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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Sister Michelle, Obama just had an Af-ROmance: Reflection note on President Obama & Public Benef

obama IH

Still reflecting on aspects of Obama’s visit last week, three memories will probably linger on from a face to face encounter at the newly built regional Centre for the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in Kenyatta University. Firstly, the last two years of acute tension between the Kenyan State and PBOs have been costly. Mutual trust and suspicion has probably been at their lowest since the early years of the 1990s and the re-establishment of multi-party democracy. More importantly than the historical comparison, these tensions have blocked the possibility of Kenya taking decisive steps towards a non-discriminatory, democratic and active society. Yet, they are transformable, as Obama’s personal journey from Community Organiser to the Presidency demonstrates this.

The second issue lies in a growing sense of global connectedness. Fifteen years ago, I remember being coached by an American NGO lobbyist to invoke the memory of the Twin Towers crashing to the ground on September 11 to illustrate the impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa to an American Congressman. The parochialism of the American leadership was probably at an all-time high. Watching President Obama in the last week powerfully rebuke third term hugging African leaders in their presence at the African Union Headquarters or firmly draw parallels between gay rights and civil rights in Nairobi or gingerly challenge the absence of democratic traditions in Ethiopia, I was left with a greater sense of a policy sophistication with regards to Africa.

Yet, a wider review of US policy to Africa during his tenure will probably be less impressive. Over the last six years, the US has missed opportunities to decisively side with African nations on the global issues that have mattered to them. This includes climate change, trade reform, UN Security Council reform, financing for development and tax justice. Which will be the real legacy – 30 hours of Nairobi euphoria or previous years of neglect?

Having said this, Kenyan citizens seem increasingly to be connecting and learning from the daily struggles of ordinary American people as much as from their leadership. We have common challenges. Some of these include speaking and acting for all to be equal under the law. #BlackLivesMatter but so do #SomaliLivesMatter when fighting terrorism in East Africa. We can do more against corruption and the stripping of public spaces, public and natural resources by those with power and privilege.

I hope President Obama and President Kenyatta both internalised the sheer diversity, passion and professionalism of the Public Benefit Organisations (NGOs). Less leaders of Organisations, what I felt in that room with Obama was what informed and active citizens look and sound like. There were those innovating community conservancy approaches, peace-building, governance policy reform and whistleblowing to the boy mentors and the rescuers of girls from female genital mutilation. Activism looked very diverse and resilient in that room that afternoon. Finally, it is worth noting that very few of us in that room were USAID grantees.

The third lasting appreciation for me is that Kenya is still in a transitional moment. Our practices are short of our constitutional vision on integrity, public participation, non-discrimination and devolution. While as PBOs and citizens we must guard our right and responsibility to act independently of the state, we must look for new ways of deepening these freedoms. National self-depreciation and “disruptionist” thinking may have protest value but it has little power to guide us through the transition.

I for one, have drawn several lines. The first line is against entertaining “anti-nation” thinking in future. That the corruption or the ethnic and gender based chauvinism is genetically Kenyan. That we have the leaders we deserve or we are just like the leaders we may despise. Like its twin “disruptionist” thinking, this keeps us in protest mode and unable to powerfully create and own constituencies in the public interest.

The third addresses the holy grail of NGO development. As new international leaders from the global South have argued, the NGO project model with its flawless logical frameworks and activity based budget lines has no more power to transform our reality than an umbrella in a hurricane. We have got to get more connected to citizens’ collective action around public interest issues. We have got to find ways of building a progressive nexus between business – state – citizens. Many of the democratic and development issues we are passionate about, are now constitutional promises and national values.

We can walk into the middle of the room and inclusively lead.




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