The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a saying James Shikwati would easily clap to. But the clapping would not last long, because he would soon realise that these words were spoken by a Frenchman, St Bernard of Clairvaux. It is not that Shikwati has anything against the French, his vexation is more complicated than that.
“Why is it that we are quick to quote anything that is written by a professor from Harvard or Oxford and not our own African sages?” he asks as he adjusts his frame on his office chair.
Then he leans forward and, pivoting himself on the desk using his elbows, turns to face me before adding: “Even in the media, many of us seem to find news from CNN and BBC more authoritative than our local channels. You can see it in how we are quick to celebrate being mentioned in international publications.”
It is at this point, we guess, where we have to inform you — and apologise in advance to Shikwati — that the self-taught economist and founder-president of Inter-Region Economic Network (Iren) has had his share of international media coverage. The New York Times did a feature-length piece on his ideas in 2006, while Germany’s Der Spiegel once published a two-page spread interview of the man.
His byline has also appeared in The Times of London, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post just to name a few. The New York Times described him as a “free-market gospel” evangelist, while Der Spiegel went with a verbatim headline for effect: “For God’s sake, please stop the aid!”
Since then, he has appeared in numerous other notable publications championing for an Africa that “thinks for itself” and prides itself in solving its own problems.
At first glance, one would be tempted to assume that James Shikwati is an extreme African isolationist who wants nothing to do with the West. Indeed, there is enough evidence to show that many seem to have succumbed to this tempting conclusion.
For instance, Jeffrey D Sachs, a Columbia University professor and a leading aid advocate, calls Shikwati’s criticisms of foreign assistance “shockingly misguided” and “amazingly wrong”.
Shikwati’s passionate calls for the West to stop aiding Africa have often been misconstrued for fatalistic over-reactions. But a closer look reveals something more subtle is going on, and I noticed it the moment I stepped into his office.
His three-level wooden book-shelf is stocked with books by a wide array of authors, most of them economists. There are books by Americans, Germans, the Chinese, Italians, Indians… you name them. And the double-thread that binds this multi-racial array of authorship is development and geopolitics.
More than half of the books have the word “Africa” somewhere in the title or sub-title, while the rest have to do with wealth and poverty and the philosophies that explain their dynamics.
This is not the library of a man determined to shun the contribution of other continents in the global pool of knowledge, and so it, in an interesting, almost contradictory way, betrays a man willing to learn from everyone, and in doing so, become more able to stand on his own.
The world prefers to describe him as a “self-taught” economist — he holds a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Nairobi — but while he appreciates the “self-taught” tag, he sees himself more as a student of life and the world.
“Just because I never stepped into an economics classroom and sat before a professor does not mean I have not been taught by anyone,” he says, pointing to his library.
But not everyone seems to appreciate this. Most have chosen to see him as an ill-informed contrarian, blindly opposing the well-meaning attempts by others to rid Africa of the curse of hunger and poverty.
And this is where Shikwati would respond with a reluctant reference to St Bernard of Clairvaux: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
No wonder many read the news with a quizzical look a few weeks ago when the 45-year-old former high school teacher became the first African to receive the Walter-Scheel Prize for his commitment to development cooperation.
The award is named after Walter Scheel, who once served as Germany’s Federal Minister for Economic Development (1961 to 1966), Foreign Minister (1969 to 1974), acting Chancellor of West Germany and finally President of the Federal Republic of Germany.
But how, and why, in the world would the West celebrate and award a man who is seemingly set against them in his anti-aid rhetoric?
“It is because people are not patient,” exlains Shikwati. “When they hear me talking against foreign aid, many are too appalled to hear the rest of the story.”
Jeffrey Sachs, the pro-aid critic of Shikwati that we referred to earlier, once said of the man’s anti-aid campaigns: “This happens to be a matter of life and death for millions of people, so getting it wrong has huge consequences.”
But Shikwati responds to this by saying he has never called for a blind stoppage of aid: “The best comeback is not ‘if you stop, people will die’ but ‘okay, what alternatives do you suggest?’.”
The assumption that there is nothing after “stop aid”, says Shikwati, is what is holding many Africans and his opponents back.
His own life, it dawns on me as we digress into his childhood, is an allegory of the Africa he dreams and speaks so passionately about.
At just the age of nine, the young boy in Standard Two found himself frustrated by the scarcity of stationery in his school, which impeded his learning. “It was difficult to even come by a pencil, let alone a pen. My parents couldn’t afford one.”
Being a rural Kenyan neighbourhood in the late 1970s, the community depended a lot on agriculture. Liquid cash was hard to come by.
“We grew our food and never went hungry. Much of the material needed to construct houses could be freely obtained from nature,” he says.
Money, therefore, was not necessary to survive, or even thrive, but you still needed it to buy things like books and pens and other stationery for school. So Shikwati got 11 other boys from his school and together they brainstormed on how to make some money to buy stationery.
“We came up with the idea of weeding neighbourhood farms for a fee, charging Sh3 per line. So if we weeded 36 lines per day, we would make Sh108.”
They got the mother of one of the boys to act as the treasurer and keep the money for them. She would save the money until the end of the year when she would divide it among the 12 boys.
This happened for the years before the club, dubbed Elkaka Boys Association (EBA), evolved into something more structured and complex.
“We even had an Attorney General to handle disciplinary issues. For instance, a person would be fined a few shillings for breaking a rule. The fine would be deducted from their cut at the end of the year and the money would remain in the kitty and carried on to the following year.”
Over the years, as the boy grew into a man, a parallel change in the complexity of his ideas about work and life was also taking place in his mind.
“While in university I was troubled by many questions. I would read stories about our nation’s independence or the slavery that preceded it and I would ask myself: ‘How come, if we are all human beings, others could come and just treat us like items?’”
But the more he prodded, the more complex the answers to his questions turned out to be. He recalls joining the Philosophical Students Association at the University of Nairobi in the early ’90s, where they mainly focused “on identity questions concerning Africa”.
“I still have some of the publications that we came up with,” he says, holding up a once-white brown copy of a college magazine. “If you look at the topics covered in the publication, they are pretty much the same issues that I tackle today. But people are in a hurry now, and they are quick to judge you by your present while paying zero attention to the past.”
He speaks highly of the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty, saying the section on Africa is particularly illuminating as it reveals some of the forces driven by “well-meaning” aid and yet are bent on ensuring Africa will never become self-reliant.
“The people controlling the capital control everybody. Unfortunately, very few Africans control their capital. That is why there will be a movement in Kenya like Cord saying ‘we are the one who will bring change’, yet Jubilee also said the same thing. Many of these people could even be sincere. But once the guy who said he will bring change takes power, people discover he is not any different. Why?
“If you dig deeper, you will discover that it is not necessarily because power got into someone’s head and they started going back on their promises. It is because the ‘real owners’ of the country are making phone-calls to remind the winner ‘you cannot do this and this.’”
OWNERS OF CAPITAL
This is why Shikwati has dedicated his life to exposing these forces and enlightening his countrymen on ways to see through the illusions of “help” coming from the real “owners of capital”.
“Some of the questions we often address include: ‘Why do they have capital and we don’t? How have they accumulated capital?’ You will notice that many have accumulated their capital using an instrument that keeps you where you are.
“Look at Kenya, for instance. The proliferation of supermarkets is not necessarily a sign of development. Because when you go to the shelves, you realise the products are not from Kenya.”
Through initiatives such as the East Africa Thought Leaders Forum, Shikwati and his team bring together professors from all over the continent to inject new thought processes into the conversation on development cooperation.
“We quote Harvard professors all the time. We quote economists from outside Africa. This forum is about putting pressure on those who call themselves accomplished thinkers, why can’t you bring a theory that our students can quote?” he asks.
The young primary school boy who never allowed his age or circumstances to get in the way of his dream is now a grown man fighting for the same attitude in his homeland. Repulsed by the addictive culture of dependency that was cultivated through an over-reliance on foreign aid, James Shikwati wants Africa to realise that it has everything it needs.
One of the books jutting out among the hundreds in his office library is Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms. The title seems to aptly describe his heart’s desire, that Africa will one day say goodbye to foreign aid.
The world seems to be listening and considering what he has to say, if the Walter-Scheel award is anything to go by. This is not someone who is just obsessed with chanting good riddance to foreign aid, but one who is committed to finding solutions that work for the true benefit of all.
‘A distinguished economist’
James Shikwati’s conversion to capitalism started with a rejection letter. As a 27-year-old teacher in a rural high school, he applied to dozens of American graduate schools and gained admittance to none. But one rejection came with a book, The Law, by Frédéric Bastiat.
A 19th-century, French, pamphlet-length attack on the state, The Law enjoys something close to a cult following among some libertarians. It describes taxes and regulation as “legal plunder,” and sees tyranny at work in laws that force citizens to support public schools. “Try liberty,” it demands.
“The Law just spun me around,” said Shikwati, who flirted with socialism at the University of Nairobi and made the book’s translation into Kiswahili one of his group’s first projects. “It showed me I was believing in the wrong things.”
Shikwati wrote to the book’s nonprofit publisher and received a journal with a column by Lawrence Reed, a Michigan economist. Many busy people would have ignored the letter that soon landed on Reed’s desk. (“Exactly what does the Mackinac Centre for Public Policy do for the citizenship of the world?” Shikwati asked, referring to Reed’s group.)
But Reed, 53, runs a conservative “think-tank school” that twice a year draws allies from across the globe. In answering, he began a four-year correspondence. “This is how the movement grows,” he said.
By 2001, with Reed’s help, Shikwati landed two grants totaling about $9,500 (about Sh1 million) a year, one from Atlas and one from a related British group, the International Policy Network. Iren now has a budget of $300,000 (about Sh31 million) and seven full-time employees.
With no academic credentials, Shikwati made a mark as an author of opinion articles. He defended McDonald’s against critics of globalisation and drug companies against charges of price gouging. He called for the legalisation of the ivory trade, which he argues would protect elephant herds. Above all, he called for an end to foreign aid, saying it hurt local markets, corrupted governments and promoted dependency.
His iconoclasm and his authenticity as an African made Shikwati attractive to the Western press, despite his lack of prominence at home. His views quickly travelled the globe, appearing in places as diverse as The Sydney Morning Herald, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of London, Forbes and The Washington Post.
Echoing his calls to end foreign aid, Suzanne Fields of The Washington Times lauded Shikwati, who has a bachelor’s degree in education and no economics training, as nothing less than “a distinguished Kenyan economist.” (New York Times excerpt, Nov 18, 2006).
Quotable Shikwati (From his Daily Nation columns)
Poverty in sub-Sahara Africa is a man-made phenomenon driven by internal warped policies and international trade systems. August 12, 2012
External actors coming to Africa have successfully clothed their intentions using the global village mentality. Having surrendered the task of addressing the continent’s challenges to outsiders, the creative intellectual capabilities of Africans have been submerged. To reverse this state of affairs, Africa must domesticate the processes used to identify its leaders. August 3, 2014.
Africans have not mastered the art of converting relationships with global partners into channels to meet the continent’s core interests as the Europeans, Indians, Japanese and Chinese did. August 3, 2014.
Africa is undergoing a crisis of ideas and institutions. Having put little or no investment in indigenous thought leadership, the continent risks becoming a battleground for competing global ideological interests once more. March 25, 2013
The culture of seeking refuge in new systems without trying to evolve Africa’s own is what has made the continent an underdog for centuries. This is not the time for Africans to play East and West; it is time to invest in skills and navigation tools to tap from both. March 25, 2013
For Kenya and Africa to succeed, they too have to learn how to manage and navigate strategic partnerships as opposed to the attitude of shunning the rest of the world. November 25, 2014
African leaders proclaim “one Africa” for the prestige it affords them at international forums, but they are not keen to grow a unified economic dream for the benefit of the continent’s people. May 4, 2015