Kenya: FT Africa Editor on the “Tribalism” Consensus
“Poverty density in Kajiado District, Kenya” — percentage of population below poverty line by region (range: <30 to >60) Source: CIAT project. Click to zoom.

The crisis in Kenya leaves a guilty stain on the west: FT editorialist Michael Holman, a former FT Africa editor, weighs in on the question that has framed news coverage and debate on the Kenya post-election crisis: The violence we are witnessing

  1. is
  2. is not

primarily a function of “tribal rivalries,” as one common analysis has it, “that predate European colonialism.”

Or, as leading buzz-journalism pundit Andrew Sullivan has neatly boiled down the “tribal meltdown” theory into a bite-sized chunk for swallowing whole:

Under these circumstances, tribalism flares, as it has in Iraq

See also

Put Holman down as an advocate for (2), and an “I told you so” skeptic regarding the “Kenyan economic miracle.”

If aid has worked in Kenya, how do development agencies explain the growing pauperisation of its people? In 1990 about 48 per cent of the population was living below the poverty line. Today, more than four decades after independence, nearly 55 per cent of Kenyans are subsisting on a couple of dollars a day.

The Brazilian economic miracle — cut short by the OPEC crisis in the 1970s — was also accompanied by an explosion of income disparity. It never does seem to actually trickle down, does it?

And for all the 6 per cent annual gross domestic product growth achieved in the past two years under Mr Kibaki, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. To see the crisis only in terms of tribal allegiances and ethnic clashes is to miss a vital element in the Kenyan picture. The population has doubled in 25 years to 31m. Unemployment is growing, and the number without land is growing. For these people there is nothing to lose by taking to the streets, driven by frustration and fury that transcend their tribe.

Similar observations are sometimes made about the miraculous claims made for the Nobel-winning microcredit revolution in Bangladesh. Which seems to have been rewarded more for being a really, really neat idea than for actually accomplishing anything:

There is little evidence that microcredit programs are the solution to poverty. John Hatch of FINCA International said that most microloans finance current consumption instead of creating new business enterprises. Research in Bangladesh by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Poverty Action Lab found that microcredit can result in more debt for the poor.In Bangladesh, where in 2001 approximately one out of four households had at least one microloan, microcredit seems to have had little impact on the country’s relative development performance. In 1991, for example, Bangladesh ranked 136th on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index (a measure of societal well-being); 15 years later it ranked 137th. –”Beware of Bad Microcredit,” Harvard Business Review, September 2007

Holman views the Githongo Report (large PDF file) as a missed opportunity for donor nations and diplomats eager to secure the government’s cooperation on the GWOT.

Which, when I open my newspaper today to read of another broadside from Osama “Yo Mama” bin Laden, I tend to think may be another extraordinary boondoggle.

Osama removed from the battlefield in a swift and impressive manner. “No matter where you are, we can drop a smart bomb on your sorry ass whenever the hell we want to, without breaking a sweat. So don’t even think about it.”

That would have been an incredibly useful thing to get done. And I bet you we could have done it, too, if we had kept our eye on the ball. Fabulous propaganda of the deed. Saved us a ton of blood and treasure.

Alas for Kenya, the bank, the fund and leading bilateral donors such as Britain chose not to act on Mr Githongo’s evidence. Instead, it has been business as usual. In the case of DFID, the UK development agency, aid flows have in fact risen – from £30m in 2003-04 to £50m in 2005-06.

Why was Githongo ignored?

So why did the donors duck away from this unique opportunity to tackle graft? The truth is, they never had the stomach for a fight. They did not believe it was ultimately in their interests to have a showdown with the barons of corruption. They did not want to upset what they saw as a regional “island of stability” from which the UN and other international relief agencies, including hundreds of foreign non-governmental organisations, operate – a thriving business that accounts for a fifth of Kenya’s annual foreign exchange earnings.

“He may be a grotesque kleptocrat, but by God, he’s our grotesque kleptocrat.” How many foreign policy disasters have flowed from that mentality over the years?

Weighing in the balance are the longstanding military agreements Kenya has signed with the US and the UK, which have assumed particular importance since President George W. Bush launched his war on terrorism.

Not for the first time:

Not for the first time, an African country is paying a terrible price for the tolerance of its corrupt government by its western partners.

It would be especially interesting to look back at the Paul “The Iraqi War will pay for itself” Wolfowitz global anticorruption crusade in this light, as well as that infamous Bastille Day speech in 2004 by former High Commissioner Edward Clay on the question, “Why does the World Bank’s moral crusade corruption include extending more credit to book-cooking kleptocrats?”


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