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Will COVID-19 Spell the Death of Cities?

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The rapid spread of COVID-19 in urban areas is raising questions about whether this pandemic will herald the demise of cities. RASNA WARAH argues that cities will continue to exist and grow despite the coronavirus crisis because of the distinctly human need for social interaction, physical contact and collaboration.

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“Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.” – Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City (2011)

In February this year, just before the coronavirus pandemic forced the Kenyan government to impose a partial lockdown in the country, I moved to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, a city with a population of 4.4 million, from Malindi, a small town along Kenya’s coast with a population of just 120,000. I had been intending to move back home for several years but 2020 seemed an opportune time to do it. I had spent ten long years in Malindi and was ready to get back to the thick of things where the action was.

Now I know, for most people who live in Nairobi, the city is not “home” – the “true north” of most Nairobians, as Alexander Ikawah pointed out in a recent article, is their rural home, the place they identify most with. Ikawah says that Nairobi is just a place where “city villagers” work; where they have “houses”, not “homes”.

But I am not among these people. I was born in Nairobi, and so was my father and my grandfather. Kenyan Asians don’t typically have a rural home (Asians in Kenya were not encouraged to settle in rural or agricultural land both before and after independence and so are concentrated mainly in urban areas). And even if they have an ancestral home in India or Pakistan, they don’t tend to refer to it as “home”, nor does this ancestral home loom large in their imagination. In fact, many Kenyan Asians have never visited their “motherland”.

I have lived in London in the UK and Boston in the USA, and have travelled to many, many, cities around the world – New York (my favourite city), Istanbul (a cultural delight where East meets West), Mogadishu (a wounded city with nice beaches), Kabul (wounded but with majestic snowy peak backdrops), Havana (a salsa-lover’s dream, arguably the world’s most egalitarian city), Paris (a romantic city with many bridges), Mumbai (a buzzing “maximum city” of people, people, and more people), Beijing (interesting but with high levels of air pollution), Cairo (history lives here), Florence (a beautiful outdoor museum), Johannesburg (a legacy of apartheid, not my favourite city), Dar es Salaam (a friendly coastal city with huge potential), to name a few – but for me, Nairobi is not only home, it is also the place where most of my memories reside.

I will not go into the details about my reasons for leaving Nairobi in the first place, but it had a lot to do with trying to regain some perspective on life after having led a busy treadmill-like work existence where career success depended so much on pleasing a boss and undermining colleagues to move up the career ladder. I was hoping that a break would allow me to do things I hadn’t had time for before, like writing and spending more time with my husband. I dreamed of looking out of the window and seeing palm trees swaying in the wind, and breathing in the salty Indian Ocean breeze. Oh what bliss (and it was)…until I discovered that meaningful social interaction was much more important to me than the sounds and smells of nature. Voluntary self-isolation, I discovered, is neither natural nor healthy. Human beings are wired to be social animals – that is how they survived as a species.

While living in a small sleepy town where nothing much happens gave me the freedom to pursue writing (I ended up writing three books during my self-imposed “exile”) and other interests, I had a gnawing sense that I was in danger of disconnecting and self-isolating myself from all that was meaningful in my life. I yearned for intellectual stimulation and missed cultural and literary events. I longed to go to the cinema and hang out with my family. My social interactions in Malindi were superficial; I was in danger of becoming like the many expatriate (mostly Italian and British) retirees in the town, whose lives revolve around bridge parties and afternoon siestas induced by copious amounts of wine.

The truth is, I was lonely. I had not found my “tribe” in Malindi.

Then COVID-19 happened. It is unfortunate that my return to Nairobi coincided with a dusk-to-dawn curfew and partial lockdown, so my intentions of absorbing myself into city life have once again have been put on hold. I am back to self-isolating again.

Cities are not the problem

The coronavirus pandemic has raised questions about whether cities will lose their allure, and whether people will look to leading simpler rural or small town lives. The fact that the virus emanated from the city of Wuhan in China and spread across the world through networks of cities and transport hubs is making people wonder whether we should be seeking more dispersed and less dense forms of settlement.

However, Tomasz Sudra, a former colleague who is now retired from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), told me that it was unfair to blame cities for COVID-19 because the virus could have been contained early if the Chinese government had not decided to suppress “bad news”.

“The medical doctor who blew the whistle on the virus and died from it was forced to confess that he was spreading false news and was arrested,” he said. “The epidemic [in China] became a pandemic because the government suppressed the free flow of information.”

Cities have not only been associated with the rapid spread of diseases, but environmental degradation as well. The concentration of human and industrial activity in cities and the over-reliance on motorised forms of transport have been blamed for the air pollution that characterises so many of the world’s large cities. Images of smog-free cities as a result of lockdowns (especially in China, where air pollution levels are so excessive that city residents routinely wear face masks) have been circulating on social media. People are asking whether the climate crisis could be blamed on cities, and whether COVID-19 will force us to seek alternative lifestyles.

John Gray, writing in the 3 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, says that the current crisis is a “turning point” in history. “The era of peak globalization is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were,” he predicts.

Is the city – itself a product of globalisation and the movement of goods and people from one shore or trading route to another – losing its attraction? Will there be a return to the nostalgic longing for rural life popularised by people like Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “true India” could only be found in the country’s villages? I don’t think so. The world, including India, is more urban than it was in Gandhi’s time. “True India” is no longer only in India’s villages, but in its teeming cities and towns, which currently host 34 per cent of the country’s population.

Just over a decade ago, there were more rural folk on this planet than city folk, but that changed around 2007 when the world’s urban population equaled the world’s rural population for the first time. Though some regions of the world, notably Europe, North America and Latin America, became predominantly urban much earlier (around the 1950s), the rapid urban growth rates in poorer parts of the world in the last fifty years have demonstrated that the pull of the city is stronger than ever. Cities must be offering something that villages don’t, or can’t.

I must confess that I have spent much of my professional life writing about what is wrong with cities and what can be done about it. At UN-Habitat, where I worked as an editor for more than a decade, the emphasis was on urban poverty and all its manifestations, including informal settlements (also known as slums). In 2006, UN-Habitat declared that one out of every three city dwellers lives in a slum, with sub-Saharan Africa having the largest proportion of its urban population living in slum conditions, with little or no access to water, sanitation, electricity and adequate housing. Asia hosted the largest number of slum dwellers, though some sub-regions in the continent were doing better than others. Slums, warned UN-Habitat, were threatening to become a “dominant and distinct type of settlement in cities of the developing world”.

This grim assessment was followed by another one in 2008, when UN-Habitat sounded the alarm on rising inequalities in cities, and warned that economic and social inequalities in urban areas had the potential to destabilise countries and make them economically unsustainable. Highly unequal cities – where the rich lead vastly different lives from the poor – are breeding grounds for social unrest, and social unrest disrupts economic activities, went the argument. UN-Habitat stated that pro-poor and inclusive urban development could significantly decrease these inequalities and make cities more sustainable. While the UN agency acknowledged that energy consumption in cities was impacting negatively on the environment, it made a case for mitigating the impact of carbon emissions through solutions such as environmentally-friendly public transport and the use of green energy.

Cities are not the problem; how we plan them is the central issue, said the experts.

The benefits of city life

Throughout history, cities have a played a central role in creating and sustaining civilizations. Cities are not just places where economic activities are concentrated, they are also crucibles of innovation and culture. The rise and fall of cities has often been associated with the rise and fall of civilizations. Cities such as Rome and Athens had their “golden ages”; some survived a loss of status; others became relics.

In 2006, I was asked to write a short chapter on the benefits of urban living for UN-Habitat’s 2006 State of the World’s Cities report, which focused almost entirely on the gloomy topic of slums. The thinking was that there was a danger that in highlighting the problems in cities and slums, we might inadvertently throw the baby out with the bath water and that as the UN’s “City Agency”, it would be counterproductive to focus only on the negative aspects of urban life. In other words, by presenting cities as places where nasty things happen, we might actually be sending an anti-urban message to the general public and to policymakers.

Because cities were – and still are – viewed as the engines of economic development, and economic growth is generally credited for reducing poverty levels (though this has not been the case in some countries), I had to make an argument that made economic sense to governments and the public at large. So I argued that because so much economic activity in a country is concentrated in its cities, “cities make countries rich”. I further pointed out that the concentration of populations and enterprises in urban areas greatly reduces the unit cost of piped water, sewerage systems, drains, roads, and other infrastructure. Therefore, the economies of scale that cities offer are not replicable in small, less dense human settlements. Building a hospital or a road in a town or village with a population of just 50,000 is far less efficient per capita than building a hospital or road in a large urban area that hosts a population of 5 million (regardless of the ethics of making such a choice).

The central argument was that rural people don’t just up and move to a city; the main driver of rural-to-urban migration is economic opportunities and the chance to lead a better quality of life. In almost all countries, rural poverty levels are higher than urban poverty levels. (For instance, the poverty rate in rural Kenya is about 40 per cent, compared to around 28 per cent in peri-urban and urban areas.) Indeed, the data showed that despite the pathetic and hazardous living conditions in slums, people who lived in slums often viewed them as a “first step” out of rural poverty. As Edward Glaeser, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, says in his book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, “Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The flow of less advantaged people into cities from Rio to Rotterdam demonstrates urban strength, not weakness.”

However, villages are not stagnant places either; some, like Mumbai, which was once a fishing village, grow to become megacities (defined as cities with populations of more than 10 million). Some cities, like Nairobi, were not even villages originally; Nairobi literally grew out of nothing except a railway depot built at the beginning of the 20th century. The world’s great cities did not only grow because they were centres of trade and commerce; they also grew because they were religious, political, administrative or cultural centres, and this is what drew – and continues to draw – people to them.

Many rural people move to cities because they believe that they and their families will have better access to health and education. Cities also offer women more opportunities for social and economic mobility. Unrestrained by discriminatory customs and traditions, urban women are more likely than their rural counterparts to have access to property and other assets. Child and maternal mortality rates are also lower in cities, including in slums, compared to rural areas.

The downside is that city life exposes people to hazards such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, congestion, and crime, which significantly impacts the health and lives of urban dwellers. Cities can be incubators of disease, crime and other vices; but these disadvantages have never stopped cities from growing, even when plagues and other health hazards infest cities and kill populations. The 1665 Great Plague of London, for example, killed thousands, but did not diminish London’s stature. COVID-19 has decimated populations in the city of New York – the city with the highest COVID-19-related death rate in the United States – but even images of mass graves of the disease’s victims are unlikely to deter people from moving there.

Safety nets are also weaker in cities, which is one reason why so many people in the developing world (where there are few government-funded welfare systems) identify with their rural homes, where, as Ikawah points out, social capital obtained through filial ties is much stronger (though associational life in slums, through cooperatives and self-help groups, have helped reduce some of this deficit).

Cities have also been derided for promoting mindless consumerism. They have been accused of driving a type of capitalism that encourages people to go on endless shopping expeditions to buy things they might never use or need. Large shopping malls – a distinct feature of modern cities – are filled with products that keep the wheels of capitalism moving. Alain Kamal Martial Henry predicts that the coronavirus will overthrow this “Western bourgeois model” imposed by capitalism. And this may lead to the eventual demise of cities and urban living.

The problem that has no name

I asked Daniel Biau, a former colleague who served as the Deputy Executive Director of UN-Habitat from 1998 to 2005, whether we could from henceforth witness a decline in urban growth levels, and whether people will now seek to move out of large cities to places that are less dense and concentrated.

Biau was not convinced that the coronavirus pandemic will change the way people view cities. “As usual, a few journalists will write about risky cities but their alarming views will be completely ignored by ordinary people who know very well that cities are, above all, places of job opportunities, social interactions, education and cultural development,” he said.

He predicts that in the digital age, it is likely that small and medium-sized cities will grow faster than big metropolises because teleworking will become the norm. “Already in France 40 per cent of the working population is currently teleworking,” he said.

“History has shown that some cities could shrink due to economic or environmental reasons. But cities have never disappeared due to health reasons. This is why the UN should provide guidelines for the promotion of safer and healthier cities as part of the wider sustainable cities development paradigm,” added Biau in an email exchange.

Cities will exist – and continue to grow – because of human beings’ need for social interaction, physical contact and collaboration. As Glaeser points out in his book, “The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from the tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

However, despite their density and diversity, cities can also be lonely places. The “little town blues” that I talked about earlier are also experienced in large cities. People living in high-rise apartment blocks in big cities or in suburbs on the periphery of cities often report not knowing their neighbours and lacking a sense of “community”.

Some believe that rapid suburbanisation since the 1950s, especially in the United States, led to increasing disillusionment among married women, whose isolated lives in well-planned (but boring) suburbs led them to question patriarchial norms and the virtues of being stay-at-home wives and mothers. This angst (described by Betty Friedan as “the problem that has no name” in her book, The Feminine Mystique) sowed the seeds of the American women’s movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, and led many women to seek careers outside the home.

Some cities are better at fostering human interaction than others through carefully planned urban designs, and more people-friendly infrastructure, such as parks and other public spaces, including pedestrian-only streets. Recently, after a wave of rape cases in India, urban planners have also been thinking about how cities can be made more woman-friendly, with more street lighting and more gender-sensitive public transport. The designers of these cities understand one basic fact: cities are not about buildings and infrastructure; they are about people and communities.

The COVID-19 lockdowns have demonstrated how abnormal and disturbing self-isolation and social distancing can be. The pandemic has underscored the fact that human beings have an inherent need to interact with other human beings, even if it is at a cursory level. This physical connection with a diverse range of people from different backgrounds is what makes cities attractive, and is the reason why the city – in all its beauty and ugliness – is one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

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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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UN Panel of Experts: Kenya Urged to Back Former CJ Willy Mutunga Candidacy

Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

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On 28 June 2021, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations called on the UN to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent. This call came one year after the police murder of George Floyd in the United States. The UN panel of three experts in law enforcement and human rights will investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing, including the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and make recommendations for change. Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

The government of Kenya is strongly placed to support the nomination of its native son, an internationally respected jurist. Kenya is currently a member of the UN Security Council and an influential member of “A3 plus 1”, the partnership between the three African members of the Security Council and the Caribbean member of the UNSC, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Last week on 7 September, President Uhuru Kenyatta co-chaired the African Union, Caribbean Community summit. This meeting between the AU and the Caribbean states agreed to establish the Africa, Brazil, CARICOM, and Diaspora Commission. This Commission will mature into a politico/economic bloc embracing over 2 billion people of African descent. Kenya, with its experience of reparative justice from the era of the Land and Freedom Army, has joined with the Caribbean to advance the international campaign to end the dehumanization of Africans. African descendants around the world have lauded the 2021 Human Rights Council Report for calling on the international community to “dismantle structures and systems designed and shaped by enslavement, colonialism and successive racially discriminatory policies and systems.”

Background to the nomination of Hon Willy Mutunga

The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 led to worldwide condemnation of police killings and systemic racism in the United States. The African Members of the UN Human Rights Council pushed hard to garner international support to investigate systemic racism in policing in the United States. In the wake of the global outcry, there were a number of high-level investigations into police killings of innocent Blacks. Three distinguished organizations, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild convened a panel of commissioners from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean to investigate police violence and structural racism in the United States. Virtual public hearings were held in February and March 2021, with testimonies from the families of the victims of some of the most notorious police killings in recent times.

In its report, a panel of leading human rights lawyers from 11 countries found the US in frequent violation of international laws, of committing crimes against humanity by allowing law enforcement officers to kill and torture African Americans with impunity and of “severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution and other inhumane acts”.

Among its principal findings, the Commission found the US guilty of violating its international human rights treaty obligations, both in terms of laws governing policing and in the practices of law enforcement officers, including traffic stops targeting Black people and race-based stop-and-frisk; tolerating an “alarming national pattern of disproportionate use of deadly force not only by firearms but also by Tasers” against Black people; and operating a “culture of impunity” in which police officers are rarely held accountable while their homicidal actions are dismissed as those of just “a few bad apples”.

After the Commission’s report was published, the convening organizations’ Steering Committee mobilized international public opinion to publicize its findings. Former CJ Willy Mutunga was one of the jurists in Africa who worked hard to publicize the report’s findings and recommendations.

It was in large part on the basis of these findings that the Human Rights Council issued its own report at the end of June. The United Nations decided to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent, adding international weight to demands in the United States for accountability for police killings of African Americans, and reparations for victims. The panel of three experts will have a three-year mandate to investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing. Many organizations have submitted names for suggested panel members. Legal experts from Global Africa and international jurists have recommended Willy Mutunga to be one of the three panellists. Thus far, the following organizations have endorsed the candidacy of Willy Mutunga:

  1. The African Bar Association, with membership in 37 African Countries.
  2. The United States Human Rights network (USHRN), a National network of U.S. organizations working to strengthen the Human Rights movement in the US.
  3. International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Decent in the United States.
  4. Society of Black Lawyers of the United Kingdom
  5. Bandung Conference, a Diaspora Human Rights network based in Nairobi, Kenya.

There are now calls for the government of Kenya to step forward to be more proactive to lobby the Human Rights Council and to write letters to its President, H.E. Nazhat Shameen Khan (hrcpresidency@un.org), endorsing the candidature of Dr Mutunga. His CV is included for those who want to write to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Kenya to lead the endorsement of Willy Mutunga.

The Steering Committee of the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States is coordinating the campaign for Dr Willy Mutunga to be appointed by the UNHRC as a member of the International Expert Mechanism to monitor compliance of the UNHRC findings and recommendations.

The Government of Kenya and Human Rights groups are kindly asked to send copies of their endorsements to the Coordinator, International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States, lennoxhinds@aol.com.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?

More than 500 indigenous and farmer organisations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the UN’s Food Systems Summit as only advocating one food system—so they’re being silenced.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?
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The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) invokes the UN Sustainable Development Goals to demonstrate its purpose—namely, goals 2.1 and 2.2 (to end hunger and malnutrition). At the same time, however, the summit is obstructing another of those goals: goal 2.3 (to increase resources for smallholder farmers).

Because of this contradiction, the summit, planned since 2019 to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York, will now be exclusively virtual (September 23), a measure intended to maximize control and minimize dissent. During the last year, more than 500 indigenous and farmer organizations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the summit as advocating only one food system, the one that is polluting the soil, water, and air, and killing vital pollinators.

In contrast, the food system that feeds 75 to 80 percent of the human population—smallholder farmers practicing biodiverse cropping (in line with the principles of agro ecology)—was only added to the agenda after months of criticism. Those in opposition to the summit say it is advancing industrial agriculture, which is the core problem, not solution, for addressing climate change, malnutrition, and hunger.

A second criticism is that corporations are trying to replace the UN system of one country-one vote with “stakeholders,” a euphemism that may sound inclusive but really only invites those “who think like us” to the table.  Smallholder farmers, who produce the majority of our food, are not invited.

This food summit is about the global business of agriculture, not the livelihoods of those who produce nutritious, biodiverse foods. Governments’ attempts to regulate global food corporations (e.g., labeling unhealthy foods, taxing sugar products) meet strong opposition from these industries. Yet the corporations profited massively from the 2008 food crisis and strengthened their global “food value chain,” contributing to the consequences that over 23 percent of Africans (282 million people) still go to bed hungry every night.

This focus is in stark contrast to the stated aims of the summit. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food explained in August 2021:

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are caused by political failures and shortcomings in governance, rather than by food scarcity ….. How will the [Summit] outcomes identify the root cause of the crisis and hold corporations and other actors accountable for human rights violations?

A third criticism of the UN Food Systems Summit is that it heralds technological advances as the primary answer to overcoming continuing hunger in an era of climate change. Most of us applaud multiple revolutions in genetics while we queue for vaccines, but genetic manipulation of seeds threatens the future of food, because ownership of the technology controls ownership of the seed. Industrial agriculture expands corporate profits from commodification of seed (beginning early 20th century), from the financialization of seed (speculative trading, late 20th century) and continuing today, through the digitalization of seed.

To the industry, a seed is merely a genome, with its genes representing digital points. The genes can be cut and pasted (by enzymes, e.g., CRISPRcas9), much like we edit text.  A seed is no longer a living organism representing thousands 1000s of years of careful selection by expert farmers. For example, biologists today say they no longer need the germplasm of Oaxacan corn from Mexico to access its drought-resistant characteristics.

Promoters of these technologies rarely admit that they are very imperfect, with uncontrolled “off-target mutations.”  Further, a seed variety needs its biome to flourish. It is farmers who understand the intricate interactions, who experiment with changing micro-climates (often in one field) to cultivate adaptive seed varieties.

No farmer denies the importance of scientific advances. But industrial agriculture giants are denying the value of farmers and their knowledge, saying they no longer need them: digitalized seed can be planted, watered, fertilized, and harvested by machines, run via satellites (this is called “precision agriculture”). Taste is irrelevant, because it is chemically added as crops are processed into food products.

Success in derailing the “corporate capture” of UN processes (e.g., UN Committee on World Food Security) to address increasing hunger arises from global, organized resistance by smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and fisher folk. After appeals to transform the agenda, many of these farmers and advocates decided to boycott the summit. This “outside resistance” included African voices, who stated:

The current UNFSS process gives little space to traditional ecological knowledge, the celebration of traditional diets and cuisine . . . ….Indigenous and local community Africans have experience and knowledge relevant to the current and future food system. Any process or outcome that does not recognize this is an affront to millions of African food producers and consumers.

The “inside resistance” worked to advance farmers’ voices within the official pre-summit dialogues, holding a series of webinars among the farmers in Southern Africa, and then globally (July 28).  This trajectory was possible because of allied support within the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.  As stated by one of the convenors of these official dialogues, Andrew Mushita,  “African smallholder farmers are not beneficiaries of the corporate [agriculture] industry but rather co-generators of innovations and technologies adaptive to ecological agriculture, farmers’ needs—within the context of sustainable agriculture.”

To follow the end result of the summit, go here.

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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We Are So Much Better Than the Elites Make Us Out to Be

To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues.

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Theatre scholar Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ writes that in 1991, at the height of the clamour for multi-partyism, the government denied a license for the staging of Drumbeats of Kirinyaga, a play by Oby Obyerodhiambo.

The reason given was that the play portrayed an ethnically diverse and politically cohesive Kenya, which contradicted the president’s argument at the time that Kenya was too ethnically divided for multi-partyism.

While President Moi was claiming to care for Kenyans who are too tribal, his government was ironically also suppressing any public display of Kenyans transcending their tribal identities. The government needed to encourage tribalism among Kenyans in order to give itself something to cure.

​We were shocked by the confirmation by a young man, Christopher Wylie, that Cambridge Analytica played a major role in polarizing Kenyans during the 2017 elections. Some were insulted that foreigners would deliberately diffuse messages that would polarize us ethnically. Others, however, argued that Kenyans are tribalist, with or without Cambridge Analytica. I think the reality is more complicated than that.

Cambridge Analytica’s role in polarising Kenyans is part of the larger efforts of global and local elites to keep convincing Kenyans that we vote on nothing else but tribe. The elites manipulate culture in order to coerce us to believe that tribalism comes naturally to us Africans. And yet, the reality is something closer to what the government censor did in 1991.

The role of politicians in keeping ethnic temperatures high has been repeatedly stated. But there are two other pillars that keep Kenyans convinced that they are naturally and inevitably tribalist: the use of culture and research by envoys, journalists, researchers, and now, by Cambridge Analytica.

For instance, while Kenyans called for electoral justice, the US ambassador kept framing Kenya’s problem as “long-standing issues” that should be addressed through reconciliation between NASA and Jubilee. The ambassador was savvy enough to know that using the word “tribal” would evoke memories of colonial anthropology. But even “long-standing” is just as insidious, because it appeals to the colonial narrative of Africans as stuck in the past.

Similarly, articles in the local and international media often used tribal data to predict a Jubilee win. The research they quoted almost always used tribe as the major factor in elections, yet there are other factors that influence the way Kenyans vote, such as income, gender, urban migration, economic inequality or voter frustration with politicians.

If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research. Yet the variables exist. For instance, our media rarely mention economic inequality as a factor influencing election outcomes, and yet one article in Jacobin found a strong correlation between economic inequality and votes for Raila Odinga.

In the New York Review of Books, Helen Epstein queried the sampling methods of predictions of election results, pointing out that some researchers worked backwards from a known result to a sample, rather than the other way round. Some researchers went to Luo regions and predictably projected a high Raila vote, and to Kikuyu populations and predicted a high Uhuru vote, but did not go, for example, to Kakamega, Bungoma, Busia, Kisii Nyanza, Garissa and other regions where Jubilee claimed to have won a majority.

Other times, electoral predictions remain unquestioned because claims are made from people with perceived academic clout. For instance, Mutahi Ngunyi gave prestige to the concept of “tyranny of numbers”. Most media did not question the validity of his concept, even when a poorly circulated video done by AfriCOG showed that the premises of Ngunyi’s argument were rather weak.

If Kenyans were naturally tribalistic, the politicians, intellectuals and envoys would not need to keep reminding us of it. And there is a political interest in insisting on our tribalism: it prevents us from asking questions about social justice or worse, from organizing ourselves along other lines such us age, profession, economic status and gender.

If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research.

The nightmare of the foreign and local elite is of Kenyans organizing as the poor, youth, women or workers, because then, the numbers would surely have an impact. And politicians would not get automatic godfather status like they do as tribes. They would have to pass through institutions like associations and unions, where success is not guaranteed. For instance, politicians’ efforts to divide the doctors along tribal lines backfired and instead produced a hash tag #IAmaTribelessDoctor.

It does not matter how many Kenyans Cambridge Analytica influenced. Even one Kenyan is one Kenyan too many. What matters is that it appealed to Kenyans’ worst fears, essentially hoping to whip up hysteria, just so that the president could win the vote. Our dignity was cheaper than Muigai’s desire to win. Six million dollars cheaper.

But the worst part of the tribal propaganda is that it is based on convincing Kenyans to believe so little of themselves. To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues. For as Daisy Amdany put it, “We are so much better than what the elites make us out to be.  It’s time to believe it, receive it, be it and live it!”

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