Financially independent civic and community NGOs are vital

The Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF) turned 20 this week. Some 300 community and civic leaders from Kenya and as far away as South Africa and Nepal joined them to reflect on community philanthropy, civic responsibility and financially sustainable organisations. The #DurableDevelopment conference conversations seem so different from other developments in the last fortnight they could be in another country.

This week, journalist Walter Menya tragically spent two nights in detention for reporting on the Jubilee Foundation. He was allegedly framed by an employee of the NGO Coordination Bureau. The same Bureau recently declared Jubilee aspirant Mike Sonko’s Rescue Team, Kenya’s best humanitarian NGO, after registering it barely one month before.

NASA leader’s Kalonzo Musyoka Foundation was less lucky. He had to go to court to stop the Bureau from arbitrarily closing their bank accounts. If this is not enough confusion. For the last seven days, Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery has technically been a fugitive. He failed to gazette the commencement date of the Public Benefit Organisation Act (2013) within the 30-day notice given by Justice Mativo.

Community development and governance has always been political. I remember a spirited debate as a member of the NGO Coordination Board member in 1994. Should FORD leader Walter Shikuku’s Foundation be registered alongside Kanu leader Joseph Kamotho’s Foundation? We eventually determined that if their programmes were in the public interest they should be registered, then regulated. Today, without a NGO policy compass, administrative integrity or political neutrality, our National Government is drifting in waters it seems not to understand.

Cynics tell us Kenyans are self-disinterested and dispassionate about others. The facts speak differently. Yetu Organisation’s findings last year suggest that 93 per cent of Kenyans regularly give to others more fortunate than them. A growing number now look beyond their families and village-mates to organisations that can invest their contributions and run sustainable programmes.

After a decade of corporate social responsibility initiatives, companies like KenGen have begun to establish a financially endowed and independent Foundation. They walk in the shoes of the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations.

Rural and urban communities are not being left behind. Globally, there has been a 75 per cent increase in community based foundations over the last decade. South Africa’s Kagiso Trust and our own KCDF among them. What characterises these foundations is new models of building endowments and matching funds, owning properties and share-capital.

Respected anti-apartheid leader Rev Frank Chikane led the Kagiso Trust to the KCDF celebration. With Sh8 billion of their own money invested in 200,000 students and other beneficiaries, several provincial governments have matched this investment.

KCDF itself has worked with 2,000 partners to invest Sh1.9 billion and directly impact on 2.1 million Kenyans over the last two decades. Thousands of these community foundations now exist globally. With the right policy environment, communities could soon be significant donors in their own development. Within our lifetime, the next generation of community and civic organisations could be free of foreign assistance.

The Public Benefits Organisations Act foresaw all this four years ago. It contains a blueprint for how to increase domestic giving for development. For those who care to see a bigger picture than state control, the paralysis on commencing the PBO Act has cost us much.

Vibrant, responsible citizens need more than an accountable, responsive state. Dynamic, issue-based and financially independent civic and community organisations are vital. We must ask the aspirants in the upcoming gubernatorial, legislative and presidential debates how they will create this enabling environment. Alternatively, the Interior Ministry could pre-empt this discussion and commence the Act. It would create new and bigger possibilities for the country.

- Mr Irungu writes in a personal capacity. He is Society for International Development Associate Director. [email protected]