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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

Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.

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In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.

Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.

Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.

But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.

When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.

Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.

For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”

The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.

Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.

In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.

Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.

The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.

Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Ideas

Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

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“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”

Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.

When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?

Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.

It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.

And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.

Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role  in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.

So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.

Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.

And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?

Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.

The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.

And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement

The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
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Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.

What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.

In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.

Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.

Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.

This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.

The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.

Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”

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