The debate over the pending implementation of the
Public Benefits Organizations Act 2013 is raging. But
as it is now common in our country, there is all
likelihood that it might become so emotional that the
real issues will not be addressed.
One thing is clear, no one denies that for a long time
Africa’s situation and prospects had remained grim,
her people were poor and desperate. For inordinately
too long a time, preventable diseases consigned
millions to their graves at childhood or in their youth.
Give it to them, NGOs stepped in and with their
financial muscle literally ‘reversed fate’, so to speak.
But even after the dark cloud over Africa cleared,
NGOs and civil society kept growing exponentially,
almost explosively.
Since we got independence, Kenyans have truly
suffered from all manner of ills –inter-tribal conflicts,
massacres, official neglect, political assassinations,
and deaths from preventable diseases and so on.
There are those who say that players in the civil
society movement have worked tirelessly to correct
this and to cater for fundamental rights and justice.
Indeed, in a place where deprivation ravages
millions, it could be natural for the victims to view
the movement as the long-awaited messiah out to
strangle deprivation and hopelessness from every
corner of the country. And by broadcasting whatever
they do, players in the movement have aided in
creating the notion that they could be the very
prescription the doctor ordered for healing the
country’s socioeconomic sicknesses.
But time is ripe for Kenyans to interrogate such
notions. Are foreign funded NGOs about forging and
sustaining our national economic, political and social
agenda? Does the civil society movement work
towards helping us attain self-determination, self-
reliance or economic emancipation? Asked
differently, could it be true that because NGOs are
fully funded by foreigners, they might be subtly
working against our national interests and
Opinions on these issues are diversified. There are
those who believe that because governments –even
the best of them- have structural weaknesses and
inherent contradictions, they are unable to address
most of the problems afflicting the society. Those
who say so assert that NGOs have been filling such
gaps and are thus necessary outfits especially for a
developing country like Kenya.
But a potent criticism has been that the very
foundation of the civil society movement is alien.
Such critics accuse the movement of continuing the
work started by missionaries who ganged up with the
British colonizers to control Kenyans and rob the
country’s resources. Those who say so argue that
hardly are players in the civil society movement able
to determine their own activities or even align them
with what is declared –in official documents- as
Kenya’s national economic, social and political
There are copious examples that prove that most
activities of NGOs are determined by the overseas
financiers. It would be the height of naivate to
assume that foreigners do this out of altruism; theirs
is a desire to further their own interests. Such a
desire is often veiled under catchy phrases meant to
deceive Kenyans -and even NGO officials- that it is all
for their good.
Hardly do you find in any proposal or end-of-project
reports from NGOs, the declaration by the financiers
on how they stand to benefit by funding thousands of
projects in Kenya. Rather, it is all about “combating
poverty”, “community empowerment”, “sustainable
development”, “gender mainstreaming” or
“combating discrimination against the girl child.”
The greatest predicament for us in Kenya is that we
have unwittingly allowed such pursuits to form the
core of our national development agenda. We hardly
ask questions such as why foreigners have been
dishing out lots of cash to “liberate” girls or to have
persons of deviant sexual orientation accepted in the
Kenyan society. And even when they fund projects to
fight poverty, we rarely ask questions such as in
what ways an economically emancipated country
would be of interest to foreigners who have
historically reaped big from making Africa poor and
Firoze Manji, author and former editor of Pambazuka
News, says that the work done by the civil society
players contributes marginally to the relief of
poverty, but significantly to undermining the
struggle of African people to emancipate themselves
from economic, social and political oppression. To
Manji, NGOs -by their very operations- pressurize the
society –through a variety of means- to comply with
what he calls “externally defined agenda for social
There are those who believe that NGOs sustain a
“false economy” that is not grounded locally. In
NGOs in Africa: Assets or Liabilities?, Abdul Ghelleh
says that NGOs artificially sustain a false economy by
pushing huge amounts of cash into the pockets of
corrupted local African partners while taking most of
the cash back to their private bank accounts. To
Ghelleh, this goes against home-grown
developmental strategies in Africa.
Who are NGOs accountable to? Critics assert that
owing to the fact that the state does not directly fund
them, it does not have a way of monitoring their
operations. By extension, this has meant that such
organizations have almost unlimited powers because
they are not accountable to any other authority apart
from their foreign financiers.
In such a scenario, how would a country like Kenya
address a situation in which foreigners decide to
push, through NGOs, policies and laws that are
injurious to the country’s national interests? For
instance, we all know that wildlife viewing generates
70 % of the foreign exchange earnings we get from
the tourism sector. But some conservation NGOs
have joined hands with foreigners and local
legislators to ensure that the emerging wildlife law
allows for killing of wildlife through such practices as
cropping, culling and for research. In such a situation
(which actually replicates itself differently in nearly
all sectors), why would we oppose a move meant to
safeguard the goose that lays the golden egg?
Although the civil society has its role to play in any
society, we should never allow it to become too
powerful that it is almost an alternative government.
If power is with the people, then any movement
ought to be grounded on the realities of our country.
It should also be subjected to the laws agreed upon
by the society.
I have no apologies for saying that it is no longer
tenable that such a huge sector in Kenya is
answerable not to the people of Kenya, but to
foreigners who have continued to get all manner of
situational reports on every aspect of our society.
This sector needs to be immediately brought under
the national laws and must be made to toe the line
as far as our national interests are concerned.

Gatu Mbaria is a Land Use Planner

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