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Is Universal Basic Income the Answer to Alleviating Poverty?

12 min read.

Poverty is the main factor in the transmission of coronavirus. What we need is a “vaccine” against the disruption of livelihoods, and a model might just be staring us in the face.

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Is Universal Basic Income the Answer to Alleviating Poverty?
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At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, made a statement that has become the butt of social media jokes. He said, “If we continue to behave normally, this disease will treat us abnormally. Behaving normal under these circumstances is akin to having a death wish.”

The man in charge of the health docket as the nation is in the throes of a global pandemic moaning and lamenting the public’s apparent refusal to comply with the official prevention strategy sounds defeatist.

The government had curtailed movement into and out of the capital city, Nairobi, and Mombasa and Kilifi counties. A national dusk-to-dawn curfew had been imposed, and a health advisory required that all Kenyans wear masks, avoid social gatherings and other crowded places, including places of worship, and practice handwashing with soap and running water, preferably every half hour.

“Stay at home. Work from home,” was the official line.

“What work? Which home”? Kayole resident Albert Otieno, a 32-year-old father of two who lost his job when the economy was shut down by the virus and is battling a chronic health condition, puts the stay-at-home order in perspective:

Sasa ku-stay at home na isolation, pande yangu ilinifinya. Ilinifinya proper. Kwa sababu, for my family to eat . . . na mimi napata hand to mouth, yangu siwezi sema hata nita-save, yangu nikikuja nayo hivi, ni kuiweka kwa meza. Kesho unaenda tena kwenye umetoka. Unatoka kwa nyumba tena bure, bila hata bob, ya kuenda hata utasema eti nitaenda kula lunch huko kwenye ninaenda, ama utakula breakfast. So hiyo social distance iliniua. Hiyo working at home, mimi sina ati kazi nitaifanya kwa nyumba. Sasa kazi gani nitafanya na mimi kazi yangu ni ya mikono yangu? Now to stay and home and the matter of isolation to me was oppressive, properly oppressive. This is because for my family to eat, and I only get hand-to-mouth, for me I cannot even think of saving, what I earn lands on the table that day. Tomorrow you have to go back where you earned the previous day, you leave the house without even a shilling, nothing that you can say you will use to eat lunch or breakfast. For me when I put my earnings on the table it is all gone. So that social distancing is a death sentence, that working from home too. I do not have any work that I can engage in at home. What work will I do when I survive from the work of my hands?

The question that lingers is whether the government took into account what “normal” means for a majority of Kenyans before suggesting that behaving normally is akin to a death wish.

The Cabinet Secretary was addressing himself only to a small proportion of the Kenyan population, those with the wherewithal to host parties and deliberately disregard health advisories, and certainly not the majority of Kenyans whose existence is defined by poverty.

The coronavirus disrupted the livelihoods of a majority of Kenyans, and the only way that they could survive was to continue their usual, normal life struggles. The 17th edition of the Kenya Economic updates 2018, places 36.1 per cent of Kenyans below the poverty line, whereas a SIDA report indicates that almost 80 per cent of Kenyans are either income poor, or near the poverty line. This means that a majority of Kenyans are tottering on the precipice and risk losing their means of livelihood at the drop of a hat. The report paints a gloomy picture of the Kenyan economic situation. It states,

As much as 78% of Kenyan workers are employed in the informal sector, many of whom lack security of employment, have few labour rights, lack trade union organization, and suffer from low access to social protection. Women, youth and persons with disabilities are even less likely than other groups to receive benefits, including health benefits, when engaged in the informal sector.

The informal sector is made up of small-scale business people, typically, casual or domestic workers, mama mboga (vegetable sellers), mama fua (washerwomen), street hawkers, jua kali artisans, boda-boda (motor-bike and bicycle taxis), kamjesh (transport sector crew) and mjengo crew (builders). Seventy-two per cent of the households which earn their livelihoods in the informal sector do not have a stable income and live mainly from hand-to-mouth. In the 2019 census, Nairobi recorded a population of 4,397,073 of whom 60 per cent — about 2.6 million people — live in informal settlements. Of these city residents, 30 per cent or 1,446,549 are severely food insecure with only 25,000 having a semblance of food security.

According to a rapid food security assessment conducted in April 2020 by The Kenya Red Cross Society, a majority are experiencing severe hunger. Only one out of every four households in Nairobi’s informal settlements has a stable income. Only 20 per cent of the thousands of households in Mukuru and Korogocho are able to support 80 per cent of their domestic needs. This is the situation in Kibera, Mathare, Soweto, Majengo, Gitare, Marigo, Gatina, Lunga Lunga, Kayole and probably in many other informal settlements in the Kenyan urban areas.

The Kenyan economy was already doing badly when the coronavirus struck and COVID-19 was just one more nail in the coffin. Those who were struggling are now barely clinging to life by the skin of their teeth. As the pandemic intensified, food prices soared and reached an unprecedented three-year high, while the cost of essential items like paraffin for lighting and cooking went up by more than 20 per cent in some cases.

Mildred Lucia, a single mother of four living in Dandora who used to wash clothes to earn a living until the coronavirus struck, laments the rise in the prices of basic commodities. “Vitu zimepanda, kama unga tulikuwa tunanunua unga kilo moja shillingi 40. Saa hii imepanda hadi 50 to 55. Napia mchele imepanda. Tulikuwa tunanunua Pakistan 40 shillings saa hii imepanda ni 55 nusu kilo!” The cost of basic commodities has skyrocketed, like maize meal that we were buying at forty shillings now costs between fifty and fifty-five shillings. The price of Pakistan rice has also gone up. We used to buy at forty for half a kilo and now it’s fifty-five!

Food prices have risen by over 25 per cent since the pandemic struck. Food and rent are the highest recurring costs in the informal settlements, followed by health. With no work, residents in the informal settlement see their debts pile up day after day. The sense of desolation evident in Nairobi’s informal settlements is replicated in every informal settlement in Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Nakuru.

The coronavirus pandemic and the government’s mitigating strategies disrupted livelihoods. Informal jobs were lost. Those working in the construction industry lost their jobs because building sites were closed and those that remained open could only operate within the limits of the curfew. At the beginning, the 7 p.m. curfew meant that construction sites closed at 3 p.m. having opened late as the curfew only ended at 5 a.m.

Workers were paid less for working fewer hours. Women who sell food and water to the construction workers and the washerwomen who make a paltry Sh200 per day washing clothes suddenly found themselves persona non grata in the homes of the wealthy who feared that they might transmit the coronavirus to them. The street hawkers selling food, groceries, vegetables and fruits were affected, not only because they were not able to freely ply their trade, but also because the incomes of their customers had been disrupted. And with movement curtailed, the earnings of boda boda riders dropped because they had fewer clients.

Children in the informal settlements had their education completely disrupted because they do not have access to online learning facilities and nor can they afford home schooling. Children stayed at home, or wandered aimlessly around the informal settlements making their parents very worried for their safety. Staying at home in the crowded informal settlements is untenable, yet when the children and their parents wander outside the anxiety rises further because no one knows who could be a COVID-19 vector. Parents return home after a day of trying to earn money to buy food and cannot hug their children because they do not have water to sanitise. Water in the informal settlements costs 150 per cent more than it does in the more affluent neighbourhoods where it is piped right into the houses.

As the loss of livelihoods ate up whatever savings families had, debts began to pile up: food credit, fuel bills and rent arrears. Landlords evicted the Incomeless tenants and locked up the houses, in some cases locking up the tenants’ belongings inside. Many residents of informal settlements built up huge rent arrears forcing them to adopt extremely desperate measures. Thirty-two-year-old Albert Otieno moved into the single room occupied by his old ailing mother, whose own house back in Budalang’i in Busia County had been swept away by the floods that preceded the coronavirus pandemic. In Albert’s culture, this is taboo and totally unacceptable. He says this has affected the entire family.

All these little traumas arising from valiant attempts to stay alive are taking a toll on the mental health of the inhabitants of informal settlements. Cases of domestic violence, homicide and suicide have risen significantly since the coronavirus hit. The National Council on the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) noted that 35.8 per cent of crimes reported just a fortnight into the coronavirus lockdown were of a sexual nature. The perpetrators were for the most part people close to or known to the victims.

Data from the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) shows a similar trend. During the pandemic, CREAW’s gender-based violence helpline has been recording an average of 90 cases a month, compared to 20 cases during the same period last year. The rate of gender-based violence was alarming enough for President Uhuru Kenyatta to order investigations into the rising cases. The National Crime Research Centre was tasked to probe the escalating cases of gender-based violence as well as the sharp rise in teenage pregnancies during the lockdown.

Distress calls to helplines have surged more than ten-fold since the lockdown measures were imposed. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that dealing with pandemics can be stressful, and that the prevention strategies suggested could lead to fear and anxiety thereby increasing stress levels. Stress can cause fear and worry for one’s safety as one is forced to continue doing what they must in order to live. This results in an upsurge of mental health challenges and a worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions.

There are also other health-related challenges that further complicate the lives of the poor. In the informal settlements where cases of chronic diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are more prevalent, and cases of hypertension and cardiovascular disease remain untreated for long, access to health services is disrupted because resources to travel to seek health services cannot be raised. The result is that scheduled medical appointments are missed, and respecting medication schedules becomes impossible.

There is also the reluctance to visit a health facility for fear of contracting the coronavirus there and cases have been reported where healthcare providers lacking personal protective equipment (PPE) are reluctant to see patients they suspect could be infected. This means that expectant mothers are not able to access prenatal care, and new-borns cannot be taken for post-natal clinic appointments. Moreover, many children in the informal settlements will miss their immunisations and this will have long-terms effects well after the COVID-19 curve has been flattened. Mutahi Kagwe’s remarks rang hollow for the millions of poverty-stricken Kenyans forced to take risks and behave as they normally do as they struggle to eke out a living day by day.

Universal basic income is the answer to the inequalities exposed by COVID-19. This bold statement is the title of a blog by Kanni Wignaraja, the United Nations Assistant Secretary General and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, and Balázs Horváth, Chief Economist, UNDP, Asia-Pacific. Kanni has been consistent in her writing in support of a policy response to the coronavirus that has universal basic income (UBI) as its centrepiece. She has argued that without a robust response targeting the poor and the marginalised, the long-term social effects could be grim, and could erase any economic recovery put in place to re-energise the economies devastated by the coronavirus lockdown.

Of all the models of social protection, universal basic income is probably the most radical approach. Social protection describes a wide range of interventions — direct and indirect, in cash or in kind, social services, reliable public and private initiatives that enable people to deal with risk, vulnerability or shocks such as the coronavirus, provide support to overcome acute and chronic poverty and enhance the resilience, the social status and rights of marginalised individuals.

As the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the informal settlements, a consortium of NGOs — Oxfam Kenya, The Kenya Red Cross Society, Concern Worldwide, ACTED, IMPACT, the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) and the Wangu Kanja Foundation — have been running a cash transfer social protection project targeting 20,000 households in Nairobi’s informal settlements with funding from the European Union (EU). The programme began in June and was designed to complement the government’s Inua Jamii initiative that was offering cash support to the poor. The cash transfer project reached out to 11,250 households that were already receiving Sh2,000 from the government with a Sh5,668 top-up every month.

Through the Nyumba Kumi mechanism, the project identified a further 8,750 households which received Sh7,668 monthly. The sum was calculated to provide at least 50 per cent of what is described as the Minimum Expenditure Basket (MEB), or half of what an average family needs to survive. The project also identified 1,200 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) for legal and psychosocial support and even resources to find a safe house. The Royal Danish Embassy also signed a DKK20 million (Sh310 million) grant to provide cash support to 40,000 vulnerable households within informal settlements in Mombasa and Nairobi. By mid-September, Sh204,020,492 — approximately €1.6 million — had been transferred to 15,792 individuals. This is obviously a drop in the ocean, but does it present a model that can be scaled up as a solution to help alleviate poverty?

Social protection programmes that provide cash transfers have greater impact compared to initiatives run by the government. Studies have shown that government-run social protection programmes in Kenya typically missed out 90 per cent of the informal workers compared to a reach of 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Workers in the informal sector, when compared to other workers in Kenya, are less likely to get involved with organisations or service providers through whom they can access medical benefits from employers. The elderly and persons with disabilities (PWD) are worse off in this respect.

Speaking for UNDP, Kanni Wignaraja has made it clear that there must be some sort of minimum income that acts as a safety net so that the most vulnerable do not succumb to hunger or other diseases well before COVID-19 gets them. In Nairobi’s informal settlements where this social support project was running, it was a case of pulling people back from the brink.

Beneficiaries of the cash transfers recount how the money literally gave them a lifeline. Albert Otieno was able to pay his rent arrears, buy medication to treat his cancer and buy food for his children. The money also eased the domestic tension and brought a smile to his wife’s face; for the first time since he lost his job his family were able to eat three square meals a day. Albert is still in disbelief that he was included in the social protection programme without knowing someone or having a godfather or being asked to pay a bribe. He describes himself as a guy who was a thorn in the flesh of the Nyumba Kumi chairman because whenever he had no money to buy his medication or food for his family he would go to the chairman. The transparency in vetting and the integrity of the programme is why he feels it should be adopted by the government. Otieno says that in Kayole where he lives, he has not heard of any beneficiary of the government’s Inua Jamii programme although it is supposedly on the ground.

Beatrice Mbendo, a 39-year-old pregnant single mother of three whose washing jobs had dried up, was able to pay her debts including rent arrears when she received the money. In her view, the government should have a social protection programme for the poor even in the absence of a pandemic. So does Mildred Lucia, who sells tissue paper in Dandora Phase 4. She is a mother of four whose business collapsed with the onset of COVID-19. She used to be a washerwoman, but all like her are now treated like pariahs because of fear that they might infect their clients. When she received the cash transfer, the money went to feeding her family which had been reduced to eating a single meal a day. Mildred also invested a little money to grow her business and she is hopeful that this boost will get her out of the clutches of poverty.

Margaret Mutambi was thrown out of her home after an abusive eleven-year marriage. When she received the cash transfer she was able to purchase household goods for her new home, pay rent arrears and buy food for her children. Margaret decries the fact that there are no formal jobs for women in the informal sector, saying that their vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence is exacerbated by their dependence on men. At her lowest moment before she received the cash transfer Margaret had to re-use a face mask when she went out to look for work because she could not afford Shs20 to buy a mask and could not afford to stay put at home.

Cash transfer as a social support strategy has its critics, with the most vociferous saying that it is unsustainable and leads to a dependency syndrome that results in recipients not being keen to try and get back on their feet. Others have complained that receiving “hand-outs” is undignified and robs the assisted communities of their sense of self-worth. Yet others complain that cash transfers promote lethargy and laziness, that recipients adjust to being in the programme and have no incentive to exit even when their lives improve. Those against cash transfers also argue that poor people do not know how to handle money, and that they are wont to waste whatever they receive or invest in non-essentials. However, research and evaluative studies have debunked these myths and vindicated the cash transfer social protection approach.

The argument that UBI is unsustainable is the most challenging one to counter except from a moral standpoint. Kanni responds to it with an existential dilemma. She states,

The alternative to not having UBI is the rising likelihood of social unrest, conflict, unmanageable mass migration, and the proliferation of extremist groups that capitalise and ferment on social disappointment. It is against this background that we seriously need to consider implementing a well-designed UBI, so shocks may hit, but they won’t destroy.

A properly designed social support programme should be able to transition the community from abject poverty to a state where social business can take over in uplifting living standards The Grameen Bank model has demonstrated that the poor have the capacity to work themselves out of poverty as long as they are given initial support. By the end of 2008, the bank had loaned up to $7.6 billion to the rural poor with a repayment rate of 99.6 per cent. Of these borrowers, 97 per cent were women. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recognised the work of Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus.

Grameen Bank believes that the poor know best how to better their situations and debunks the notion that unconditional cash transfers to the poor will be abused and lead to further poverty. Research findings show that cash transfers actually do provide the poor with support to pull themselves up, and notions of reluctance to resume work have been disproved.

In the informal settlements the normal cannot be avoided. It is a threadbare normal, rendered worse by the efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Without cash transfers, the risk of death lies not in ignoring the government’s advisory but in actually adhering to it.

Today, the cash transfers from the state and the bilateral partners have ceased but millions are still held hostage by poverty. Is there a lesson to be learnt from the UBI “coronavirus vaccine” that, for a while, shielded some 20,000 households from COVID-19? Could UBI be used as a blueprint for a national social support and livelihood system that could be run by the national and county governments?

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Oby Obyerodhyambo is a strategic communications scholar and cultural activist. He is also an award winning playwright and social commentator. He has been involved in various struggles for social and political reform.

Ideas

Development as Maendeleo and Its Undergirding Capitalist, Violent and Brutal Nature

Graham Harrison argues that all development is capitalist development. Based on his recent book, Developmentalism, he argues that development is not only risky and likely to fail but also very unpleasant. Contemporary notions of development see it is as a stable, incremental, and positive process but this is a fantasy in which capitalist development is reimagined as a planned, inclusive, and socially just modernisation.

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Development as Maendeleo and Its Undergirding Capitalist, Violent and Brutal Nature
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My book Developmentalism starts with speculation. It imagines Tanzania in 2090 as a middle-income country. Average incomes are an adjusted $12,000; wage labour has expanded and become more regulated; the fiscal effort of the state has improved; large-scale infrastructural investments have increased and generated a more densely connected national market; production has diversified; rates of saving have increased; technological innovations have taken place and been embedded in local production chains.

One might respond to this futurology by arguing that it is a fantasy that ignores well-known diagnostics of Tanzania’s—and more generally Africa’s—development problems and failures. The dependency-minded thinker might refute the optimistic 2090 prospective by arguing that Tanzania is locked into an exploitative global capitalism that makes this kind of transformation impossible. The outcome: Tanzania—and again by extrapolation many other African countries as well—cannot develop because of some combination of its own properties and its location in a global economy.

The book argues that these responses are misguided. There is nothing in Tanzania’s current condition that looks exceptional or categorically different to any other country. There is no need to foreclose the possibility that Tanzania will be a middle-income country in 2090. Yes: Tanzania is unique; it has its own troubled historical and geographical inheritance; and it faces very significant challenges. But, so does everywhere else.

Capitalist development

One of the most powerful bourgeois ideological sleights of hand has been the naming of capitalist development as simply development. ‘Development’ discursively serves to naturalise what is a profoundly disruptive and political transformation, a transformation based in an imposed reallocation of property and wealth that relies on an invigorated and restless putting to work of people, requiring sustained and muscular state action. A transformation, above all, that is extremely risky and unlikely to succeed.

Development is capitalist development. This means not only that it is very risky and likely to fail but also that it is very unpleasant. The bourgeois coinage of development is that it is stable, incremental, and positive sum. In a word: liberal. Liberal development strategies—operationalised through a massive institutionalisation of international aid from the late 1950s—is in essence a theatre of global fantasy, a fantasy in which capitalist development is reimagined as a planned, inclusive, and socially just modernisation. The ideological erasure of enclosure, corporal punishment in law, forced labour, slavery, genocidal frontier expansion, theft and fraud, and war from the concrete manifestations of capitalist development has been sustained through the rolling out of a multi-trillion-dollar aid industry underpinned by an international elite institutionalism.

The fact is that capitalist development is fundamentally Hobbesian: nasty and brutish; destructive of existing community and extremely exploitative. It is in the DNA of capital’s ascendance that it remakes societies for its own purpose and the foundation of that purpose is not ‘making money’ or ‘earning income’ (the liberal vocabulary) but maximising profit, and extracting surplus labour: again and again, maximally and forever.

This brings me to two cardinal points that address our focus back to Tanzania or many other African countries. Firstly, that capitalist development requires the emergence of strong, purposeful, and well-resourced capitals. Secondly, that the conditions under which these emerge are, vitally, politically secured. Let me comment briefly on each.

In relation to the first point, we should note that much of the more progressive mainstream development discourse revolves around capabilities, microfinance, poverty reduction strategies, participatory development, empowerment, and resilience. All of these aid-driven devices are variations on a theme which the book describes as strategies to allow mass populations to ‘enjoy poverty’. That is, to live in an enduring and untransformed condition of material scarcity in meagre relative comfort. This discourse is at heart—and despite the often pleasing imagery it purveys—neoliberal. The story goes something like this: the enhanced capabilities of an individual lead them to secure a loan that allows them to earn a little more money that brings them to purchase a second-hand motorbike, a solar panel, a corrugated roof or a three-month class at a night school to learn accounting methods. Often told in vignette, these narratives bear slender connection to the major engines of poverty reduction which reside in those zones of capitalist industrialisation in northeast Asia and elsewhere in which tens of millions of people have experienced increases in income. All of the evidence indicates that capitalist industrialisation generates poverty reduction not through individual or community vignettes but through the structural changes wrought by capitalist industrialisation.

So, capitalist development is nasty, brutish, and impoverishing and also the world’s most tenacious engine of poverty reduction. It might seem that there is a contradiction here, but it is only apparent, not substantive. Capitalist development is the rolling out of what Anwar Shaikh calls turbulent trends: a collision of disorders set in unstable social relations that in their own dynamics generate the conditions of possibility for a generalised improvement in mass material well-being. Conditions of possibility, no more than this. There is no modernisation-style certainty of mass consumption; there is, paceThe Economist, no inexorable rise of a global middle class. But, in a way that is historically unprecedented, capitalism presents the possibility that a level and breadth of shared wealth can be achieved. This possibility depends on levels of economic growth and productivity and the strength of social mobilisation to makes claims on the commonwealth that capitalism generates and alienates.

The second point indicates what is, intellectually, a considerable lacuna in studies of capitalist development: its normative foundations. The major attraction of liberal visions of (capitalist) development resides in its ability to suture over the violence. The liberal vision is, to twist Rousseau, all freedom, and no force. This is a seductive fiction. It evades what is the most important political question facing any state that aspires to achieve capitalist development: how to engineer the social transformation within which capital can ascend into a dominant position within a national political economy. But this question is unavoidable. The book goes through variants of an answer to this question: England, America, Japan, Taiwan, Israel, China. All different; all the same. All extreme, not exceptional. All coercive, all risky. Only enjoying success after generations of uncertainty, chaos, and violence, and even then, success is not permanent. Developmentalism argues that, in radically different geographical and historical circumstances, all of these states only succeeded in forging capitalist transformation when this transformation was seen as inextricably integrated into a major-order or existential threat to sovereignty. Forging a nation, securing a border, or consolidating a besieged elite’s rule… in these circumstances in which states are seen as inextricably part of a project to promote the ascendance of capital one can identify the emergence of ideologies where capitalist development is not desirable but necessary. This ideological family is developmentalism.

So, the core question for African states that wish to pursue capitalist development is political-strategic. It is not about ‘getting the institutions right’ or good governance. It is broader and more ambitious than that and set in a temporality that is generational, not what economists call medium-term. It requires authoritarian state action—as it did in almost all other cases.

The book’s argument here is unlikeable: that there is no implicit commensurability between capitalist development and rights. If a ruling elite wishes to promote capitalist development it will only succeed if it deploys top-down and coercive state action—through law, programmes of social engineering, and also police action—to reallocate property, discipline workforces, secure exploitation, and push money into ascending capitals. One of the most unhelpful conflations in development studies in Amartya Sen’s development as freedom. To see development as an expanding freedom is to define away the central feature of capitalist development.

This is, of course, normatively very troubling. Does this perspective serve as an apology for forced resettlement, the detention of labour leaders, the top-down enclosure of land and resources for capital? No, it does not. There are three co-ordinates here.

In the first place, a theoretical orientation towards political realism. Realism is not amoral—this is a caricature that cannot really be found centrally in major Realist texts. Realism simply argues that normative politics is contextual: the modes of address to justice and right are not ideally-derived but produced in specific circumstances. So: the normativity of development does not disappear, it simply relocates into the processes of struggle themselves. This orientation leads to a better awareness of the political norms and normative contestation that accompany capitalist development. This is because the focus on rights is enriched through a recognition that socially-embedded political normativity is only in part about rights. It is also about a stability that allows people to see a better future, a sense of value in community and/or nationhood, religious cosmologies, economic growth, and other situated values which can only be understood through actual research. From a Realist point of view, these other value-clusters enjoy equal status with equally contextualised manifestations of rights norms and their significance and value are empirical matters. As a result, normative investigations from a Realist perspective do not insist on an a priori and idealised derivation from universal and absolute rights. And, they are all the richer for that.

Secondly, analytically, the book insists that there must be a separation of rights and development. They are not commensurable. They are antagonistic, or perhaps in the midst of capitalist transformation, highly strained: constantly requiring non-ideal play-offs. Capitalist development requires active deception from states; force strategically deployed; heavy ideological underlabour; secrecy and cronyism. In other words: politics… politics in the sense of making least-worst decisions in the midst of incomplete information and risk. Human rights scholars and activists work within a very well-specified moral universe that is founded on a meta-norm of justice. But this is not the province of the development scholar.

Thirdly, the political agencies that drive justice claims and indeed underpin the sustained demands for generalised material improvement emerge from concrete situations, not idealised norms. Consequently, we need to situate them in the very turbulence of capitalist transformation itself. As political economies change, so do the possibilities for political mobilisation. Normative agency itself develops within organisation, mobilisation, debate, and public action. This is, historically, a story of the changing organisation of labourers, but also of middle-class organisations, and mobilisations that intersect across poverty, race, gender, and other identities. None of these mobilisations exist because they are intrinsically or ideally right; they exist because they are produced within the transformations themselves.

In summary, the normativity of capitalist development is a non-ideal pluralised normativity that is composed within transition itself. It does not accept rights as its master norm because to do so would be to relinquish the necessary acceptance that capitalist development is not rights compatible.

All of which takes us to Rwanda, the African country that ends the case studies in the book. The Rwandan government is clearly not a ‘rights state’. What kind of a state it is, is still intensely contested. Rwanda does illustrate what a contemporary developmentalism might look like. Its future is very uncertain, but the government constantly and heavily claims otherwise, and portrays the government’s strategy as one of national revitalisation and esteem. It has used covert and extra-legal devices to allocate property and wealth in ways that have, arguably and in some instances, been based in securing expanded circuits of accumulation rather than simply graft. It has achieved a high degree of re-engineering of its rural areas through diktats on habitation, cropping, water usage, the formation of co-operatives, agrarian-ecological zoning, village governance, and performance management. It has invested in the infrastructure of an upgraded service economy: IT, hospitality, air freight, and national highways. It has done all of this whilst consistently reiterating a discourse of national economic transformation. The Rwandan government, in the midst of its authoritarianism and security obsessions, pins its legitimacy on its ability to generate development through an ascendance of capital. Its chances of success are slender; its record on human rights is poor; the challenges it faces are major-order or even existential. In short, it is, for now, developing.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

Graham Harrison’s book Developmentalism: The Normative and Transformative within Capitalism is published by Oxford University Press.

 

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Ideas

Diversification and Decolonisation of Economics

Decolonisation requires collective critical critique of knowledge creation through a historical lens — by whom, where, why, and how — to illuminate the embedded colonial practices that are the foundations of existing gender, racial, ethnicity, disability, class, sexuality, geographic, and other divisions.

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Diversification and Decolonisation of Economics
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The mission of D-Econ (Diversifying and Decolonising Economics) is to promote inclusivity within the content and institutions of the economics discipline due to the dominance of Eurocentric thinking. This situation has occurred because of the longstanding exclusion of alternate views — based on identity (gender, race, geography), and theoretical-methodological discrimination — from the teaching of economics in higher education institutions. Thus, D-Econ argues, the knowledge base and debate of issues to be relevant to the world’s majority needs to include non-white and non-male voices as well as heterodox approaches.

D-Econ’s mission is framed at countering mainstream (conventional) economics. I think this ambition needs to be bolder. It needs to extend beyond the mainstream to explicitly encompass the entire social science discipline of economics.

The mainstream is ‘guilty as charged’. I think many within our heterodox community can be similarly charged.

Many sites that determine ‘legitimate heterodox knowledge’ cannot be characterised as always displaying tolerance and respect for difference. Contributions to heterodox conferences, workshops, journals, teachings, and more, are marred — not just on the odd occasion — by one perspective asserted as the ‘truth’, or reluctance (sometimes even open hostility) for constructive dialogue about the contributions of alternative perspectives. These practices replicate orthodoxy’s ills.

Heterodox economic scholars also have an ethical and moral obligation — thus responsibility — to ‘diversify and decolonise’ their teaching, research, and other practices given our own experiences of marginalisation, exclusion, and disregard by the mainstream. To not do so is tantamount to condoning the discriminatory practices that have buttressed the mainstream’s hegemony.

Diversification and decolonisation will not be — but should be — innate to all members of the heterodox economics community. Deliberative actions are required that require more than — as needed with the mainstream — ‘changing the narrative’.

The praxis of many heterodox economists needs to change. By praxis, I mean the activity of human beings (in this case, heterodox economists) that directly shapes both aspects of social reality (in this case, the teaching of economics and its application to explaining social reality) and themselves as producers of knowledge.

Decolonialisation is not about rewriting or erasing history. Nor can it be achieved by academics and students completing an anti-slavery awareness training module. Decolonisation is also more than the revision of curriculum content, assessment tasks, and reading lists to include scholarly works by women and persons of colour.

Decolonisation requires collective critical critique of knowledge creation through an historical lens — by whom, where, why, and how — to illuminate the embedded colonial practices that are the foundations of existing gender, racial, ethnicity, disability, class, sexuality, geographic, and other divisions.

Decolonisation also requires the ‘practice’ of an ongoing reflexive process given the institutionalised nature, and reproduction, of inequalities in the higher education sector, the primary site of knowledge production.

Decolonisation should not be conflated with diversification. Diversification is more than moving beyond the dominance of white heterosexual Eurocentric male voices in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Diversification is also much more deliberative than job advertisements stating that ‘women and minorities are encouraged to apply’, much more than an institution providing training in ‘conscious bias’, and much more than special journal issues, editorial boards, conference panels and workshops including women, persons of colour, or scholars from the Global South. These actions are mere tokenism, as is the advocacy and not the overt practice of theoretical-methodological pluralism in knowledge production and pluralism in the topics investigated.

To achieve and maintain substantive and authentic diversification and decolonisation of economics, the praxis of all heterodox economists needs to embrace a conjunction of interrelated actions. A single action is inadequate for the task. Moreover, unending vigilance is required to embed the ‘gains’ so that these become conceived as ‘norms’.

There are, I contend, four key interrelated actions for heterodoxy to ‘detoxify’ and lead the way on diversifying and decolonising the social science discipline of economics.

One key action is transparency about one’s ‘positionality’.  I am referring to a scholar’s social ontology — her ‘world view’ of the nature, character, basic features, structures, and constituents of social reality — and her epistemological views (how knowledge is created by, for example, observation and induction or model building and deduction). Analytical constructs reflect a chosen research methodology which, in turn, reflects ontological and epistemological beliefs. These should be rendered explicit.

The purpose of social inquiry, and the practice of economics as a social science, should be to explain an ever-changing and increasingly complex social reality. The knowledge produced needs to accord with social reality to be relevant to the many and be able to address persistent issues and crises such as the climate emergency, inequality, and global pandemics. The analytical approach of the mainstream denotes reality as a closed system devoid of social, political, and historical contexts. Thus, issues are falsely framed, and the approach is the antithesis of the research task at hand. Positional transparency evokes openness about the ‘methodological position’ the researcher has taken to the problem under investigation and thus, appropriateness to explain social reality.

Positionality reflects a scholar’s gender, race, ethnicity, history, nationality, geographic location, political views and more. Thus, positional transparency is interrelated with a second action — acknowledgement of the social construction of knowledge, and the exclusionary role that language can play.

Knowledge is situated. Any knowledge created is inevitably framed by the lives and experiences of the knowledge producers (and reflected through their positionality). The language of mainstream scholarship presents it as ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’, and thus authoritative, not influenced by the positions and lives of its creators. This is inherently dishonest and should be always called out.

Explicit acknowledgment that knowledge creation is situated in lived experiences — and thus, are arguments/analyses — recognises that a plurality of explanations is possible. As Sheila Dow wrote 25 years ago, ‘no one knowledge system can capture totality because each is partial, reflecting a vision of reality’.  Visibility of the positioned nature of knowledge will mean greater integrity in scholarship.

Further, the rhetoric deployed by knowledge producers plays a significant role in silencing underrepresented voices, and the reproduction of insular communities. Rhetoric can act as a social control mechanism by dismissing the scholarship of others as ‘biased’ or ‘unscientific’. This should not only be revealed but heterodox economists should consciously seek not to replicate. This, in turn, means clear recognition that the English language actively creates, not just conveys, the message.

Acknowledgment of the social construction of knowledge and language use leads to a third action—a transformative approach to knowledge building and learning. With the inclusion of new information and different perspectives, frank, open conversations can expose the realities of marginalisation, discrimination, and power relations, and societal privilege (not necessarily intellectual superiority) resulting in the ubiquity of white, male, Eurocentric voices.  Knowledge creation and learning then become transformative processes of mutual critique and discovery.

Transparency about positionality, meaningful recognition of the social construction of knowledge and language, and transformative processes for knowledge production and learning are the foundations to enable achievement of a fourth critical action — a decolonised economic pedagogy.

As posited by Kvangraven and Kesar, a decolonised economic pedagogy is effectively structured around at least the following: the economy is consistently treated as embedded within the social sphere; explicit acknowledgement of the bias and values inherent to different perspectives, and the repression of some epistemologies by others; not relying on one perspective or approach nor advocating universality of explanation; exposing students to the Eurocentric underpinnings of different theoretical perspectives; the presentation of knowledge within its colonial and post-colonial contexts; exposing the spectrum of power inequalities within communities; and, taking a student-centred approach to pedagogy requiring teacher-student co-responsibility to create a common co-operative learning space and to create knowledge.

Ongoing attention and effort focused on these four interrelated actions as a conjunction — by all heterodox economists, not a few — will drive meaningful change to the practice and teaching of economics through authentic diversification and decolonisation. If not, the praxis of heterodoxy will remain as susceptible to charges of insularity, bias, and discrimination as the mainstream.

This is article was first published by D-Econ.

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Frantz Fanon: 60 years On

Sixty years after his death from leukemia at the age of 36 on 6 December 1961, and the publication of The Wretched of the Earth, Timothy Wild reviews a new book which reminds us of the relevance of Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s work, Wild argues, continues to engage people by its brilliance, rage, analysis, and hope that the poor can be the authors of their own destiny.

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From the end of May until a few days before Remembrance Day (November 11) flags at Canadian public buildings were flown at half-mast. This unusual occurrence was in recognition of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves containing the remains of Indigenous children on the sites of former Indian Residential Schools. The unearthing of the graves shocked many non-Indigenous Canadians, but it came as no surprise to Indigenous Peoples themselves who had long maintained that the graves were there and more would be discovered. They knew that some of their children never came home from these institutions; but their concerns went unheard or were dismissed. Many of the children who did return home were scarred for life, and this trauma then had an impact on the psychosocial wellbeing of future generations. Overall, this chapter is yet another tragic dimension in the history of settler colonialism in Canada.

Residential Schools, the last of which closed in the mid-1990s, were an instrument purposefully designed to undermine the culture and nuanced connections of Indigenous Peoples to time, each other, and the environment. The government and mainstream Christian Churches acted in strategic solidarity in a long campaign structured to annihilate Indigenous cultures, both figuratively and literally.  The schools were just one of the tools used by settlers, and their superstructure, to impose control over the totality of economic, social, cultural, and extractive relations. This campaign has resulted in social dislocation, loss of resources (including land and natural resources) and inter-generational trauma and marks the fact that the dark history of colonialism is still an eternal present in post-colonial Canada.

Part of my journey of understanding this dark history has involved reading and re-reading books on this ever-present historical tragedy, and that’s how I approached a closer study of Glen Sean Coulthard’s book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Legacies of Recognition (2014).  Using the work of the Martiniquen born, French educated and Algerian by choice psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) as a foundation – particularly Black Skin, White Masks – Coulthard argues that the conventional politics of recognition currently undertaken in Canada needs to evolve into “a resurgent politics of recognition premised on self-actualization, direct action and the resurgence of cultural practices that are attentive to the subjective and structural composition of settler-colonial power”.  In expanding on Marx by, for example, considering the impact of dispossession of land, as opposed to implementation of proletarian status on Indigenous Peoples, Coulthard applies a Fanonist framework to the current operation of neo-colonialism in Canada, and blends the psychology of the individual with the structural of the collective in his trenchant analysis and, equally important, call for action.

Obviously, the need for attention to the ongoing alienation and dislocation caused by colonialism in postcolonial societies is not only a Canadian phenomenon. The ongoing importance and wide-spread influence of Frantz Fanon in terms of both theory and practice reflects that fact.  Admittedly, there have been highs and lows in terms of Fanon’s place in the academic canon, due in large part to criticism regarding his framing of the role of violence in the process of decolonization, together with the fashionable disregard for meta-theories of liberation.  However, his works continue to inform counter-hegemonic theory and practice around the world, and his words and ideas are as refreshing as ever. Fanon continues to engage people by his brilliance, his candour, his analysis, his guarded optimism and his sense of people being agents in their own destiny.

Coming sixty years after the publication of The Wretched of the Earth and his death from leukemia at the age of 36, Fanon Today: Reason and Revolt of the Wretched of the Earth, edited by activist and scholar Nigel Gibson, provides a solid overview of the relevance of Frantz Fanon to the work of those of us who still believe that a just and humane world is both necessary and possible.  Throughout the volume the contributors provide space and examples of a Fanonist development of radical humanism, which provides for the psychological development of the person within the context of consciousness raising, collective action and structural change. Through a variety of examples, the book also clearly demonstrates the fact that the agents of change do not simply have to be the usual suspects of the industrial working class but includes – and must include – the peasantry and the various manifestations of the lumpenproletariat.  As noted by Gibson, “Fanon’s new humanism is a politics of becoming, based on the fundamental transformation of paralyzed Black and colonized subjects into new human beings through the liberation struggle” (p. 300).

Gibson then modestly concedes that the volume is “by no means exhaustive: it is rather something fragmentary, reflecting the moment” (p. 9). While that is a fair statement – I will comment on some of the gaps later – the bottom line is that this is an excellent book and marks Gibson’s long-standing commitment to ensuring that Fanon remains accessible and relevant to a wide-range of audiences, academic and popular. The theory is certainly there.  All the chapters, for example, pay attention to the role of consciousness-raising, the psychological trauma (indeed mental illness) caused by oppression, the blend of individual development and collective growth, the need for democratic discourse and leadership, and the destructive role played by the national bourgeoisie in alliance with outside forces.

However, in line with Fanon and respect for the development of mass support and organic intellectuals, the theoretical content of the book is woven together in a wonderfully accessible collection of essays demonstrating the ongoing importance of Fanon in a range of settings and on a diversity of social issues. Taken together the work provides multiple examples of the emancipatory potential of the “living politic” which is “the thought from the ground about the reality of our lives” as discussed by the South African activist S’bu Zikode (p. 124).

The book is divided into three sections. The first section contains several chapters written by ‘Fanon Militants’ and provides essays on Fanonist practices in a number of settings including Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, and Palestine. For me, the core element of this section can be found in the idea of “consciousness raising”. Subjects covered include the use of radio by a diverse group of women in England as a means of developing a person’s optimal psycho-social functioning, the deconstruction of the class and gender ridden term “White Syrian” and what it means to confronting the brutal Assad regime, and the experience of being Black facing daily racism, “systematic terror” and micro-aggressions in an overtly racist Portugal and Trinidad and Tobago, casting people into a zone of “non-being”.

The impact of Fanon on Black Consciousness is also clearly animated in this initial section of the book. Chapters on Fanon and the emergence of “New Afrikan Communism” and his influence of Black people imprisoned by the prison-industrial complex are two of the themes specifically associated with that longstanding link. A particular highlight of this section was contained in a chapter written by Toussaint Losier where he discussed the role played by Owusu Yaki Yakubu and how he developed a way to closely read Fanon which would engage his fellow prisoners, including those held largely incommunicado in the brutality of long-term solidarity confinement. The extension of Marxist thought, together with a dash of Freud and Hegel, shines through in this section in the intersection of race, gender and class. Taken together this section provides a mix of those structural variables, and how they fit together as an organic whole rather than a linear progression of mutually exclusive sociological categories.

The second section – ‘Still Fanon’ – moves into a more theoretical approach to the application of Fanon to transformative change and provides a number of excellent examples of why Fanon is still relevant and, perhaps more importantly, needed as a guide to engaged mass political action. As noted by, for example, David Pavon-Cuellar, in a passionate call for change and justice makes the important point that the “Wretched of the Earth are still here”. Pavon-Cuellar does not mince words and he insists on using the term “Third World” as opposed to “Global South” in his analysis. He argues the point that the historical example of de jure decolonization has not actually provided for the wellbeing of the rural and urban poor. Building upon the remarkable resilience of capitalism to do what it needs to ensure its domination and insatiable appetite, Pavon-Cuellar notes that “Colonialism had to change to stay the same” (p. 233). He puts it bluntly when he argues that the “current globalization of this neoliberal capitalism is the consummation of colonialism. Similarly, imperialism triumphs and disguises itself in the new global consensus” (p. 246).

Building upon this blend of passion and informed analysis, a major theme in this section of the book is related to the role played by the “national bourgeoisie” in terms of propping up the systems of oppression, exactly as highlighted by Fanon himself. The article by Ayyaz Mallick on Pakistan gives clear examples of the role played by national governments in terms of meeting the similar needs of a variety of global players, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, and the crises that result from this difficult balance.

Nigel Gibson contributes an important contextualizing chapter to this section of the book where he locates Fanon as both “a clinical practitioner and as a political practitioner” within the dynamic of movement. By paying attention to both the internalization of colonial messages and the environment constructed by post-colonial capitalist relations, Fanon provides a way to support the development of “disalienation” and the common good. As noted by Gibson, reflecting the dynamic of theory and practice has to be undertaken in unity with the people and is related to an evolving and tentative process of becoming, rather than a static case of being “…a moment of becoming is always incomplete. For me, this is an essential element of Fanon’s anti-formalist dialectic” (p. 283).

The final section of the book is loosely arranged around the idea of Fanon’s homes, essentially places he lived (such as Algeria in “The New Algerian Revolution”, the chapter by Hamza Hamouchene) together with places where his thinking has had a significant impact. These include the influence Fanon had on Black Consciousness in America, excellently chronicled by Lou Turner and Kurtis Kelley and on the growth of the Irish Language in the North of Ireland, powerfully presented by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh. To me, however, this section was the most uneven in terms of readability. For example, I found the essay on postcolonial criticism and theory too academic for a book that attempted to make Fanon more accessible.

This may also have been related to the fact that this section also contained the transcription of a meeting between some of the leaders of the South African landless activist group Abahlali baseMjondolo and Nigel Gibson, which was beautiful in its integrity, honesty and dignity. What spoke to me most about this particular chapter was that it provided a sense of Fanon happening in real time and spoke to Gibson’s demonstrated desire to link Fanon with “the reader’s own lived experience” (p. 10). In this discussion, Gibson provided an overview of certain sections of The Wretched of the Earth  – which he prefers to call Les damnes de la terre in its original French – and then members of Abahlali baseMjondolo spoke about concrete application of Fanon’s works. To my mind at least, this chapter made the essential point that “awakening is a constant process” (p. 433). By putting Fanon into this process, and extending our understanding of Marxism, the argument is made that this can result in a “living communism” (p. 433).

The second section of the third part of the volume, dealt exclusively with Brazil, and contained essays on COVID-19 and the impact on Black people in Brazil together with pieces on “Black Female Intellectual Production” and one on the economic exploitation of Amazonia. These were undoubtedly interesting pieces, and they dealt with pressing socio-political issues related to the daily operation of both neocolonialism and neoliberalism. However, it is still unclear to me why Brazil was chosen as a focused topic for this section. Fanon noted that Rio as a city and construct was an offence to Indigenous people, and talked about the exploitation of young Brazilian women, but why three chapters were devoted to specific issues in Brazil was not immediately apparent. As mentioned, the issues are important, but they could have been examined within other contexts, particularly given Gibson’s previous comment about the content not being exhaustive.

Inevitably a lot is left out, and the list of what should or could have been included will be large, depending on one’s area(s) of interest. For example, I felt that more attention could have been given to Indigenous politics and Fanon in North America. As I have suggested, Coulthard has made a solid contribution to this nexus and that foundation could certainly be built upon, and it would have blended well with the work of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the need for a decommodification of land.

Furthermore, although there was an essay on racial and class-based injustice in Trinidad and Tobago, a chapter on current events in the Caribbean would have been useful, especially given Fanon’s relationship to the area, particularly the French Caribbean. I would also like to have seen greater attention to the ongoing influence of Fanon in southern Africa. I know that this was neither a history nor a biography, and Gibson has commented significantly elsewhere on Fanon and South Africa, but the influence of Bantu Stephen Biko was tremendous, both in and out of the country. In the South African Communist Party, though they continue to maintain the idea of a two-stage revolution, there were individuals who had read and digested Fanon – Chris Hani for one. Further analysis of this in relationship to the neocolonial project of white monopoly capital would certainly have been welcomed. I would also have liked to read about what role, if any, Fanon has played on the political consciousness of Zambians and civil society, given their almost textbook experience with neocolonial relations, extractive commodity dependence, the wrath of international funders, the IMF’s Structural Adjustment forays and, most lately, crippling foreign debt to both China and Europe.

Finally, in light of the selfies, compromises, the self-serving displays of Clinton, Blair and Obama, and empty promises of COP26 in Glasgow, I think a discussion of Fanon and his impact on eco-socialism would have been of considerable merit and could also serve to engage a new field of activists, especially younger people. I believe that Fanon’s notions of consciousness raising, and healthy ego functioning, lend themselves directly to a green movement. I regard this as a missed opportunity in the book, especially when issues related to the alienation of land, the neocolonial extraction of resources and the psychosocial implications of environmental change for the rural poor and lumpenproletariat where themes raised throughout the book. Fanon can certainly inform the eco-socialist movement, by literally placing the person within their environment.

Still, Gibson’s volume is an excellent companion to Fanon’s works. It is not only suggestive of how one can read Fanon, but also how it can be applied in a transformative politics. The bibliographies accompanying many of the chapters provide the reader with specific area and topic guides.

Ultimately, though, the major point is that Fanon is still relevant sixty years after his death in 1961. As he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth “[e]ach generation must discover its mission, fulfill or betray it, in relative opacity”. Certainly, a much-needed call to action. Individuals continue to be subject to the daily pain of alienation, they experience the daily indignity of threats to their various and multiple experiences of well-being. Millions face very real threats to their survival, both physical and psychological. Despite the hope that existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, decolonialization did not help people on the social, cultural, and economic margins of these newly “independent” nations. The national bourgeoisie mimicked their colonial masters and enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. The brutality simply took another form, and the exploitation continues apace.

Nigel Gibson and the other contributors to the book remind us that Fanon can help support the process of disalienation and promote opportunities for hope over fear; but this needs democratic relationships and the ability to listen. It also requires not only consciousness but the will to collectively act on that collective awareness. Following from this it requires organization. As suggested by Pavon-Cueller, “The still wretched of the earth need from their allied intellectuals the continued reading of Fanon in a militant, politically committed way, and not just for academic research or reflection” (p. 246). As the book constantly reminds us, we need Fanon to help animate the struggle so we can all breathe more freely and easily.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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