Don't punish innocent people in crackdown on harambee

A proposed law, which if enacted will enable the government to closely monitor fundraisers is laden with good intentions, but it also raises key questions.

The National Assembly Constitutional Implementation Oversight Committee (CIOC), through Public Fundraising Appeals Bill, 2019, wants the National Intelligence Service and Directorate of Criminal Investigations to be vetting and processing harambee applications.

Among others, these agencies will be taxed with nailing people who steal harambee money or who use such functions to launder illegally acquired funds.

Since President Jomo Kenyatta mooted harambee as a way of bridging the gap between the poor and the rich, the noble initiative has been dogged by allegations of abuse. As the CIOC has noted, there have been cases of people who have raised money on fictitious grounds only to end up lining their pockets with the same.

Politicians have also been known to use harambees to further their political ends. That is what prompted the Kibaki government in 2003, through the Public Officers Ethics Act, to ban MPs and Cabinet ministers from presiding over harambees, denying them an opportunity to popularise themselves.

A year before that, a British firm commissioned by the Moi government to assess Kenya’s progress in anti-corruption initiatives recommended that harambee be abolished because it had become a source of bribery and extortion. Politicians, it noted, took advantage of harambees to seek elective positions.

Going by the aforementioned, there are good reasons for CIOC to seek to regulate harambees. But that said, one cannot help but wonder how effective the proposed mechanism of vetting harambees will be. Every day, thousands of harambees take place across the country, and majority of those behind them are people with clean hearts and hands whose only intention is to help. Harambees fund the education of thousands of children and specialised treatment of many patients who can’t get the care they need in run-down public hospitals.

In a nutshell, harambees are our way of life. In fact, they have become necessary mostly because of government’s failure to provide basic services.

Requiring Kenyans to seek government approval before holding a harambee, good as the idea sounds, might end up being counterproductive. A patient might, for instance, succumb while relatives are going through the (laborious) process of seeking State approval, while all it would have taken to save his or her life is an instant Whatsapp harambee.

MPs should therefore go through the CIOC Bill with a toothcomb so as to avoid the possibility of hurting thousands of people sorely in need of donations while seeking to smoke out a handful miscreants.