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We need a new breed of environmental organisations in Kenya


 Founder member of Twende Green Ecocycle, Lawrence sits on one of the chairs they made at Swahilipot in Mombasa on November 15, 2023. [Oondi Onyango,Standard]

Most environmental advocacy work is conducted by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The primary business model of most of these NGOs is foreign-funded projects. These projects “pay the bills” and are the mainstay of the NGOs, while the advocacy work tends to emerge as and when crises occur.

For example, NGOs get project funding to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, restore forests or improve the management of rivers, but these same organisations had to rely on crowdfunding and staff working in their free time to advocate against the building of the Standard Gauge Railway through the Nairobi National Park.

This reliance on foreign-funded projects raises important concerns. The first is that advocacy work and environmental justice cannot be achieved through neat, time-bound project deliverables.  

Advocacy work is messy and political; timelines are unclear, and success is not guaranteed. Advocacy work also requires sustained vigilance and actors to play the role of a “watchdog” to ensure gains made are not reversed.

The reliance on project funding means that NGOs are staffed and structured for project delivery; the staff often don’t have the skills and abilities to run advocacy campaigns, mobilise the general public, and shape public opinion. 

Lastly, the legitimacy of these NGOs can be questioned. NGOs and activists are often referred to as the “puppets of their foreign masters”.

Kenya needs environmental organisations whose sole mission is advocacy work. Their staffing, skill sets, and structure should be reflective of this mission. They should be primarily funded locally through a combination of individual donations, private philanthropy, and other financial mechanisms that are self-sustaining such as trust funds and endowments. 

This ensures flexible and long-term resourcing suited to the demands of advocacy work, eliminates reliance on foreign funding, and secures legitimacy. Advocacy work funded by Kenyans, for Kenyans. The establishment of a local membership or supporter base would serve to form a political constituency that these organisations work on behalf of and represent, further increasing their legitimacy.

What kind of work would such organisations do? I have identified three areas of work.

The first is environmental education. Kenyans should be aware and informed about their environmental rights and the law. Such citizen education would allow active and responsible citizens to play a full part in an environmentally conscious society. 

The second area of work would be advocacy. Not only would this address current issues in policy and practice, but it can operate in a proactive way by pushing, for example, for better air and water quality standards.

And finally, such organisations would be involved in public interest litigation as a last resort to address the worst of our environmental injustices, such as the wilful discharge of industrial pollutants into water bodies and into our atmosphere. Public interest litigation would help seek justice and set precedent to deter such from happening again in the future.

NGOs and their dedicated staff have for decades played an important role in protecting and managing the environment. They deserve our greatest respect. Given the growth trajectory of our country, the threats to our environment will only increase. 

The time is ripe for a new breed of environmental organisations to emerge in Kenya.

The writer is Senior Portfolio Manager for East Africa Maliasili

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