The triple threat of the climate crisis, COVID-19 pandemic and deepening inequality demands urgent, bold responses, from all sectors of society. However, if the just-ended COP26 is any indicator, that sense of urgency and boldness is still a long way from view. An ever-growing chorus of movements, scientists, government officials, journalists and faith leaders are shining a harsh light on the failures of governments, both North and South, donor agencies and the private sector to meaningfully improve livelihoods. The rallying calls among poor and excluded peoples, indigenous movements, people of colour, young people and feminist movements are climate justice and a just transition.
Sustainable development depends on access to energy required to power aspects of our lives, from homes, to schools, to healthcare centres, as well as industries and other productive activities. This dependency was best-illustrated in 2015, when the international community enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) its ambition to achieve access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. The benefits of energy access are economic, social and environmental in nature, and promise substantial return on investment measured in economic, quality of life and climate terms.
It is a profound indictment of the status quo that in 2019 some 759 million people, globally, lived without access to electricity and 2.6 billion without access to clean fuels and technology for cooking. These figures have likely increased due to COVID-19. The reality of energy poverty is starker when viewed through a gender lens. Many women and girls spend a disproportionate amount of their day, for example, looking for firewood, cooking over smoky woodfires, and performing day-to-day activities such as threshing grain, grinding peanut butter or pounding yams using their hands. Lack of these energy services, so critical to addressing poverty and improving livelihoods, can be contrasted – for example – with trillionaire CEOs’ conquests of space as a public symbol of massive income inequality. Based on current stated policies, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that some 670 million people will remain without electricity and 2.1 billion people – 28% of the projected global population – without clean cooking fuels in 2030. Put simply, in the absence of decisive action the global community will miss its own SDG7 universal energy access targets by a wide margin.
It is within the nexus of sustainable development, climate justice and gender equality that we must examine whether enough is being done to support women who live on the frontlines of these challenges and yet whose needs and rights are often excluded. There is growing recognition of the need for more and better targeted investment in clean, decentralized energy solutions to meet the needs of those currently without even the most basic levels of energy access. Despite some shifts in rhetoric, however, finance for energy projects in the Global South have tended towards top-down solutions and large-scale infrastructure coordinated by global and national elites. Hence, energy services repeatedly fail to reach the last mile or significantly address energy poverty.
While it is positive to see new attention to gender equality in climate and energy access conversations, the focus tends to be on increasing the numbers of a tiny group of professional women in decision-making. Unfortunately, this angle fails to include the needs and rights of the vast majority of poor and excluded women with unmet development needs. These are the women who carry the burdens of whole communities on their backs. Thus, lack of attention to women’s rights and an over-emphasis on their roles together undermine the effectiveness of potential solutions.
Amid the exciting promise of greater investment in renewables as the underlying technologies continue their march down the cost curve and drive an accelerated energy transition, large questions remain, especially in the Global South. Will the money materialize? Where will it go? More importantly, will it reach women in last mile communities and meet their practical and strategic needs? But before we get to the ‘new’ money, we need to examine the current energy finance landscape.
Despite concerted efforts from some leading donors and financial institutions, finance available to address energy access and transition challenges remains far below the levels of investment needed to achieve SDG7 targets. Research by Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI) shows that finance commitments for residential electricity access in twenty countries (home to more than 80 percent of people globally without access) equate to around one third of the USD35 billion the IEA estimates is required annually to achieve universal electrification by 2030. To give a concrete example, six African countries with the very lowest electricity access rates received, in aggregate, just USD933 million in financing commitments in 2019 across a combined population of approximately 181 million people without access.
Decentralized electricity solutions can be critical to providing, at lowest first cost, the basic levels – or tiers – of access that can be transformational for low-income and rural populations. Yet, in 2019 only USD294 million was identified as committed to off-grid and mini-grid electricity solutions, which predominantly deliver basic levels of access, in twenty countries globally with the lowest access rates. This represents less than 1% of all finance that SEforALL and CPI tracked to electricity in those countries. Investment in clean fuels and technology for cooking is even further off track. Finance commitments for clean cooking solutions in twenty countries that represent the lion’s share of the clean cooking access challenge have languished around USD130 million annually between 2015 and 2019. Comparing this to the USD8 billion the IEA estimates is required annually until 2030 to achieve universal access should sharpen our collective focus. The perennial underinvestment in clean cooking solutions simply compounds the negative health, climate and gender impacts caused by traditional cooking methods.
The volume of development finance for energy projects that explicitly target women is very low. In 2019, development finance for projects with a Principal or Significant gender equality marker amounted to 13% of development finance for all energy projects. This is far below the average proportion for development finance across all sectors (25% in 2019) and represents slow progress towards increased integration of gender equality in energy sector projects. The supply-side problem is exacerbated by the very serious challenges women face in accessing finance. For example, women entrepreneurs seeking finance to scale their businesses often encounter: high interest rates, cumbersome loan application procedures and collateral requirements, discriminatory social norms and unequal laws. Put simply, the financing bar in much of the Global South is often higher for women.
Of course, committed finance can only have an impact on the ground if it is disbursed quickly and efficiently. In this regard, it is sobering that large volumes of planned investment and funding support are delayed or face multiple barriers, thereby depriving vulnerable populations of basic energy access. SEforALL and South Pole found that in twenty countries with the largest energy access deficits, 58 percent of planned disbursements to the energy sector and 49 percent of projects were delayed across the period 2002-2018. The multiple reasons for these delays include poor initial project planning, a mismatch between the types of finance provided and the risk profiles of the projects to which it is committed, and often poor institutional delivery capacity.
We need to change course fast. Economic recovery from COVID-19, the Paris Agreement and the SDGs are at stake. Public and philanthropic capital have key roles to play, especially in helping to mobilise private capital at scale through, for example, judicious blended finance structures. Well targeted public finance is especially critical in the context of heightened risks in developing countries, where it remains key to cover early-stage project development risks, to address actual and perceived barriers to the deployment of private capital and to bring nascent markets to maturity. To address chronic disbursement delays in committed finance, donors, recipient country governments and project owners must critically examine the reasons for delays and make immediate changes to improve translation of well-intentioned energy project plans to impact on the ground.
A call for different approaches and ways of working
Here we offer a few solutions.
Increase the quantum and type of financial resources
No single source or type of finance can meet the huge demand for sustainable energy at the last-mile. There is need to blend different types of finance and adopt innovative financing structures that make best use of public, private and philanthropic capital. Solutions could, for example, include an expansion of concessional finance to manage risk and encourage greater participation of private capital; new co-financing structures that leverage the experience of international financiers while tapping into local financial institutions’ expertise and networks; and improved access to carbon credits through government schemes that capture carbon proceeds and apply them to expand clean fuels for cooking. There is also much scope to explore financial instruments and policies that specifically target women and recognize the additional – often unique – legal and cultural barriers they face in accessing finance.
A key consideration in the blending is that there must be alignment of VALUES and principles. At the Shine Campaign, we have worked with a wide range of investors that are rethinking the standard profit measure and are looking to creatively mobilize different types of funding to address the multiple crises unfolding. Shine’s constituency includes philanthropies, impact investors, faith-based investors as well as institutions committed to investing through a gender lens.
Reframe the conversation
Energy access is an enabler, not an end in itself: Women and last-mile communities are unlikely to name ‘energy access’ of itself as their priority need given the urgency of basic survival. People experience poverty and exclusion as a web of political, economic and social issues that must be resolved together to improve lives, wellbeing and self-determination, while energy solutions are often compartmentalized. Time poverty, precarity, food and physical insecurity are all interconnected. Intersectional approaches that take into account the diversity of women’s identities and needs based on multiple markers of exclusion and discrimination – sexual orientation, age, location, disabilities, indigeneity, race, and class, to name a few – are called for.
Similarly, national energy plans that take an integrated approach, combining both electricity and cooking solutions as well as grid and off-grid approaches, and leveraging renewable energy technologies, will be key to accelerate sustainable energy access. Connecting this planning with a country’s climate strategies could help achieve both climate and energy access targets – a win-win for people and the planet. Of course, in creating integrated energy plans, actively listening to end-users to ensure that proffered solutions align with needs is arguably most important of all.
Rethink and redesign what impact and outcomes look like
A reframed approach must lead us to rethink and redesign monitoring and evaluation approaches. So, for example, women could identify their priority need as a well-functioning health-clinic to meet their sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) needs. Evaluating the impact and outcomes must show both quantitative and qualitative shifts in SRHR. Women must participate in the definition of indicators and the monitoring thereof.
While SDG7 does not include an explicit gender equality target, good energy service is inextricably linked to the achievement of SDG5: gender equality. However, inconsistent definitions of “gender equality” and adoption of different gender targets in donor and government reporting limit the accurate quantification of development finance for energy projects that target women and girls. This, in turn, leads to ineffective planning and inconclusive financial reform efforts critical to tackling gender inequality in energy access. Clearly defining and measuring the volume of finance committed to energy projects with gender equality objectives can help us better measure the impact of these projects. One initiative that seeks to improve the availability and quality of mechanisms, tools, and sex-disaggregated data relating to women and energy is the 2021 Gender and Energy Compact under the auspices of UN Energy. The Compact brings together a coalition of governments, private sector, academia, civil society, youth, and international organizations to catalyze action towards a common objective: to promote a just and inclusive, and gender responsive energy transition.
Locally-defined and led strategies
Women end-users and their communities’ participation throughout the programme or policy development and implementation cycle should be a fundamental principle guiding any energy sector intervention. Financiers should intentionally and consistently ensure that women and girls who live the day-to-day reality of energy poverty are at the decision-making tables or, even more appropriately, sitting under that tree! The energy sector could learn some vital lessons from current efforts to localize and shift power to those who directly experience energy poverty.
Work with women’s movements and organisations
For many decades, women’s movements and organisations have led struggles on issues that affect them. They have organised from village to global levels. They have also shaped most of what many governments, donor agencies and other social justice movements now seek to scale-up. It is imperative that any (new), player intending to contribute to the enlarged gender+climate+development ecosphere work with these movements. They have the expertise and the practical tools to engage women. More importantly, most have established credibility and deep relationships with women in last-mile communities that can be leveraged for greater impact. At the same time, support should go to the wider women’s movements to strengthen integration of energy access into their current programmes and agendas.
It is often said that SDG7 is an enabler of all the other SDGs, including SDG5. With only a few years left to achieve the international community’s ambitions for sustainable development, every actor within the energy and finance sectors, as well as the development, humanitarian and climate-justice communities, must redouble its efforts to ensure that women and girls are front of mind in the pursuit of sustainable energy for all.
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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.
The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.
In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.
After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.
Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.
In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.
While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.
The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.
On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.
Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.
Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.
Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.
The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.
Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.
Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.
Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.
While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.
Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.
Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah
Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of the UN that shatters any notions that the organization is the moral conscience of the world, instead revealing an internal culture of fraud, corruption, mismanagement, racism and sexism, driven by an instinct of craven institutional self-preservation.
Living in Nairobi, one of my guilty pleasures is looking through expat guides and tour books on Kenya. I am definitely not the target audience, but I pick up Xpat Magazine whenever I’m in the Karen area, where it seems to be plentiful and free, its outdated font and clunky layout notwithstanding. There’s the famous Nairobi Expat Marketplace on Facebook, which has somehow lost its lustre in recent years since being infiltrated (this is conjecture) by commercial sellers, but which in its heyday was the place to get all kinds of high-quality second-hand household items from expatriates disposing of their possessions in readiness for moving back to their home countries. Most of the posts would read “QUICK SALE”—taken by most Kenyans not as an indication to actually buy the item quickly, but rather to be a signal that it was “game on” to bargain as hard as possible.
Then there are the many expat guides online, which offer advice on everything from finding schools to hiring domestic help. Here’s one: “Employing domestic staff is the norm here, and they can be a great asset to an expat household. This may not be something that new arrivals are used to, but likely something they will soon embrace.” (!) There is a part of me that is triggered when I read the casual racism and superiority in some of these posts, but to be honest, my main motivation in deliberately falling into these strange rabbit holes is the same as watching trashy reality TV—to roll my eyes and scoff with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity.
Of course, in the Nairobi context, the main hub serving as the attraction and engine for this fairly large expatriate community (relative to many other African cities), is the United Nations office in Nairobi that serves as the UN headquarters in Africa and one of the four UN main duty stations, the only one in the global south, as many an article breathlessly, and needlessly, emphasizes. The Nairobi office is the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as well as 23 country offices and several regional hubs.
Working for the UN is an ambition for many, not just because of its perceived high pay and job security—a friend of mine was recently hired by the UN office in Nairobi and upon hearing the news, another friend told him, “Ah, wewe umeomoka!” (Sheng for dude, you’ve made it!). On a broader level, the public image of the UN is that of an institution where people are driven by a strong sense of purpose, working together in the pursuit of world peace and a better future for us all, a place of “high protocol and elegant diplomatic manners.”
But Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world. Warah, a writer, journalist and author of five books, worked for the organization for twelve years, having joined with the same wide-eyed innocence and determination to Make A Difference. What she found instead is a rigidly hierarchical, self-protecting system that tolerates fraud, abets corruption, excuses mismanagement, encourages abuse of authority, persecutes whistle-blowers, actively and tacitly devalues black lives, and puts women and children in the way of sexual predators.
Warah’s book touches on her own experiences of being harassed and forced out of the organization when she accidentally discovered US$300,000 in donor funds being possibly misused, and the emotional and verbal bullying that ensued. She had also been compelled by her supervisor to use unscientific and inaccurate data in The State of the World’s Cities report, of which she was editor. Instead of addressing this gross irregularity, Warah writes, she was “humiliated in office meetings and called a liar”. All her efforts to get internal redress were ignored, “buried in a heap of bureaucratic indifference” including by the UN Ethics Office, and by several subsequent directors of UN-Habitat, only going public by writing this book as a last resort.
Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world.
The bulk of the book however, unearths harrowing stories from UN failures worldwide, opening in the first chapter with a striking quote from a 1994 New York Times op-ed that describes the UN headquarters in New York as “one of the most dangerous territories for women”, where female UN staff faced a hostile work environment of rampant sexual harassment, but had nowhere to turn because no national laws, not even those of the United States, can govern how it operates. This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.
The book goes on to chronicle serious offences covered up by a UN that, in her telling, is a place concerned, above all, with its own reputation and continued existence. Some of these offences are well known, such as the UN’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, even though it had the intel to do so. (Remarkably, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, escaped blame for the genocide, going on to head the UN as Secretary-General and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.) In addition, the UN failed to take responsibility for a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 10,000 people; the outbreak originated in the sewage of the UN peacekeeping mission there. Others feature less in the public consciousness but are no less appalling, such as the organization’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by UN Peacekeepers in Mozambique, Liberia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo—the perpetrators were simply sent home.
This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.
There is also the internal work culture at the organization that abets irregularities and outright fraud, such as fiddling with statistics to show a higher slum population or more people facing food emergencies, so that more funds can be raised for a particular cause. Or, in an even broader sense, the outright colonial idea that white people are invariably better than non-white people at the organization, with white supremacy animating much of the hierarchy at the UN. Lack of career advancement is a sore point for African staff at the organization, and in one episode in the book that I found particularly striking, denial of a promotion is ostensibly carried out “to ‘protect’ the employee from racism—a very convoluted way of thinking that victimizes African employees twice”. Instead of white colleagues being reprimanded for being unwilling to be supervised by an African, the African’s career advancement was blocked. Any typical Nairobian can attest to the fact that white expatriates enjoy privileges—such as domestic staff, which expat publications are always quick to laud—that they might not get in Europe and North America, and so, white people typically throw their weight around and commit infarctions that they would not dare attempt back home.
Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of an organization that, all said, she still believes can do much good in the world, but only with real and systematic restructuring—such as redefining the immunity clauses of the UN charter so that staff implicated in crime or unethical behaviour are not exempted from being indicted in their home country as is the case currently, and replacing the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal.
The book’s major weakness is that in some places, its scope becomes too sprawling and one can become lost in the intricacies of the internal workings of the UN; it could have been edited more tightly for a general audience. I am also not sure how different this book is from Warah’s 2016 book UNSilenced, which uncovers similar webs of lies, cover-ups, corruption and impunity within a UN that has allowed wrongdoing to continue unabated, but this may be because have not yet had the opportunity to read that earlier book.
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.
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.
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