Some thoughts on and from ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’


By request, I received Michala Wrong’s excellent chronicle of patronage and ethnic division for Christmas. If you haven’t read or bought it yet and have even a passing interest in development, aid, corruption, ‘Africa’ or even espionage thrillers, I highly recommend you pick it up. Wrong’s storytelling feels effortless and definitive, yet manages to avoid the typical trappings of this sort of literature.

It isn’t a flawless piece of work – Wrong spends a long time trawling through John Githongo’s (interesting) life, looking for clues that this particular man was destined to be a whistle blower. I think such predetermination is unlikely; men like Githongo are as much a product of their times and of random cumulative processes (it’s worth noting that his school, credited as shaping many of his ideals also churned out many of those complicit in the sorts of scandals he was later to challenge). Her handling of the time line of Githongo’s tenure as the anti-corruption czar is also a little confusing, as she sometimes jumps back and forth by months and sometimes years (usually to make a particularly punchy point, even if it is chronologically suspect). Against these (minor!) complaints, I still find the book to be amazingly fun to read.

What has made some portions of the book more thrilling to me was my (purely geographic) proximity to some of the events taking place. I was barely a few months into my master’s degree at St. Antony’s College when Githongo took up residency there. While I remember the odd whisper and newspaper article about who he was and why he had fled Kenya, there was little in the way of detail; I was much too busy tackling graduate school to find out. So it is quite tickling to find out that he spend time at my college putting together the dossier, transcribing taped blackmail attempts and worrying about possible assassination attempts.

A few sentences that have jumped out at me during the later chapters on aid:

Other analysts might shake their heads at Sach’s simplistic formula for the continents recover, but he had successfully wooed pop-star campaigners like Bono and Sir Bob Geldof, and their ability to mobilise a younger generation bored by traditional politics awed Western governments. Whether on the right or left, political parties realised that promising to ‘save’ Africa was apo tential vote-winner in the eyes of an ideaelistic coming generation. No wonder members of the African elite, aware of these pressures, sometimes sounded unappetisingly smug when contemplating tortured Western attitudes to the continent. As one Kenyan newspaper editor told me: ‘What we Africans have relaised is that your leaders need to lend to use more than we need to be lent to.’

Wrong goes on to discuss the urgent need of development agencies to get the money flowing. She later singles out DFID, as the organisation was often at odds with the Foreign Office over what to do about the bubbling scandal Githongo was revealing. She blames DFID’s meddling on the disbursement culture: the need to keep things moving.

On accountability and fungibility:

Critics of international aid often claim it all ends up in Swiss bank accounts, a charge development officials easily swat away, pointing at the accountants and consultants who police spending. The argument should be a different one: not that the aid is itself stolen, but that donors make it possible, via that aid, for governments to dip their hands elsewhere in the budget while still delivering basic services, thereby escaping the electorate’s wrath. Accountability moves offshore, thanks to aid’s fungibility.

We’ve all been in debates about fungibility, but it wasn’t until I had read this paragraph that I considered that there might be fungibility of graft. It makes me worry about a place like Malawi, where DFID helps fund a massive fertiliser subsidy program (which makes the population happy and willing to re-elect the governing party), but might also lead to less attention on less ‘urgent’ expenditures.

And finally, on ethnicity and division among (seemingly) absurd lines:

Kimunya and Gikonyo were there to make sure John did nothing to blow the referendum campaign off course. ‘They kept saying, “SWEAR to us, SWEAR that you won’t spill the beans before the referendum. You must swear, John.” Sensing resistance, Kimunya made the mistake of appealing to John’s supposed ethnic loyalites. ‘Do you really think uncircumcised people can rule Kenya?’

Pick it up.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on and from ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 18, 2010 at 11:47am

    That photo is really cool, for the simple reason that either you or I or anyone else in the city could have walked past or sat down at the next table and not realised the importance of whatever conversation was going on next to us. Oxford can be such a cool place.

  2. Marketa

    February 10, 2010 at 5:10pm

    Matt – great post. I read the book and have already told many people to read it since I enjoyed reading it so much. Hopefully they will. What struck me as well was to find out a completely different meaning to the title than I initially had made of it… and will not tell more so not to spoil the surprise for others. Great blog in general by the way, I enjoy reading it.
    Cheers to both you and Ranil, hope all is good and life is treating you well. Marketa

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