Politics, violence, and security in Kenya

Kenya’s general elections are scheduled for March of 2013, the debut for the new constitution, and the first since the 2007 elections, which were marred by substantial post-election ethnic violence. Campaigns are well underway, and candidates have been developing new strategies for getting out the ethnic vote, despite constitutional provisions to mitigate the role of ethnicity or tribe in electoral politics. Not surprisingly, citizens are concerned about the prospects for a fresh round of violence in the wake of electoral competition. When I visited the urban slum of “London” outside Nakruru last week, people explained that this is where many Kalenjin now reside because they were pushed out of other areas by Kikuyu and other groups after the last elections. Old wounds have not been forgotten.

Meanwhile, other types of violence continue to be problematic. Just yesterday, terrorist attacks on two churches resulted in more than a dozen dead.

Less than two weeks earlier, the U.S. state department cited an imminent terrorist threat and mandated all government employees vacate Mombasa. It recommended that American citizens do the same. As I watched on the TV news for more information about the threat, instead I heard various Kenyan government officials criticizing the American announcement, highlighting the costs it would impose on Kenya’s reputation, and its tourism industry, even beyond the coastal region. “It’s difficult to be a friend of the United States,” several argued.

And then a deadly grenade was launched into a Mombasa nightclub. (Incidentally, I was pretty impressed by the quality of the U.S. government intelligence on this one, but that’s another story.)

I understand the Kenyan government’s concern for its reputation as a stable place for investment and tourism. But I wonder if they wouldn’t do better trying to build some national unity around what is now a sustained if seemingly regionally concentrated terrorist threat. That is, rather than trying to put on a public face that minimizes the scale of the external security concern, government leaders ought to consider politicizing the shared threat to all Kenyans. The point is not to foment xenophobic views, but to highlight that all have an interest in safety as a prerequisite for prosperity. If such a campaign were effective, social identity theory suggests that this would minimize the sense of internal group difference among Kenyans. Of course, the viability of such a strategy assumes that politicians have an interest in minimizing ethnic violence, which some theories suggest is not always the case. But there would be a substantial longer-term payoff should Kenya manage to complete an election without substantial impropriety or violence.

Monitoring and evaluation job opportunity with Twaweza, East Africa

I met with Rakesh Rajani, Head of Twaweza, yesterday in Nairobi. He is looking for a newLearning, Monitoring and Evaluation manager who would report to him. They want to hire a highly skilled individual with a minimum of an MA, and a PhD is preferred. Sounds like a very neat job (and our research team would be working closely with whomever he hires, so I have high hopes that he will identify someone great).

A full job description is attached here.

Kenya-bound for more Uwezo research

I head off tomorrow for a few weeks of meetings and research in Kenya. I’ll join my collaborators, Lily Tsai and Dan Posner, and our project manager, Jessica Grody to continue our work trying to understand the impact of the Uwezo initiative. We’ll get started in Nairobi, and from there we’ll do some traveling around the country.

In our research so far, we have examined whether the direct provision of information to parents – specifically, their own children’s literacy and numeracy test results as well as information about what parents can do to be more active citizens – actually leads them to higher levels of local involvement in education. Like many other scholars, we are trying to understand if and when the provision of information leads to greater government accountability in terms of the delivery of key services.

For good reason, a great deal of impact evaluation research these days is being carried out using experimental methods. And if the definition of an experiment requires that the analyst randomly assign treatment to subjects, then technically speaking, ours was not an experiment. But fortunately, Uwezo had decided for various reasons to carry out this portion of their initiative to a random sample of villages around the country. Thus, one could not make the claim that there was something systematically distinctive about the villages that received the intervention. In order to estimate the effects of these informational “bundles” we required a control group. So prior to beginning our study, we identified a set of villages that were highly similar to the ones that had been randomly selected by Uwezo. Then we conducted surveys, focus groups, and other research in both sets of villages. We will complete a draft of a scholarly paper on this study fairly soon, and we will be presenting our results at the late August meetings of the American Political Science Association.

As for our estimates of the effect of those “information bundles”…. Well, we didn’t find any substantial impact. But in fairness, we didn’t hold particularly high expectations for an effect. It was important to see if this aspect of the initiative could drive desired outcomes on its own. It can’t. And now, we will investigate whether some of the much larger information dissemination campaigns make a difference.

On this trip we won’t be carrying out any systematic research – just learning about what Uwezo has been doing and what they plan to do going forward. Hopefully, we will finalize some interesting proposals for research in the coming years.

Nairobi-based accountability for Global Fund

As I contemplate an imminent trip to Kenya in less than two weeks, I was doing a bit of research on government accountability, and stumbled upon an interesting organization — Aidspan — which is, ” an international non-governmental Kenya-based organization whose mission is to reinforce the effectiveness of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.” The director recently penned an article about the non-disbursement of round 2 funds, in which he concludes that 20,000 lives were “not saved,” as a result of the bungling. Apparently, he has been closely following all of the grants to Kenya and has identified local and international mis-management, while also highlighting some real improvement in recent years.

In some ongoing work I’ve focused on accountability at the very local level. But in a world in which development is being governed at so many levels, this type of “watchdog” organization seems extremely valuable. In certain circumstances, overly zealous critics can de-legitimize important aid projects by crying foul at every minor wrong turn. But Aidspan seems truly committed to making the Global Fund work, and communicates its concerns both publicly and privately, as appropriate. Clearly some research is needed, but such citizen-based accountability initiatives would seem to be a key ingredient for promoting effective global governance.

While the organization appears to have been founded by a British economist — Bernard Rivers — he decided to base the organization in Kenya, and to develop a Kenyan staff to implement its mission. In the unlikely event that I have some free time in Nairobi, I will try to learn more about their work.


Same-sex unions in Africa

Last week, I wrote about what appeared to be a substantial policy shift in Malawi, with the new president reported to favor a reversal of anti-gay legislation.  Malawi expert Kim Dionne highlights that this appears not to be the case. This morning, Kim wrote to me to shed more light on what’s going on:

The story is changing daily… just this morning (Malawi time) her Attorney General/Minister of Justice (Ralph Kasambara) has said that two women reported to have had an engagement ceremony will not be prosecuted since the laws pertaining to alleged same-sex acts are “under review.” There’s a big uproar among the public in Malawi, with some going so far to say they’d have demonstrations if the law is repealed. All I can say at this point is this issue is an interesting one to watch in Malawi.

How does the situation look elsewhere? As I’ve written about before, mostly pretty grim. But it is worth reflecting upon some of the different ways in which same sex unions have been addressed in other countries, sometimes even in environments that are generally hostile to homosexuals.

For example, in Kenya, a court case from a few years back shed some light on a Kikuyu practice of women marrying other women — generally in cases in which a married woman in unable to have children. The court case involved a young man trying to evict his stepmother’s wife from a plot of land she inherited from the wife.

And the Nation reports that the Kenya National Human Rights Commission is recommending the decriminalization of homosexuality, prostitution and same sex marriages. The same article goes on to point out that same-sex marriage is common among several ethnic groups including Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, and Nandi communities under common law — while stipulating that such marriages “are not sexual.” Of course, that begs the question of whether we are talking about apples and oranges here… but it does suggest a comfort level with a committed legal relationship between two adults of the same sex.

Here in the U.S., a recent poll shows that more Americans now support gay marriage than oppose it. I’m not exactly expecting a quick sea-change across Africa, but given increasingly high levels of international media penetration, African news outlets and blogs are sparking more discussion and debate on this social issue. Will be interesting to observe the different ways in which this plays out…

Anti-homosexuality in East Africa: The 21st century race problem?

Kim Dionne writes about the anti-homosexuality bill being re-tabled in the Ugandan parliament, highlighting the strategic use of anti-homosexuality as a basis for ending partisan conflict.

Meanwhile, lesbian students were suspended from school in Kenya as reported by The Standard. (This video is worth watching — the principal blames the poor performance of the school on lesbianism…)

The rise of homosexual scapegoating reminds me of Anthony Marx’s argument about the implementation of institutionalized white supremacy in South Africa and Jim Crow in post Civil War United States. In order to “bind the wounds” between English and Afrikaner in SA; and North and South in the U.S., blacks got the raw deal in both places. In East Africa, despite the threat of donor pressure, a similar strategy seems afoot for what might be analogous to the 20th century “color line.” Apparently, gay is the new black.

Kenyans protest global fund withdrawal

Last week, I wrote about the severe funding shortfalls that are jeopardizing the solvency of the Global fund for HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria. Shortly after my post, I read that Bill Gates ponied up $750 million. He and I must have been on the same wave length. Moreover, I was just finishing the Steve Jobs biography — which was fascinating, and a great read — but boy does Jobs have a lot of vitriole for Gates. Ok, I digress.

The point I wanted to make is that Kenyans have been protesting the prospects of the global fund spigot going dry as thousands rely on that funding to support their AIDS treatment. It’s not clear from the news stories how large the protests have been. But one of the things that has fascinated me about the history of the African AIDS pandemic is how little activism there was on the ground in the years before widespread funding of treatment and other programs.

Now that such treatment has been provided, if it gets taken away, there will almost certainly be quite a bit of resentment and people will protest on a wider scale. My first instinct was to suggest that this is an exemplar of the power of loss aversion. But the truth is, the value of AIDS treatment was probably largely incomprehensible in the abstract, and it’s only after years of experience that citizens have come to understand how this medical technology can be life-saving. The global fund deserves a solid share of the credit for making this possible.

Singing their way to ethnic peace in Kenya?

Kenyans have good reason to worry about ethnic violence in the next election — the track record is pretty dismal and the last election was particularly awful.

A college choir is taking the matter into its own hands, as reported in the Daily Nation and they are going to various hotspots, preaching peace and also developing computer training programs for unemployed youths who are easily manipulated to participate in such violence.

I certainly appreciate and applaud the initiative. Addressing unemployment, even on a small scale, seems like a good idea and is consistent with what we know about who tends to participate in violence. But does talking about peace, preaching its benefits, actually change behaviors? If anyone is aware of good research on this simple “treatment” — telling people of the virtues of non-violence — please send to me, and I would be glad to post.

The challenge of building trust amidst rampant fraud

Few scams are more detestable than those that involve fake drugs for major diseases, especially in poor countries. This week, the Mail and Guardian reported on the problem of counterfeit malaria medicines:

Some of the fake drugs contain artemisinin, but not enough to kill all the parasites in a child’s body. Not only will the child struggle to recover, but the parasites that survive may become resistant to the drug and spread a form of the disease that ACTs (artemisinin combination therapy) will no longer cure.

Such scams make an epidemic worse, hurt the people who use them, and erode already thin trust in the idea that medicines and public health schemes can improve individual- and collective well-being.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, the Daily Nation reported on mobile phone scams of a type that our Uwezo-evaluation research team heard about in various villages last summer. Because Kenya has a very sophisticated technology for transferring money via mobile phone accounts, fraudsters have sent fake SMS messages telling people they have won a prize, and tricked victims into transferring their own money.

We found that citizens were increasingly ignoring all unsolicited messages, assuming that none of them could be trusted. It would not be surprising if some followed suit by reducing their use of this wonderful technology for financial transactions.

In order for most new technologies to realize their potential for improving human well-being, they must be trusted by citizens within society. In the U.S., there’s not much threat to online banking because of the occasional unsolicited email from the Nigerian lottery commission. But where the use of internet- and bio-medical technologies are still in their infancy, similar scams have the potential to wreak substantial and lasting havoc.

I Paid a Bribe: Kenyan Website

I PAID A BRIBE is a neat site that allows Kenyan citizens to report where they must pay bribes, to which sector, and for how much. The initiative is modeled on an Indian site, where concerns about corruption have been central to political debate in recent years.

Although one might worry that such a site might allow individuals to carry out personal vendettas, according to the story in Kenya’s Daily Nation, it strips away names of bribe-taking officials. Undoubtedly this will cause some consternation among various political leaders, bureaucrats, and police — who so far are reported to be the most prolific bribe-takers — and they will try to find ways to discredit the information generated.

I continue to be attracted to the proposition that more information will promote greater government accountability, which is the heart of the Twaweza model. But the question is whether the data generated will be new information for any Kenyans (so far, the comments on the site highlight simply that citizens think corruption is being under-reported) and what might be done with the information? I love the idea, but it’s not yet clear to me that hard numbers will be more effective than general perceptions in changing patterns of graft in government. Perhaps the most promising use of these data would be if they were able to conclusively demonstrate a reduction in corruption, resulting from some other anti-corruption initiative.