I sat down recently with one of the stars of the Oxfam firmament, John Kitui, its Country Director in Kenya, Here’s a partial transcript of the conversation.
DG: Let’s better start with the thing that everyone knows, which is that there’s a horrendous drought in East Africa. Can you tell me a little bit about what you are doing as Oxfam in Kenya?
JK: So from 2020, we’ve had four failed rainy seasons. In Kenya alone, about 4.1 million people are affected, requiring food and water aid to survive. Across the Horn, in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, about 20 million people who are food insecure.
Oxfam has been working with local actors to try and provide lifesaving humanitarian response through multipurpose cash transfers. This was really a continuation of COVID 19, the locust invasion and then the drought all coming together within a context of climate change, as a precipitator of some of these shocks.
It’s a very dire situation. It’s projected that the short rains in September, October and November will also fail. We will probably see some famine and deaths from starvation if we do not take actions to save lives promptly.
DG. The actions you are talking about incorporate a new level of localization. So I’d be interested to hear how that’s going and the division of labour between local players and Oxfam.
JK: Oxfam has been in Kenya since 1963 and we had massive operations, field offices, a lot of teams on the ground doing direct responses. But with time we’ve seen a growth of local actors who are community-based organizations, local civil society organizations who are on the frontline. Kenya also is a country with devolved government.
So Oxfam has shifted its focus to supporting local humanitarian leaders to take a more proactive role in the response than traditionally. We closed our field offices in Turkana and Wajir and now we purely work with local actors to do the response.
Local actors know their context better, they know the big pockets of devastation and misery, where they can do responses. They take the lead on mobilization, identifying the most vulnerable houses, and doing the cash transfers themselves.
Oxfam provides technical support with the cash transfers. There are very technical areas that you need to get right. We also provide support with protection, safeguarding, risk management, as well as facilitating linkages with private actors like Safaricom, so that we can do the cash transfer using mobile money.
DG: What do you mean by safeguarding in this context?
JK: When you look at programming, like cash transfers or any humanitarian aid, you have people with power interfacing with people who are very vulnerable and desperate. So one of the key programming issues in multi-purpose cash transfers is to make sure that the people who are coming in to register or to give out the cash transfers, do not take advantage of vulnerable women and the desperate women for sexual exploitation or abuse or corruption or asking for bribes before they’re put on the cash transfer list.
We do that by first of all, training the people who are involved. But also, putting in place the feedback mechanisms and mechanisms for communities to be able to complain – if anyone ever asked them for a favour or money to be put on their cash transfer list.
DG: How does it work with Safaricom?
JK: Once we’ve mobilized the households, there is a verification exercise to verify that the people who have been put on the team on the cash transfer list are genuinely deserving. If they don’t have a mobile phone or a SIM card, the program buys for them a SIM card.
Then we reach out to Safaricom and ask them to give us the ability to do mass cash transfers to these households. And sometimes they actually waive the fee as part of their corporate social responsibility. The money goes to individuals through their mobile phones, and then they can go to their local Mpesa shop to draw out cash, or they can just use their mobile money to procure foods in the market. Even in the places that are worst affected in remote areas, people have mobile phones and there is mobile network.
So it’s really beneficent, but also it saves a lot of the administrative costs so that as much money as possible goes to households to help to cushion them. They get 8,000 Kenya shillings, about US$80 per month, which buys a fair amount of food even with food prices the way they are.
DG: You were talking to me earlier about Oxfam becoming an ‘advocacy only’ office – could you talk to me about that?
JK: As we’re seeing local actors really stepping up – civil society, local governments, private sector – We think we can add more value by influencing the systems that keep people poorer and marginalized and worsen inequality.
One of the ways that we are influencing is by modelling a very different way of doing operations. So for example, local humanitarian leadership has been something that the international humanitarian community has been speaking about for a very, very long time (the Grand Bargain, the Charter for Change).
But there is a stereotypical narrative that has frustrated the implementation on the ground – ‘local actors have no capacity’; ‘they cannot be trusted’; ‘they have no integrity’; ‘they are corrupt’; ‘they will not be able to manage large amounts of money’. It’s a very racist narrative, and it keeps the power within INGOs so that they can receive the money and be very tokenistic about involving local humanitarian leadership.
But the boldness that Oxfam and others within the Kenya Cash Consortium have shown is trusting partners to leader on local humanitarian responses. We’ve given them a lot of funds we’ve provided technical support, we’ve helped them build their own capacity to deliver, to manage risk. To make sure that the community complaints mechanisms work. And they’ve not disappointed at all.
Because of this, other INGOs and donors have appreciated that actually local humanitarian leadership can work. And the ASAL Humanitarian Network [of local organizations] is now invited to be in a lot of spaces at the national level – coordination, campaigns, which allows it to influence as well.
DG: You were mentioning a couple of examples of what I would call ‘pure’ advocacy. Some of the laws that have been passed on agriculture and livestock, so maybe you could just talk us through what’s going on in that wider Kenyan political scene?
JK: We are looking at some of the laws that seem to be a very deliberate effort to kill small holder farmers in Kenya. And I can give examples.
First, we saw the livestock bill passed, which criminalized beekeeping. And we know that, especially in the semi-arid lands, beekeeping serves many, many purposes, not only commercial, which is probably the least important. They keep bees for their food, as a preservative, as medicine, they do it for their own traditions and rituals. They do it as gifts. But also they do it for income, by selling honey on the market.
The parliament passed a law that criminalizes beekeeping because they want to commercialize it. It’s the capitalist capture of small-holder beekeeping, really, because they’re looking at beekeeping from a GDP-maximizing perspective, which is wrong. We’ve been trying to work with partners to advocate against that.
The law says if they don’t get certified, that will damage the whole industry. We are saying that’s actually the wrong perspective. As the old adage goes, we know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.
The same goes for seeds. Another act of parliament, the Seeds and Plant Varieties Act, criminalized what they call the selling of non-certified seeds. But the Act defined selling as exchange, barter, storage, or displaying with the intention to sell. Basically what they’re criminalizing are the communities’ traditions of exchanging seeds with each other or harvesting and keeping part of that seed for the next harvest. Now the planting season is a criminal offense, punishable with a jail term or a monetary fine. Or both.
Also, the Act provides for ‘discovery’ of plant and seed varieties. Our interpretation of that is opening up for the multinationals, who were lobbyists behind this Act to come and ‘discover’ traditional seeds that people have been using for millennia and patent them.
Then smallholder farmers will have to buy their seeds from these commercial, multinational companies.
DG: How does Oxfam plan to do influencing around the seed law, for example?
JK: The best way to do it is through movements. We have a movement that is called the Chumi Coalition – that’s Swahili for the economy. We’ve been having conversations with them about democratization of the economy of Kenya.
We have this economic singularity that really privileges capitalism as the only model of the economy. So you look at forests from a GDP maximization lens; you look at agriculture; you look at traditional seeds, at beekeeping. These economic singularities are the biggest threat to our country.
We think that through movements and coalitions, we can try to push for an economic plurality. Capitalism has its place – there’s a place for productivity, but then also can we allow smallholder farmers to continue to provide food for subsistence and to share with each other in their traditional way? That’s more resilient, compared to monoculture.
In the same strain of capitalism is the use of herbicides and pesticides. That is decimating traditional food crops and plant varieties. When we have a monoculture of maize, we are applying insecticides and they’re killing the insects. Communities have traditionally eaten insects like termites and others in my village, but the termites are no longer there – people are applying pesticides to kill anything that moves.
All these practices contribute towards food insecurity and unless we really have a paradigm shift in our view of agriculture, we will lose.
DG: Last question. This ‘pure’ advocacy – targeting the new laws etc. Is that easy to get funding for? Because in the end you need funding for staff, bits of paper, websites and all the rest of it. How do you fund that sort of work rather than drought response?
JK: One of the dysfunctions of the funding of the humanitarian development world is its bias toward service delivery. If you do a lot of giving people farming inputs and everything else, it’s very easy to raise money. Once you start looking at the problems as systemic and wanting to change laws and encourage resilience, there are very few donors willing to fund that.
One of the things that has really helped us as a country program is partnerships with other Oxfam affiliates across the world, who are able to raise both unrestricted and restricted income from trusts and foundations or from home donors who are willing to fund some of the advocacy work. We’ve received a lot of funding from the German government, the Danish government and others that are really focused on the influencing element.
But overall it’s not a place where many donors want to put their money, because advocacy involves politically sensitive issues. Many donors don’t want to go the wrong way with the government by being seen to fund advocacy that is meant to influence them. So many donors prefer to fund service delivery – it’s politically safer, compared to really addressing the root causes.
But we think we should be able to raise sufficient resources to cover the staff costs, because those are the main resources we need. Also to cover the resources of some of our networks, the movements we’re building here, for them to continue doing some of this amazing work.
DG: And very briefly just because I’m fascinated by this. Do you raise any money within Kenya? I mean, it’s got big middle class, big shopping malls right next to us – there’s lots of rich people in Kenya. Can you as Oxfam tap into that money?
JK: This is a very difficult conversation, partly because we are trying to promote local leadership by local actors. A few colleagues internally have felt it unfair for us to try to tap resources locally, instead of supporting our local partners to be able to mobilize those resources.
Okay. But we still feel like the cake is big enough for everybody. I think there are other places we can fundraise locally with the institutional donors or home donors who are based here like, Danida and others whose funding is targeted at international organizations.
We’re also thinking in future, we should open Oxfam shops. What prevents us from having Oxfam shops here with people donating their clothes and we sell them, as Oxfam GB does?
There’s an opportunity to fundraise locally here, but we want to do it in a way that does not disenfranchise local partners, especially those small ones. Because as Oxfam we would be coming with our brand identity, we have the fundraising capacity, but we could easily end up elbowing them out the way. It’s a balance that we’ll try to see if we can strike, without disenfranchising anybody.
DG: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I think Oxfam is in good hands!
JK: Thank you Duncan for having me.