State must rethink move against civil society funding

By Kamotho Waiganjo
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Every so often the government introduces a policy or legislative gem that raises lots of heat. Whether it be the anti-ICC campaign, or the Nyumba Kumi initiative there is one consistent thread in these gems.  They are informed by a clear policy direction, however contested.

For the Jubilee government, its policy choices are largely identified in the Jubilee manifesto. To its credit, the government has so far been pursuing its policy prescriptions with fervour. Whether it’s the free maternity pledge, the Uwezo Fund or the rationalisation of Government, Jubilee appears determined to accomplish its core campaign promises quickly.

It, therefore, came as a shock when, without any clear policy proposition, the government proposed fundamental alterations to the Public Benefits Organisations (PBO) sector, by introducing two amendments to the PBO Act. On the one hand the funding to PBOs by “external donors” was limited to 15 per cent of their budgets and secondly the funding for PBOs was required to be managed through the PBO Federation.

How is this to be managed where donors enter into direct contracts with individual PBOs? Even the language of the Bill, despite addressing such fundamental proposals, is worryingly casual. These proposals were most surprising because until the Bill, they had not been part of any previous national conversation. Indeed, the Jubilee manifesto, other than legitimately promising to check NGOs that engage in politics, had promised greater support for NGOs, promising to set up a Charities Agency so as to provide government funding to NGOs and to “develop strong partnership with the NGO sector ....”. Clearly somewhere along the way Jubilee changed its mind!

Admittedly, the Jubilee government’s relationship with civil society, snidely referred to as  “evil society” in some Jubilee circles, has not been rosy. It’s on record that many of the  “governance sector” PBOs played partisan politics in the run-up to the election and remain fixated on the elections long after even the principal political actors moved on.

Many non-partisan professionals in the sector would have gladly welcomed proposals that would delink NGOs from partisan politics. Clearly the unilateral proposal by government to gut funding achieves a different end, which is to strangle the PBO sector.

We live in a country where there are few incentives for local funding of civil society. We do not yet have a culture of “formal philanthropy”, though it is growing, led by several local Foundations. To require that 85 per cent of funding for PBOs come from local sources at this point is to sound a death knell for the majority of PBOs.

Even if one gave government the benefit of the doubt and assumed that this proposal was intended to develop local ownership of the PBO sector, a more reasonable process would have to phase it over a period so that PBOs are given opportunity to reorganise, restrategise and for necessary reforms that encourage local funding to take root.

Kenya has one of the most vibrant civil society sectors in the continent. PBOs currently play a critical role in creating oversight mechanisms particularly in the nascent County governments and increasing public awareness of civic responsibilities. More importantly they create the necessary valve through which public discontent is allowed to escape. Closing this valve is risky for any government, as revolts elsewhere have proved.

In a country where government is unable to provide support to cover all needs, placing a cap on funding for providers of much needed services is massive disservice to the recipients of such help. Where there are concerns about accountability, audit and other oversight mechanisms can cure this malady; throwing the baby out with the bath water is just plain unreasonable.

Granted there are real issues that PBOs must deal with, including issues of focus in a changed constitutional and political environment. Legitimate concerns on accountability and partisan politics abound. But the cure proposed by government, which I fear will quickly pass in Parliament, is misplaced and injurious to the nation.