Sister Michelle, Obama just had an Af-ROmance: Reflection note on President Obama & Public Benefits Organisations leaders exchange, Sunday 26th July

obama IH

Still reflecting on aspects of Obama’s visit last week, three memories will probably linger on from a face to face encounter at the newly built regional Centre for the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in Kenyatta University. Firstly, the last two years of acute tension between the Kenyan State and PBOs have been costly. Mutual trust and suspicion has probably been at their lowest since the early years of the 1990s and the re-establishment of multi-party democracy. More importantly than the historical comparison, these tensions have blocked the possibility of Kenya taking decisive steps towards a non-discriminatory, democratic and active society. Yet, they are transformable, as Obama’s personal journey from Community Organiser to the Presidency demonstrates this.

The second issue lies in a growing sense of global connectedness. Fifteen years ago, I remember being coached by an American NGO lobbyist to invoke the memory of the Twin Towers crashing to the ground on September 11 to illustrate the impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa to an American Congressman. The parochialism of the American leadership was probably at an all-time high. Watching President Obama in the last week powerfully rebuke third term hugging African leaders in their presence at the African Union Headquarters or firmly draw parallels between gay rights and civil rights in Nairobi or gingerly challenge the absence of democratic traditions in Ethiopia, I was left with a greater sense of a policy sophistication with regards to Africa.

Yet, a wider review of US policy to Africa during his tenure will probably be less impressive. Over the last six years, the US has missed opportunities to decisively side with African nations on the global issues that have mattered to them. This includes climate change, trade reform, UN Security Council reform, financing for development and tax justice. Which will be the real legacy – 30 hours of Nairobi euphoria or previous years of neglect?

Having said this, Kenyan citizens seem increasingly to be connecting and learning from the daily struggles of ordinary American people as much as from their leadership. We have common challenges. Some of these include speaking and acting for all to be equal under the law. #BlackLivesMatter but so do #SomaliLivesMatter when fighting terrorism in East Africa. We can do more against corruption and the stripping of public spaces, public and natural resources by those with power and privilege.

I hope President Obama and President Kenyatta both internalised the sheer diversity, passion and professionalism of the Public Benefit Organisations (NGOs). Less leaders of Organisations, what I felt in that room with Obama was what informed and active citizens look and sound like. There were those innovating community conservancy approaches, peace-building, governance policy reform and whistleblowing to the boy mentors and the rescuers of girls from female genital mutilation. Activism looked very diverse and resilient in that room that afternoon. Finally, it is worth noting that very few of us in that room were USAID grantees.

The third lasting appreciation for me is that Kenya is still in a transitional moment. Our practices are short of our constitutional vision on integrity, public participation, non-discrimination and devolution. While as PBOs and citizens we must guard our right and responsibility to act independently of the state, we must look for new ways of deepening these freedoms. National self-depreciation and “disruptionist” thinking may have protest value but it has little power to guide us through the transition.

I for one, have drawn several lines. The first line is against entertaining “anti-nation” thinking in future. That the corruption or the ethnic and gender based chauvinism is genetically Kenyan. That we have the leaders we deserve or we are just like the leaders we may despise. Like its twin “disruptionist” thinking, this keeps us in protest mode and unable to powerfully create and own constituencies in the public interest.

The third addresses the holy grail of NGO development. As new international leaders from the global South have argued, the NGO project model with its flawless logical frameworks and activity based budget lines has no more power to transform our reality than an umbrella in a hurricane. We have got to get more connected to citizens’ collective action around public interest issues. We have got to find ways of building a progressive nexus between business – state – citizens. Many of the democratic and development issues we are passionate about, are now constitutional promises and national values.

We can walk into the middle of the room and inclusively lead.



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Is the Government going in circles over PBOs?

An abridged version of this article was published in the The Star Newspaper, 22-07-15

The establishment of a Taskforce to review the Public Benefits Organisations Act (2013) by Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru in November 2014 broke what was becoming a predictable tradition of “NGO legislation by ambush”. It was hoped that consensus could be built on any necessary changes. It was also hoped that the Act, already dormant for two years, would finally be commenced. Seven months from the establishment of the Taskforce, it is difficult to see whether Kenyan taxpayers have got value for money.

The Taskforce Chairperson Sophia Abdi Noor handed over the Taskforce report to the Cabinet Secretary in the presence of the full Taskforce and the Media on May 21st. The report was not shared with the other 13 Taskforce Members, the Press, the 1,943 men and women who gave their views or the public. Only after three terse PBO press conferences, social media pressure and lobbying, did NGO Coordination Bureau Director Fazul Mahamed finally release the report to the public on July 6th by twitter.

28 of the report’s 40 pages are devoted to an unbelievably large number of pie-charts and matrices of those that participated in the consultations between January and April 2015. If you have ever wondered how many different ways you could describe the participation of 1,943 men and women in ten regional meetings, this part of the report is for you. Granted that a wide range of citizens, citizens groups, public benefits organisations, foundations, public officials and development partners had an opportunity to speak before the Taskforce, but did we need ¾ of the report to cover this?

The remaining ten pages contains the substance of the issues generated by the Taskforce. This is probably the most disappointing part of the report. Under eleven headings, the report regurgitates without coherency, seemingly random thoughts and ideas many of them not deserving of legislative attention. Little attempt is made to forge a clear set of recommendations that improve on the existing Act.

The first of the recommendations is that the Act needs to concretely define what a PBO is. The Taskforce however makes no suggestion nor explains why the clear definition that is in the Act, namely “all organisations serving the public or acting in the public interest” is insufficient. Five of the ten recommendations relate to strengthening executive control, introducing new taxes and representation of the Interior Ministry within the PBO Authority, the entity to replace the NGO Coordination Bureau. Another of the recommendations bizarrely addresses the danger of NGOs promoting terrorism and “indecent acts” in a single sentence. Do we still wonder why our efforts to counter extremist violence seems to lack singular focus?

The ten recommendations fall short of what we might expect from a process that pre-occupied the attention and time of 14 otherwise busy civil servants, PBO leaders and experts and the Kshs 20 million it probably cost. More tragically, the outcome that the Cabinet Secretary probably had in mind in establishing the Taskforce was lost. The consultations offered an opportunity to end the mistrust caused by clumsy legislative attempts to restrict civil space over 2013 and 2014. The decision by NGO Coordination Bureau Director Fazul Mahamed to not release the report to the public has now punctured any progress that had been made by the Taskforce.

The three PBO bodies on Taskforce namely the National Council of NGOs, The Inter-Religious Council of Kenya and the Kenya CSO Reference Group have now disavowed sections of the report, claiming manipulation by the NGO Coordination Bureau. They have also called for the Cabinet Secretary to immediately commence the Act that was passed nearly three years ago by the 10th Assembly.

Whether you hold the view that the sector is critical for eradicating poverty, fighting corruption and advancing human rights or is so corrupt that it needs closer regulation, nothing can explain why the Ministry of Devolution and National Planning has shown little resolution in closing the thirty six month legal vacuum. The Cabinet Secretary’s argument that she requires changes seems fair until you compare the public accountability provisions in the PBO Act (2013) and NGO Coordination Act (1990). The comparison is like a Porsche racing a Vitz on Mombasa road. As someone said recently of the impasse, “If you aren’t confused, you ain’t paying close enough attention”.

Many of the structures and the functions established in the NGO Coordination Act (1990) have expired or become redundant. The terms of the Chairperson and members of the NGO Coordination Board have long expired, the Board has not met in several months. Only the Bureau still exists. The important work of registering NGOs, processing work permits and applications for tax exemption no longer passes through the Board. The Bureau, where it does take action, runs the risk of overstepping its legal mandate. Where it does, many NGOs have complained about the inordinate delays in processing applications or receiving a response from the Bureau.

More recently, some international organisations have received visits from Bureau staff to press them to establish local governance boards with at least three of the Directors being Kenyan. While this is a desirable provision in the PBO Act (2013), it is not a provision in the NGO Coordination Act (1990). It would seem that the Bureau wants to selectively use some provisions while ignoring others.

While Kenyans wait a few more months for yet another set of amendments to the PBO Act (2013), the sector continues to work in legal limbo. The one-man show of a NGOs Coordination Board will continue to operate without the guidance of its Directors long gone. Important national and county level partnerships that could be forged to eradicate poverty and build institutions of integrity both within PBOs themselves and in the State will remain adolescent. Lastly, Kenya will continue to reflect hostility to a forty year old sector to the international community ahead of its hosting of the next Global OECD High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2016.

Having said this, the 1,493 men and women who gave their recommendations can be happy to hear that the Taskforce has buried many of the destructive recommendations in previous amendments. Gone is the 15% cap on foreign funding, compulsory re-registration of faith-based organisations and foundations and restrictions on domestic philanthropy and freedom of association. Let’s hope that the process of developing an amendment bill does not allow for them to be re-introduced against the wishes of Kenyans.

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Five Challenges facing the PBO sector in Kenya

By Irungu Houghton[1]

As the issue of shrinking CSO space inevitably will come up again during the US Kenya talks this week, it is worth republishing this article that I wrote a few months back that summarises the major tensions between the Kenyan state and its Public Benefits Organisations. It was published by The Star Newspaper. The original paper was written in response to Dr. Alex Awiti’s February 24th article “Has Civil Society outlived its Use”

Dr Alex Awiti makes an important call for Public Benefits Organisations to reinvent themselves. Two years ago, the passing of the Public Benefits Organisations Act of 2013 by the National Assembly and its assent by H.E. Mwai Kibaki attempted to do just that.

The Act emerged from a consensus between the state and PBO sector on the need for a strengthened and revitalized sector. It also brought NGO law in line with the new Constitution and developments within the sector. Twenty four months later, it is yet to be operationalized with the Devolution Cabinet Secretary declining to commence the Act citing the need for amendments.

This week sees a crucial moment in the future of the sector. After ten regional consultations, the PBO Taskforce is set to conclude its public consultations on amendments to the PBO Act (2013). How it packages its findings and what eventually ends up in the National Assembly will place Kenya either on the path of trust and collaboration or the path of mistrust and confrontation between National Government, PBOs and County Governments.

Over 2013-2014, the National Government made five attempts to amend the PBO Act of 2013. They included two separate sets of amendments under Miscellaneous Amendments Bills (November 2013 and June 2014) and a Memorandum containing 54 amendments (October 2014). In November, the Ministry of Devolution and Planning gazetted a PBO Taskforce under the leadership of former Member of Parliament Sophia Abdi Noor and successfully amended the PBO Act through amendments to Security Act Amendment Bill (November 2014).

The five interventions have four similarities. They were brought to Parliament without prior public notice or consultation with the majority of Public Benefits Organisations. They have sought to increase executive power over the registration, regulation and funding of the sector. All with the exception of the Ministry of Devolution/Hon Moses Kuria memorandum of October 2014 have attempted to pass substantive amendments within Miscellaneous Amendments Bills. Lastly, all have revolved around five policy questions.

Strengthening the public accountability clauses within the Act is probably the issue that PBOs and the National Government can agree on. Like the Government, inefficiency, corruption and funding diversion is a curse to the sector. The PBO Act (2013) introduced a number of important new requirements. They include prohibiting governance boards from being paid and having to sign conflict of interest registers. Publishing audited accounts and making them available for citizens to see on request is another important step towards public accountability.

The issue that has caused most domestic and international controversy has been the proposal to cap foreign funding to 15% and channel all funding through the yet to be set up Government PBO Authority. It was probably singularly responsible for the rejection of the November 2013 amendments by the National Assembly. Notwithstanding this and the consultations over 2014, this proposal re-emerged in October 2014 coupled with the proposal that those organisations that receive more than 15% could be classified as foreign PBOs. There have been many arguments against this amendment ranging from the negative impact on development, poverty eradication and foreign exchange to the destruction of a 40 year sector. It may not be necessary to rehash them here.

The third policy issue relates to the treatment of domestic philanthropy and tax incentives for companies and citizens who may wish to contribute to development. The overreliance on overseas development assistance has been an active source of concern to the PBO sector. As far back as 1992, a consortium of NGOs had begun organizing the biannual East African Fundraising Conference that worked on diversifying income for NGOs through direct mail appeals, events and corporate social responsibility giving. These efforts intensified supported by the emergence of community foundations in the 1990s and then corporate foundations in the 2000s.

Prior to the PBO Act, there had been close to a decade of efforts to reform tax and fiscal law to create incentives for collaboration between the Government, private sector and the not for profit sector. The Act sought to enshrine and expand this option. With this in mind it was dismaying to see that the October 2014 Memorandum proposing to delete the entire schedule within the PBO Act that promoted corporate and citizens social responsibility. Taken with the proposals to cut foreign funding, the impact would be to starve the sector of both domestic and foreign resources.

The fourth tension revolves around executive regulation and self-regulation. In its current form, the PBO Act embraces both approaches to accountability. It proposes a Regulatory Authority, similar to the current NGO Coordination Board and a PBO Federation to replace the NGO Council. The Authority is largely appointed by the Cabinet Secretary while the Federation is the sector association. The Federation will have representation on the Authority.

The spirit of the amendments since the Act has been to weaken the principle and mechanisms of self-regulation and strengthen executive regulation. These amendments are backed by arguments that self-regulation has failed to hold the sector accountable to the common norms and standards in the NGO Code of Conduct. The problem with this argument is that it fundamentally shifts ownership and responsibility away from the sector to the Government. Rather than creating agreement on a set of common values and normative standards, the sector would inevitably come to be governed by rules and the regulatory capacity of Government. The size and the complexity of the sector does not lend to easy regulation by an external party, even one the size of the Government of Kenya. Successive autocratic Governments under former President Moi have tried and failed.

The Act seeks to bring more than 350,000 non-profit agencies acting in the public interest and providing benefits to the public under one legal umbrella. The Act contains various incentives for agencies currently registered under Trusts Act, Companies Act and the Societies Act among others, to voluntarily migrate to the new Act.

New amendments have sought to make migration to the PBO Act compulsory arguing that only compulsory migration will ensure accountability for handling funding in the public interest. While migration to the PBO Act is desirable, making this compulsory could have an negative impact. Trusts and Foundations have pointed out to potential huge capital losses as they transfer fixed assets and real estate to new legal regimes. Secondly, the lumping together of very diverse and historically distinctly different organisational types will not necessarily generate a more unified sector.

All five of these issues have dominated the various hearings. The failure to reach consensus in the amendments and the inordinate delay in commencement of the Act has also led to a consistent call in all the recent hearings for the immediate commencement of the PBO Act cited the two year delay. The treatment of these five issues and whether the country has to wait another two years for commencement will ultimately shape the future of the PBO sector and its relationship with citizens, the national Government and the 47 County Governments among others. Of the two paths; mutual trust and cooperation or mistrust and confrontation, as a long standing servant of this sector, I pray it is the former.

1,230 words

[1] Irungu Houghton is currently the Associate Director for the Society for International Development having worked in the PBO sector for over 20 years. Email, Twitter @irunguhoughton

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Lessons in Leadership from Africa for young African Americans in North America

act, dont interrupt

Session Purpose:

By the end of the session, we will have;

1)   Reflected on the examples of leadership provided by Professor Wangari Maathai, President Kwame Nkrumah and President Julius Nyerere

2)   Discussed the relevance of achievement (all), Resilience (Maathai), Vision (Nkrumah) and Humility (Nyerere) for the contexts in which the participants come from

Facts about Africa[1]

  • One of the oldest civilizations flourished in Egypt
  • Second fastest growing continental economy second only to Asia, faster than Europe and North Americas
  • At 30 million hectares, Africa is the world’s second largest continent, 54 countries
  • 1/ of the world live in Africa
  • 30% of the world’s mineral resources, 40% gold, 60% cobalt
  • Place of history, plenty and promise

Resilience, humility and vision

Resilience: Wangari Muta Maathai (passed on 2011)

Born on slopes of Mt kenya, first class student, flew as part of the 1960 Kennedy airlifts to study at University of Pittsburgh. Organised against air pollution in Pittsburgh. First Kenyan woman to get a PHD doctorate in Botany. She struggled for equal pay for women lecturers, to be an elected leader, to stop the ruling party from grabbing public land and planted 47 million trees through her organisation The Green Belt Movement. She was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, first African woman in history. She was known to say all just and stable societies live on three legs like a traditional African stool; “The first leg stands for democratic space, where rights are respected, the second represents sustainable and equitable management and resources and the third stands for cultures of peace. You need all three to be of the same length”

Vision: Kwame Nkrumah (passed on 1972)

First President of Ghana and founder of the Organisation of African Unity, left to study at the University of Lincoln, Pennsylvania, cleaned toilets and other jobs in Harlem in the 1950s, was described as a student who whatever paper he was given to write he always used the opportunity to write about the freedom of the African people. Attended the 5th Pan African Congress and returned to his country Ghana to unify the four territories of the Gold Coast and learn how to govern. In 1966, he was overthrown by the Ghanaian army with the help of the CIA. He left behind industries and the Volta River Dam that today continues to provide energy for Ghana.  He was known to have said, revolutions occur when people think as people of action, and people act as people of thought.

Humility: Julius Nyerere (passed on 1999)

First President of Tanzania, teacher “Mwalimu” formed the party that was to kick the British out of Tanzania. Conceptualised African socialism or Ujamaa, called for leadership in service, equal opportunities and raising living standards over private wealth and consumption. Was the backbone of opposition to the system of apartheid, racialism that kept the majority of black Africans slaves in their own land.  Always self-critical, self-challenging, brought personal integrity to the level of service above self.  Was known to have said; “leadership has a duty not just to the present but to our ancestors and descendants”. In 2015, the Vatican is considering calls for him o be beatified as a Saint within the Catholic Order

Implications for you and I

USA in crisis and change no different than the most important times in history including the 1960s. Protests at the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. ¼ out of school or out of work. ¾ have a different vision for their lives, want to get ahead. 6.7 million black boys and men

  1. How could sacrifice, humility and vision give you more power to be somebody in your home and community?
  2. What would you have to stop doing, start doing to be a person of action based on thought?
  3. What would the examples of these great Africans look like in your community? What would they do?


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Thoughts on the Mo Ibrahim Leadership award 2015

On March 2, the prize committee of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation awarded the 2015 Mo Ibrahim Leadership Award to former Namibian President President Hifikepunye Pohamba. Reflecting on a few of the questions asked of me, I offered these thoughts

1. Does it make sense to give already wealthy presidents $5 million? Is it an incentive to African president to strive for excellence?
Although this is the largest cash prize for leadership globally, it is not really about the money. It is about identifying servant leaders and generating a public dialogue about building democratic societies in Africa. Prestige is often fuelled less by the money than by the symbolism of public recognition.

2. And what is your overall view of this award? Is it more effective to channel this money towards institution building rather than individuals as President Obama remarked in Ghana “Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions”?
If I was giving the award I would focus more on institutions and involve citizens more in the selection process. It would be interesting to crowdsource citizen’s views on possible prize awardees half way through final tenure to encourage better performance. However, I am not Mo and I don’t have US$5 million to give away each year.

3. Who is to decide a leader is good? Mo Ibrahim or the people themselves? You would imagine that the legacy of leaders in most countries remains a contentious issue.
The award is based on the political, economic and social trends captured by one of the most governance comprehensive indexes on Africa. Obviously a more powerful legacy is the way a leader is respected by the public after they leave office. Too many leaders flee their countries or live in constant worry of arrest for crimes committed while in office.

A more worrying tradition for me is the election of the African Union chairperson. The regional rotational principle allowed probably one of the worst autocrats currently in office, Robert Mugabe to be elected to represent Africa in 2015. Is it not time for the African Union to adopt criteria based on its own norms and policy standards? Perhaps this prize could be awarded in Addis prior to the January African Union summits to energise the selection processes. Location matters.

4. Can we compare the leadership qualities needed to govern a small country of half a million people to those required to ran a country like Nigeria with complex social, political and economic challenges?

While scale may differ the principles remain the same. The capacity of vision, anticipation, service, humility, charm and care are important whether leaders are running a local school, a country with a population of one million or another of over a hundred million. Complexity is important but the type of choices leaders make, are the decisive factor. In this regard, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation could do more to share some of the specific choices their nominees make. There is power in the anecdotes of former Cape Verdean President Pires leaving office carrying only his humility. That is servant leadership. That, is a story that can inspire Africa.

Categories: Africa, African Union, civic education, Democracy, pan Africanism, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Some thoughts on place-based organizing in Kilimani, Kenya

The KILIMANI Project Foundation Logo Low

Some thoughts on place-based organizing in Kilimani, Kenya 

By Irũngũ Houghton, Chairperson, Kilimani Project Foundation[1]

Assets, Capacities, Trust: Community Philanthropy Matters, Revised Presentation to the Council on Foundations

“100 years of Community Foundations” Conference, Cleveland, October 2014

“We are slowly thinking of leaving Kilimani for other suburbs. Yet, we forget Kilimani is a little Kenya. What we don’t like about Kilimani is showing up in all parts of Nairobi. The line stops here. If we can’t transform this ward, what makes us confident that we will not have to keep running forever?”

Kilimani in a wider context

Africa is not overpopulated or overcrowded, just over-concentrated. 15/20 of the fastest growing cities in the world are in Africa. 50% of the one billion people live in just seven countries. Africa has the highest urban population growth rate in the world. By 2050, 37 countries will double the number of urban residents. With urbanization comes, opportunities for innovation, industrialization, large internal consumer markets and the economic lift off seen in other industrialised countries. It also brings pressure from rising congestion, physical squalor, low-cost housing, inadequate services and huge class and spatial inequalities.[2]

Kenya and Nairobi reflects these continental trends. 60% of Nairobians live in on only 10% of the land. Many of them live in extreme poverty, are under-employed, lack essential services and are vulnerable to acts of violence and crime. Rape and assault is common. The neighbourhoods and villages of Kibra (Kibera), a low income high density area bordering Kilimani, is one of the more well known of these areas. Here, at least 150,000 live, work and do business.[3]

 Kilimani by contrast, is a middle income neighbourhood. It has a population of 43,000. It is one of the very few Nairobi neighbourhoods in which residents can live, work, school, shop and be entertained. Very few neighbourhoods have this. Neither higher end Karen, Runda or Loresho can boast this. Kilimani also has a very wide selection of restaurants. Lenana road offers one of the best rows of restaurants available.

It is also a melting pot for several nationalities and ethnic communities ranging from the French to the Chinese, francophone West Africans to the Ethiopians. Kilimani is also a place of innovation, culture, activism and the arts. Kuona Trust Art Gallery, PAWA254, the Nest, i-hub, 3mice, University of Nairobi, Daystar University and several other places of innovation and learning are all located here. It is home to the President and State House. Famous Kenyan musicians Maia von Lekow, Atemi Oyungu, Chris Bitok, Suzanna Owiyo, Justaband as well as photographers Emmanuel Jambo and Rafique among others compose and create from here.

While Kilimani is rapidly becoming a high-density suburb, a melting pot for brand companies and a place of innovation, culture, arts and leadership, it is not yet an integrated neighbourhood. What’s missing? Choice, liveability and community empowerment.

Utilities are in danger of being overstrained but there is little dialogue between County planners, developers and residents. Residents remain uninformed on their rights and responsibilities. There is private security everywhere yet we perceive ourselves as insecure. There are regular electricity and water outages but no integrated public information system. As Kilimani grows, the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly being displaced. There are no skills building or market support for informal or small entrepreneurs despite growing potential markets. While diverse, we are also a divided community. Most of us are walking complaints and our experience of community is shrinking to our very homes.

While distinctively urban and largely middle income, Kilimani reflects a predictable urban future for Kenya. A future where rapid private investment remains unmatched by public investment. High rise families live constrained within their flats or calbro compounds behind tall fences and gates. The other Kilimani – hidden communities of domestic workers, security guards, gardeners, taxis and boda boda transporters – are neither serviced or integrated in future planning.[4] There are few opportunities left for converting pavement and concrete into green recreational spaces. More significantly, communities don’t get to choose and powerfully create inclusive public spaces around their homes.

Transforming Kilimani therefore, offers an opportunity to model a different kind of neighbourhood and place-based organising before the pattern of exclusive cities we see elsewhere in the world takes too firm a root.

An alternative vision for Kilimani and elsewhere

We continue to be inspired by a commUnity where;

‘Karibu Kilimani’ greets people passing through and those who work or live here; There is a bustling public library and theatre, where children ride bikes and families enjoy recreation facilities; Informal service-providers are integrated and inform planning processes; Safety and security is an owned responsibility of everyone in partnership with the public and private authorities; The community is known for its creativity, aliveness, tenacity and neighbourliness; People find affordable, accessible and adequate housing and business diversity thrives in Kilimani. The area rarely experiences violence, crime or a sense of isolation. It is, simply, the community of choice.

Six lessons on building community assets, capacities and trust over 2014

Lesson 1: Residency is not a given, has to be claimed: Despite a 115 year old history, many Nairobians do not see their primary identity as residents of Nairobi.[5] Originally a coffee estate, Kilimani was developed as a white residential area first in the late 1950s and only desegregated in the early 60s. Here anti-colonialist and women’s rights leader Muthoni Likimani would settle and buy a house. 50 years later in 2014 this house is home to the Kuona Trust, the area art gallery and 20 or so Kenyan artists.

From the mama mboga (market vendor) on the corner of Chaka avenue and Argwings Kodhek road to the single bungalow owners on Denis Pritt road, most Kilimanians see themselves as transient occupants. During elections, they will go to ancestral homes country to vote for leaders that cannot ultimately, serve their interests. They will invest their retirement pensions in upcountry homes and farms among people of the same ethnic community.

Tragically for democracy, Nairobi politicians understand this game. They pay residents Kshs 300 (roughly $30) from neighbouring low-income, high density communities like Kibra and Kawangware and bus them into this middle income, low density community to vote for them. During the run up to the 2013 elections, the Foundation invited ward, county and parliamentary aspirants to engage and covenant with residents. We questioned why their posters never had any telephone or email contacts. We challenged them to commit to their aspirations whether we voted for them or not. Yet, few have remained engaged around their covenant. Without the experience of residency, local issues and causes that matter to people cannot be the platform to build the active citizenship envisaged in the constitution of Kenya.

Lesson 2: Appreciative enquiry holds great communal power: Today, Kilimani is home to a wide mixture of Kenyans, expatriates and refugee communities. From francophone West Africans, Somalis, South Sudanese, Ethiopians to the latest and growing Chinese population, Kilimani is home to many embassies as well.

Most of the public schools serve children from Kibra and Kawangware. Middle class children have long left the congested Kilimani based public schools for out-of-area private schools. Yet, they and their parents long for convenient green and recreational spaces. Spaces, the public schools have in abundance. Kilimani Primary School Headmaster Gideon Wasike puts it best, “We are both located and displaced in Kilimani”. Kilimani is less a community than multiplicities of communities.

Over 2012-2014, the Foundation has consistently convened the community to map what matters to them and what they would like to create. Some of these “kililogues” have included taking and discussing photos of the good, bad and ugly in Kilimani, holding six  breakfast meetings for 55 corporate, not-for-profit and diplomatic leaders and school hall meetings to discuss the Nairobi Urban Master-Plan, Solid Waste Management, public safety and community policing. A new relatedness, new friendships and contacts demonstrate the power of appreciative enquiry.[6]

Lesson 3: Trust and solidarity is an online and face to face conversation: Like other urban Kenyans, most individual Kilimanians do not have a sense of relatedness to the community as a whole. Powerful conversations with the Officer in Charge of the Police Division (OCPD), Member of County Assembly, local business leaders from Chandarana Supermarkets, Dawda Group of companies, Black Butterfly and Willart Productions Inc and the Management of local malls like Prestige Plaza and Yaya center have unlocked resources for the wider community.

Online we can reliably now reach 1,300 by twitter and 1,000 by direct email. Our twitter account is invariably challenged to take action on a variety of issues from noise pollution from the local bar, potholes, car-jacking and failing streetlights. Our experience demonstrates that most citizens are not apathetic. They do want to contribute and make a difference in the community they live and work. What’s missing is the opportunity and platform to meet and act with like-minded people. This is probably the biggest asset the Foundation has. Still largely untapped, the Foundation has to continue expanding and deepening its strategies for enabling relationships of trust and solidarity not only between the Foundation and the community but within the community as well.

Lesson 4: Resident’s action is not only fixing utilities: Caught within a model of private solutions for public problems, most residents remain constrained by the vision of community foundations and residents associations as an alternative to effective County Government. This is both liberating and disempowering. On one hand, it facilitates civic agency to own and take up the challenge of making communities work. On the other, it releases the County Government from any obligation to provide value for money services in return for taxes and rates collected. It also contributes to the privatization of core services and a “user pays” system contracted out to private companies. Lastly, it feeds a perception that personal choices rather than public policy choices matter most.[7]

Foundations and associations can only be complimentary to local Government. Foundations and associations could work smarter with local Government around citizens’ forums, budget hearings and development priority setting.  Resident Associations and Community Foundations could provide the Nairobi County Government with the much needed intermediary to speak with organized citizens. In so doing, perhaps together we can raise the national statistical bar of only 5.7% who currently participate in the citizens based forums.

Key to this, as resident Dr Kahare Miano would say, “… will be shifting perceptions of Kilimani residents’ relationship to streets as places’ not just non-places on the way to places. Fixing public utilities is one thing, but creating new intersections between actors, places and interests could transform the inequalities and divisions between citizens. The community could, one day, say to the Nairobi Governor, “this is what needs doing thanks”.

Lesson 5: Leadership requires imagination, openness, this is a road not well travelled:

In a capitalist society like Kenya, critics have mistaken the President’s call for neighbourhood committees as a call to spy on each other. This is consistent with a worldview that keeps us isolated as individuals. It is consistent with the pattern of building cities like in Europe or North America that exclude each other. It is this that reinforces an appreciation of community only as far as our family, compound or ethnic community. The Foundation completely rejects this worldview and embraces the African community spirit of “we are our brother and sisters’ keeper”.

The other challenge the Foundation has faced is the perception that community organizing is essentially for communities living in poverty and marginalization. Middle income neighbourhoods don’t need a community foundation so the argument goes. This is a dangerous argument. It is precisely the absence of an inclusive and caring community that robs the middle class of the opportunity to provide leadership, share excess assets and influence the world around them.

With 5-6% growth and a growing middle class with disposable income, this robs the country of an important resource. As leading Kenyan musician Muthoni Ndonga noted, “I went to school with the children of the who’s who and the woman who sold vegetables to my mother. The richer parents contributed to ensuring that the school had all the facilities of the private schools. Nowadays, the rich spend a fortune on expensive schools for 1 or 2 children, when they could be impacting on 1,000 children.” The consequence is two Kilimanis and two Kenyas.

Lesson 6: Place based focus yields tangible results: Since November 2012, the Foundation has organized over twenty community events with over fifty partners and scores of residents. The community has responded very well to some events, not well to others. In October 2012, we invited the community to take photos of the community as they went about their daily activities in what we called “picha sauti”.[8] We got very few submissions but instead requests for us to organize collective photo walk-abouts. These were more successful and we got over 200 photos.

We have learned that it is easier to think in activities rather than new ways of being in the same spaces. Yet, activities are insufficient to transform the community’s relationship to itself in the absence of an iconic victory in an area that is important to residents. Cultivating a common interest and agenda around public spaces is where tangible change can be found. Encouraging local agencies and residents to renovate the swimming pool, canteen and library at the Kilimani Primary School provides the best example of the Foundation’s tangible impact over the last year.

Four challenges on building a community and Foundation for 2024

If we were building a 100 year old endowed foundation that is rooted in the Kilimani, capable of providing community grants and nationally influential, what could we do next? Learning from the Google business model, we would focus 70% on our core business, 20% on programmes adjacent to core and the remaining 10% on radical new ideas.

We could identify 1-2 programmes that have the possibility of an iconic victory in an area that matters to the community. Some of these could come from the Master Planning exercise earlier in the year[9] or the strategic thinking last month. Possible options could include redesigning the Kilimani square near Yaya to ease traffic congestion and support the small business enterprises, finding an alternative to the matatu terminus at the corner of Wood avenue and Argwings Kodhek avenue, securing a more permanent space for the Denis Pritt road and Prestige Plaza markets, ensuring safety for children walking to and from school and lastly, supporting neighbours to reclaim the streets outside their homes.

We need to expand and strengthen the collective action of the Board, staff and volunteers to lead self-discovery, confidence and action within the community. We need to create pathways for large and small individual and corporate members and sponsors to give regularly to our programmes. This will allow us to take the baby steps towards an endowment and a permanent resource-base for the Foundation. These four steps must occupy the immediate focus of the leadership both for the Foundation and the community.

If we are successful in these four steps paraphrasing Kenya writer Binyavanga Wainaina, “One Day, We Could Even Own This Place.”[10]

Kilimani Project Foundation

The Kilimani Project Foundation started as a garden conversation of residents, educationalists, businesspeople and artists and urban planners in 2012. Critical for its formation was a sense that the physical environment was changing rapidly and this was happening without the vision and voice of the community. Public investment in utilities, facilities and services lagged behind the rapid sprouting of privately developed apartment skyscrapers. Key communities were being physically displaced from the public spaces they had operated from – the street garages, food courts, markets, taxi ranks – at a time when ironically, business opportunities boomed.

Over the last two years, the Foundation has supported local NGOs, businesses, associations, artists, doctors, the police service to hold an appreciative photo exhibition, community festival and play, renovate the Kilimani Primary School canteen, library and pool, organize cleanups along Argwings Kodhek road and Milimani Primary School, organize a free public medical camp and an open day at the Kilimani Police Station among other activities. For more information see Website: | Twitter @kilimanispeaks | Facebook Kilimani Project

[1] Irũngũ Houghton can be reached by email and Twitter @irunguhoughton. This paper has been updated based on comments and conversations at #CF100. He thanks all that commented on an earlier paper.

[2] See Mo Ibrahim Foundation Facts and Figures

[3] See excellent overview on this by the Muungano wa Wanavijiji among others

[4] Many of the public eateries where these communities eat together are on road reserves or plots waiting to be developed. There are only toilets at Yaya Centre and Prestige Plaza with the latter recording 14,000 flushes every day. The Prestige Plaza owners speak to this service as one of their biggest contributions to the wider society.

[5] Many residents still behave as temporal migrants

[7] See Joseph S. Nye on a gated world by 2050

[8] In English, this crudely translates to a “photo voice” exercise

[9] See some of the issues generated

[10] Binyavanga Wainaina “One Day I will Write About This Place”

Categories: civic education, Democracy, Kenya, Kenyan constitution, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Protecting civic space against #NGOMuzzle laws in Kenya

We said that Kenyans had enacted the best and most progressive Constitution in the world. The struggle for this Constitution was by the civil society….”Hon. Fatuma Ali, MP

“Regulation and accountability is important but let us … not take away the freedom and space within which the public benefit organisations act and operate.”Hon. Oyugi, MP

“Alongside many of my colleagues here were the alumni of the civil society at one time…as we are trying to streamline those that are very wayward, we may end up suffocating the NGOs…” Hon. Kabando wa Kabando, MP


Written jointly by Irũngũ Houghton and Stephanie Muchai [1], this article captures the background and events of November 2013 in Kenya. A set of thirteen amendments to the Public Benefits Organisations Act 2013 were unexpectedly brought to the National Assembly. If they had passed, they would have fundamentally affected civic space, democracy and development. It offers lessons and reflections on the state of governance and civil society in Kenya and the challenges of protecting and advancing fundamental freedoms within a new constitutional order.


Post independent governments in Kenya systemically violated human rights and heavily curtailed freedoms of assembly, association and expression in particular. Members of civil society were systemically harassed, intimidated, tortured and killed for attempting to exercise these rights and pierce secrecy, corruption and nepotism veils.[2] Civil society organisations who attempted to research, advocate or support communities to advocate in the public interest were attacked, banned or de-registered by state agents on trumped up charges.

Among others, two critical moments mark a turning point in this ugly side of Kenya’s history. They are; the election of a liberal democratic Government in 2003 and the promulgation of a new constitution in August 2010.[3] This Constitution contains one of the world’s most comprehensive and visionary Bill of Rights which among other rights, guarantees freedoms of assembly, association and expression.

The adoption of a new constitution offered a re-set or re-boot button for the country. The PBO Sector was not exempt from this. Regulated by the NGO Coordination Act (1991) and a Sessional Paper (2006), the last two decades have seen the coordination of the sector atrophy under the weight of reduced funding, a weak apex body in the Kenya National Council of NGOs and its splinter bodies, growth of regional and sectoral networks, lack of public accountability and divisions between PBO actors. [4]

Among numerous attempts by the Government and PBOs to bring vision and effective leadership to the sector, several PBOs came together to form the CSO Reference Group to work towards the development and implementation of a legal and regulatory framework for organisations that do public benefit work[5]. This initiative sought to improve organisational accountability, internal governance and transparency. The Public Benefits Organisations bill sponsored by Member of Parliament Hon Sophie Abdi Noor [6] brought focus to all the formations seeking to transform the sector including the NGO Coordination Board, Government NGO Coordination Bureau, the NGO Council(s) and other various networks. [7]

While the PBO Act received Presidential assent by Mwai Kibaki in 2013, it is yet to be operationalised. Despite the stated aspiration of the Jubilee manifesto[8] to manage the State’s relationship with the PBO sector in accordance with internationally recognized best practices, the Cabinet Secretary has declined for over a year to announce the commencement of the Act. A central consequence of this is that the sector, state or the public cannot apply the regulatory and accountability framework contained in the Act. The sector, state and the public are in legal limbo.


Thirteen proposed amendments to the PBO Act were published in the omnibus Statue Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2013 on Friday 1st November 2013.[9] This was met with disbelief within and outside of the PBO sector. The amendments signaled an intention to violate constitutional protections of freedom of association, [10]Sessional Paper on NGOs (2006),[11] the Jubilee Manifesto (2012)[12] and the Public Benefits Organisations Act (2013).[13]

Surprisingly, despite news coverage of the published bill in the People newspaper, most Members of Parliament (MPs) were initially unaware of the significance of the entire Bill for 49 laws already enacted by Parliament. On the other hand, those familiar with the Bill emphatically declared that the Jubilee majority in Parliament would pass this law regardless of any form of opposition from the PBO sector. Meeting for the first time on 7th November 2013, members of the CSO Reference Group resolved to raise public awareness, open dialogue with public officials and resist the draconian legislation.

How was the bill defeated?

The CSO reference Group met regularly from 7th November through to 6th December 2013. These meetings regularly attracted upwards of 50 representatives of development, human rights and governance PBOs. Both national and international PBOs attended each of the meetings. Indeed, that the Bill had produced such unity across such diversity must have been one of the most remarkable unintended impacts of the Bill. Four major strategies were deployed by different working groups; research, representation, media engagement and public street action.

A key pillar in the messaging around the Bill was derived from two impact assessments carried out by the CSO Reference Group and Health NGOs Network (HENNET).[14] The documents demonstrated that the proposed amendments to the PBO Act were set to cripple 8,260 organisations, endanger Kshs 80 billion in annual development assistance and lead to the entrenchment of 250,000 employees most of whom are primarily Kenyans. More broadly, without any alternative financing strategy by the Government, the bill would shut overnight hundreds of thousands of clinics, schools, housing, water projects, civic education and legal aid programmes. In the health sector alone, it was estimated that 47% of health funding would be drastically cut. 20 million Kenyans would lose access to basic health care. 6.8 million people would no longer have facilities for HIV testing and the 1 million Kenyans on ARV treatment would be at serious risk.

This analysis proved compelling particularly for those MPs drawn from constituencies with high poverty incidence particularly Rift Valley, Coast, Nyanza and North Eastern. MPs attributed 25% of the non-formal education in Garissa and 90% of the water-points in Ijara, northern Kenya to PBOs. To quote one of the Jubilee MPs, “this Bill is parliamentary suicide for us.” The Coast, Nyanza and North Eastern generally voted for the opposition CORD. It could not have escaped Jubilee political strategists that to deny largely opposition areas development assistance, would be to harden a future voter base against it in future.

Over the four weeks, members of the CSO Reference Group sought out or were sought by public officials from the Kenyan Executive, the National Assembly, Senate and Development Partners. In the National Assembly, both CORD and Jubilee MPs were informed on the importance of the Amendment bill. An analysis of the Assembly by the CSO Reference Group, revealed that no less than a third of the MPs in Parliament were former employees or beneficiaries of PBOs. These meetings were a key contributor to the rejection of the Bill.

Invoking the National Assembly Standing Orders, the Clerk invited public input on the bill. Several organisations submitted petitions calling for the rejection of the amendments. On the morning of 25th November, by invitation only, a single opportunity was offered for organisations to appear before the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee. Appearing before the Committee, PBO leaders and the Commission for the Implementation of the Commission pressed the Committee to withdraw the Miscellaneous Amendments altogether or drastically amend them. They argued that the Amendments would substantive changes to existing laws, were being rushed through National Assembly and were, in the case of the PBO Act amendments, anti-developmental.

Like the representation work, PBOs worked together across agencies to coordinate mass and new media work. A key pillar of this work was the publication of a petition for citizens to sign their opposition to the bill. The petition was launched in the city center marking the start of a public procession on 14th November 2013. The petition was also uploaded online to capture wider audiences. In total, 17,170 people had signed the petition online or in person within a week. The signatories came from a various counties most notably Nairobi, Kisumu, Siaya, Machakos, Makueni and Kitui. On 21st November, the petition was received in the National Assembly by Hon Members Gladys Wanga, John Mbadi and Keynan Adan among others. Additionally, 1,500 leaflets were circulated to MPs and members of the public highlighting in plain language the impact of the proposed amendments to the PBO Act to Kenyans and to the PBO sector. A number of press conferences and briefings took place on radio, television, as well as the national newspapers in English, Kiswahili and other Kenyan languages.

The CSO Reference Group noted that just prior to the proposed amendments to the PBO Act, retrogressive media laws had been tabled in Parliament.[15] The Media laws and the proposed amendments to the PBO Act signaled to the Group a deliberate legislative onslaught on the civic democratic space for association and expression. A combined media-PBO approach sought to raise public awareness of the proposed legal provisions affecting both sectors; the potential impact on the country and violations to constitutionally protected rights.

Indeed, the combined attack on media and civil society operational environments gave rise to the twitter hashtags #NGOMuzzle and #MediaMuzzle. Social media was highly effective in raising public awareness. The Twitter hashtag #NGOMuzzle trended on 14th November 2013. A week later @LGE_EastAfrica amusingly used the same hashtag to promote a 32 inch television set. The media covered and highlighted the two street actions that took place in Nairobi protesting the proposed amendments to the PBO Act and proposed media bills. The short notice and limited mobilization opportunity meant that there was a relatively low turnout of the public at the protest; however the coverage of the street actions raised awareness of the impending damage of the proposed changes to the PBO Act.

Power and Interests

Supporters of the proposed amendments to the PBO Act made two main arguments. Firstly, that the PBO sector chronically suffers from a lack of effective apex leadership and insufficient regulation. Poor public transparency, poor accountability to the state and possible duplication of efforts is the result. Secondly, that the sector is overly dependent on foreign donors “hostile” to the Jubilee Government and are being used to fight the President and Deputy President in the ICC trials.[16]

Although the amendments originated from the Ministry of Devolution and National Planning, the technical staff at the Ministry disowned a number of the amendments especially the 15% foreign funding cap. This was later to be repeated in conversations with senior public officials in the Office of the President and National Assembly. Indeed, it was initially unclear what economic and political public policy objective was being served by this restriction on foreign funding. Meeting with the CSO Reference Group, NGO Council and NGO Board on November 21, the Cabinet Secretary suggested that the 15% was a basement rather than a ceiling figure but offered no practical ways how this discretion would be operationalised. Nevertheless, this would pave way for national Government to seize 85% of the funding currently coming to PBOs.

Reaction to the bill came from a number of quarters in November. PBOs under the CSO Reference Group were quick to point out that the amendments substantively changed the spirit and letter of the PBO Act. The NGO Council expressed their concern with the 15% cap while encouraging Government to find ways of holding the sector accountable. The NGO Coordination Bureau[17] called for tighter regulation citing terrorism concerns. Staff from the secretariat of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance privately noted their concern with impact that this would have on service-providers such as banks, hotels, food and medicine distributors among others.

A leading business newspaper columnist noted that while he were not a “blind apologist for non-governmental organisations, civil society, or the voluntary sector in general…(he still found) the law which the government wants to introduce to regulate NGOs and civil society institutions is anachronistic to the extreme”. An evening news programme SMS poll found a slim majority of its viewers were in favor of the amendments. A political advisor noted that the amendments would present the President with another domestic and international credibility problem as he and his Deputy were trying to win back international support for his Presidency. Another pointed out that Government domestic development policy was being blindsided by the ICC process.

A Senator with a long history of participation in the sector noted that the proposed amendments to the PBO Act were the consequence of PBOs losing their oversight and leadership role. He urged that it was time for CSO introspection. How could they raise the performance bar, focus less on donors and more on citizens? Human rights activists argued that the amendments were symptomatic of a growing obsession to control institutions that contribute to checking excesses of the state. A Development Partner agency representative noted that the bill was being watched very closely in their capitals and its passing would have “consequences” not only for PBO funding but the state’s public budget as well.

In the end, the arguments that directly mattered came from a small number of vocal MPs from both sides of the National Assembly on Wednesday 4th December 2013 as the bill came for final reading. Nine legislators urged the house to reject the bill as it violated the constitution, attempted to pass substantive amendments to over 49 Acts bundled in a single bill and was anti-developmental.

Hon James Wandayi argued, “Some of the freedoms that we presently enjoy in this country; some of the freedoms that have made some Hon. Members [of Parliament] to sit here today, have been gained because of the contributions of the NGOs.” Hon James Nyikal stated, “We should even get a way of really getting rid of miscellaneous amendments, if it must be there then it really must be confined to what is explained as minor amendments that do not effect basic changes in Acts.” 164 out of 349 MPs were present. 83 voted against the bill, 73 voted for the amendments.[18] Narrowly, the National Assembly averted the destruction of a fifty year old sector.

With the power of hindsight, what actions ultimately proved to be most directly effective? While all actions contributed to the rejection of the bill by National Assembly Members, probably the most effective were those that related to relationship building, information sharing and face to face discussion with legislators. What proved least ineffective was the attempt to mobilise the public or beneficiaries to march or voice their concerns on the issue. A combination of limited resources and very short window for action may have been factors in this, but going forward this will require attention.


The amendments to the PBO Act 2013 threatened freedoms of association. In this regard, they were ultimately an attempt to simultaneously legalise rights violations and grab Kshs 68 billion from the PBO sector. The amendments are a powerful reminder that unless constitutionalism underpins a progressive constitution there are no guarantees.

In early February, unofficial reports state that the President urged MPs to support the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill and especially the 15% cap when tabled again in Parliament later in 2014. At the time of writing the relationship between National Government and the PBO sector are still tense. The failure of the Cabinet Secretary for Devolution and Planning to announce a commencement date for the PBO Act ironically provides ammunition for those that say the sector is unregulated and their funding would be better managed by National Government.

Or, just perhaps, is this the intention? 

[1]Irũngũ Houghton and Stephanie Muchai work for the Society for International Development and Article 19 Eastern Africa respectively. While both authors are active members of the CSO Reference Group, this article is based on personal experiences and written in their personal capacity. They can be reached on twitter @irunguhoughton and @parchedoasis. They have chosen to use the new term of Public Benefits Organisations (PBOs) instead of the more familiar Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

[2] In 2014, many key leaders in civil society, the political class, mass media and the private sector were active in rolling back the culture of silence, compliance and fear.

[3] Constitution of Kenya 2010 –

[4] For a historical analysis of the Kenyan NGO Sector, see Prof. Patricia Kamere-Mbote “Operational Environment and Constraints for NGOs in Kenya” 2002,


[6] Before joining Parliament, Hon Sophia Abdi Noor was herself a PBO leader having led a women’s rights NGO Womankind in Garissa among other roles

[7] The divergent interests and tensions between the various formations could themselves be the subject of a detailed and interesting article. Some are not yet resolved. They include whether the existing structures of the Council and Board will automatically become the Federation and regulatory Body, the balance between vertical regulation by Government or more horizontal self-regulation by the PBOs, what roles international and Kenyan NGOs should play and even whether PBOs should have a role in service delivery.



[10] Article 36, Constitution of Kenya 2010

[11]Sessional Paper No 1 of 2006 on Non Governmental Organisations –




[15] Kenya Information Communications (Amendment) Bill 2013 and Media Council Bill (2013)

[16] The President and Deputy President of Kenya have been charged with for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. The President’s case has since been suspended pending the Court’s request to collect more evidence to meet the high evidentiary standards required after key witnesses dropped out.


[18] See Hansard report on discussion of the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2013

Categories: civic education, Democracy, Famine, Finance for Development, Kenyan constitution, Millennium Development Goals, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Raising Voices for Peace in Kenya: A Personal Reflection

“When the spider webs unite, they can tie a lion” African Proverb

My mobile rang incessantly the morning after Mwai Kibaki was sworn in. One caller was persistent. Three times I was asked, “Irungu, we need to meet, when are we meeting?” With images of anger and mayhem from the entire country flooding my television, it seemed futile. However, we did meet that afternoon on the 31st December 2007 at the offices of the Peace and Development Network in Kilimani, Nairobi.

Thankfully, during the post election crisis, there were very few moments over the next sixty days that I allowed a sense of powerlessness to paralyse me again. Throughout, I kept the words of South Africa’s Oliver Tambo to a young Winnie Mandela close. When she shared how worried she was, he told her, “When at a loss, history provides. Do not do anything. History will provide a situation for you to react. Remember that always, in life. Just wait there. History will rescue you. You will get guidance from within, from yourself”.

With barely three hours notice, forty of us met that afternoon and reviewed the rising tide of hatred and violence. Luos being forcefully circumcised in Gachie and Nakuru, the burning of Kisii, Gikuyu and Indian homes in Kakamega, looting and police shootings in Kisumu, rising number of deaths in Burnt Forest, Kapenguria and Narok, the ban on live reporting and the silence from our leaders. An inescapable set of thoughts ran through my mind in those early days. As political affiliations and ethnicity fused, we were facing the greatest onslaught on our national identity. Our only hope as a country lay in non‐violent ways of resolving the election crisis. ODM, PNU and ODM‐K political leaders needed to find a pathway to resolving the highly contentious elections and the violence had to be stopped.

On the eve of the elections, Kenya had a functional Government, Judiciary, no less than 6,000 non‐governmental organisations, 100,000s of community based organisations, one of the most sophisticated mass media sector in the region, 1000s of international organisations and corporations including the headquarters of various United Nations Agencies. Their collective silence that first week of January suggested that they had all left Kenya. We were about to be reminded of an important lesson. Organisations are as effective as the individuals who work within them. In a time of profound upheaval, it is to individuals that we must look to catalyse and bring people and organisations together.

Raising Voices for Peace
At least five new initiatives sprouted over the first three days in Nairobi. Around the Peace and Development Network, the People for Peace Network, Maendeleo ya Wanawake, ActionAid, Oxfam and World Vision created the Election Violence Response Initiative (EVRI‐1) to call for peace and re‐establish the national network of community peace‐workers ( Under the auspices of the Inter‐religious Leaders Forum, a social intervention taskforce of humanitarian agencies began to assess and plan for the emerging humanitarian need. Governance, legal and human rights organisations began to call for a rejection of the results of the General Elections. Convened by the Kenyan National Commission of Human Rights, this lobby became known as the Kenya Peace, Truth and Justice network. Elsewhere, Kenyan artists formed Musicians for Peace and Concerned Kenyan Writers. Recognised peace‐workers and professional mediators within the Horn formed Concerned Citizens for Peace, a lobby that operated from Serena hotel.

The Concerned Citizens for Peace pre‐occupied itself with three priorities namely; publicly calling for an end to violence, mediated dialogue at the highest level of the two large parties PNU and ODM and creating a space for concerned citizens to act. It was clear to me that the ODM policy of mass action and the PNU policy of mass denial were recipe for further chaos. Unleashed by a flawed political election, the character of the violence found its shape in social and economic identities. Kenyans were being attacked for being the “wrong tribe”, for being women and girls, for having property or wealth or for being old.

In those days, our radios, televisions, mobile phones and the Internet were flooded with stories and graphic images of this violence. That this was also fuelling the violence was one thing I could agree with the Minister of Information. However, in context of suspicion that the newly elected Executive had rigged itself to power and national uncertainty, the attempt to ban live broadcasting would prove unpopular and futile. The task was to create a third voice, one that called for an end to the violence and a mediated conversation on a political solution.

The role of the Media Owners Council was crucial. The media had to look beyond the sensationalism of youth carrying pangas at roadblocks along the major highways of the Rift Valley, the crowds in our informal urban settlements and the numerous press conferences calling for Kenya to be made ungovernable. CCP had to find and promote the peacemakers, those Kenyans who were trying to hold inter‐ethnic communities together, to build dialogue and alternative ways of expressing their frustration with the political process or even the gross inequities they experienced. A diverse list of fifty men and women from different communities, professions, regions and political affiliations was prepared and sent to media houses for them to interview on the way forward.

Later, media activists working in both CCP and EVRI‐1 composed several peace messages that were later sent round by the major mobile phone companies. One of the most powerful calls for peace was performed by several of Kenya’s finest gospel musicians. It was at one of the early press conferences by CCP that the song Umoja Pamoja was given substantive and free airplay. Members of CCP, the Concerned Writers for Kenya would produce over 100 articles for international and national newspapers and magazines by February 6 2008 ( This proved very successful and soon dominated the airwaves and front‐pages by January 7 2008. A key important message at this time was “we can fix this”.

The international media on the other hand, found itself stuck in the pornography of mayhem and genocide long after the national media had shifted to more balanced reporting. The Media Council issued a statement to these agencies counselling against the “mention of particular tribes involved in the violence by name” as it was fuelling already heightened emotions. They called for the international press to “apply the same international principles … while faced with similar circumstances in western countries where the dignity of the human person is respected and observed”. Lastly, they declared “The local media has taken a stand to unite and use resources available to them to help contain the violence in Kenya and not to exacerbate it. Do join us in these efforts.”

Calling on our political leaders to stop the Violence
Placing direct pressure on the top leadership of ODM and PNU to agree on a way forward on the flawed and disputed elections was the other major focus at the time. This was a pre‐occupation not only of the peace groups at the time but the international community whose capitals were seized with influencing the two Presidential candidates or Principles as they became known to come to the table. Throughout the crisis, we attempted this is different ways. The first early attempt was an evening vigil march to the offices of ODM, ODM‐K and PNU led by the religious leaders. A diverse range of musicians, spiritual and development leaders were supported to convene a well‐attended press conference. After that fifty of us climbed into buses and presented a single open letter to the offices calling for immediate dialogue.

Later, we would write and widely circulate with the political leaders an options paper “A Citizens Agenda”, several press statements and another open letter to the main Principles calling on them to personally lead the process of finding a solution. All opportunities were used to offer guidance. The Serena hotel corridors proved very spacious for sharing materials with the various mediators, political leaders and even those like us who were trying to influence the process. The ODM Presidential candidate even found himself being offered alternative reading material when he stopped to have his haircut at the Serena Hotel salon. Over February, consistent briefing meetings were held with the AU Mediation Team led by H.E. Kofi Annan. A reader on wealth and inequity was prepared for the largely non‐Kenyan technical staff working on the draft Agreements. During the AU Summit at the end of January, a daily newsletter prepared in Nairobi was circulated to national delegates and the AU Commission conflict‐monitoring unit.

It was these actions that established trust with the formal mediation process and allowed us to access and circulate widely the Agreements as soon as they were concluded. Indeed, we found ourselves a source of information for the media and other interest groups on the progress of the talks before the Mediation Team established its own system of consistent reporting back.

Expanding the community of peacemakers
While many of the efforts of the first month were centred in Nairobi, they were accompanied by important initiatives to support the establishment of peace corridors and safety spaces for ordinary people seeking refuge. Visits were made to camps for the internally displaced and inter‐ethnic football matches were organised for youth in Kibera, Korogocho, Dandora and Baba Ndogo.

Community newsletters like the Kibera Journal published calls for the communities not to burn down their houses and destroy shops and schools. Counsellors and social workers in the Rift Valley accepted to offer free counselling services in Eldoret and Nakuru and university students were financially supported to convene meetings when campuses finally re‐opened. Peace monitors were sent phone credit to maintain their surveillance. The Kenya Veterans for Peace would discourage its members from supporting the militia with their military skills. An e‐newsletter Amani Sasa ran as a daily page for the first month and then became a weekly of several pages providing analysis of planned events and profiles of peace actions and peacemakers.

At their height, seventy men and women would meet daily each morning in the Karna room of the Serena hotel. The meetings ranged from 1‐3 hours and were designed around the principle of harvesting ideas. Many of the actions mentioned above and the successful Valentines day flower memorial in Uhuru Park were hatched in this room. While all these actions were taking place, the virus of suspicion and division was always present in the highly diverse space this enabled.

Supporters from antagonistic parties including former Ministers and Ambassadors, youth and the elderly, the careered and the unemployed, Kenyan staff of Embassies met daily to share information and agree on actions. This diversity became uncomfortably apparent one morning when three men stood up and introduced themselves as members of Mungiki sect and that they too, were trying to bring an end to the violence. The Convenors were careful to moderate language and the space given to different viewpoints. The sessions always started and closed with first three stanzas of the national anthem. The best moments for me were when we reflected and decided on a course of action in the morning, acted by the end of the day and reported the next. The worst were when we spent too much time analysing the context or discussing how we should be organised and not agreeing on a practical action to take.

By the end of February, it was clear the tide had turned. The skilful mediation of H.E. Kofi Annan and his team, the national outcry backed internationally for a political solution and a return to the rule of law had wrested the mindset of mass denial and mass action from PNU and ODM. The sense of urgency began to be replaced by a sense of relief. This victory came not without cost to the various initiatives.

The voluntarism that had fueled the ideas, actions and resources began to wane. This voluntarism had seen guards offer to protect peacemakers going into the Rift Valley and designers, journalists, singers, writers and Kiswahili translators produce and publicly distribute peace materials. University graduates daily recorded and circulated minutes, photocopied documents and lobbied our leaders. Social workers, mediators and drivers had voluntarily gone into heal communities, temper and channel their anger constructively. Former campaign party activists had cut thousands of peace ribbons, spoke to their party leaders, held peace rallies and night vigils and mobilised young men and women to protect persecuted communities.

Without sustained funding and firm organisational structures, this voluntarism could not be sustained. Focus and momentum disappeared. Perhaps this was inevitable in these circumstances. Many of us could now return to our normal lives, our jobs and families.

Yet, this was not without the lingering feeling that too many had lost their lives and livelihoods. We had come very close to losing our very nation. We had held together and if Kenya was threatened, we could find each other and do the same again.

Irungu Houghton wrote this as Pan Africa Director for Oxfam based in Nairobi in 2009. It was firstly published “Personal Narratives about the 2007 Post-Election Violence in Kenya” -Ed. Kimani Njogu. This is a personal testimony only in one sense. The views contained are that of the writer. The events described in the testimony were the collective efforts of many Kenyans who over the two months of post-election violence voluntarily gave their time, money and relationships to the pursuit of one Kenya and a political and non‐violent solution to the crisis. The writer is proud to have stood among them.

You can interact with him on twitter: @irunguhoughton

Categories: Campaigning, civic education, Democracy, human rights, Kenya, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Learning the art of building community in Kilimani


In November, reporter Mark Namswa of Nairobi’s UP Magazine interviewed me for their special issue on community policing. Below is the full transcript of the interview.

UP Magazine: What is the Kilimani Project?

The Kilimani project began as a garden conversation by a few individuals who live, work and play in Kilimani in the middle of 2012. The original set of questions we asked were: What makes Kilimani unique? Why is it a community of choice for the 43,000 people that live or work here? With massive private investment, where is the community head

Over  2012, the Kilimani Project has organized an online and physical photographic exhibition entitled Kilimani speaks: Jana and Leo, November 2012;  the first Kilimani Festival and two public Kilimani Cares community talks on issues of topical interest, December 14-15. In 2013, we developed the Kilimani Voters Guide and held conversations with County and Parliamentary aspirants in February 2013. Over May and June, we convened several community conversations to chart a way forward over May and co-hosted Nelson Mandela Day 2013 with the Kilimani Primary School and the South Africa High Commission. This event generated funding, voluntary action and new relationships committed to renovating this public school.

These activities were only possible with the contribution of tens of residents across Nairobi offering their time and expertise to serve the community. In addition, over fifty businesses and organisations have given in-kind support to the Foundation over 2013.  All of these volunteers and contributions are driven by the vision of creating Kilimani as an inclusive and vibrantly alive community for all.

The Project is now registered as the Kilimani Project Foundation, not for profit company limited by guarantee. We welcome individuals and agencies to take up individual or corporate membership. The Board comprises of three women and four men. They are Irungu Houghton (Chairperson), Fatma Hyder (Treasurer), Dr. Hasmukh Dawada (Vice-Chairperson), Pat Okello (Secretary) Francis Munyororo, Ann McCreath and Protus Nyamweya.

UP Magazine: What’s your understanding of community policing?

Community policing is based on the understanding that t the causes of crime and insecurity are primarily social and economic. Without social cohesion, greater equality and economic opportunities for all Kenyans, crime will be impossible to eradicate. Public safety is the responsibility of all citizens, businesses and the public as a whole and not just that of the police.

There are some other important principles underlying community policing. The police are no longer a coercive force as they have been in the past, but a service that runs with our consent. Police Officers are not apart from the community, they are part of the community. Where they work with the public and in particular involve the public in setting and resourcing policing priorities they can be more effective.

In a capitalist society like Kenya, critics have mistaken the call for the public to form neighbourhood committees as a call to spy on each other. This is consistent with a worldview that keeps us isolated as individuals. It is consistent with the pattern of building cities that exclude each other like in Europe or North America. It is this that has created our appreciation of community only as far as our ethnic community, family, compound and even household. We have to completely reject this worldview and embrace the African community spirit of “we are our brother and sisters’ keeper”.

UP Magazine: Why should it be done?

There are three key reasons why community policing might hold the key to a better future. Firstly, it is clear that currently policing strategies are ineffective despite an abundance of security resources that are available for a number of communities.  The current behavior and ways of being of residents, businesses, private security companies and the law enforcement agencies leaves all of us isolated and ultimately, working below optimal capacity.

The public and businesses are cynical, afraid, contracting out for services and unwilling to take responsibility for building a better police service. The police are under-resourced and yet to make use of the resources that exist in the community. There is preciously little trust and dialogue taking place between all these people.

Secondly, what we learnt recently during the very first Police Community Day held on October 26 at the Divisional Headquarters of the Kilimani Police Station, is that it is possible to reverse suspicions within the public and between the police and the public. We can close the gap. If we do so, we can go beyond the paradox of a Kibera, Kilimani, Kileleleshwa and Upper Hill having an abundance of security services (private security companies, the police force, the CID, NIS, Administrative police, County of Nairobi askaris, sungu sungus, resident associations, NGOs) and living in fear of house robberies, street muggings or attacks. The problem is that these systems are neither integrated at the point of crime prevention or response.

UP Magazine: At Kilimani, how did you come up with your initiative?

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. We invited the OCPD Peter Kattam to come and share notes with us. He invited us to jointly organize a police appreciation day and open the doors to his team in the three police stations; Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Capital Hill.

Ahead of the day, we interviewed 300 children from a neighboring public school on their experiences and perceptions of safety. The findings were disturbing to say the least. Fear of rape, abduction, matatu overcharging, theft, bullying are among some of the issues that the children mapped. These matters are now being taken up by the Kilimani police.

The Open day included a personal tour of the police station by the OCS Bernard Kenyatta, a community dialogue, several information desks, bouncing castles and face-painting for children and a 7 aside foundation – police football match (the police won). The Foundation and the Police are now exploring a joint working committee and way forward based on the input given by the community.

UP Magazine: How is it structured?

The Foundation works on five major programme areas. The public safety programme is run by a group of volunteers who make up a community action team. It is they that design and deliver the interventions.

UP Magazine: Are there police desks for reporting or neighbourhood watch plans?

Yes, we are working on this in future

UP Magazine: In your opinion, will the Nyumba Kumi initiative be tenable in your neighbourhood?

Yes and it is going to take something. Residents will have to let go of the suspicions and fears they have of their neighbors. The police will have to let go their sense of the public as walking complaints for instance. More interestingly, how could we design it bottom up? This is the question that the newly established Kaguthi taskforce must ask. Top down directives have limited power unless backed by incentives or coercion. The Government has little of the former to offer for a programme of this scale, while the constitution protects the public from the latter. So it is time we got creative.

UP Magazine: A few cases of crime as told by participants in the forum pointed out the link between Kilimani, Kibera and surrounding areas, what contrasts between these neighbourhoods will eventually factor in your approach to combating crime?

Some people will not like to hear this. We are completely connected – the Kilimanians, the Kileleshwans, the Kibrans – to each other and the rest of the country. We have to find ways of creating mutual safety. Part of this will lie in integrated policing, the other part on creating an appreciation of us as one. As it stands, most Kilimanians fear Kibra as much as Kibrans fear some parts of Kilimani.

UP Magazine: What particular resources have you assembled or plan to marshal in order to effect community policing?

It is a little early yet as we are just at the beginning but these are the questions we are asking. What experiences can we draw upon of joint strategies between different agencies and communities? How could we make the police more effective? What do they need? How do we make businesses more effective? What do they need? How do we make residents associations more effective? What do they need? By answering these questions together, we feel the public and the police will begin to recognize that public safety can only be addressed through a lasting, comprehensive and integrated response by us all.

UP Magazine: What’s your long term plan for the ideal and safe Kilimani?

Our strategic plan for Kilimani is to create community ownership and results in the five main areas, namely planned development, public safety, entrepreneurial development, green and recreational spaces and social cohesion. We hope to expand our staff profile to two persons in the coming weeks, improve the website and expand our membership and community of volunteers.  While we work primarily in the wider location of Kilimani, we hold that every community can have a community foundation and hope to expand our relationships with them across Nairobi and Kenya.

UP Magazine readers can reach us by email:, twitter: @kilimanispeaks  and our facebook group: Kilimani speaks

Irũngũ Houghton is the Chairperson of the Kilimani Project Foundation

Categories: human rights, Kenya, Kenyan constitution, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The first 100 days: A Scorecard and Suggestions for Strengthening Public Engagement by the National Assembly and Senate

Revised and updated presentation to the “Strengthening deliberative and legislative Processes”, Kenyan National Assembly and Senate Leadership retreats, 11-16th July, 2013

Click link to download full paper


If the 20th century was the century of Government, 21st century will be the century of citizens. Citizens globally, and Kenya is no exception, are more capable of disrupting governance and bringing public processes to a halt when they disagree or do not understand the direction their leaders take. Effective leadership now requires consistent trust, open and inclusive mechanisms and processes that can listen and respond to citizen’s voices and priorities.

Despite the new constitution and national laws, both the state and citizens have yet to fundamentally transform their ways of working. As the National Assembly, Senate and County Assemblies mark their first 100 days since the March 4 elections, national and county leaders are openly conflictual across all three legislative arms of the State. The current tensions and open conflict between National and County arms of the state and the public is the consequence of inward-looking systems, passive communication approaches and an inability to inspire and keep a sense of collective ownership over public affairs.

This paper explores the source of these tensions in terms of institutional capacities. It proposes new mechanisms, actions and processes that could be introduced to transform relationships and leave both formal institutions and the general public clearer of their roles and cohesive, participatory policy agenda for the nation. In so doing, we can continue to light candles through the dark points of this transition.

Categories: civic education, Democracy, Kenya, Kenyan constitution | Leave a comment

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