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Kenya’s clampdown on civil society is against its self-interest

Kenyan civil society activists protest against the extrajudicial killing of a human rights lawyer and his client. Restrictions against NGOs have intensified. Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

In the three years since Uhuru Kenyatta became president of Kenya, relations between his government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been repeatedly strained. Recently friction arose when the NGO Board – the agency responsible for registering organisations in Kenya – announced strict new rules on expatriate NGO workers.

At nearly the same time, NGOs were accused of betraying Kenya with information that led Uganda to send its pipeline through Tanzania rather than Kenya.

This is not the first time such discord has arisen. In 2015 the Cabinet Secretary for Devolution used the presentation of the first Annual Report on NGOs to emphasise that these organisations should move away from political activities. Almost 1,000 NGOs faced deregistration.

A year earlier Kenyatta’s Mashujaa Day speech came at a time of repeated verbal threats to NGOs and civil society.

And 2013 saw Jubilee allies introduce legislation to restrict NGO funding from foreign sources to 15%. This is despite about 90% of funding to NGOs coming from outside Kenya.

Throughout this period, the government has also dragged its feet on implementing the Public Benefit Organisation Act even though it was enacted in 2013. So the recent restrictions instead refer to legislation on NGOs from the 1990s.

Why does this keep happening?

On the surface, the government’s concerns are legitimate. It is utterly reasonable for a government to monitor organisations, especially foreign ones, operating within its borders. Requiring that organisations attempt to hire locals before importing staff also makes sense. The US does the same thing with its H1-B visas.

Likewise, following up on organisations whose funds come from unknown sources, as Kenya is doing, is reasonable in a country that has experienced repeated terrorist attacks in recent years. And deregistering organisations that do not submit required paperwork is understandable.

Yet scratch beneath the surface and one finds more systematic anti-foreign and anti-NGO sentiment running through this Kenyatta administration. In 2013, Kenyatta was elected on a largely anti-foreign platform, particularly against the International Criminal Court. At the time it was investigating his role – and that of his running mate William Ruto – in the 2008 post-election violence.

Loyal MPs have since argued that NGOs conspired with the ICC against the Kenyan leaders. This has been used as justification for reducing NGO freedoms and access to funds. And this has led some to refer to civil society as “evil” society in public discourse.

The Jubilee government has also implemented restrictions on other forms of civil society suggesting liberties be tightened more generally. Legislation passed in 2013 introduced new restrictions on journalists and threats against them have been increasing.

Extrajudicial killings have also been on the rise.

Moreover, many say that threatening deregistration of some NGOs is politically motivated – as for organisations like the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Combined, this all suggests backsliding in Kenya’s democracy. But as Karuti Kanyinga has argued, the friction with NGOs should not be surprising, since Kenyatta’s administration is comprised largely of allies of former President Daniel arap Moi and his Kenya African National Union (KANU) party.

Alongside religious organisations and professional associations, NGOs were major forces pushing Moi for freedoms and multiparty democracy in the 1990s. This stands in contrast with Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) regime, which had been allied with civil society and NGOs during its long tenure in the opposition. NGOs and civil society actively worked with Kibaki to defeat Kenyatta in his first bid for the presidency in 2002.

Nevertheless, for Kenyans many of the current tensions hark back to the dark years of the Moi administration. Then, NGOs were regularly threatened and many NGO workers lived in constant fear.

A change of approach will help everyone

The Kenyatta government is not alone in believing that NGOs are a threat. Countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Vietnam and Russia all strongly restrict NGO autonomy and funding. Some say that Kenya’s restrictions make it increasingly resemble Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

There are at least three reasons why the Kenyatta administration may be acting against its own interest.

Firstly in terms of recent changes, there is little reason to assume that organisations which currently hire expensive expatriates are going to choose to reallocate these resources to Kenyan employees.

A vibrant set of idealistic Twitter users employing the hashtag #NGOInequality seem to think this might be the case. But despite their legitimate ethical concerns, experience suggests that these NGOs – especially foreign ones – are just as likely to withdraw their resources from Kenya. This would result in a net loss of money entering and circulating in the country.

Secondly, more generalised restrictions on civil society may not be good for the economy of Kenya and therefore the Kenyatta regime. Limiting foreign NGO funding would result in job losses and the loss of considerable programmatic money spent. The NGO sector employs between 80,000 and 240,000 people in Kenya.

Evidence tells us that NGOs work where they have more freedoms.

The more that Kenya moves away from democracy, the less likely NGOs are to locate their work there. Combined with increased insecurity from terror attacks, Nairobi could lose its appeal as a hub for NGOs throughout East Africa.

Third, my own social scientific research reveals that when people interact with NGOs providing services in Kenya, citizen views of the government are generally more favourable than when there is no contact with NGOs.

Many citizens give credit to the government for services received, regardless of the origin. And an overwhelming majority of NGOs in Kenya exist primarily to provide services. Reducing funding to these organisations is likely to lower popular views of government, not raise them.

Given these facts, the Kenyatta government may wish to reconsider its repeated attacks against NGOs. The country as a whole is likely to benefit.

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