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China’s Debt Imperialism: The Art of War by Other Means?

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The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious attempt to create a global infrastructure corridor spanning 65 countries and connecting 60 percent of the world’s population, is the biggest imperial coming-out party in modern history. Not by armed conquest but by a strategy of debt-financed diplomacy, from Sri Lanka to Montenegro, from Islamabad to Mombasa, China is deploying its $3.2 trillion credit surplus to establish a 21st century Oriental Empire, impoverishing entire continents through the allure of roads, railways and bridges. DAVID NDII conducts a global cost-benefit analysis.

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Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without fighting, captures their cities without laying siege, he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.” ~Sun Tzu

Colombo. On June 8, Fly Dubai’s last flight departed from Sri Lanka’s spanking new Mattala Rajapaska International Airport. It was the only airline flying there. Sri Lanka’s national airline stopped flying there in 2015. The “world’s emptiest airport” as its been known since it opened in 2013, is now officially a lily white elephant. The airport is a stone’s throw from Habantota, the world’s emptiest sea port that has made Sri Lanka the poster child of China’s predatory lending. The two are the largest of a slew of ill-fated mega-infrastructure projects that were supposed to transform Habantota, which happens to be the home town of former President Mahinda Rajapaska (for whom the airport is named, or rather, who named it for himself), into Sri Lanka’s second city.

It has not quite worked out that way. Rajapaska lost elections in 2015 in a cloud of corruption scandals, after a decade in power during which he buried Sri Lanka in a mountain of Chinese debt. After weighing its options the successor government ceded the Habantota port to China in exchange of a partial debt write-off. It has not helped. Sri Lanka is still caught in China’s debt trap. Last year, it turned to the IMF for a bailout. This year, Sri Lanka is looking to raise US$ 1.25 billion from China to keep up with its debt repayments.

Podgorica If you are an imperialist looking for a European client state, you could not do better than Montenegro. It is small (population: 620,000; GDP US$4 billion), vulnerable, and in a most strategic location on the Adriatic coast. Its hinterland includes Serbia and Hungary, both landlocked, as well as the Black Sea countries (Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine) whose access to the sea, the Bosphorous, is controlled by Turkey.

Montenegro has been mulling a grand motorway from its port city of Bar to Boljare on the Serbian border for a long time, a distance of only 165 kilometres, but the country is extremely rugged, making the cost prohibitive. Two feasibility studies done in 2006 and 2012 for the Montenegro government and the European Investment Bank concluded that the highway was not economically viable. Then China came along.

The first 41 kilometres of the highway, built with an EUR 800 million Chinese loan, has nearly bankrupted Montenegro, forcing the government to raise taxes, freeze public wages and cut welfare spending. Borrowing close to 20 percent of GDP to build a quarter of a road is unwise. Unable to proceed, Montenegro has signed an MOU with the Chinese contractor to complete and operate it as a toll road on undisclosed terms. The fear now is that the Chinese have extracted onerous revenue guarantees. The contractor is none other than the state owned corruption scandal prone China Road and Bridge Company, the builder and operator of Kenya’s new standard gauge railway.

Montenegro has been mulling a grand motorway from its port city of Bar to Boljare on the Serbian border for a long time, a distance of only 165 kilometres…Two feasibility studies done in 2006 and 2012 for the Montenegro government and the European Investment Bank concluded that the highway was not economically viable. Then China came along. The first 41 kilometres of the highway, built with an EUR 800 million Chinese loan, has nearly bankrupted Montenegro, forcing the government to raise taxes, freeze public wages and cut welfare spending. Borrowing close to 20 percent of GDP to build a quarter of a road is unwise.

Islamabad. Pakistan sits between China and the Persian Gulf. When China buys oil from the Middle East and Africa, it has to be shipped 6000 kilometres round India, through the Straits of Malacca to the South China Sea. The Malacca Dilemma refers to China’s vulnerability to a potential trade blockade on this narrow sliver of ocean between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Enter CPEC. CPEC stands for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Billed as a crown jewel of the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC is an ambitious and costly modernization of Pakistan’s infrastructure centred on a transport corridor linking China’s “landlocked” hinterland to Pakistan’s Arabian sea port of Gwadar. The corridor cuts the distance of China’s western border to the sea by half, from four to two thousand kilometres. China has already taken control of the Gwadar port on a 40-year lease and is building an airport and industrial parks— effectively making it a Chinese enclave inside Pakistan. Costed at US$40 billion when it was launched in 2013, CPEC’s price tag has escalated to US$ 62 billion.

Four years on, Pakistan is in deep financial trouble. The CPEC projects are bleeding the country and destabilizing the economy. In addition to CPEC debt, Pakistan is now living on a Chinese financial lifeline —US$5 billion so far — to stave off a foreign exchange crisis. A succession of devaluations have failed to stem the tide, and foreign reserves are now down to less than two months requirements. Pakistan is now caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea: to go for an IMF bailout or to settle into becoming a Chinese client state. An IMF bailout would put pressure on Pakistan to scale down CPEC and expose the secretive financing to western scrutiny.

CPEC stands for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Billed as a crown jewel of the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC is an ambitious and costly modernization of Pakistan’s infrastructure centred on a transport corridor linking China’s “landlocked” hinterland to Pakistan’s Arabian sea port of Gwadar, cutting the distance of China’s western border to the sea from four to two thousand kilometres. China has already taken control of the Gwadar port on a 40-year lease and is building an airport and industrial parks— effectively making it a Chinese enclave inside Pakistan. Costed at US$40 billion when it was launched in 2013, the price tag has escalated to US$ 62 billion. Four years on, Pakistan is in deep financial trouble.

What is China up to?

There are two readily apparent economic objectives that China could be pursuing, one immediate, and one longer term.

The immediate objective is investment diversification. China is sitting on US$ 3.2 trillion of foreign reserves accumulated from its trade surpluses with the rest of the world, more than those of the next four countries combined (Japan $1.27 trillion, Switzerland $740 bn, Saudi Arabia $900 bn, Russia $460 bn). Most of this money is held in safe but low yielding American and European government securities, with just over a third (US$ 1.2 trillion) in US government securities. Analysts estimate that another one third is held in other US dollar-denominated securities.

The longer term objective is sustaining its economic rise. China’s economy may be the world’s biggest but it is still a middle-income country, with an average income of less than a fifth of Singapore. One of the big questions out there is whether China will escape the “middle income trap”. The middle income trap is the observation that while many countries easily transition from poor to middle income status, only a few managed to transition from middle to high income. Of 103 countries that were middle income in 1960, according to an analysis by the World Bank, only 13 had transitioned to high income status by 2008, almost fifty years later.

China is sitting on US$ 3.2 trillion of foreign reserves accumulated from its trade surpluses with the rest of the world, more than those of the next four countries combined. Most of this money is held in safe but low yielding American and European government securities…Returns on these have been pretty dismal since the global financial crisis. But outside these markets there aren’t many assets that can absorb money on this scale. The BRI can thus be seen as a strategy by China to create such assets.

China has followed the export-led industrialization model of Japan and the Asian Tiger economies. This model will soon run its course. China’s average manufacturing wage has increased three-fold in dollar terms over the last decade, and is now on a par with the poorer former communist eastern European countries. To make the transition will require China to move up the product value chain, or as a recent paper by investment bank UBS put it, from “made in” to “created in” China. This will entail moving its factories abroad, some closer to markets, some to low-wage locations. Some of the BRI initiatives do seem to be gearing up for this. CPEC is an obvious case. China’s Great Wall company has a manufacturing plant in Bulgaria, which is in the hinterland of the Montenegro motorway.

It still begs the question why it needs to roll out the biggest building project since the Great Wall of China. Japan and the other Asian Tigers did not have to. And the BRI’s scale and aggression defies these rational economic objectives. If it goes to plan, it will span 65 countries, accounting for 60 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of global economic output, and cost between four and eight trillion dollars That is not economics. It is empire building. It is not inconceivable that China is operating on a nineteenth century imperialism blueprint. Indeed, the Belt and Road Initiative graphics that litter the internet conjure images of Chinese power men around a world map sticking pins on strategic targets.

It is off to a rough start. Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia’s comeback prime minister has cancelled three big BRI projects worth $22 billion signed by his predecessor, who is now facing corruption charges. He says he is trying to save Malaysia from bankruptcy. Even Burma’s steely generals have got cold feet. They have cancelled a port project citing fears that it could end up like Sri Lanka’s Habantota. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister of Tonga, rallying fellow South Pacific Island nations to negotiate debt forgiveness with China, expressed his fears that China could seize strategic assets.“If it happens in Sri Lanka, it can happen in the Pacific.”

Habantota is turning out to be a strategic blunder.

Did China actually set out to trap countries into debt or has the Belt and Road Initiative gone awry? It is conceivable that China is unfazed by the political blowback. Folklore has it that the Chinese take a very long term view of things. But it is more likely that China did not anticipate the blowback.

China seems to have underrated the vulnerability of its would-be client states to the vagaries of global capitalism and overrated the grip of the regimes that it is corrupting on power. China will not be the first great power to do this. The USA has been muscling and blundering its way, wreaking havoc around the world by conflating its interests and political values for the better part of a century.

Did China actually set out to trap countries into debt or has the Belt and Road Initiative gone awry? […]China seems to have underrated the vulnerability of its would-be client states to the vagaries of global capitalism, and overrated the grip on power of the regimes that it is corrupting. China will not be the first great power to do this.

The real Achilles heel of the debt traps is that China has little recourse should any of its distressed debtors default. Western lenders can and often take concerted action on defaulters (a la Greece and “the troika”), but China is a lone ranger.

In China, economic illiteracy on this scale is not without precedent. Sixty years ago, Chairman Mao had the brilliant idea that industrialization could be drilled down to producing copious amounts of grain and steel. The government set a target of doubling steel production within a year and overtaking Britain’s production in 15 years. China’s peasant farmers were herded into communes. Villagers were forced to set up backyard furnaces. Pots, pans and other metal possessions were seized and melted up to meet production quotas. Trees were decimated and even furniture burned to fuel the furnaces. The Great Leap Forward, history’s most monumental political blunder, cost between 20 and 40 million lives.

It is noteworthy that Kenya is the BRI’s only touchpoint on the African continent.

Kenya’s SGR, Uhuru Kenyatta’s erstwhile legacy project, has turned out to be the bugbear that this columnist among others warned that it would be. Its freight capacity is a third of what was promised, and it cannot be competitive without a hefty public subsidy. Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration has increased Kenya’s foreign debt two and a half fold, from US$9 billion to US$25 billion. The railway alone accounts for a third of this increase; another third is by sovereign bonds for which the country has nothing to show.

Public debt service now stands at KSh 860 billion (US$ 8.6 billion), a staggering 72 percent of the last financial year’s tax receipts. The question that is frequently asked now is whether, if Kenya cannot pay, the Chinese will take over the port of Mombasa. Word on the streets of Mombasa is that the port was pledged as security for the railway loans. In a manner of speaking, they already have. The Chinese have a concession to run the railway until 2027. That includes a take-or-pay freight assignment contract, which is to say, the Kenya Ports Authority, the port operator, has to meet the railway’s freight target or pay the railway for the unused capacity. In effect, the port is working for the railway.

The question that is frequently asked now is whether, if Kenya cannot pay, the Chinese will take over the port of Mombasa. Word on the streets of Mombasa is that the port was pledged as security for the railway loans. In a manner of speaking, they already have.

“It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, ” said Charles Elliot, the Kenya Protectorate commissioner who oversaw the construction of the Uganda railway. “But it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.” Almost 120 years later, after it emerged that Kenyan workers are routinely subjected to physical punishment by Chinese, following which the Chinese ambassador dismissed this as Chinese culture, Kenyans are wondering whether the railway heralds a new age of Oriental colonialism. On this, my take is that China and Kenya’s political class have bitten off more than they can chew.

Seeing senior public officials grovelling and making excuses for these Chinese excesses gives perspective to history, from the chiefs who sold their people into slavery to those who signed away their lands to European imperialists for blankets and booze. We get it.

Related Links

Letter by US Senators to US Government on IMF China Belt and Road Initiative

David Ndii
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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Why #EndSARS Matters in an Era of Increasing Militarisation and Repression

In Nigeria, protests against police brutality are mounting. In Kenya, however, new security laws that undermine police and military accountability are being passed.

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The death of George Flyod in the United in May 2020 mobilised a global response around racialised police brutality. The manifestation of racism in policing in the US struck a chord across the world because it recuperated conversations on structural racism across Europe in particular. Europe had opportunistically argued that the nature of racism in the US was unique because of slavery. In this process, European countries set aside their colonial histories to elide responsibility for vestiges of structural racism left in former colonies, embedded in contemporary global economic and political systems and existing within their territories today. The rise of neo-nationalist and fascist political parties across Europe offers the starkest reminder of the folly of racism denialism.

At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, I was asked why “Africans are not protesting in solidarity”. There was an implicit assertion in these comments that because Africans were not on the streets en masse at a time when COVID-19 restrictions had just been instituted, conversations on policing and security are not a well-developed site of activism, policy influencing and scholarly work in Africa. The comments also reflected ignorance of the fact that a critical security analysis would show how colonial pasts have shaped policing and militarisation of the continent today.

The ongoing #EndSARS protests in Nigeria foreground the similarities in the architecture that shaped the Black Lives Matter movement and the #SayHerName campaign, which raises awareness about the often invisible names and stories of black women and girls who have been victims of racist police violence The similarities here lie in the regimes of carcerality that shape how black people are policed globally. Carcerality refers to the collision of ideological, economic and legislative initiatives that develop punitive frameworks to inform how governments understand, use, respond to, and create “crime”. Massive financial investments in law enforcement, surveillance technology and a commitment to aggressive punishment regimes form part of this framework. Carceral regimes are always racialised, gendered and classed, and driven by a logic that large sections of the population need to be violently managed through the regularisation of securitisation regimes, ostensibly to protect the privileged.

As we hold space for Nigerians agitating for better ways to govern their security and safety, I turn to Kenya to draw similarities to these carceral regimes. The central argument here is that we cannot delink the conversations to defund the police in the US and #EndSARS in Nigeria from broader debates around increasing militarisation across African countries as part of a claim to dealing with insurgent groups. The convergence between increased security expenditure, surveillance and domestic policing occurs in contexts (as I have argued elsewhere), where the socio-economic conditions that impoverish the majority remain ignored by the political class while security expenditure is ramped up. The contradiction between increasing resources to criminalise and incarcerate people impoverished by government policies rather than curb the conditions that create a lack of freedom, safety and security is stark.

Securitisation and militarisation of Kenya

In chronicling the legislative amendments and tracing the accompanying increases in security expenditure in Kenya, I offer a window into how governments develop and sustain paramilitary and/or policing units that operate extrajudicially. Parliaments, as primary sites within which these laws are passed, and the politicisation of security generate the power for units such as Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to act outside the law.

Kenya’s military expenditure rose to Sh121.82 billion in 2019, up from Sh116.19 billion in 2018. This is a rise from the 2018/19 spending of Sh109 billion to Sh121 billion. In 2017, the Kenya government received, Sh1 billion worth of drone equipment to help with anti-terrorism surveillance. This increased expenditure occurs against the backdrop of legal amendments in 2015 that increased the role of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in domestic security and that removed the role of Parliament in providing parliamentary oversight on the budget and functions of KDF and the requirement for the Defence Cabinet Secretary to report to Parliament. The amendments also gave the chief of the defence forces the authority to deploy KDF in civilian operations and established an auxiliary reserve force comprising forest guards and the National Youth Service to be deployed alongside KDF in situations of emergency, unrest and disorder.

The convergence between increased security expenditure, surveillance and domestic policing occurs in contexts where the socio-economic conditions that impoverish the majority remain ignored by the political class while security expenditure is ramped up.

This increase in military expenditure and legislative cushioning is extended to the militarisation of the police through the modernisation programme. In 2017, the government unveiled 500 police vehicles, including 25 mine resistant personnel carriers and 30 armoured personnel carriers, which were to be deployed to various “hot spot areas”. During the 2017 general elections, paramilitary units, such as the General Service Unit (GSU), the administration police and the Kenya Wildlife Service, used excessive lethal force to disperse protests mainly in opposition areas, which led to loss of life.

The range of security amendment laws in Kenya undermine accountability measures embedded in the 2010 constitution that were aimed at rectifying a history of police brutality under a broader climate of repression. For example, the 2014 omnibus of Security Laws (Amendment) Act, which included the Prevention of Terrorism Act, was passed with limited public participation. The Act imposes exorbitant fines and prison sentences that impact the freedom of the press and independence by making it harder to expose and criticise human rights violations by security forces and by prohibiting the public broadcasting without police permission information “that is likely to undermine security operations”. The Act also places restrictions on freedom of assembly and association in a context characterised by government hostility to non-government organisations. Within these amendments, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) Act expanded the powers of the NIS to arrest and detain suspects, to carry out covert operations, to search and seize private property, and to monitor communications in any act that poses a threat to national security without a court warrant. These are provisions that closely mirror UK and US counterterrorism laws.

These amendments have also watered down the oversight responsibilities of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), which was established in 2011 to provide independent oversight of the police by conducting investigations, audits and monitoring. The 2015 Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments Bill) amends section 14 of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) Act by limiting access to information and evidence against rogue officers. It effectively reduces IPOA’s power to check police excesses and places its investigative capabilities in the hands of the police command. Further power was handed to the President to remove the chairperson or members of IPOA by sidestepping the need for a recommendation from a tribunal, thereby concentrating power in the Executive and the presidency.

As calls to hold the Nigerian government accountable get louder, we should equally pay attention to the commonalities in the policing architecture across Africa and the logics that underpin them. We should also track the international financial and training resources that go towards security sector reform and modernisation projects across Africa. It is in a broader conversation about transnational security regimes – which criminalise, securitise and police through “othering” – that effective transnational solidarity and collective action can emerge.

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Climate Politics: The Grand Plan to Save Forests Has Failed

Communities that live and work in African woodlands must become central to conservation efforts.

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Climate Politics: The Grand Plan to Save Forests Has Failed
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At the 13th Conference of the Parties (COP 13) in 2007, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) agreed to a grand plan to use forests to “save the world” from the climate change crisis. Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (named REDD+) was born out of the recognition that forest conservation can significantly reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). The premise for REDD+ is straightforward: tropical forests are the world’s lungs, storing roughly 25 percent (300 billion tons) of the planet’s terrestrial carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas. However, since 1990, more than 420 million hectares of forests have been chopped down to make way for farms, housing and shopping malls, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and reducing the storage capacity of the forests.

REDD+ proposes a simple solution. Developed countries do not want developing countries to “make the same mistake” of forest-dependent economic development and so are willing to compensate developing countries for this “lost opportunity.” For example, the US cleared up 90% of its virgin forests between 1600 and 1900 on its way to industrialization. As part of reducing their emissions, rich countries and their corporations can help “save” a tropical forest and claim the resulting carbon credits. Practically saving or conserving a forest could mean funding for the conversion of forests into protected areas, paying local communities to move from forest-dependent livelihoods to alternative livelihoods, or a focus on conserving forests and tree species—like Grevillea robusta, Pinus radiata, Spekboom or Eucalyptus—that are good for the capture of carbon but of little tangible value to local communities.

While the rationale and mechanism of REDD+ seem straightforward, the implementation and the results have been unsatisfactory and mired in controversy. Twelve years of REDD+ have been unable to significantly reduce deforestation. In places like Mai-Ndombe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), REDD+ has failed to both halt deforestation and benefit local communities. While architects of the program, who mostly reside in the West, are concerned with clean air and greenhouse gasses, custodians of the majority of the forests in developing countries, including indigenous people and forest-dependent communities, are thinking about where the next meal will come from.

As part of my research on Malawi, for example, I have shown that forests are important for the nutrition of forest-dependent communities. Such custodians of the forests, however, were not fully involved in the design of REDD+, nor its implementation on the ground. As Abdul-Razak Saeed and others pointed out, “while communities were engaged in the REDD+ projects, their engagement was often in an ad-hoc fashion. Decisions were taken before communities were consulted to gauge their reaction.” In Peru, local communities were only consulted after the project was approved, while in Kinshasa, projects were developed before being shared with communities.

At the core of the REDD+ are neoliberal and corporate-friendly ideas. These ideas are aimed at evading the problem caused by the real polluters by creating a market for carbon to continue to extract profits unabated. Africa as a whole only contributes 3% to GHGs. REDD+ is functioning as a form of governance—a particular framing of the problem of climate change and its solutions that validates and protects the ways of life of capitalism while marginalizing the lives of forest dependent communities and shifting the development trajectory of the developing countries away from what most developed nations did. It is, as others have labeled it, “CO2loniasm.”

As many critics have argued, REDD+ secures the property rights of global North fossil fuel users while maintaining the opportunities for corporate profit over forest-dependent communities. REDD+ in this context is part of a longer history of neoliberalism, which represents the marginalization of vulnerable groups of people similar to conservation projects, and where success is measured by the number of locals who can be persuaded with money to give up their livelihoods, birthrights, and other forms of identity that are heavily interwoven with forests. These communities have to take up other ways of life that can save the forest beyond what would be required to make the community carbon neutral for the benefit of Western elites.

As some projects that have been implemented under REDD+ have shown, the negative impacts on indigenous and forest-dependent people are rampant. For example, in the DRC, which is one of the early experimental sites with several projects, researchers found that the projects were leading to land grabs. Another example is in Uganda where a Norwegian company bought huge tracts of land to plant fast-growing plants. However, the commercial plantations in this project barred local households from harvesting any timber or other NTFPs, resulting in loss of income for the entire community.

Furthermore, REDD+ links forest conservation and more than one billion people who depend directly on forests to global carbon markets—exposing them to volatile commercial power structures. The communities would be at ransom to the price of carbon and the vicissitudes of the financial sector. Whenever the price of carbon increases, the demand for carbon credits rises in tandem pushing more people out of their traditional lands and ways of life.

Solutions arrived at in the big conference halls of the West, implemented in developing countries without the full participation of the people, are bound to fail. New ideas that explicitly involve the forest-dependent communities are imperative. Ongoing research by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) on the impact of REDD+ initiatives on community livelihoods highlights the need for policies that respond to the unique ways that local communities use their forests. As Alain Fréchette of the Rights and Resources Institute notes, “strong indigenous and community land rights and a clear understanding of who owns forest carbon are vital prerequisites for climate finance to succeed in its goals of reducing poverty and protecting forests.”

“To succeed, these projects must include the communities that have managed these forests for generations,” says Chouchouna Losale of the DRC’s Coalition of Women Leaders for the Environment and Sustainable Development. Western countries will have to face the grim reality that saving the world from the climate catastrophe will not come from African countries, but by addressing the source of the greenhouse gases within their boundaries. African governments need to protect the marginalized and have the right to determine their own path to sustainable development. This will happen when negotiations are balanced and inclusive. For example, a pilot REDD+ project in Nepal was billed as successful because it fully involved the national and community level institutions in decision making and forest conservation. As the authors of the study reported, “participating communities were enthused…and met more frequently to make community decisions related to forests.”

This post is from a new 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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The Role of Kenyan Civil Society in Democratic Governance

Kenyan civil society has played a critical role in holding the State to account and in promoting a human rights-based approach to governance.

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In defense of democracy, human rights and the rule of law is the motto of conscientious human rights defenders. A human rights defender is any person fighting for a cause to improve the well-being of human beings or to correct a violation to human dignity or breach of law for remedy. Human rights are rights that belong to everyone simply because they are human beings. By belonging to everyone it means that every person is a holder of these rights and they may not be taken away or denied because of a person’s social or economic status. Human rights are universal. They belong to everyone. They are interrelated, interdependent and indivisible. No right is greater than the other.

The primary obligation to promote and protect human rights rests with the State. However, every individual, and other non-State actors also have the responsibility and duty to respect the rights of his or her fellow human being. It is vital that in the establishment of a human rights culture that no one is excluded and that the most vulnerable are included. For democracy to prevail, it is imperative that it reaches every citizen. It is often said that it is easier to struggle for democracy but more difficult to sustain it.

This is critical especially in situations where people have limited respect for and trust in the government. The world is facing the greatest test – the COVID-19 pandemic. It is my personal experience that pandemics or upheavals in countries and societies have always had serious consequences to human trights democracy and rule of law. In most cases, such occurrences exacerbate existing human rights violations. It is the moment when human rights defenders in their active and vibrant civil society are necessary to hold the State accountable, especially because the State capitalises on such calamities to grab more power and cause egregious violations.

A new United Nations report on the global response to COVID-19 has noted the central role of a human rights-based approach to the pandemic. “This is not a time to neglect human rights; it is a time when, more than ever, human rights are needed to navigate this crisis in a way that will allow us, as soon as possible, to focus again on achieving equitable sustainable development and sustaining peace,” stated the report. This is a time when, more than ever, government needs to be open and transparent, responsive and accountable to the people they are seeking to protect. Civil society organisations, particularly grassroots community-based organisations, are better placed to reach exposed populations quickly and in ways that factor in the specific sensitivities of each community and that ensure that critical information reaches diverse segments of the society.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that human rights defenders and civil society in general have faced during this pandemic is the State taking advantage of the pandemic to grab and consolidate more power. States have turned COVID-19 into a security matter, giving themselves enormous powers to curtail crucial freedoms and rights while remaining covertly opaque in their decision-making processes. This poses a dilemma for civil society on how to respond while being sensitive to the public’s concerns.

Who constitutes civil society?

In my own understanding, civil society is not what many Kenyans see as particular individuals and/or the organisations they work for. No! Civil society should been seen in the context of the heterogeneity of an entire range of organised groups, individuals, and institutions that are independent of the state, voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant. This includes those individuals and organisations that the majority of Kenyans see as the being the civil society, as well as independent media, think tanks, universities, and social and religious groups.

To be part of civil society, such individuals and groups, formally or informally, must have respect for the rule of law, for the rights of individuals, and for the rights of other groups to express their interests and opinions, and must also exercise tolerance and the accommodation of pluralism and diversity of ideas and formations.

States have turned COVID-19 into a security matter, giving themselves enormous powers to curtail crucial freedoms and rights while remaining covertly opaque in their decision-making processes.

 There is consensus that civil society in all its different formations and characters needs to ensure its own legitimacy, openness and transparency. Legitimacy stems from several sources:

Firstly, from a strong moral conviction, through acting on the basis of universally-recognised rights and freedoms of speech, assembly and association to articulate public concerns that are inadequately addressed by the government.

Secondly, from a political and civic legitimacy or credibility, through approval of the community or constituency represented by the voluntary association, asserting people’s sovereignty and community control.

Thirdly, from competence or performance legitimacy, by delivering results through being closer to local reality than governmental institutions, helping to bridge a government-community gap and promoting social cohesion.

Fourthly, from legal recognition, although laws may prevent truly independent civil society from functioning, or formal registration may undermine rather than enhance their reputation.

And finally, and most importantly, from the legitimacy that comes from accountability and transparency in its work.

A strong civil society is one in which voluntary formations are effective and strategic organisations that work cohesively in influential networks or coalitions in an environment governed by civil norms, such as respect, reciprocity, tolerance and inclusion. Such norms promote open discourse and citizens’ engagement in informed dialogue.

A narrow view of civil society results in a failure to develop civil society organisations that keep the government in check and nurture democratic practices and values as a multi-generational effort. A broader view of civil society requires cultural and attitudinal changes to help people understand, support, and protect civil society organisations as representatives of their interests. Yet goverments are able to keep replenishing and tapping good ideas and brains to help them overcome citizens’ pressure. Civil society, which is facing very turbulent times on many fronts, will have to become more innovative in enabling collaboration and improving practices in order to remain relevant and effective in influencing public policy. It cannot remain conventional with the same traditional approaches.

In my view, there are several important principles to follow in seeking to strengthen civil society. Firstly, it is critical to start where civil society is: measures to strengthen its capacities need to be based on local needs, assets and institutional ecosystems. Civil society organisations need to know their own strengths. Outsiders cannot necessarily connect with local society.

Secondly, decision-making needs to be in the hands of those undertaking the strengthening measures, so it is informed by indigenous values, concerns and environment. Thirdly, action must be based on well documented and analysed data and evidence and sustainable resources to inform local engagement across sectors and levels. A people-oriented participatory approach is key. It creates constituency and legitimacy. Fourthly, action should support and reinforce existing compatible interventions. This will need to have a combination of multidimensional tools for execution. For instance, how do online actions combine and reinforce offline actions? Fifth, there should be realistic time horizons since institutional development does not occur instantaneously.

Finally, building alliances within a sector or domain will support individual sector members or issue-based communities. This leads to improved information through sharing best practices and avoiding duplication. Through collaborative action in alliances there can be a greater impact at the policy level, and a means to set standards in accountability. Alliances and networking create solidarity. Bridge-building across sector boundaries strengthen both by generating a larger body of interest and also new resources, for example, through cooperation with the public or private sector. Transnational or international engagement enhances civil society roles in different spheres of public discourses.

In my experience with civil society, I see have seen it playing pivotal roles of advocacy, watchdog and service provider of public goods. The roles are intertwined. Perhaps what have been different are approaches, which has created unnecessary frictions and misunderstanding. As dynamic and multidimensional entities, civil society moves from one role to another and/or assumes several roles. This can be illustrated by an organisation whose initial role is service delivery; it turns to advocacy to overcome problems it meets in fulfilling its service provision role; and it subsequently becomes a watchdog in trying to prevent the recurrence or worsening of the problems while continuing to provide its original services. The role of service delivery is regarded, at least by governments, as the least controversial function of civil society. However, many people express concern that while civil society is performing a crucial activity, the government can take advantage of this service provider role and fail to assume its own responsibilities and obligations.

Most agree that Kenyan civil society has contributed enormously towards both the substance and process of democracy and human rights. Civil society has been an important driver of the State’s democratisation process by providing a vital link between citizens and the State as well as by mobilising communities for collective actions. It also provides an environment that can be used to enhance community cohesion and decision-making. Information is vital to civic participation and also encourages inclusive development and participatory democracy. When people get better informed, they are more likely to participate in policy discussions and communicate their ideas and concerns freely.

Achievements of Kenyan civil society

The following is a summary on the role civil society played in Kenya in advancing human rights, democracy and the rule of law in different contexts. (The list is not exhaustive.)

First, civil society has been an incubator and supplier of ideas on content and strategies on State transformation and building an open pluralistic society. Perhaps the struggle for multipartyism and a new constitutional order culminating in the progressive Constitution of Kenya 2010 amplifies this critical role of civil society. Today, there is a growing movement of civil society on the implementation of the constitution and championing of devolution of powers and resources under the banner of Tekeleza Katiba Movement. Further, civil society has not shied away from working and organising political parties into a formidable socio-political movement. This capacity was demonstrated in 1997 and 2002.

The role of service delivery is regarded, at least by governments, as the least controversial function of civil society. However, many people express concern that while civil society is performing a crucial activity, the government can take advantage of this service provider role and fail to assume its own responsibilities and obligations.

Secondly, civil society has been a strong deterrent and catalyst in defanging the power of the State. A true democracy needs a well-functioning and legitimate State.  Kenyan civil society has been highly successful in deploying different methods to ensure that the State is tamed through checking, monitoring, and taking actions to restrain the power of political leaders and State officials. Civil society actors have been aggressive watchdogs on how State officials and agencies use their powers through raising public concern and awareness about any abuse of power and robustly taking advocacy actions ranging from public demonstrations to picketing and litigation.

Thirdly, research and documentation to expose the corrupt conduct of public officials and demands for accountability and improved governance have been a great success. This is also very important in collection and preservation of evidence. Civil society in its different formations has been a leading light in tackling corruption, especially through push for public access to information, whistle blowing and public campaigns. This is upon realising that even where anti-corruption laws and bodies exist, they cannot function effectively without the active support and participation of civil society. Civil society have come up with transparency and accountability tools as some potential solutions to some of the corruption problems in that they allow communities to identify breakdowns and hold responsible agents or decision makers to account. A fourth function of civil society is to promote political and public participation.  Civic education on citizens’ rights and obligations has been a bulwark in developing citizens’ skills to work with one another to solve common problems, to debate public issues, and express their views.

Fifth, civil society has been a major player in conflict mitigation efforts and propagating values of democratic life, such as tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing points of view.  Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot be stable. Civil society understands that these values cannot simply be taught; they must also be experienced through practice and interlocutors. Civil society has developed formal programmes and training of trainers to relieve political and ethnic conflict and teach groups to solve their disputes through bargaining and accommodation. This brings the crucial connection between policy and practice in civil society work.

Sixth, civil society has been an arena for the expression of diverse interests. One role of civil society organisations has been to push for the needs and concerns of their members, as women, students, farmers, environmentalists, trade unionists, lawyers, doctors, and so on.  Civil societies, in all their diversity, have been presenting their views and those of different constituencies they represent to different State institutions for redress.  They also establish a dialogue with relevant government ministries and agencies to lobby for their interests and concerns. And it is not only the resourceful and well-organised whose voices have been heard.  Over time, groups that have historically been oppressed and confined to the margins of society have organised to assert their rights and defend their interests.

Kenyan civil society has been highly successful in deploying different methods to ensure that the State is tamed through checking, monitoring, and taking actions to restrain the power of political leaders and State officials.

Seventh, different civil society platforms have been vital focal points for strengthening democracy in actions by providing new diverse forms of interests and solidarity.  For civil society, democracy cannot be stable if people only associate with others of the same social, political or status identity orientation.  When people of different religions, ethnic identities, professionals backgrounds and sectors come together on the basis of their common interests as women, artists, doctors, students, workers, farmers, lawyers, human rights activists, environmentalists, and so on, civic life becomes richer, more complex, and more tolerant. Civil society has very efficiently provided this platform. Historically, groups and individuals never saw themselves as part of civil society; today there find crucial space for civic engagement.

Eighth, civil society provides a training ground for political, civic and private leaders.  Civil society has helped to identify and train new types of leaders who have dealt with important public issues and are recruited to run for political office at all levels and to serve in local and national positions, both in politics and private/professional sectors.  Evidence shows that civil society has been a particularly important arena from which to recruit and train women leaders in different fields.

Ninth, civil society has helped to inform the public about important public policy issues.  This is not only the role of the mass media, which is also part of civil society, but individuals or groups of organisations coming together to provide fora for debating public policies and disseminating information about issues that affect the interests of different groups, or of society at large, using different methods. Civil society leads in taking action that safeguards public interest like litigating and drafting petitions and policy papers and presenting those policy positions to the relevant State institutions.

Tenth, civil society organisations have played vital role in monitoring electoral processes and management.  This has seen a broad coalition of organisations unconnected to political parties or candidates deploying neutral monitors at all the different polling stations to ensure that voting and vote-counting is entirely free, fair, peaceful, and transparent.  It is very hard to have credible and fair elections in a democracy unless civil society groups play this role. The outcomes of such vital civil society processes have been useful as evidence in electoral disputes.

Twelfth, civil society has been very instrumental in advocating for fair rules in the digital world and influence at the policy level. This has been important in establishing spaces for civil society to engage and bring social change through digital activism.

Finally, it is important to stress that civil society is not simply in tension with the State.  Because civil society is independent of the State does not mean that it must always criticise and oppose the state.  In fact, by making the State at all levels more accountable, responsive, inclusive, and effective, and hence more legitimate, a vigorous civil society strengthens citizens’ respect for the State and promotes their positive democratic engagement with the State. However, Kenyan civil society is in the state of fluid transition as global dynamics shift.

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