experienced at USIU-Africa, the Kenyan regulator was more authoritarian than our American regulator, although that began to change under Dr. Mwenda’s leadership.

Institutional leaders on my campus including members of top governance organs had drunk deep in the autocratic well of the one party state, now overlaid by often misguided corporatist injunctions for profitability and efficiency. Above all, the levels of public funding per student continued to decline, which left many public universities virtually bankrupt when the pipeline of privately sponsored students dried up from 2017.

As I noted in an earlier reflection, the private sector and the rapidly growing class of high net worth individuals did not pick up the slack. Some of Africa’s wealthiest people gladly make generous contributions to exceedingly wealthy universities in the global North rather than those in their own countries. This is not surprising given the fact that these elites send their children to the global North. It’s a vote of no confidence in the academic worth of their local universities, where many of them received their education before the ravages of SAPs.

There’s a long tradition, crystallized in Frantz Fanon’s trenchant critique, The Wretched of the Earth, of depicting African elites as a comparator bourgeoisie, as the least patriotic among their global counterparts. In a paper titled “African Universities and the Production of Elites” delivered at a conference on African elites organized by the University of Toronto in January 2021, I argued for a more nuanced understanding and differentiation of African elites.

However, the fact remains they are the source of the huge illicit outflows of capital from the continent, estimated at $60 billion in 2016 by the UN Economic Commission for Africa High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa.“This is twice the amount of money flowing in as aid annually. Often, money leaving developing countries illicitly ends up right back in banks in Europe and the U.S.”

Our interest as management in engaging the private sector went beyond financial resources. I’ve long believed principled and mutually beneficial partnerships between universities and business are essential for two other reasons. First, in so far as research and development (R&D) is essential not only for national economic development, an area in which Africa performs abysmally (accounting for a mere 1.0% of global R&D), it is imperative for the growth and competitiveness of African business. The multinational corporations they compete with conduct the bulk of their R&D in their home countries often in collaboration with their research universities. How many African businesses conduct R&D, let alone in partnership with their local universities?

Second, universities are valued by society for their capacity to produce high quality human capital. Historically, business has invested in buying talent, rather than building talent. On their part, universities pride themselves as oases of advanced knowledges production and critical contemplation unsullied by the vocational preoccupations of lesser tertiary institutions. This incongruity in expectations has sometimes resulted in mismatches between university graduates and the needs of the economy and labor market.

In much of Africa, graduate unemployment and underemployment is higher than for those with lower levels of education. In East Africa, according to a story by Gilbert Nganga in University World News of June 2020, 2018, a study by the Inter-University Council of East Africa “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63% of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61% of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55% and 52% of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51% of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.”

In 2016, the British Council produced a report, Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development covering Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, which our management team found quite alarming as USIU-Africa was ranked lower than its competitors for the employability of its graduates. It prompted us to commission an internal study on the subject. The team consulted existing research and literature, gathered extensive data on the global, regional, and local contexts, carried out a survey of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and employers, and made several recommendations.

They found that employers expected technical, subject, and soft skills. Among the soft skills valued in the current job market, the following stood out: communication and interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, using own initiative and being self-motivated, working under pressure, organizational skills, teamwork, ability to learn, numeracy, valuing diversity and cultural differences, and negotiation skills. For the future, employers identified the skills that would become more critical included the following: literacies in various media, scientific literacy, ICT literacy, financial literacy, curiosity, persistence and grit, adaptability, service orientation, leadership, and social awareness.

Following the survey, the university enhanced its support systems for student employability preparedness. Existing programs for life and soft skills training were strengthened or new ones established. This included reforming general education, improving career training and job fairs, internships, and community service, and creating youth boot camps. The university also sought to infuse innovation and entrepreneurship in its academic curricula and extra-curricular activities by setting up an incubation and innovation center and introducing an assessment system for extra-curricular activities.

Also, we worked hard to enhance partnerships with the private sector, both international and local companies. We enjoyed modest success. Examples include the establishment of an apprenticeship and innovation program by a major local company, an AppFactory by Microsoft, the only one then in Kenya and 14th on the continent. We soon established a presence as an institution that was serious about employability that enabled us to attract the African Development Bank to select our university as one of four for a coding center of excellence and win a competitive bid by the World Bank to provide employability training for more than 30,000 young people in six counties.

As gratifying as these efforts were, it rankled that we failed to attract local companies to support research including those owned or run by members of our own board and council. Similarly, as I noted in a previous reflection, we were unable to crack the door to philanthropic giving from high net worth individuals locally.

Together with the Director of University Advancement and some members of his team we also put considerable efforts to forge partnerships with several embassies from the G20 countries and others that had sizable numbers of students at the university. We were able to secure funding from the US Embassy in Nairobi to establish a state of the art social media lab that produced highly regarded reports on the social media landscape in Kenya. Two of our most entrepreneurial faculty members got a multi-million dollar grant from USAID jointly with an American university for a project on youth employability and empowerment.

Management also put efforts in building external partnerships abroad. For example, the Director of University Advancement and I undertook a six week partnerships development and fundraising trip to the USA between April and May 2018. The trip presented an opportunity to promote the interests of the university to numerous constituencies including universities and research associations, foundations, our alumni, Kenyan and African diaspora communities, government agencies, private corporations, individuals, and potential friends. The visit covered 10 cities namely, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit. Nearly 90 engagements took place.

We returned with four main takeaways that were summarized in a detailed report shared with the university’s academic and administrative leaders. First, we found a strong desire to engage with Africa in general, and African universities. Second, USIU-Africa enjoyed a strategic advantage because of its dual accreditation in Kenya and the USA. Third, we noted that all the universities we visited both big and small, research intensive and teaching oriented, were almost invariably better resourced than we were, and they seemed to have stronger cultures and systems of governance, management, and fundraising that provided us opportunities to reimagine our future. Finally, we were often urged by our interlocutors to actively engage American companies and organizations based in Kenya.

In the report we noted that to take full advantage of the partnership and fundraising opportunities we had cultivated it was imperative we needed to build our capacities, raise our visibility and value as a partner institution. First, we needed to strengthen the capacity of the Advancement division in terms of personnel, skills, and IT infrastructure.

Second, the establishment of an office of Global Affairs led by a senior academic with extensive private and public sector experience was essential to shepherd and oversee international academic partnerships. Third, in many of our conversations it became clear that we could position USIU-Africa as a research and policy hub in East Africa in collaboration with American institutions by establishing specialized institutes and centers that they could partner with and support.

Finally, it was necessary to review and strengthen our systems and processes to make them more effective for international engagements. Specifically, we needed to expand student accommodation to attract more foreign students. During the trip we repeatedly heard complaints about the slowness with which African institutions conduct business including responding to basic communication, negotiations and signing of MoUs, following up on agreements, and where necessary timely reporting on resource utilization.

We urged the divisions and the schools to work closely with University Advancement to pursue the various opportunities the trip had opened. Save for a few inter-institutional partnerships that were established, by the time the Covid-19 pandemic broke out there was little follow up.

Some would say there were “at least” some follow ups. In my book that was not good enough.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.


The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration

The responses to the information disorder adopted in Kenya have been largely ineffective. Multidisciplinary stakeholders working collaboratively stand a higher chance of success and will result in a more informed audience that is less susceptible to mis- and disinformation.



The Information Disorder Calls for Multidisciplinary Collaboration
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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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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.



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.



‘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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