Who Does The Civil Society Really Serve?

Written by Gatu Mbaria on .

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 sovereignty?

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 agenda.

 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 desperate.

 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 development.”

 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

This article was published in the Star :