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Patriarchy, Sexual Abuse and Impunity: As the Catholic Church Confronts Its Crisis, Will the UN Follow Suit?

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So ingrained is the Old Boys’ network within the UN that persecuting whistleblowers is part of a culture of male privilege. Will Sec-Gen Guterres turn the tide?

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Patriarchy, Sexual Abuse and Impunity: As the Catholic Church Confronts Its Crisis, Will the UN Follow Suit?
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In an unprecedented move, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Francis, has decided to finally address an issue that has plagued the church for decades: that of sexual abuse of women and children by priests, a scourge that has left many victims around the world broken. The bold step by Pope Francis to confront this uncomfortable issue – even at the risk of tainting the Catholic Church’s reputation – is one that even the aid industry, particularly the United Nations, has been reluctant to tackle head on, despite growing pressure from the #MeToo movement. Many observers, including yours truly, believe that recent efforts by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to address sexual harassment and abuse by UN employees could be merely cosmetic; they will not change anything because the UN has a strongly embedded culture of impunity. As one former UN staff member wrote in the New York Daily News, the UN has “an anti-MeToo culture” and is “an old boys’ club”.

Nine months ago, I wrote an article on why I believed that the #MeToo movement would have little or no impact on the United Nations’ male-dominated, highly hierarchical and secretive work environment. I was convinced that because the UN is generally unreceptive to criticism, it was highly unlikely that victims of sexual harassment or assault would come forward or be listened to. I showed, through various examples that UN employees accused of sexual harassment or assault are rarely reprimanded or punished. In fact, some of those implicated have been conveniently transferred or allowed to resign or retire quietly with full benefits – a practice that the Catholic Church perfected when confronted with sexual abuse cases.

However, internal surveys and pressure from women’s rights advocates may have finally forced the UN to take a good hard look at itself, and could bring about some changes in how the world body is governed and managed. An internal UN survey, conducted by Deloitte, whose results were released in January this year, found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed. The survey noted that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44. Two out of every three harassers were male and only one out of every three employees who were harassed took any action against the perpetrator. About one in ten women reported being touched inappropriately; a similar number said they had witnessed crude sexual gestures.

Internal surveys and pressure from women’s rights advocates may have finally forced the UN to take a good hard look at itself, and could bring about some changes in how the world body is governed and managed.

Abuse of authority and defective leadership

However, the UN Staff Union says that sexual harassment is only one among many abuses of authority that take place at the UN. Results from its own survey show that sexual harassment makes up only about 16 per cent of all forms of harassment. Forty-four percent of those surveyed said that they had experienced abuse of authority; of these, 87 per cent said that the person who had abused his or her authority was a supervisor. 20 per cent felt that they had experienced retaliation after reporting misconduct: “The results confirm that this has a debilitating effect on staff morale and work performance, and that there are continued barriers to reporting, including fear of retaliation and a perception that the perpetrators, for the most part, enjoy impunity,” admitted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a letter to UN staff.

An internal UN survey…found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed. The survey noted that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44.

Findings from the two surveys come at a time when women’s rights activists, including the International Center for Research on Women, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and Gender at Work, have been advocating for a more “Feminist United Nations” that fosters gender equality and parity, especially at the highest levels. The upper echelons of the UN are still predominantly male and no woman to date has served as the Secretary-General. The activists would also like to see the UN to take sexual harassment cases more seriously.

In response to this campaign and the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement, Guterres has taken some actions, including installing a sexual harassment hotline and establishing a Task Force on Sexual Harassment.

However, he has not taken any action against senior officials accused of sexual harassment or against those who protect the perpetrators. For instance, no action has been taken against the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, who has been accused of failing “to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” at UNAIDS. An independent panel also found that Sidibe’s “defective leadership” had fostered a dysfunctional work environment at the organisation where employees believed they could get away with anything. Meanwhile, Sidibe has not been fired by the UN Secretary-General though he has said that he will step down in June this year, a decision he made voluntarily without any pressure from the UN Secretary-General and without any sanctions.

In response to this campaign and the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement, Guterres has taken some actions, including installing a sexual harassment hotline and establishing a Task Force on Sexual Harassment.

Systematic racial discrimination

A recent spate of revelations by whistleblowers at the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows how ineffective leadership allows abuse to continue. Three emails addressed to WHO directors, which were leaked to the Associated Press, complained of rampant racism at the organisation and theft of funds intended for Ebola victims. At WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, stated one email, African staff members suffer “systematic racial discrimination”.

However, Guterres has not taken any action against senior officials accused of sexual harassment or against those who protect the perpetrators. For instance, no action has been taken against the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, who has been accused of failing “to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” at UNAIDS.

The emails also spoke of widespread corruption and mismanagement of funds. One whistleblower claimed that logistics and procurement officers at WHO are known to be corrupt and that during one Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year, a plane was hired to transport three vehicles from a warehouse in Dubai at the highly inflated cost of one million dollars.

Last year, Al Jazeera featured a documentary that showed how Big Pharma is also influencing the way WHO’s senior management makes decisions about global public health crises. The documentary suggested that the 2009 swine flu pandemic might have been fabricated to benefit pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the swine flu vaccine. One former delegate to the European Council stated: “The WHO officials have no idea about such things [pandemics]. They depend on scientists. And the scientists are allocated to them by the countries and by the organisations that finance the WHO. And many of them gave advice and made decisions that benefited the pharmaceutical industry.”

One whistleblower who has for years been seeking compensation from WHO for a work-related injury told me that her ordeal was so harrowing that it had left her emotionally depleted and had ruined her financially…

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director General, has promised an internal investigation into the recent racial discrimination and corruption allegations. While this is a good sign, we must also remember that the UN is essentially a political organisation and that influential member states and its biggest donors often have a greater say in how the organisation is run – and who gets punished – than those who have less influence and clout. There is also a general tendency to cover up a wrongdoing than to address it, and to punish those who expose the crimes committed.

Shooting the messenger

Guterres’ stated commitment to improve gender parity and to look more seriously into sexual harassment cases could just be a whitewashing exercise to calm down critics until the dust settles. This is what has happened in the past. For instance, not one company or individual has to this day been charged with diverting money or receiving kickbacks from the scandalous UN Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq, which resulted in the loss of billions of dollars that were supposed to help the Iraqi people. By the time the Kofi Annan-initiated Volcker Commission came out with its findings on the programme and revealed names of those involved in the theft, Saddam Hussein had been deposed by American and British coalition forces, and the programme had been closed.

Similarly, UN peacekeepers accused of raping or sexually exploiting displaced or refugee women and children in strife-torn countries suffer few consequences; recent such cases have not resulted in any convictions though there are now efforts to bar countries whose peacekeepers have been implicated in sexual abuse from serving in peacekeeping missions.

On the other hand, the majority of UN whistleblowers who have reported misconduct, including corruption, abuse of authority and sexual harassment and assault, have been fired, demoted or reprimanded. Few of their allegations are investigated, and even if they are, the findings are rarely made public. In 2014, for instance, Anders Kompass, the director of field operations at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was suspended and even “investigated” after he revealed to French authorities cases of sexual abuse of displaced boys by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Kompass eventually resigned from the organisation. He told a journalist that his ordeal had left him “disappointed and full of sadness”.

Those who have sought justice from the UN’s internal justice systems have hit a wall, which suggests that these systems were designed to protect the perpetrators and the UN’s reputation rather than to safeguard whistleblowers and to bring about remedial action.

The majority of UN whistleblowers who have reported misconduct, including corruption, abuse of authority and sexual harassment and assault, have been fired, demoted or reprimanded.

In my own research, I found that the emotional toll of whistleblowing in the UN is so huge that most whistleblowers never fully recover from their traumatic experience. The decision not to report wrongdoing is thus often based on self-preservation.

The irony is that most UN whistleblowers don’t even realise that they are blowing the whistle; most believe they are simply doing their job by reporting wrongdoing. It is only when the retaliation against them begins that they realise that they have stepped on some very big toes.

Those who are fired from the organisation or whose contracts are not renewed find themselves shut out of the closely-knit international development community, which blocks their future career development. Vindictive senior managers are known to blacklist whistleblowers and ruin their reputations, which results in the latter not being considered for jobs in similar organisations. One whistleblower who has for years been seeking compensation from WHO for a work-related injury told me that her ordeal was so harrowing that it had left her emotionally depleted and had ruined financially – this from an organisation that is committed to promoting global health!

Toxic work environment

Many people have asked me how an organisation that is so multicultural and which is devoted to the advancement of human rights can allow sexism and racism to thrive within its own corridors. I tell them that an organisation is only as good as its people; if you hire racists and sexists, you will end up in a racist and sexist work environment, regardless of the noble aspirations of the organisation.

And if the organisation does not have in place policies and practices that deter abuse and discrimination – and especially if these policies and practices are not followed diligently – then that organisation will simply reflect the negative values of the wider society (possibly at its worst because there are few or no penalties for those who demonstrate racist or sexist behaviour). This creates a highly toxic and unhealthy work environment, especially for women.

As someone who has worked for the UN for more than a decade, I can tell you that the people who work there are not superhuman, nor are they particularly interested in the progress and protection of human beings. Some, especially at the top echelons, are political appointments who come with the baggage and privileges that they inherited from their own particular social, political or cultural backgrounds. They are simply reflections of their societies. And because they are political appointees, they feel no need to follow the dictates of the UN or its global mandate. (This explains why representatives from countries with some of the most dictatorial and repressive regimes end up being voted into the UN Human Rights Council.) There is no test that UN staffers have to pass to show their humanitarian or development credentials. Most are simply careerists who seek a comfortable job abroad with generous tax-free perks. So what you are left with are cynical and paranoid bureaucrats whose only mission is their own career development.

In my own career at the UN, I have seen how senior male professionals will have no qualms about ganging up against a female colleague to intimidate her or to force her out of the organisation. They will even go to the extent of assassinating her character to support a member of their “boys club”. The unwritten rule (which I found out about rather late) is that senior male managers will stick together and defend each other. In a highly publicised 2004 case, for example, the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, publicly stated that allegations of sexual harassment made by a Geneva-based UN staff member against his friend, the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, “could not be substantiated” even though an internal investigation had confirmed her account.

It is possible that the recent push by the #MeToo movement and women’s rights activists may finally turn the tide and make the UN a more egalitarian, woman-friendly workplace. It is possible that the UN is not completely beyond reform – that it can put in place systems that minimise abuse of authority and weed out those who are doing most harm to the organisation and to its ability to fulfill its mandate of promoting human rights and justice around the world.

One reform measure would be to order thorough and credible investigations into allegations of wrongdoing and to punish the perpetrators. This is a tall order because, like the Catholic Church, the tendency at the UN’s top echelons is to cover up the crime (especially sexual abuse and theft) rather than expose it, and also because the people who report wrongdoing are often junior or mid-level professionals who can be easily intimidated by their superiors and bullied into not speaking up. Unless the culture of retaliation against whistleblowers is stopped, there is little hope that whistleblowers will get any justice and that wrongdoing within the organisation will be curtailed.

Like the Catholic Church, the tendency at the UN’s top echelons is to cover up the crime

The most effective method, both in the UN and in other large bureaucratic organisations like the Catholic Church, is for the leadership to take action against those committing offences. Even Pope Francis has acknowledged that this is an important deterrent – and is the kind of justice that victims of sexual abuse would like to see in the Catholic Church. Sexual abusers and their protectors and those who abuse their power should be fired and stripped of their titles. The UN Secretary-General can establish all kinds of hotlines and task forces, but unless he is seen to be going after those who are abusing their authority, sexually harassing employees or sexually exploiting and abusing vulnerable women and children in poor war-torn countries, nothing will change, and the UN will continue to remain a safe haven for sexual predators and bullies.

The UN Secretary-General can establish all kinds of hotlines and task forces, but unless he is seen to be going after those who are abusing their authority…nothing will change, and the UN will continue to remain a safe haven for sexual predators and bullies.

This would be unfortunate, because in a world witnessing rising ultra-nationalism, fascism, misogyny and intolerance, the United Nations is perhaps the only hope for a more just and inclusive world order.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Elite Power-Sharing: How Presidential Candidates Buy-off Disgruntled Leaders and Maintain Their Coalitions

There is clearly a pressing need to improve the nomination procedures to EALA so that they become transparent, such that those who are nominated understand the key issues facing the region and are accountable to its citizens.

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Elite Power-Sharing: How Presidential Candidates Buy-off Disgruntled Leaders and Maintain Their Coalitions
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As the August 9 general elections draw ever closer in Kenya, the month of April saw political party “nominations”, when the respective parties and coalitions select their candidates for a range of different positions including Member of Parliament and Governor. The political parties had a deadline of 2 April to conclude the process and submit the names of successful candidates to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) for approval. Although the 2022 nominations appears to have been a small improvement on the 2017 experience, with less violence and chaos, they did little to strengthen Kenyan democracy.

In most cases the parties behind former opposition leader turned establishment candidate Raila Odinga – the Jubilee Party and the Orange Democratic Movement – did not hold elected primaries at all, and instead used “direct nominations”, much to the chagrin of those who were overlooked. The parties behind Odinga’s main rival, Deputy President William Ruto, held more primaries, but here too there were many controversies and numerous disgruntled “losers”. As a result, both Ruto and Odinga faced a major challenge: how to prevent losing candidates from defecting and running as independents.

This is a particularly dangerous prospect in the context of a close elections, because a popular independent can divide the vote, enabling a rival party to secure an unexpected victory. In response, coalition leaders spend the post-nominations period frantically calling those who feel they have been cheated to offer then a range of rewards to stay loyal, including the promise of future tenders; appointment to cabinet positions; appointment to various state commissions; nomination to legislative bodies; appointment to ambassadorial roles oversees; and, good old fashioned cash.

It is common knowledge that the nomination of candidates for some state jobs is heavily influenced by coalition realities rather than the ability and qualifications of the individuals concerned. It is disturbing that this trend is also extending to regional institutions, however. Party leaders are now using the promise of slots as representatives in the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) to buy-off disgruntled leaders. A case in point is Ruto’s promise to give Charles Kanyi (Jaguar) a slot in the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) if he quit the Member of Parliament race for Starehe Constituency in favour of Simon Mbugua. It is a powerful demonstration of how this particular political cycle works that Mbugua had himself been nominated to the EALA in 2017, after he was persuaded by the Jubilee Party leadership to step down in favour of Yusuf Hassan in the Kamukunji primaries.

Such bargains are the lifeblood of Kenyan electoral politics, but undermine accountability and embed deal making – and hence potentially corrupt practices – at the heart of the not only the Kenyan state, but also regional governance.

How EALA was turned into an “employment bureau”

The East African Legislative Assembly is an independent arm of the Community that is supposed to advance the interests of the East African Community bloc as well as provide oversight. The membership of EALA currently stands at 62, with nine elected members from each of the six East Africa Community (EAC) partners states: Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi and eight ex-officio members. However, political parties have been blamed for nominating politicians who lose in nominations, or their own relatives, to the regional body. For Instance, Kennedy Musyoka, who was nominated to EALA in 2017 is the son of Wiper party leader Kalonzo Musyoka.

This is not only happening in Kenya. A similar scenario is playing out in Uganda where political parties are also rewarding rejects to EALA. In 2017, the candidates presented for nomination to EALA were mostly those that had lost after vying to be a candidate for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) in the parliamentary elections. Revelations about this practice triggered criticism in Uganda, which in turn prompted President Yoweri Museveni to declare that EALA was not an “employment bureau” for political job seekers. Despite being president – and hence the person with the greatest power to decide how his party operates and who is sent to the EALA – Museveni sought to displace blame, stating that. “This election is just an election; elections are not employment bureaus that you are here to give jobs to jobless people but people who will support the integration process”.

The problem facing Museveni is that even if he wants to end the practice of using such nominations as patronage, he may not be able to. Facing a growing challenge from Bobi Wine, and recognizing the threat that the NRM may start to fragment during the succession struggle to replace him – should he ever stand down – Museveni knows full well that buying off disappointed candidates is critical to his regime’s survival.

More broadly, the practice of playing politics with nominations to legislative organs such as EALA is problematic because it sacrifices regional interests at the expense of the personal desires of politicians, many of whom were overlooked for good reason. As one of Africa’s fastest growing regions in desperate need of a more unified and effective approach to issues such as infrastructure and food security, this is a major shortcoming that needs to be urgently addressed.

The road back to effective leadership and administration

There is clearly a pressing need to improve the nomination procedures to EALA so that they become transparent, such those who are nominated understand the key issues facing the region and are accountable to its citizens. The process of nomination is supposed to include tough legislative vetting, with hearings to interview potential candidates, and a strong set of minimum requirements established. Some of this is already in place in Uganda, where nominees are required to appear before parliament to campaign for their bids, but could be further strengthened to enable a broader range of individuals to be considered. In countries such as Kenya, these procedures have been considerably watered down, undermining the process, and the credibility of the representatives it produces.

The changes required do not only relate to selection. Once they are in position, it will then be essential to ensure continuous performance assessment during their five-year term to assess their commitment and contribution and weed out incompetent representatives. But even these changes may not be enough if political leaders continue to see positions as an entitlement rather than something to be earned. It is the practice of paying off losing candidates that the ultimate driver of the nominations game – and the quality of domestic administration and regional leadership is unlikely to improve until this is brought under control.

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A Just Energy Transition

As coal is dying we must be prepared to absorb the transferable infrastructure of this industry and re-tool it for use in the emerging economy.

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A Just Energy Transition
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The alternative energy economy is moving in the right direction. But there’s a devil in the detail: the extraction of rare-earth minerals (REM) needed to develop the technology and infrastructure for renewables are as devastating to the environment as the fossil fuels they seek to replace. Transitioning to a clean energy economy is imperative, and to do so justly, we must ensure job security, reparations, and environmental remediation to the communities where mining has both historically and currently exist.

In moving forward, we must ensure a just transition towards an alternative energy economy for our planet and for those who live on it. A just transition moves our economy off of fossil fuels, and toward clean energy, while providing just pathways for workers to transition to high-quality work with integrity. A just transition leaves no worker behind. This transition focuses on environmental and economic sustainability through decent work, social inclusion and poverty eradication.

Lithium, cobalt, arsenic, gallium, indium, tellurium, and platinum, just to name a few, are needed to develop a strong alternative energy economy and shift away from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, they are being mined with the same harmful practices and disregard as the very fossil fuels they’re meant to replace. The affected communities are often not those with purchasing power, but the Indigenous communities living in proximity to the mines.

In 2019, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president was ousted in a coup, partly due to his push to nationalize the country’s lithium mines. It is believed that Elon Musk, the South African tech mogul had a hand in this process. Lithium is a mineral used in batteries that power various clean energy technologies, including electric cars. According to The International Energy Agency, the demand for lithium is slated to outpace the growth of fossil fuels two-fold in lieu of policies that will be in place to support its growth.

The low-carbon energy economy is at a cusp where the cross section of public policy and social consciousness has the potential to merge and propel our society into the future. In this transition to a clean low-carbon economy there are many jobs to be created, not only manual labor that poses high risks to human health but also jobs in electrical engineering, plant management, and urban design that are ultimately more skilled and higher paying. This transition will also require the implementation of educational infrastructure to help communities adapt.

It is imperative that we work to improve the ability of the people most affected by mineral extraction to have a say over that of the companies in what happens in their communities. We must ensure that the communities impacted have a pathway into the new economy and that nobody is left behind.

The process of mineral extraction is exactly that, extractive. Not only does it take from the earth, it also diminishes the value of the land over time and more often than not leaves a toxic mess that destroys entire ecosystems to which a monetary value can not be assessed or assigned. This process also requires immense human capital; the labor needed to get the job done. The pool of labor is often relegated to those within proximity to the mine, who exist at the cross section of poverty and opportunity. Even if the ultimate cost of this opportunity is the future of the local environment. When it comes between feeding one’s family where few other options are available, it’s a choice that must be made. It is the responsibility of the government and corporate interests to come together to ensure a just transition from the fossil fuel industry to an alternative energy economy.

As coal is dying we must be prepared to absorb the transferable infrastructure of this industry and re-tool it for use in the emerging economy. Factory buildings can be rehabilitated into solar power plants. Railways and transportation waterways can be retrofitted [with minimal effort] to assist in not only the transportation of goods and raw materials but for public transportation as well. The framework of industrial boom towns can lay the groundwork for community housing and commerce. Ensuring job training and security to the new energy economy is a vital form of equity for the communities impacted by mining. Alongside the reabsorption of the existing built infrastructure, we need to establish comprehensive and culturally comprehensive education apparatus to support the growth and development of a varied, skilled workforce required for such a transition.

South Africa, while one of the most mineral rich countries on the planet, cannot sustain its historical extractive economy. Research completed by the Alternative Information Development Center (AIDC) in Cape Town, shows that the legacy of post colonial-extractivist economics in South Africa has resulted in widespread resource depletion across the range of the country’s key resource sectors. It indicates that coal reserves have been mined downwards of 20% of original estimates. As of 20 years ago, 98% of South Africa’s total water resources had already been allocated, and the degradation of soil fertility is confirmed on 41% of cultivated land.

The extraction of resources and human capital is the keystone of colonialism and post-colonial neoliberal economics. This long standing tradition of the powerful taking something and leaving the poor with little or even something far worse continues unabated in our globalized world. Consequently, the framework of global energy infrastructure is a living relic of colonialism, harmful neoliberal economics, and ecological devastation. A debt left to the Indigenous communities where those, now even more, precious. minerals exist.

In order to transition towards a more just energy economy we must come together to:

  • Nationalize all existing and future energy infrastructure and each citizen is given a stake in the economic and functional well being of the grid and energy infrastructure. This also requires that industry is purchased or seized from foreign interest to retain as much of the economy in-house and circulate the wealth within the community.
  • Ensure all residents have fair and equitable as well as free or affordable access to all forms of energy.
  • Retrofit existing mining town infrastructure, factories, warehouses, storage facilities, waste sites are assessed with the appropriate environmental impact assessments and made available to the new economy.
  • Establish education and training programs to allow the existing and emerging workforce to be trained with job skills for the new economy. Some jobs will be lost indefinitely, so an economic safety net must be available along with a plan for those who may not be able to transition to the new economy so quickly.
  • Ensure that minerals such as titanium and lithium are mined with the full consent of the local community. They must not be extracted in the current, harmful ways.
  • Give priority to local peoples throughout all levels of employment in the mines and adequately training and developing the capacity of local leadership.

While these are just a few major considerations, it is important to involve the community to holistically define not only what a “just transition” can look like, but what a just transition will be for them—from the way rare earth minerals are mined, to the way we ensure job security and access to the new economy for those whose backs it has rested on for so long. Otherwise, the energy economy from fossils to alternatives remains a colonialist institution of quid pro quo for Indigenous, Black and Brown people.

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

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Why Opinion Polls May Not Always Predict Election Outcomes in Kenya

This is the second in a series of articles that will review and comment on surveys related to the August 2022 general election, providing analytical tools to enable the reader to assess their credibility and potential impact.

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Why Opinion Polls May Not Always Predict Election Outcomes in Kenya
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This is the second in a series of pieces I have been engaged by The Elephant to write on the place of surveys in the forthcoming election.  As I noted in my first piece, I do so as objectively as I can, although for the sake of transparency I again declare that I am currently engaged as a research analyst for one of the firms whose results I review here (Trends and Insights for Africa, or TIFA).

A handful of recent polls

Since my previous piece was published at the beginning of April, the results of three credible surveys were published through the middle of May: those released by the Radio Africa Group in The Star on 18 April, by Trends and Insights for Africa (TIFA) on 5 May, and by Infotrak (sponsored by the Nation Media Group) on 12-13 May. While the first two indicate that Deputy President William Ruto was leading former Prime Minister Raila Odinga in the presidential race by 5 and 7 per cent respectively, they differ somewhat in important details, even beyond their respective headlines. They are also at odds with the most recent of these three surveys: those of Infotrak which have the two in a dead heat at 42 per cent each. I will begin with a visual comparison of the figures from the first two polls.

Survey Firm Sample Size/No. of Counties Data Collection Dates  Ruto  Odinga Others Undecided/NR
Radio Africa/The Star 4,057 / 47 1-5 April 2022 46% 41% 1% 12%
TIFA Research 2,033 / 47 22-26 April 2022 39% 32% 1% 28%
Difference -7% -9% +2% +14%

 

The first point to make is that although the TIFA results gave Ruto a larger lead margin (7 per cent vs. 5 per cent), the difference may not be significant, given that it falls almost entirely within their respective margins of error of around +/-2 per cent. The main difference is a whopping 16 per cent variance in the proportion who failed/declined to answer the presidential choice question. Two obvious questions arising from this are: (1) what might explain this gap, and (2) can any “deeper” analysis of the data suggest the “leanings” of these “silent” respondents?

Regarding the first question, no clear answer is apparent. However, it may be relevant that the Radio Africa poll was conducted by sending text messages to the sample derived from their data-base of phone numbers, whereas TIFA’s was conducted through the more standard Computer-Assisted-Telephonic-Interview (CATI) method (i.e., through live phone calls), based on the (comparable) TIFA data-base. Still, why this would make respondents in the latter survey less willing to reveal their presidential preferences is unclear.

Another puzzling issue has to do with Radio Africa’s stated margin of error, which is given as +/ 4.5 per cent. Yet with a reported sample size of 4,497, based on some 22 million registered voters (a figure against which the data were reportedly weighted), the margin of error is actually only +/-1.5 per cent. Why would the “Star Team” who produced the story want to make their findings look less precise than they are? (I made two phone calls to journalists at The Star about this but neither was able to provide a definitive explanation.)

Further, while the article by The Star made reference to findings from two previous similar Radio Africa surveys – showing Ruto leading Odinga by a huge 29 per cent last July (i.e., 43-14 per cent), and Odinga taking the lead for the first time in March, by 4 per cent (i.e., 47-43 per cent)—no suggestion was offered as to what could account for Ruto’s regaining the lead he previously enjoyed.  Indeed, even when reporting the results in March, all The Star could offer was that “Poll ratings can go up and down so Radio Africa will continue to conduct its monthly opinion polls up to the August 9 elections.”  In any case, it remains to be seen whether the just concluded party nominations and running mate selections will further reshape the race.

Why would the “Star Team” who produced the story want to make their findings look less precise than they are?

In addition, while the text of the article reported some results by region (i.e., North Rift, South Rift, Central, Upper Eastern, Lower Eastern, Nyanza, Western and Coast), the kind of quite useful table of results that had been included in the mid-March story was absent, as were any explicit comparisons of results at this sub-national level, leaving such calculations up to its readers to make—assuming they had kept the March results for such a purpose: e.g., an increase in support for Ruto in North Rift (from 63 per cent in March to 69 per cent now) but basically no change in Central (57 per cent in both March and April). While such changes may help to explain the overall result—the re-establishment of Ruto’s lead – it would be useful if the respective margins of error for each of the regions was also noted so that such sub-national changes from one poll to another could be put in a clear statistical perspective. But the earlier point remains: could the “Star Team” have provided any explanation as to why Odinga’s rating in Nyanza fell by 11 per cent in a little over one month?

Yet another methodological point is important to make here. If Nyanza constitutes about 13 per cent of the total sample, that generates a margin of error of +/-6 per cent, which means Odinga’s actual proportion in March (shown in The Star’s table as 78 per cent) could have been anywhere in the range of 71-84 per cent, and in April (shown as 67 per cent) in the range of 61-73 per cent.  Note here that at the low end of the March figure and the high end of the April figure there is an overlap of 2 per cent, meaning that it is possible—though unlikely—that his “true” Nyanza figures did not change at all over this period.

Could the “Star Team” have provided any explanation as to why Odinga’s rating in Nyanza fell by 11 per cent in a little over one month?

Another point: according to the Market Survey Research Association (MSRA) Guidelines, its members should interview at least 1,500 respondents in any survey reporting national (presidential) voting intention results, and while there is no such minimum for any sub-national polls (county, parliamentary constituency, ward), the margin of error should be made clear. There is, of course, no such requirement for the Radio Africa survey since the regions for which results are reported are not electoral units, even were this news organization an MSRA member (which it is not).

Stop press—another poll is out!

As I was writing this piece, the results of another national survey were released, this one by Infotrak, commissioned by the Nation Media Group. Its headline findings may be compared with TIFA’s in the same way as the latter are compared with Radio Africa’s above:

Survey Firm Sample Size/No. of Counties Data Collection Dates  Ruto  Odinga Others Undecided/NR
TIFA Research 2,033 / 47 22-26 April 2022 39% 32% 1% 28%
Infotrak 2,400 / 47 8-9 May 2022 42% 42% 1% 15%
Difference +3% +10% 0% -13%

 

Before addressing the main contrasts in these results, several points regarding methodology should be made. As Macharia Gaitho, writing an accompanying piece for the Daily Nation, pointed out, “The dates the data was [sic] collected will always have a bearing on the outcome in a fluid political situation, but unless there were very major shifts and realignments in the intervening period, even a fortnight between two polls cannot account for such variations.” This assertion makes sense given the absence of any dramatic events relevant to the fortunes of the two main contenders during the period between the two polls—the departure of Governors Alfred Mutua and Amason Kingi from Azimio to Kenya Kwanza coming just after data collection for the Nation/Infotrak poll. And he went on to add: “Other factors which influence the outcome of an opinion poll are methodology and sampling.” Note that Gaitho had raised some of these same important issues in a Daily Nation piece he authored just before the August 2017 election which I responded to and published in the Nation a few days later, identifying issues that I felt he had not sufficiently addressed.

Leaving aside the semantic error that sampling and methodology are distinct (since sampling is an inherent aspect of methodology), the factors he cites are certainly relevant: sample size and distribution across the country.

Sample size in this case is not an issue, since despite Infotrak’s being slightly larger, the respective margins of error are nearly identical: +/-2 per cent vs. +/-2.17 per cent. Further, even though Infotrak’s question wording differs slightly from TIFA’s (“…who would you vote for…?” vs. “…who do you want Kenya’s next president to be?”), it can be assumed that much of the contrast between the two surveys is a consequence of sampling. Simply put: how each sample was distributed across the country, and what the achieved distribution (whether through the “pot luck” willingness of those selected to participate, or through post-data collection weighting—or some combination of both) is for each demographic variable that might be relevant to the issue at hand: presidential candidate preference.

Unfortunately, and in contrast to TIFA’s release, the Nation gives us no basis for comparing these two samples in demographic terms. That is, while TIFA included figures for gender, age groups, and education level (the latter required by the relevant law enacted in 2012)—as well as the proportion allocated to each of the nine “zones” for which results were reported—we have no such data from the Nation (whatever Infotrak may have provided).

Of course, for most political surveys in Kenya the most salient variable in assessing the representative accuracy of a sample is its ethnic distribution. Most survey firms collect data on the ethnic make-up of its sample but, as far as I know, no survey firm has ever published it nor does the relevant Act require it. Presumably, this is for reasons of “sensitivity”—a form of “self-censorship” that appears universally accepted. This is not to suggest that ethnicity explains “everything” about the achieved results, but it is critical when gauging whether samples are truly representative. For example, in TIFA’s survey, well over half—but nowhere near all—of Ruto’s and Odinga’s “home” ethnic groups (i.e., the Kalenjin and Luo) expressed support for their respective presidential candidates. Given this reality, it is impossible to judge the comparability of the two samples involved here without knowing what proportion of the total sample in each survey is comprised of the country’s main ethnic groups. Specifically, was there a “sufficient” number of Kalenjin in the Infotrak sample, and a “sufficient” number of Luo in TIFA’s (and Radio Africa’s)? Of course, such figures should reflect “correct” random sampling based on the geographical distribution of registered voters according to the IEBC, rather than any “search” for these ethnic proportions.

Of course, for most political surveys in Kenya the most salient variable in assessing the representative accuracy of a sample is its ethnic distribution.

It should also be recognized that whether using the eight pre-2010 Constitution provinces, or TIFA’s nine “zones”, none of them is mono-ethnic, with some of the more homogeneous—Central, Nyanza and Western—having less than 90 per cent of their dominant ethnic groups (Kikuyu, Luo and Luhya, respectively). TIFA’s data indicates Lower Eastern is the most ethnically homogenous “zone” although even here, Kalonzo Musyoka, the leading Kamba candidate, only polled at 15 per cent support.

Another problem arises when using survey results to predict election outcomes. While the presidential contest results of both surveys were generally presented by the media as reflecting actual 9 August ballot choices, in neither case was it reported whether all respondents were registered voters, and among those who claimed to be (assuming they were asked), how “certain” they were that they would actually vote on Election Day. Despite this, the main Nation newspaper article reporting the results refers to the survey’s respondents as “voters”. This raises the possibility that actual voter turnout (that is known to vary across the country in every election) will deviate from the samples of these three surveys, even if they all claim to have used the distribution of registered voters as their sampling “universe”.

Since this cannot be precisely known in advance even much closer to the election, it is misleading to use such survey results to suggest, let alone predict, actual outcomes, as the Daily Nation did in its front-page caption by stating that neither Ruto nor Odinga “has enough backing to cross the 50%+1 threshold to win”. (It may be assumed that those involved in producing these stories are also aware of the additional requirement of obtaining at least 25 per cent in at least 24 of the 47 counties.)

But there is an even more blatant flaw in this “run-off contest” statement: an actual voter who wishes his/her vote to count cannot be “undecided” or “refuse to answer” as one can in a survey interview, since voters must choose from actual ballot choices. In response to one of the several 2013 presidential election petitions, the Supreme Court ruled that spoiled ballots are removed from the count of “total votes cast”, so that the denominator of the calculation for each candidate is based on total valid votes cast, not the total number of people who walked into a polling station.

TIFA’s data indicates Lower Eastern is the most ethnically homogenous “zone” although even here, Kalonzo Musyoka, the leading Kamba candidate, only polled at 15 per cent support.

Based on this reality, for example, the Infotrak results imply that each of the main candidates “would get” 49 per cent, since only about 1,008 of the reported total sample of 2,400 respondents mentioned Odinga and Ruto, and this figure should be divided by roughly 2,040, which is the figure we are left with after subtracting those who said they were undecided or who refused to answer the question—about 360 respondents.

In other words, even if these top two candidates are nearly tied on 9 August, it would seem that a run-off contest would be unnecessary unless the combined figure of all the other presidential candidates  exceeds 2 or 3 per cent—a much more likely prospect should Kalonzo Musyoka insist on “going it alone”.

Another contrast between the Infotrak and TIFA polls is important to point out, as it, too, could help to explain their contrasting results.

In terms of the distribution their samples, TIFA uses nine ethno-political “zones” while Infotrak (like Radio Africa) continues to use the former eight provinces. As such, the only sub-national results that can be compared (since they are used by both firms) are: Nairobi, Coast, Western and Nyanza. The table below shows the figures for these four units (comparing the TIFA figure on the left with Infotrak’s on the right, and the difference in parentheses on the far right):

Nairobi
TIFA / Infotrak
Coast
TIFA / Infotrak
Nyanza
TIFA / Infotrak
Western
TIFA / Infotrak
Ruto 25% / 33% (+8%) 26% / 29% (+3%) 21% / 18% (-3%) 37% / 33% (-4%)
Odinga 40% / 51% (+11%) 36% / 55% (+19%) 56% / 72% (+16%) 29% / 48% (+19%)

Even setting aside the higher error margins for each of these regions, which range between about +/-6 and 7 per cent—and thus equal to 12 per cent and 14 per cent spreads, based on their respective sub-national sample sizes—these contrasts are remarkable, especially the larger figures for Odinga in the Infotrak survey. (Note that given the lower Infotrak figures for “undecided” and “no response”—10 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively, as compared to TIFA’s 16 per cent and 12 per cent—Infotrak’s overall figures for both candidates are higher, as is also the case in the comparison of Radio Africa’s figures with TIFA’s.)

While the contrasting figures for Nairobi are minimal, since the 8 per cent difference between Infotrak’s and TIFA’s figure for Ruto is only 3 per cent lower than the difference in Odinga’s numbers for the other three sub-national units (Coast, Nyanza and Western), Odinga’s “Infotrak advantage” is much higher: 16 per cent, 19 per cent, and 23 per cent, respectively.  As noted, while TIFA provides the proportions allocated in its sample to each of the nine zones for which it presents results, Infotrak—or at least the Daily Nation—does not. But assuming they were roughly similar—and, as indicated, even taking the higher error margins for each into account—Gaitho’s summary point stands: that such disparate results cannot be accounted for by a minor discrepancy in the dates of the two surveys, given that no major events occurred that might have caused any significant shifts in attitudes towards either of the two main presidential candidates.

In connection with such contrasts between Infotrak and other credible survey firms in Kenya, a little history may be useful. For example, in their last surveys before the contested 2007 election, The Steadman Group gave Odinga a 2 per cent advantage over Kibaki, while Infotrak gave him a 10 per cent lead. Just before the 2013 election, Infotrak “predicted” an outright win for Odinga, whereas Ipsos’ results indicated that neither candidate would achieve this in the first round.  A little earlier, an Infotrak survey conducted at the end of December 2012 and into the first few days of 2013 gave Odinga a 12 per cent advantage over Uhuru Kenyatta (51 per cent to 39 per cent), whereas an Ipsos poll conducted only about two weeks later gave the former only a 6 per cent advantage (46 per cent to 40 per cent). Similarly, in their final surveys before the 2017 election late July, Infotrak had Odinga and Kenyatta in a virtual tie (47 per cent vs. 46 per cent) —on which basis it suggested that no one would win on the first round—whereas Ipsos gave Kenyatta a clear outright win: 52 per cent vs. 48 per cent, excluding those who claimed to be undecided or who declined to reveal their preference (which when included, generated a 47 per cent vs. 43 per cent advantage for Kenyatta), although leaving room for some minor deviation from these figures based on differential voter turnout across the country. In fact, Ipsos offered four possible voter turnout scenarios, none of which put Odinga closer than 4 per cent behind Kenyatta.

Of course, given the disputed nature of the official results in all three of these elections, it is impossible to know which survey firm’s results were closer to “the truth”. But they do reveal a clear pattern: that Infotrak has consistently given more positive results to Odinga than any of the other reputable survey firms in the country.  I should stress, however, that this “track record” should not be the sole basis for dismissing Infotrak’s current figures, but it does underscore Gaitho’s point that whenever there are differences in survey firms’ results that go beyond the stated margins of error, additional scrutiny is warranted—preferably to a degree that goes beyond what the Nation Media Group offered its readers/viewers on this occasion. Of course, given the fact that they sponsored the survey, such rigorous scrutiny might have been considered “inappropriate” at best.

On the other hand, it should also be recalled that in the polls conducted just before the August, 2010 constitutional referendum, Infotrak produced results that were slightly more accurate than those of Synovate—and there were no claims of any “rigging” in response to the official results.

In any event, the promise of continued polling by at least these three firms—Infotrak, TIFA and Radio Africa—should not only provide Kenyans with an evolving picture of the possible electoral fortunes of particular candidates and political parties/coalitions (as well as identifying the issues motivating voters at both the national and sub-national levels), but also invite them to more thoroughly scrutinize the performance of these firms and of any others that may appear and attain any serious media coverage. This is so even if the announcement of deputy presidential running-mates will make the next set of polls non-comparable with those examined here.

Of course, given the disputed nature of the official results in all three of these elections, it is impossible to know which survey firm’s results were closer to “the truth”.

The most useful data, however, would be the actual results announced by IEBC about which no credibility doubts are raised, so that only differential voter turnout would have to be taken into account in assessing the performance of the pollsters in their final survey rounds.

A concluding comparison: in the recent, second round run-off French presidential election, the final national poll had President Emmanuel Macron defeating Marine Le Pen by 56 per cent to 44 per cent, and the official (uncontested) results gave him a 58.5 per cent to 41.5 per cent victory (just within the poll’s margin of error). Given that, so far at least, there is no evidence that Kenyans lie any more than French people do when answering survey questions, let us hope that Kenyan survey firms can both individually and collectively achieve such accuracy.

Post-script

Just after completing this piece, on May 18 TIFA released the results of another CATI survey it had conducted the day before, comprised of 1,719 respondents. This came in the immediate wake of two days of drama: first, on 15 May, the announcement by Kenya Kwanza Alliance’s presidential candidate, DP William Ruto, of his coalition’s deputy president running mate, Mathira Member of Parliament Rigathi Gachagua, and on the following day, the announcement by Azimio la Umoja’s Raila Odinga of former member of parliament and cabinet minister Martha Karua as his running mate.

The most useful data, however, would be the actual results announced by IEBC about which no credibility doubts are raised.

The two main questions it sought to answer were: (1) How many Kenyans were aware of each of these running mates? (2) What were their presidential voting intentions?

For whatever reasons, it emerged than far more people were aware of Karua’s selection than of Gachagua’s (85 per cent vs. 59 per cent), a pattern which was replicated among those who expressed the intention to vote for Odinga or Ruto, respectively (90 per cent vs. 69 per cent). By contrast, awareness of Kalonzo Musyoka’s choice of running mate, Andrew Sunkuli, was far lower among both the general public and among those (few) who reported an intention to vote for Musyoka (21 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively).

But as expected, it was the results of the second issue that attracted most attention, which gave Odinga a modest but measurable lead over Ruto: 39 per cent to 35 per cent.  The central question these figures raised was whether Odinga’s jump into the lead, beyond the tie that Infotrak had reported just one week earlier, was to any degree a consequence of the identification of these two running mates, a question that will be addressed in the next piece in this series, by which time it is hoped at least one additional poll would have been conducted so as to confirm whether TIFA’s most recent figures do indeed represent a major shift in the presidential electoral terrain.

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