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Notes on Leviathan, the Invisible Hand and Moral Sentiment in the Time of Coronavirus

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The government does not understand the magnitude of the response that is required. There is no appreciation that the key challenge of responding to the COVID-19 economic shock is policy instruments, not funding. And that is a problem.

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Notes on Leviathan, the Invisible Hand and Moral Sentiment in the Time of Coronavirus
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In the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own

I had an insightful, if disconcerting, engagement a couple of days ago on some of the thinking behind the COVID-19 resource mobilisation that is going on in the government. This was in connection with some proposals on how to tap into unconventional sources of private money, some of them admittedly quite innovative. It is not the substance of the proposals that is cause for alarm—in fact some of them are quite sensible and practical. It is the preoccupation with private money. My disquiet was reinforced by a source close to some of the captains of industry that have been appointed to a COVID-19 response task force. According to the source, it was intimated to them that the government was counting on substantial contributions from their respective companies.

I learned from Prof. Terry Ryan, a veteran treasury mandarin, and have taught public policy students over the years that policy priorities are understood, not from what is written, but by how three resources—political power, managerial time, and money, in that order—are allocated. That the government, at the top level, is preoccupied with private sector financing suggests two things. First, the government does not understand the magnitude of the response that is required. Second, there is no appreciation that the key challenge of responding to the COVID-19 economic shock is policy instruments, not funding. And that is a problem.

The US government’s $2.2 trillion rescue package is over 10 per cent of GDP and close to half of the annual federal government budget. Canada’s $75 billion relief package is 4.4 per cent of GDP and a third of the budget. The two quantums are not directly comparable because they have different public financial management (PFM) systems. If we benchmark with Canada whose PFM system is closer to ours, we are talking Sh440 billion if we go with the GDP ratio, and Sh750 billion going with the budget ratio. The most that private sector mobilisation can raise is a few billion shillings, if that; Sh2 billion at most by my reckoning, less than 0.5 per cent of the lower figure. The government is barking up the wrong tree.

In my open letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta, I proposed a lifeline fund in the order of one per cent of GDP, about Sh100 billion. Clearly, even this falls far short of the Canadian initiative. But as I make clear in the letter, the figure was not based on need but on what is financeable from a macroeconomic sustainability standpoint. Canada’s budget deficit before the COVID-19 relief package was 1.2 per cent of GDP. The relief package will push it up to 5.6 per cent. Our budget deficit right now is about 7.5 per cent of GDP, and we were already in the early stages of a fiscal crisis before the COVID-19 crisis, with businesses crying out over pending bills and VAT refunds. A relief package like Canada’s would push the deficit to 17 per cent of GDP. That, ordinarily, would be flirting with hyperinflation.

In macroeconomics parlance, we say that Canada had plenty of fiscal space. We have none. Hence my contention that the prudent thing to do is to switch rather than increase the borrowing we have already budgeted. The revised national government development budget for the year is Sh436 billion. The Exchequer had released Sh220 billion as at end of February, that is, with four months to go to the end of the financial year. This means that if we can freeze every national government development project, we can switch Sh200 billion to the COVID-19 response within the existing budget. My Sh100 billion Lifeline Fund proposal requires switching half of the budgeted amount, which I think is very realistic. As it is, the current spending rate projects an absorption of Sh330 billion by the end of the fiscal year, that is, Sh106 billion less than budgeted. The COVID-19 disruption is bound to slow budget absorption.

In macroeconomics parlance, we say that Canada had plenty of fiscal space. We have none.

It is important to point out that budget is not money in the bank as some people seem to think. It is the approved expenditure, that is, what ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are authorised to commit. Right now, all our development budget is deficit-financed, that is, funded by debt. As at end of February, the government had borrowed Sh378 billion against a budget target of Sh514 billion for the year, leaving a borrowing headroom of Sh136 billion. What I mean when I say that the government does not have a funding problem is that, once the spending decision is made and approved by parliament through a supplementary budget, the government will continue to borrow as normal and channel the money to the COVID-19 response instead of development projects.

It should be readily apparent that given the urgency and enormity of the challenge, running around scrapping for private sector charity is a misplaced diversionary preoccupation and a waste of valuable time. The orders of magnitude we should be talking about help to put into perspective the much ado about donor money, Sh10 billion or thereabouts so far. It is useful but nowhere near significant enough to warrant all the attention it is getting. By now, a serious government would have pushed a Sh150 billion-plus COVID-19 response supplementary budget through parliament.

We can now turn to my contention that it is policy instruments, not funding, that are the key challenge of responding to the COVID-19 economic shock.

Economics Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman delights in deploying the simplest models for penetrating insights into the most complex problems. In a blogpost titled Notes on coronacoma economics, Krugman posits that, “What we’re experiencing is not a conventional recession brought on by a slump in aggregate demand”. Instead, he postulates, “We’re going into the economic equivalent of a medically induced coma, in which some brain functions are deliberately shut down to give the patient time to heal”.

Running around scrapping for private sector charity is a misplaced diversionary preoccupation and a waste of valuable time

To fix ideas, as we say in economics, Krugman deploys a stylised two-sector economy, consisting of a non-essentials (N) sector and an essentials (E) sector. Unlike a regular recession where policy intervention seeks to stimulate the whole economy, the coronavirus pandemic requires shutting down the N sector, while keeping the E sector working. But even after shutting it down, we need to replace incomes lost in the N sector, for two reasons. First, to keep the people alive. Second, to support the E sector with demand, so as to minimize the multiplier effect of the job losses in the N sector on the E sector, and spillovers into the financial sector that could bring the whole system tumbling down. Krugman posits that the correct policy instrument is a hybrid instrument he calls “disaster relief with a dash of stimulus”. Readers of this column may recognise that this is akin to the Lifeline Fund proposed in my open letter to the president.

How to finance it? Krugman posits that the slowdown of the N sector will leave plenty of money on the table that would have been invested— think about all the approved and financed projects that have been put on hold. This money is available for the government to borrow to finance the COVID-19 response. Let me reiterate: funding is not the problem.

The US, like many other advanced countries, has public social security and other public social safety nets that can, and are, being deployed to achieve this. We don’t. Another cautionary note is that the N and E sectors should not be taken literary. They don’t exist as such in reality.

Two weeks ago, this columnist mused that “depending on how long this goes on, governments should start thinking in terms of wartime economic management”. The IMF and others have since echoed the same call, prompting some people to compliment or be awed by this columnist’s prescience.

As flattering as that might be, exceptional prescience was not required. John Maynard Keynes concludes his magnus opus, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, on the note that,

[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

And so it is. Adam Smith famously remarked that the market economy functions “as if by an invisible hand”:

Every individual . . . neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it . . . he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention

But for all its virtues, there are occasions, times such as this, when the invisible hand is not fit for purpose. The market system is not wired to recognise essential and non-essential activities, only price signals. The market also does not respond to need, only to effective demand, that is, want backed by ability to pay.

At the onset of this crisis, a small supermarket chain caused uproar and moral outrage when one of its branches increased the price of hand sanitiser after observing a spike in demand (Krugman also talks of an “epidemic of price-gouging”). Even after the supermarket chain apologised profusely for “individual error” the authorities came down hard, and in an unprecedented consumer protection action, ordered the shop to trace and refund all buyers the difference between the normal and the inflated price. I am not certain that this directive is lawful, as there appears to have been no due process, but that is a matter for another day.

Market fundamentalists here and elsewhere have come out in support of price hikes of this nature as the proper working of the invisible hand, asserting that what the uninitiated see as price gouging is precisely the circuit breaker needed to prevent panicky and greedy people buying all the supply, the former to hoard, and the latter to resell at a profit. In this view, the branch store manager who hiked the price of sanitiser is cast as the unwitting agent of the invisible hand, compelled by his nose for a quick kill to do the greater good.

Adam Smith did not have such religious faith in the invisible hand, and in fact, much of his contribution to economic thought turns on trying to square markets and morality (unsurprisingly, seeing as he was professor of moral philosophy). His benevolent view of the invisible hand is not predicated on an angelic view of man, but on temperance of greed by “moral sentiment”, that impulse which leads people to cultivate virtue. He had a dim view of businesspeople, maintaining that whenever and for whatever reason people in the same trade met, it would end up “in a conspiracy against the public, or in some other contrivance to raise prices”.

Adam Smith’s moral being was a person who cultivated justice, prudence and beneficence. Such a person would have asked themselves whether raising prices was morally upright, considering that the higher price would compel poor people desperate to protect themselves from harm to sacrifice food or another necessity. Thus Smith’s moral being might have concluded that in the circumstances, rationing was a better allocation mechanism than price, seeing as no ordinarily person would buy ten sanitisers at a go, or three bales of toilet paper for that matter. Limiting each customer to two or three sanitisers was warranted.

An even more fundamental challenge is the propensity of the invisible hand to work as it is meant to, resulting in perverse, morally repugnant outcomes. We know that export horticulture has been completely disrupted. Floriculture employs more than 30,000 people, mostly low wage earners in Naivasha. The flower farms themselves are staring at business failure. Naivasha’s second industry is tourism. In fact, both floriculture and the hotel establishments are on the same stretch of Moi South Road along the shores of Lake Naivasha. These two industries are the engine of the rest of the Naivasha economy. Once these paychecks stop coming, every other business, from the grocery shops, to boda bodas, petrol stations and supermarkets, will be affected. Naivasha may be looking at a socio-economic implosion in a matter of weeks. Once the flower farm and hotel paychecks stop, without income replacement, the invisible hand will signal a fall in demand and supply will adjust downward to the quantity commensurate with Naivasha’s much diminished purchasing power, as opposed to the number of mouths Naivasha has to feed. Survival will turn on moral sentiment. Left to the invisible hand, they will starve.

Naivasha is not an island. Hospitality establishments are closing down—the Serena Group has closed ten lodges, Pride Inn has closed its Mombasa hotels, and in Nairobi, DusitD2 has closed, to name but that one. Given the trajectory of the pandemic we are observing, the best-case scenario is four to six months before the pandemic curve flattens globally. We do not know when the people from our COVID-19-devastated source markets will venture into leisure travel in large numbers again. The tourism-dependent economies—Mombasa, Diani, Malindi and elsewhere—are no islands either. In addition to sustaining livelihoods, they are a market for supplies of fresh foods from upcountry. If the big hotels are not in the market, it may not be worth their while for some traders to transport food there.

Given the trajectory of the pandemic we are observing, the best-case scenario is four to six months before the pandemic curve flattens globally

Scarcity will drive up prices, which should elicit supply. Middle-men will be called out for price gouging. The government will be called upon to protect consumers. In as much as government intervention may become imperative, humility is required. We recall the spectacular failure of the dirigiste economic regimes of a few decades back. One week candles would be out of stock, but the market would be oversupplied with brown shoe polish. The following week, candles would be back, but only blue ones, and sugar could only be bought with tea leaves, salt, or a can of brown shoe polish. But people forget, and other generations who take twenty brands of toothpaste for granted are born. Governments will do well to proceed with an abundance of caution, and take heed of Adam Smith’s much less remarked observation about homo leviathansis, government man:

The man of system is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own.

There is a view that we can disrupt the virus with a one-off lockdown of a few weeks—go into hibernation so to speak— and once we emerge, the curve will have flattened, and we will then go back to business as usual. This “silver bullet” view of lockdowns is little more than wishful, lazy thinking. As Stanford economics professor John Cochrane opines, the more likely scenario is “whack-a-mole”—as soon as we think it has subsided, it flares up in another corner of the world, triggering another containment cycle around the world. Epidemiologist Nelly Yatich offers a similar prognosis. She argues that an effective lockdown would have to be in place until a vaccine is found and administered on 60 per cent of the population, and that is still six months away at best. Alternatively, countries can adopt on and off lockdowns but that requires meticulous surveillance systems capable of picking up an increase in infections very quickly.

This “silver bullet” view of lockdowns is little more than wishful, lazy thinking

These predictions may already be playing out. Singapore, one the first countries to bring infections under control, has announced another lockdown after registering an upsurge of cases whose source could not be traced, suggesting that there are people without symptoms within the community who are unknowingly passing the virus on to others who then develop symptoms. Put differently, it is now endemic. It is telling that only a week ago, the Singaporean government had said that a “nuclear option lockdown” was not on the cards, on the grounds that it would be too costly economically. Singapore’s economy is built on international trade. As Gillion Koh of the Institute of Policy Studies, a think tank at the Singapore National University’s Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, observes, “Singapore’s survival and sustainability depends on borders being open and receiving goods as well as people. So the cost of locking down Singapore is very high, both for the economy and for sustaining daily life itself”.

Proponents of the “nuclear option” posit it as a moral imperative—lives above money. It’s a false dichotomy, and for three reasons. First, healthcare provision is an economic activity. It is not an island. It requires supplies and logistical services—medical and non-medical supplies, maintenance and financial services—and health workers need to meet their daily needs and social obligations. As the economy is disrupted so too will healthcare provision. Other diseases have not gone away. Already, patients with chronic illnesses are expressing fears about being crowded out of the healthcare system by social distancing and curfew. Preventive disruption of the economy must be weighed against how many existing patients’ lives will be put at risk, and whether the degraded economy will be able to service healthcare provision if the coronarivus epidemic does materialise. It is in anticipation of this unhappy trade-off that this column suggested weeks ago that African governments earmark coronavirus isolation hospitals and make contingency plans to evacuate them as and when needed. This advice, and much else, is clearly falling on deaf ears.

Already, patients with chronic illnesses are expressing fears about being crowded out of the healthcare system by social distancing and curfew

Second, it has been pointed out ad infinitum that the vast majority of low-income people, particularly the urban poor, live day to day. Many have lost their incomes already. They are surviving on social support from family, friends and charity. It is not at all evident that the government is capable of mounting a safety net that would sustain half of Nairobi’s 4.5 million people for two weeks. Mounting a total lockdown has to be weighted against the risk of breakdown. Should the government be overwhelmed, it will be downhill from there. Self-preservation will become the government’s primary preoccupation. The coronavirus will have a field day.

Third, the economic dynamics of the pandemic are now, for all intents and purpose, delinked from the epidemiological. The coronavirus has become an economic terrorist. Such is its contagiousness that the only way to be sure not to get it is to be in complete isolation. Even a trip to replenish food supplies, face mask and all, is not risk-free. As long as the virus is lurking in our midst, self-preservation demands that people minimise social interaction and mobility to the extent that they are able.

And therein lies the rub. We do not need a lockdown for the economy to seize up. The instinct of self-preservation is sufficient, and this is already evident. With every day that goes by, there is less and less on the supermarket shelves. Many county governments have closed fresh produce markets. The fresh produce that is rotting in the farms means shortages for the remainder of the year because many farmers who are losing money simply won’t have the working capital to invest in another crop. The prudent thing for them to do is to hold on to the money they have to tide their families over the hard times ahead.

It is not at all evident that the government is capable of mounting a safety net that would sustain half of Nairobi’s 4.5 million people for two weeks

All said, the lockdown question is not one of lives versus money. It is how many lives are at risk in each scenario. But above all, it is about getting it into our heads that complex problems do not have simple solutions. Simple solutions—especially ones that need to be propelled by manufactured consent through opinion polls and social media acclamation—can be relied upon to backfire. We need not trawl through the Jubilee administration’s record in this regard at this time. Politicians who are raring to go back to their 2022 slugfests may want to consider looking for online side-hustles. Coronavirus is not a passing cloud.

“In the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own”. Men and women of the state realm, take heed.

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Every Worker Is Essential and Must Be Guaranteed Social Protection, No Matter What

The International Domestic Workers Federation and UNI Global Union demand that all workers of the formal and informal economy are guaranteed social protection.

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Every Worker Is Essential and Must Be Guaranteed Social Protection, No Matter What
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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to the global economy and a massive increase in unemployment — exacerbating the ongoing crises of inequality. Despite massive public investment in mostly wealthy countries, worldwide, too many workers are living in extremely fragile conditions and directly feeling the effects of decades of austerity programs aimed at cutting social protections to the bone — and limiting workers rights.

Right now we are at the crossroads. As the world begins spending trillions to lift us out of economic crisis, unions and organizations representing workers in both the formal and informal economy sectors are forming new alliances to ensure the legacy of the pandemic is one of improved working conditions throughout the world.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider caregivers. Caregiving is one of the most common and rapidly growing professions. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us repeatedly just how essential caregivers are. Caregiving might also be one of the most diverse yet in demand roles in the entire world. While nurses operate for the most part in the formal economy, often in a hospital or institution, care providers in a domestic setting may actually live with their employers and can be called upon 24 hours a day with few avenues for recourse.

For us, as long-time advocates of workers in the formal and informal economies, the time has come to work together to demand universal social protections like a living minimum wage for all and access to healthcare and paid sick leave. We must fight to change the global rules through mandatory human rights due diligence laws and other steps to enable workers to exercise their rights to bargain collectively.

The recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) only underscores the urgency. The ILO found that over half of the global population lacks any form of social protection. This is the case even after the unprecedented expansion of social protections that took place following the global outbreak of COVID-19.

In 2020, just 47% of the world population had effective access to at least one social protection benefit, the ILO found. The remaining 53% — up to 4.1 billion people — had no protection at all.

Take this in contrast with a global study from earlier this year from the ITUC and UNI Global Union that found 98% of the world’s workers are not getting the sick pay, wage replacement and social benefits they need to address the challenges of COVID-19.

Active government policies will make the difference. We cannot fully recover or rebuild a better world if we don’t urgently and effectively protect all people, including the 61% of the global workforce who labor in the informal economy. When these workers aren’t recognized for the work that they do, not only are their basic rights breached, but their access to collective bargaining mechanisms and unionising is withheld.

In South Africa, this year, domestic workers achieved an historic victory that deserves examination. Since 2000, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union has been campaigning for a suite of laws that would extend protections to domestic workers. Eventually, after many years of campaigning, the laws passed, but one of them, which would provide compensation for work-related injury or illness known as COIDA, still excluded domestic workers. After the tragic death of a domestic worker in the employer’s swimming pool, organizers in Pretoria lodged a complaint. It took five years, but the high court declared the exclusion of domestic workers unconstitutional in 2020.

Domestic workers are now covered under South Africa’s COIDA because domestic workers organized and demanded change against all odds. We raise this example because active government policies are critical to protecting workers and raising standards. There are too many attempts at excluding entire groups of workers and while they are usually unconstitutional, it takes years for workers to win.

A strong recovery for domestic workers, street vendors, agricultural workers, and other informal economy workers will be the linchpin for a strong global economic recovery. At the Essential for Recovery Summit, we’ll join workers from around the world to make an urgent call to national governments and international organizations to address our demands for better income and social protections so we can weather this crisis and also build a better future for ourselves.

To allow the sector to expand without formalizing protections, and union representation, threatens to make harsh and often grim working conditions worse. For Myrtle who found her voice organizing during apartheid in South Africa, the goals have always been clear: essential protections for caregivers, the majority of whom are women and often immigrants or racial and ethnic minorities. And as Christy has said: “To put health and safety first — and put the virus to rest — we will need more collective bargaining and unions in the care sector.”

Caregivers and their communities have been particularly impacted, both economically and health-wise by the virus, making the need to uplift their working conditions and wages even more urgent. If we do not address these fundamental inequities, the lasting impacts of the pandemic will be a system worse than what we started with, which already was not supporting and protecting workers. Our key global demand is for all workers of the formal and informal economy to be guaranteed social protection.

This article was first published by Progressive international.

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Securing Kenya’s Electoral Integrity in the Digital Age

A collaborative approach by all stakeholders is crucial in order to curb the spread of content that undermines healthy democratic activity without subverting healthy online engagement.

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Securing Kenya’s Electoral Integrity in the Digital Age
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Kenya is less than a year away from the 2022 general elections. The role of social media in the forthcoming polls has been the subject of dialogue in recent weeks, and for good reason. In electoral contexts, social media platforms have been lauded as equalisers, levelling the playing field for politicians. Providing instantaneous peer-to-peer communication while dispensing with traditional gatekeeping has made social media a potent tool for grassroots organising, one-to-many communication, and broad engagement. Its potency in Kenya is only amplified by the number of internet subscriptions, which stood at 43.7 million as at March 2021, approximately 83 per cent of the total population.

Social media in democracy: a boon?

The benefits afforded by social media are not only enjoyed by politicians. Social media has also provided citizens the space for civic engagement that is not readily available offline. One need not look far to identify the tangible effects of this democratisation. Kenyans recently took to Twitter under the hashtag #JusticeForKianjokomaBrothers to protest the tragic death of two brothers, Emmanuel and Benson Ndwiga, who were in police custody for an alleged curfew violation.

A section of Kenyans also held digital protests under the hashtag #LightsoutKE, going offline for half an hour from 9 p.m. every Sunday night in remembrance of victims of police brutality. Shortly after the online uproar, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), announced it was launching an investigation into the brothers’ deaths at the hands of the police. The investigations resulted in indictments of the police officers involved. While there isn’t enough evidence to draw causal relationship between these digital protests and the resulting action, the very fact of such online organising is enough to highlight the potency of social media in civic engagement and political participation. It would also not be far-fetched to assume that the public outcry online influenced IPOA’s decision to act promptly.

This is also not the first time that digital protests have supplemented offline complaint mechanisms. Earlier this year, students at the Kenya School of Law protested the Council of Legal Education’s (CLE) procedurally flawed decision to go ahead with bar exams despite giving short notice and facing numerous logistical challenges. One of these challenges was a government-imposed lockdown of certain areas to stem the spread of COVID-19 that made it difficult for students outside the affected areas to access the designated examination venues.

Using the hashtag #CLEwi (a clever play on words merging the abbreviation CLE, with sielewi, the Swahili word for “I do not understand”), students voiced their concerns while at the same time pursuing offline channels, in this case, an anonymous complaint to the Commission on Administrative Justice (CAJ). The CAJ eventually intervened, directing that the CLE postpone the exams. These examples seem to highlight the increasingly seamless integration of online and offline spaces. Unfortunately, this integration also extends to more nefarious elements of human interaction. In some cases, exacerbating the effect of these elements.

Double-edged sword: harmful content

The very characteristics that make social media such a potent tool for civic engagement and political participation also make it an effective vector of harmful content. Over the past few years, the nexus between social media and democracy has featured prominently in news reports, academic articles, and general discourse. Part of this trend is attributable to the perceived failings of social media in democracies around the world. Reports of harmful content such as misinformation, disinformation (both sometimes wrongly conflated and labelled as “fake news”), and hate speech appear to now be commonplace during elections.

Recent experiences in Brazil, Qatar, and the United States, provide some examples for these challenges. Such harmful content is not novel. However, recent events such as the 2016 US elections have widely popularised concepts such as “fake news”, with former US President Donald Trump going as far as to claim he invented the term (he did not). The tangible outcomes of such content through social media platforms have understandably resulted in calls for accountability, and for the regulation of these platforms. For example, in Myanmar, Facebook was reportedly used by military personnel to spread inciteful rhetoric against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country, contributing to violence against the Rohingya.

These calls for accountability, and the broader concern with the unchecked power of the largest technology companies (Big Tech), has been referred to the “techlash”. In recent years, countries have been grappling with law reforms aimed at mitigating the spread of harmful content online. For example, Germany passed the Network Enforcement Act (popularly, NetzDG) which sought to impose large fines on social media platforms that fail to take down illegal content promptly. Facebook was fined under this law. At the same time, social media platforms have sought to respond to the techlash by implementing their own transparency and accountability mechanisms such as Facebook’s recently established Oversight Board.

The very characteristics that make social media such a potent tool for civic engagement and political participation also make it an effective vector of harmful content.

The urgency of figuring out a solution to this problem rapidly escalated in early 2020, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Perhaps there is nothing more emblematic of the promise and peril of social media than the range of behaviour witnessed in the early days of the pandemic, and even more recently with the development of vaccines. While public health officials were able to widely disseminate accurate and up-to-date information regarding the virus, individuals were equally able to spread false information. In some cases, this information was inciteful, fuelling anti-Asian sentiment and, in a few instances, resulting in violence. More recently, the spread of such information threatens global efforts to inoculate against COVID-19. This inundation with information, both false and true, was termed as an infodemic by the WHO.

The public health measures which have been adopted to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, such as social distancing and the wearing of masks, have served to enhance the role played by digital platforms in our lives. People are increasingly reliant on these platforms for, among other things, work and school. With such high levels of online activity, it is expected that the problem posed by exposure to harmful content will only worsen.

Kenyan perspective

The challenges posed by the spread of harmful content are not far removed from Kenya. It is reported that disinformation was spread through social media during the 2017 general elections. Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm accused of using improperly acquired personal data from Facebook to engage in political microtargeting, was reportedly active in Kenya during those elections, providing its services to one of the political parties. Since then, Kenya has made attempts at regulating online speech and the use of personal data, enacting the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act in 2018, and the Data Protection Act in 2019. Despite these efforts, it is apparent that Kenya is yet to overcome the spread of harmful content online. For example, a recently authored report revealed a whole industry in Kenya dedicated to the spread of disinformation through social media.

Increasingly, government entities and some politicians have taken to social media to disavow content attributed to them on the basis that the content is fabricated. At the same time, a number of social media accounts have been engaging in what appears to be a coordinated campaign to disparage certain political actors, with the hashtags #RutosViolencePlan and #RailaHatesMtKenya most recently trending. These developments are quite concerning, and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) has previously warned against the trajectory of the country’s politics.

On 26 August 2021, the Cabinet Secretary for Interior & Coordination of National Government, Fred Matiang’i, cautioned Kenyans against misusing social media ahead of the general elections. The Cabinet Secretary highlighted the use of vulgar language, insults, and the spread of “fake news” as conduct which the government intends to clamp down on. Speaking at a youth forum, he reiterated that any excesses would be met with “equal force”. In a region where there have been increasing concerns about internet shutdowns by governments during elections, the Cabinet Secretary’s words may raise concern. To his credit, the Cabinet Secretary has publicly assured Kenyans that the government would not shut down social media over hate speech although, in the same breath, he affirmed that the government would deal “ruthlessly” with those purveying hate speech. Now, the spread of hate speech should never be tolerated, particularly in Kenya where inciteful rhetoric resulted in election-related violence in 2007/8.

Perhaps there is nothing more emblematic of the promise and peril of social media than the range of behaviour witnessed in the early days of the pandemic.

Regulating speech on social media to prevent the spread of harmful content necessarily means impacting the freedom of expression and right to assemble online, both of which are constitutional rights and crucial during elections. The approaches that governments and social media platforms use to achieve these important goals significantly impact the balance that is ultimately achieved. Put another way, in attempting to stop the spread of content that undermines healthy democratic activity, governments or private platforms may inadvertently subvert healthy online engagement. The entire endeavour of regulation therefore implicates a balance that must be carefully threaded. The fickle nature of this balance is further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Search for balance

Recognising the link between conduct on social media and electoral integrity, Kofi Annan, through his foundation—the Kofi Annan Foundation—established the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age in 2019. Consisting of leading experts drawn from different disciplines and jurisdictions, the Commission synthesised the concerns around social media in elections into five focus areas: polarisation, hate speech, disinformation, political advertising, and foreign interference. In its report, the Commission put forth practical recommendations for various stakeholders involved in the electoral ecosystem – governments, businesses, and civil society.

What is apparent from these recommendations is the importance of a collaborative approach to safeguarding electoral integrity in the digital age and achieving the earlier mentioned balance. The nature of the problem at hand is such that actions taken in isolation may not be very effective, especially where clear links exist, such as between regulation of personal data use and the activities of political advertisers. This is particularly important to consider as various stakeholders in Kenya commence preparations for the 2022 elections. For example, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission announced a plan to keep tabs on social media activity in the run-up to the elections while the Kenya Editors’ Guild commenced a series of elections preparedness trainings.

This is the first of a five-part op-ed series that seeks to explore the use of personal data in campaigns, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, social media censorship, and incitement to violence and hate speech, and the practical measures various stakeholders can adopt to safeguard Kenya’s electoral integrity in the digital age ahead of the 2022 elections. This five-part op-ed series is in partnership with Kofi Annan Foundation made possible through the support of the United Nations Democracy Fund.

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Northern Kenya Pastoralists Should Be Licenced to Carry Arms

The law needs to be changed to allow herders to carry arms to safeguard livestock rearing which is a valuable economic activity in northern Kenya.

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Northern Kenya Pastoralists Should Be Licenced to Carry Arms
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The protracted fighting between the two major ethnic groups in Marsabit County—the Borana and the Gabra—has attracted national and international attention over the years. The unending fighting in Marsabit County has claimed more lives than any communicable disease outbreak in the region. According to a petition tabled in parliament by the Saku Member of Parliament, Hon. Dido Ali Rasso, by 8 July 2020, 97 lives had been lost in Saku Constituency alone.

The situation has escalated from minor skirmishes to fighting using militia tactics where simultaneous attacks are carried out on the same day, or on consecutive days, along the Saku-North Horr constituency border and along the Kenya-Ethiopia border, to overpower the opponent community. The security apparatus and the political leadership take the largest share of responsibility for failing to ensure peaceful co-existence between the warring communities in the county. The former takes blame for failing to respond to distress calls adequately and promptly, which often leads to loss of lives and livelihoods. The latter takes the lion’s share of the blame for hiding behind the ethnic tag and is at times viewed as an active player in escalating the conflicts. Therefore, the many peacebuilding and conflict resolution missions have been futile.

The infamous Mlima Kofia Mbaya on Mt Marsabit is the repository of terrible statistics of the many leaders who have perished in plane crashes while on peacebuilding missions. Among some of the darkest memories is the 1996 helicopter crash that took the lives of the then Eastern Provincial Commissioner Ishmael Juma Chelang’a and ACK Assistant Bishop Andrew Adano Tuye following a peace mission to Marsabit.

The plane crash that occurred on the morning of 10 April 2006 is another painful scar on Marsabit’s landscape. It claimed the lives of vibrant young leaders, including North Horr Member of Parliament Hon. Dr Bonaya Godana, Saku Member of Parliament Hon. Abdi Tari Sasura, Moyale Member of Parliament Hon. Dr Guracha Galgallo and Laisamis Member of Parliament Hon. Titus Ngoyoni. The Assistant Minister of Internal Security, Hon. Mirugi Kariuki, and a member of the East African Legislative Assembly, Hon. Adan Biru, also perished in the accident together with the crew and security officers.

An uneasy co-existence has prevailed between the warring Gabra and Borana communities following these calamities and little has been done by the government to reconcile the two communities for lasting peace. Since the aircraft carrying the peace delegates came down in 2006, there have been no efforts to find a lasting solution; mediators have adopted a crisis management approach which stops at brokering ceasefire deals when outbreaks of violence occur. The situation has worsened with the advent of devolution. Cattle rustling has now been commercialized, where the raiders organize to transport the stolen livestock to markets in neighbouring counties, making it difficult for the security apparatus to recover the stolen animals. The raiders have also resorted to the use of modern weaponry including bazookas that make it impossible for police officers to pursue the raiders.

Traditionally pastoralists value livestock even more than human life since their livelihoods revolve around and are dependent on domestic animals. Cattle rustling has a long history in the traditions of these communities but it must now be contained by means of a good security apparatus and a proper system of governance. There are no dividends in the ongoing blame game. Government efforts to disarm the communities in the north have been futile because of the poor containment measures in place. The Regional Centre for Small Arms has recommended heightened control of the proliferation of illicit arms, increased cross-border collaboration, investment in alternative livelihood programmes, promotion of cultural dialogue on conflict resolution mechanisms, strengthening of local governance structures, and development and harmonization of livestock identification and traceability systems (LITS).

The raiders have also resorted to the use of modern weaponry including bazookas that make it impossible for police officers to pursue the raiders.

It is against this backdrop that I strongly recommend that adequate measures be adopted to safeguard livestock rearing which is a valuable economic activity. These measures must, in my opinion, include licensing herders to carry guns to guard their livestock investments.

Moreover, the directive issued by the Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i on 12 July 2019 to disarm the Kenya Police Reservists (KPR) and the National Police Reservists (NPR) was ill-advised and has exposed security officers and poor herders to frequent attacks by holders of illegal firearms.

I am not a security expert but it is common sense that the benefits of allowing licensed firearms within a community, which is then able to act as a support system to the police in responding to distress calls, far outweigh the perceived disadvantages.

The recent series of attack on the residents of Saku constituency, where several lives were lost around Marsabit forest and over two thousand head of cattle stolen from residents of Kukuto area, has exposed the laxity in the response of the security apparatus which has rendered the victims even more vulnerable to aggression.

The conflict in Marsabit County is complex—especially in the current Saku hotspot—as it revolves around the issue of land ownership. In particular, the utilization of the rangeland area, the only piece of arable land, requires a truth, justice and reconciliation process such as the one employed in South Africa. In my opinion therefore, Kenya’s Ministry of the Interior, under whose docket the protection of life and property is domiciled, requires a different strategy for the lives of the people of northern Kenya to become tenable.

The county leadership and legislators from the region have on many occasions implored CS Matiang’i to reverse the decision on KPR and NPR disarmament so that they can complement the response of the police service to distress calls from the affected community. In this regard, Saku Member of Parliament Hon. Dido Ali Rasso is on record as having petitioned the parliamentary committee on security on 8 July 2020. The minister needs to revisit the policy to avert the loss of more lives and property among pastoralists of northern Kenya.

The theft of livestock should be treated in the same way as a bank robbery due to the high economic costs incurred. In this regard, I call upon the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group (PPG) to front the amendment of the Kenya Firearms Licensing Act to include the arming of pastoralists so that they can protect their lives and livelihoods. This approach will add value to security agencies’ efforts to trace criminals as all legally held arms will be audited, which is not the case for the arms illegally held by attackers.

In its current form, the “law does not define the number of firearms a person can own but, on the other hand, no one can be issued with more than one gun for their personal safety. Very few private applications for gun for self-protection are approved because the argument is the Kenya police is responsible for everyone’s safety. Applications for self-protection are mostly approved when the applicant’s status exposes them to danger.” This justification could apply to pastoralists whose means of livelihood is under constant threat of raids in a context where cattle rustling has been commercialised. This approach has worked in other parts of the world and Kenya must borrow a leaf from the neighbouring Federal Republic of Ethiopia to reduce the number of illicit firearms in the country.

Traditionally pastoralists value livestock even more than human life since their livelihoods revolve around and are dependent on domestic animals.

In effect, Ethiopia’s parliament passed legislation in 2020 aimed at curbing illegal gun ownership following a surge in regional ethnic violence that was blamed on the proliferation of small arms in private hands. The spread of small arms has been partly blamed for hundreds of killings in various ethnic conflicts over the past two years that have displaced more than 2.7 million people. This is the same situation prevailing in the pastoralist-dominated counties in Kenya, where more and more pastoralists are arming themselves to protect their lives and livestock during conflicts triggered by competition for pasture and water.

In my view, it is easy to track the use of legally held firearms and allowing herders to carry arms legally will make their life easier for they are left economically drained each time they suffer a raid. I challenge our legislature to be proactive in finding a lasting solution instead of participating in blame games and accusations and counter-accusations through the media.

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