• Irungu Houghton

Civil society is central to our democracy, let's empower it

Updated: Sep 23


This week was NGO week. Convened by the NGO Coordination Board, over 1,000 NGO leaders met to discuss Government-NGO relations, NGO fundraising and effectiveness. The festivity of the moment was a far cry from the hostility of only a few years ago. What has changed?


Interior Ministry Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i opened the week. He commended NGOs for their direct development impact and encouraged NGOs to continue constructively challenging the State on all matters, human rights violations and corruption. His reference to the tension between state and civic organisations is not only Kenyan, it is a global tension.


Over the last decade, more than fifty Governments have used authoritarian techniques to close the space for citizens and civic organisations to operate. What does Myanmar, United States, Burundi, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland have in common? Well, they are among forty countries that have all designed and passed unjust laws to crack down and silence civic organisations in the last two years.


Until very recently, Kenya was also the poster child for repression. Despite having one of the oldest, well-resourced and international recognised civil societies in the world, Kenyan NGOs have experienced operating challenges, arbitrary bans, raids, restrictive laws and calculated publicity smear campaigns all funded by public taxes and directed by public officers.


The most dangerous moment came in 2013/2014. The Kenyan Government unsuccessfully attempted to pass draconian provisions and restrict foreign funding to less than 15% of their budgets. If some of these measures had succeeded, 12,000 NGOs would probably have gone the same way as neighbouring Ethiopia. The “terrorist” state (current Prime Minister Abiy’s words, not mine) successfully passed a similar law in 2009. It collapsed the entire sector for a decade.


Released this week, the 2019 NGO Sector Survey reveals a resilient sector that continues to have a significant development impact and a vital role in building constitutionalism and democracy. Sampling data from registered NGOs, the Board reveals 11,262 NGOs have been registered in the last three decades. 2,468 were voluntarily de-registered or were banned from operating. In 2015, the NGOs Coordination Board arbitrarily put 959 Non-Governmental Organisations on notice for alleged misappropriation of funds. Among those who have been banned and reinstated is the 28-year-old Kenya Human Rights Commission.


Collectively, NGOs generated and managed Kshs 166 billion in 2018/2019, an 8% increase from the previous year. While the bulk of investment goes to health, education and humanitarian relief, Kshs 39 billion was spent on Jubilee’s Four Pillars of jobs, houses, health and food security. Interestingly, human rights and environmental protection are the largest growing sub-sectors.


The sector also employs 79,000 employees and mobilises 39,000 volunteers. Surprising given the barbs often thrown against the sector as corrupt and self-serving, using international standards, the study also finds NGOs to be professionally managed and capable.


Addressing the launch, the Interior Cabinet Secretary recommitted to commence the Public Benefits Organisations Act. The consultations now complete and the National Security Council having given their green light, its operationalisation would capitalise on the trust and confidence that has been built in the recent months. It remains to be seen whether this happens.


With the Kenyan Administration moving in the right direction, it is worth asking whether suffocated by a global democratic recession, are Kenya’s development partners stuck in the past? During the dark years of 2014-2017, their funding and diplomatic pressure were important allies for a civil society under siege. As the space opens up again, donors seem to be distracted by episodic challenges of the Building Bridges Initiative and peaceful elections. There is a lack of collective strategic clarity. Their programs appear trapped in project financing not building independent democratic institutions or accelerating positive reform opportunities. It was noticeable that only the Netherlands Embassy and UNDP were prominent at the launch.


NGOs, civic organisations and active citizens must rethink their dependency on external financing. If civil society is critical to deepening democracy, its citizens and businesses must finance it. New bridges must be built with faith based organisations, associations and trade unions that harness their mass public outreach and the professionalism of NGOs.


Cultivating an open-minded, informed and visionary citizenry capable of holding state officers accountable for public resources will not possible without this. We will be unable to consolidate even the huge historical blow to the devolved culture of sleaze and impunity that the impeachment of Kiambu Governor delivered.


We will predictively repeat the original sin of our politics. Elect those who come with their own interest, not ours and watch them eat the country, county by county.


First published Saturday Standard, February 1, 2020. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

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