Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Limitations of Representative Democracy in Kenya (Africa)

Democracy versus Authoritarianism is one of the major debates in the comparative political economy of development. The conventional view is that representative democratic systems are more responsive to the material demands of citizens than authoritarian systems. For example, development economist Amartya Sen has previously observed that famine only occurs in authoritarian regimes. Democracy, according to Sen was more responsive to citizens needs and thus able to prevent famine from occurring. So what conclusions are we to draw from nominally democratic systems in Africa, that clearly lack the ability to respond to the wishes and opinions of their citizens?

Kenya has a representative, multiparty, electoral democracy and embraces a model of capitalism defined by economic liberalization. Kenya has both a market economy and open society complete with scores of foreign aid agencies, missionaries and non-governmental organizations. The Freedom in the World Report ranks countries according to the amount of political rights and civil liberties, thru which countries are classified as “Free”, “Partly Free” and “Not Free.” According to Freedom House, Kenya is "Partly Free", ranking more favorably than countries like Zimbabwe, Libya, or Eritrea (countries considered authoritarian in the West). While there are still challenges, civil liberties and political rights are relatively well recognized in Kenya. Yet, the East African nation of Kenya is on the verge of an expansive famine that is threatening the lives of millions.

The New York Times reports,
"A devastating drought is sweeping across Kenya, killing livestock, crops and children. It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land."

The New York Times has stopped short of calling the current drought a famine, but facts on the ground suggest the same characterizing features---extreme scarcity of food. The real culprit in this case is typical of other recent converts to representative democracy in Africa. Politicians in Kenya are more concerned with being elected to representative seats in parliament than performing the necessary duties of public service. Worse yet, voters elect politicians with whom they share ethnic or familial ties instead of choosing candidates on the basis of their competence and vision for the poorest sectors of society. The images of ethnic violence after claims of voter fraud in 2007, were terrifying. Perhaps just as tragic has been the general incompetence and elitism of the resulting power-sharing coalition in Kenya.

Like other young democracies in Africa with significant cultures of nepotism, another of Kenya's great hurtles is the lack of political education among citizens. Very few are aware that as citizens they are entitled to certain basic inalienable rights, not limited to civil liberties only, but also freedom from fear and want. When State institutions fail to deliver social protection, people trend toward ethnic violence rather than organized demands for greater responsiveness from the State.

Kenya is a perfect case-study of the ineffectiveness of State consolidation in parts of Africa after the fall of colonialism, but also the tremendous shortcomings of 21st century identity politics. Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o best summarized, in his analysis of the 2007 general elections, the ridiculousness of identity politics in Kenya and the need for a real agenda for development.
"I am not a member of any of the contesting parties. They don’t adequately embody the vision of the unity of the small farmer, the worker, the jobless and landless Kenyans across all the regions of their birth and residence. They don’t seem to recognize sufficiently that Kenya like Africa as a whole has only two tribes: the haves and the have-nots."
The widespread incapability of the State to promote the welfare of citizens in Kenya can not be blamed on the Kenyan government alone. Most recently, Western aid agencies and governments have played directly into the hands of ineffective politicians by perpetuating the myth that the fundamental responsibility to help protect the physical and material well-being of people in need lies with Western NGO's rather than the government. External social engineering in Kenya has subversively redefined the role of government to exclude the provision of basic necessities to focus instead on liberal institutional reforms.

The reason, according to the New York Times, that donors have been slow to assist Kenyan's during the crisis is because of aid conditionalities tied to such reforms!
"Part of the reason may be the growing disappointment with Kenya's leaders.They have been poked and prodded by Western ambassadors---and their own citizens---to overhaul the justice system, the police force and the electoral commission."
In the midst of a human catastrophe, the aid agencies are digging in their heals in the fight against corrupt behavior, but few have addressed the deeper structural issue in Kenya. The inability of the Kenyan State to fulfill its fundamental responsibilities of social protection had left poor Kenyan's without basic provisions of food, health care, housing, education, and meaningful employment well before the current drought. The failure of welfare provision in Kenya is the very reason for the existence of so many external aid agencies there in the first place. No wonder NGO's are slow to address this point. Globalization is no substitute for responsive governance.

In Africa, there are frequent campaigns for regime change against alleged authoritarian strongmen whose exploits lead to economic inefficiencies or social failures. Should the grounds for regime change in cases of authoritarianism apply for nominal democracies in Africa as well? Do Kenyan citizens for example have a legitimate case for regime change in their country when the regime is non-responsive to their needs? The very suggestion would be opposed by most liberals but the search for answers among the popular classes of Kenya is inevitable.

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