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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Reflections on working for Amnesty International Kenya

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

His name triggers eyebrows. His words prick many a conscience. And encounters with racism changed his life forever. And as the Executive Director of Amnesty International, his work is to push for a justice, defend the oppressed and speak out for the voiceless. It has landed him in jail, posh offices and countless media interviews. But this is not a day’s work for Irungu Houghton. It is a lifetime passion. writer Wahome Ngatia caught up with the veteran of the NGO sector for a candid talk on life, activism and evolution of the sector.

  1. What inspired you to go into activism?

Activism found me at the age of 14. I spent my teenage years in North London at a time when racism against people of colour locked 60% of black children out of higher education and 19th century stop and search laws empowered British police-officers to profile and arrest black people. Supported by parents, I read widely and internalized the wisdom of James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Micere Githae Mugo, CLR James, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Kwame Nkrumah before I could legally drive and vote.

2. You started out as a teacher. How did you eventually go into the civil society space?

While I like to believe that I host skillful conversations, I have never been a formal teacher. My attempt to become a history lecturer was cut short after the closure of several universities in 1991 after demonstrations condemned the assassination of Foreign Minister Robert Ouko. Optimistic yet unemployed, I drifted into adult education, working with the National Council of Churches and then the African Association for Literacy and Adult Education before going into public policy advocacy.

3. Who has been your biggest influence and why?

My Pan-Africanism, social justice and feminist values have been shaped by many people. Personal relationships with intimate partners and my wife have straightened out much of my early negative masculinity and sexism. My unshakable belief and hope in power of a united continent was nurtured by the late Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem and many others I have worked with in alliances that promoted progressive governance and human rights standards.

My sense of leadership accountability and integrity comes from participating in several Landmark Education courses. While I have never attended a formal management course, I am grateful to past managers for the lessons and tips I observed while they were managing people, financial resources, and programmes.

Taking risks

4. What is the most dangerous situation you have been in as a result of your work and how did you escape it?

As Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director, every day is an opportunity to study and manage the risks that comes with protecting vulnerable people against those that abuse their privilege and power. In 2017, Transparency International and the Society for International Development designed and implemented a red card campaign. We highlighted and de-campaigned several political candidates who had abused public trust and were attempting to run in the 2017 General Elections. That bold act earned us a legal suit, a visit by a few goons and for a little while, we had to seek protection services.

5. Some of the things you’ve done require courage. What pushes you to confront political leaders on touchy issues such as corruption and extra-judicial killings?

Amnesty International Kenya’s work on corruption and extra-judicial killings is founded on the very basic principle that abuse of office and impunity emboldens the environment for all to get away with murder. Unless we create a country that is a match for our constitution no one is safe.

In July 2022, I publicly petitioned Kenya Kwanza presidential candidate, now President Ruto to declare there will be no extra-judicial killings should he be elected. Over the rest of 2022, extrajudicial killings dropped by 50 per cent. We are now pressing for lawful policing during assembly and accountability for the excessive force we have seen across the recent three months of maandamano protests.

6. What’s your leadership style?

I am inspired by principles of anti-discrimination and inclusion, humility, and an intense desire to realize growth and impact at a national and international scale. I am learning to read the room better, delegate and trust more. Relationship building is very important to me, and I have been accused of retaining relationships long after they have lost their value.

7. Which books have you read that shaped your perspective and values?

Many books, films and music have shaped my perspectives. Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s “Starfish and the Spider” gave me my appreciation for building broad and diverse alliances. Tosh Gitonga’s “Nairobi Half Life” movie deepened my appreciation of the moral injustice of inequalities and crime. The rebelliousness in reggae, the innovation in jazz and the warmth in soul constantly uplift me.

His journey to Amnesty International

8. What did you love about Amnesty International Kenya that inspired you to want to work with them?

I was tasked by Amnesty International to collect testimonies of political prisoners and train human rights defenders in Kenya before there was a national office. I became an Amnesty Kenya member four years before I was competitively recruited as its third Executive Director in 2018. Over the last three decades, my love for its member-based movement approach, bold campaigning style and global reach has grown.

9. What do the next five years look like for Amnesty?

Amnesty International is committed to expanding its member and supporter base beyond the current 17 million people across the world. We are looking at ways to respond to climate chaos, identity-based discrimination, and the abuse of state power. In Kenya, we are developing a new 5-year Strategic Plan that will protect and expand rights and freedoms for all as well reduce the scope for corruption and violence.

10. When you joined Amnesty you helped them increase their funding by more than 30% and membership also. How did you do that? 

Amnesty International Kenya has expanded its annual budget by 40% while diversifying by 34% by attracting foundations and bi-lateral donors. While much smaller, we are as proud of our membership who now contribute nearly 1% of our costs in membership subscriptions.

Irungu and some of his colleagues in the civil society.

Reflection about the civil society landscape

11. What do you think the Kenyan government should do to support NGOs?

Three policy actions would make the difference. Enact the Public Benefits Organisations Act, keep Government doors open for dialogue and strictly enforce the constitution.

12. NGOS in Kenya mostly follow donor agendas. How can NGOs wean themselves of such and try setting the agenda?

Associations with membership like Amnesty International that set the agenda and hold the organization accountable cannot be easily swayed by external donors or other influences. Domestic resource-mobilization and ensuring that not more than 30% of your funding comes from one source is another way this can be achieved. I am more accountable to my members than to any government or funder today.

13. How has the Civil Society landscape changed?

I joined the NGO sector in 1991. The NGO sector was very well funded and responsible for more than 30% of health, education, relief, and development services. Thirty years on, dwindling development financing for NGOs and the rise of the African development state has seen the sector shift towards accountability and governance oversight. This is consistent with the idea that the state has the primary responsibility for fulfilling the right to justice, essential services, and personal freedom.

14. What advice would you give NGO leaders today?

Jealously protect your right to associate and speak out and guide the nation regularly. Dialogue where you can and dissent where you must. Actively look for new and creative ways to diversify your funding base. Build strong transparent and accountable systems and above all, pace yourself and have fun.

Words of wisdom

15.. Looking back, what would you do different?

I do not make it a habit to entertain regrets or try to recreate the past. It is a light form of insanity to preoccupy ourselves with the past I find. However, from a learning perspective, I could have embraced risk and uncertainty more. It is in the uncertainties and the boldness of our actions that we inspire ourselves, others and produce memories that will be nostalgic one day in the future.

16..What advice would you give to your younger self?

Apart from avoiding wallowing in regret, I have now learned the importance of timing disappointment and moving on as soon as possible. Our time is limited and our choices matter, so keep moving with a sense of urgency.

17. What are your hobbies?

The three generations of my family are increasingly equally important to me. For hobbies, music, movies and keeping my garden green and colorful is where I recharge.

This article was published here


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