International CSOs in a differentiated, globalised and networked world: Five traits they must drop




Presentation to the IANGO Charter Conference, Amsterdam, 9th September 2016

“This global wave of restrictions has a rapidity and breadth to its spread we’ve not seen before, that arguably represents a seismic shift and closing down of human rights space not seen in a generation.” James Savage, Amnesty International

“I believe in criticism. As a Member of Parliament, criticism kept me moving over 15 years. I firmly say this now as the Minister, this Government has not sanctioned any Government body to intimidate NGOs in Kenya. It is now time to restore sanity and commence the Public Benefits Organisations Act (2013)” Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri, Ministry of Devolution and Planning, Government of Kenya, September 2016

“We are demanding change. Be prepared to be uncomfortable.” Degan Ali, African Development Solutions (Adeso), 2015


The world is increasingly differentiated, globalised and networked. A collapsed North-South world order has released new power centres within countries and across countries. Political elites are flexing new legal and administrative restrictions. Activists are demanding new models of civic organisations. Both are learning from their peers elsewhere in the world. Collectively, these and other challenges pose a threat and an opportunity to international Civil Society organisations. To respond effectively to these challenges, there are five traits that need to be dropped.

Changing Political Context

The historically simplicity of the cold war and the north-south classification exploded in the 21st century into a complex and ever-changing set of global relationships. Countries that would have been classified only as either Least Developing, Fragile or Highly Indebted today can be classified in a myriad of ways. For those countries that have seen economic growth, reduction in extreme poverty and strengthening of governance systems, power and influence is slowly but surely shifting homewards.

Over sixty Governments across the world have enacted new and restrictive legislation to control the operations of international and national civil society organisations. In ninety-six countries, CSOs and their staff experience vilification, funding caps, administrative harassment, closure and expulsion.

In Kenya, there have been five attempts to introduce harmful amendments to the NGO law. On at least three separate occasions, 1,400 NGOs were struck from the register on grounds of failure to report their accounts, complicity in terrorism and support for gay rights. Many of these deregistered were re-instated within days after public and official uproar.

Until very recently, the administrative unit of the Government responsible for regulation and creating an enabling environment for NGOs issued numerous decrees for NGOs to change their constitutions, close their bank accounts and justify staff recruitment. The cumulative impact of the last three years has been to infect the sector and particularly, international CSOs with a real dose of fear. Most have found themselves paralysed by the legal limbo, rent-seeking of individual officers, administrative aggression and demands for shifts in their governance.

As the democratic space shrunk, most agonised over what they could say or do. Many found themselves without friends in high places. Most delegated their public voice to national CSOs. A few relocated their staff and some contemplated re-location to a regional neighbourhood that had nothing better to offer. The uncertain legal territory had thrown at least 9,000 organisations and an annual budget conservatively set as Kshs 30 billion, development partners and the Government into disarray for the three years.

After consultations with Public Benefits Organisations on September 9th Devolution Ministry Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri operationalised the Public Benefits Organisations Act (2013) without any changes. The room was packed with PBO leaders, Ministry officials and the national media.  It is hoped that the previous “passive-aggressive” chapter is now firmly behind both the state and the sector. If this does become the case, Kenya can resume its place as global example of an open society with a vibrant civic society. In many ways, this period offers a glimpse into the challenges being faced by international CSOs and offers a number of institutional lessons.

Charles Abugre and others have argued that historically INGOs were primary and secondary citizens. They have primary citizenship in the countries they are headquartered and secondary citizenship in the countries they operate in. In the former, they could speak publicly and even challenge their governments to represent their interests overseas but in the countries that they worked, this role was reserved for local CSOs.

At least two power shifts have fundamentally displaced this model. Today, most African, Asian and Latin American Governments no longer define their domestic policies on the basis of European and North American Government priorities. Secondly, a growing number of European and North American Governments are now openly framing development assistance within trade facilitation, geo-political and commercial interests. There is greater global uncertainty of the stability of bi-lateral overseas development assistance.

International CSOs have begun to respond in at least four ways. Organisations have chosen to reduce their focus to fragile states, initiate mergers with southern organisations and innovate social enterprise models. The “southernisation” of global headquarters and the growing number of ICSO national boards is another logical adjustment to these changes.

What is missing is a set of institutional culture of behaviours and traits that keep ICSOs empowered to challenge the shrinking political space and expanding inequalities in the south. To do this, they will have to drop at least five disempowering traits.

Resource concentration in Europe and North America: Less than 2% of the US$150 billion deployed by international CSOs budgets reach local CSOs in the countries they operate. The remaining 98% serves an international bureaucracy quick sand of international processes, lifestyles of the 1% and multiple layers of internal accountability processes. Until they are able to re-balance the funding and power away from the internal bureaucracies and into the hands of local actors, they will be vulnerable to the challenge of Degan Ali.

Politically Risk adverse: For those ICSOs comfortable with leaving their country and regional offices in the heads of risk adverse expatriates, they will continue to be vulnerable to increasingly muscular local elites. This does not translate into a simple nationalisation argument. While contextual acumen is critical, there is danger in national staff who also live the lifestyles of the 1%. National boards with full governance powers are one way of deepening political legitimacy and a capacity to engage local power structures.

Disinterest in social movements: Many states are embracing development duties framed within international, continental and national human rights standards. ICSOs have to shift to building solidarity with interests and communities seeking empowerment for governance oversight and self-regulation. The insurrectionist uprising in North Africa or the protest movements of #FeesMustFall #NoThirdTermism #ThisFlag #Oromoprotests #UmbrellaRevolution offer sharp lessons for ICSO executives caught flat-footed. Older traditions of NGO capacity building have to give way to institutional strengthening, sustainability financing and cross-sector alliance building work. More ICSOs could look seriously at how to work with local CSOs to generate genuine supporter bases in the public interest. Rather than parachuting what has worked in London, New York and Paris, these must be rooted in local cultures of development education, active citizenship and solidarity.

Governance apartheid: Despite widespread agreement that international Boards must reflect the communities they serve, not much has happened for the majority. 64% of governance and 63% of the Chief Executive Officers across 500 top NGOs are still drawn from the western world according to Only 4% of CEOs are of African origin. Where they are African, there is still a preoccupation to recruit Board members from within the 1%

Closed bureaucracies: Our governance systems still slumber on a lie. The lie is that we can control the world around us. That future predictions and short-term programmes give us power to act effectively. That segmenting our programmes into neat silo-ed mirrors of the Sustainable Development Goals, we will generate transformative outcomes. That finances flows from north to south are capable of creating a sustainable financial base for equality, social justice and governance work.

These five traits and ways of being pose an ontological challenge for the ICSO in an increasingly differentiated, globalised and networked world. They can be transformed by a politically networked leadership open to working with independent social movements Greater impact could be achieved through devolving governance and resources and freeing them from internal bureaucracies and systems. The work of INGOs will have power, impact and sustainability if they;

  • Deploy tools, tactics and spaces that create mass constituency and impact;
  • Seek to interrupt the predictable future of neglect and inaction by states, public, you and me
  • Keep the state as primary duty-bearer for guaranteeing rights and freedoms
  • Remain agile and exercise a constant capability to reinvent itself as the context shifts,

Useful background materials

‘We are demanding change’: The Somali woman taking on international NGOs. (2016). the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

José Antonio Alonso etal LDC and other country groupings: How useful are current approaches to classify countries in a more heterogeneous developing world? 2014

Doane, D. (2016). Do international NGOs still have the right to exist?. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Sherwood, H. (2015). Human rights groups face global crackdown ‘not seen in a generation’. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Phillips, T. (2016). China passes law imposing security controls on foreign NGOs. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Irũngũ Houghton and Stephanie Muchai Protecting civic space against #NGOMuzzle laws. (2014). Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Irũngũ Houghton: The Real Issues Over Changes to PBO Act. (2015). Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Plan to launch first ever global network for southern NGOs announced. (2016). ReliefWeb.Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Worker, S. (2016). Secret aid worker: by not measuring impact, NGOs are abusing their power. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Leach, A. & Purvis, K. (2016). UK NGOs raise concerns about Priti Patel’s new approach to foreign aid. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Worker, S. (2016). Secret aid worker: ‘High-level’ really means a club of old white men. the Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

Africans Rising. (2016). Africans Rising. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from

CIVICUS etal An open letter to our fellow activists across the globe: Building from below and beyond borders, 2014. Retrieved 17 September 2016, from


Presentation to the Mwamdudu school community, August 8th

WhatsApp Image 2016-08-08 at 10.20.41 AM WhatsApp Image 2016-08-08 at 12.05.33 PM

Hii mapambano ilianza na wanafunzi wa Langata road primary school. Mimi na wengine hapa tulikua huko.

Viongozi wa Serikali  kutoka pande zote za Jubilee na Cord wakasema kila shule itapata cheo.
Hadi sasa waKenya kule Lavington, Maralal, St Bridgets, Naka wamejitahidi kulinda shule zao
Tunajua, wakati nzige wanakuja kukula mahindi, hakuli mahindi wa jirani pekee, watamaliza zako na zangu.
Asanteni wa ujasiri ku rejesha Mwamdudu.
Asanteni kwa ku simama na shule zote nchini.
Asanteni kwa sababu mme jibu vita kwa kuzingatia ungwana, haki na sheria.
Kesho tutaongea na Governor wa Kwale
Kesho kutwa tutaongea na walimu wa Kepsha nita wahamasisha kuhusu Mwamdudu
Leo nyinyi mmapatie walimu, wanafunzi na wazazi nguvu kusema “Shule hii, haitauzwa leo au kesho!!!”
Mwamdudu, Kwale County, Kenya
For more see:

Thoughts ahead of the 2016 State of the Nation Address, Kenya, 31 March 2016


This blog draws on the points made on Citizen #Cheche breakfast show, 30 March 

Part 1: Part 2: Part 3:

The President’s State of the Nation address is not just a constitutional requirement under Art. 132. It is a moment of accountability and call to national action. The power of the address flows less from the words. Any decent speech writer can find and use words like rebirth, renewal, transformation and hashtags like #TransformKE. The power come in our listening that the speaker is honest, sincere and committed to results. There has to be space therefore, also for a President to say we were wrong, we didn’t meet our own expectations and we will do better.

The 2014 and 2015 addresses are still present for the millions of Kenyans. 2014 addressed devolution, security (nyumba kumi/CCTV), reducing cost of living and the promise of the Youth Fund and National Youth Service. 2015 addressed the attainment of middle income status, an apology for historical injustices (TJRC report and a restoration of fund of Kshs60 billion), the cancer of corruption and the 179 names on the list of shame.

The 2016 address must revisit these policy choices and commitments. We have seen a Cabinet reshuffle, new laws enacted, asset seizures and pressure on law enforcement agencies to prosecute the corrupt. All this gives substance to the words of the President in 2015. Given that this happened after strong public demand for #FagiaKE, the public can draw satisfaction that their voice and agency has been heard. The establishment of specialised criminal courts to expedite the 350 cases before the courts is also very welcome.

Yet, the absence of convictions, continued appointment of public officers not based on merit, competitive appointment or the spirit of Integrity Chapter 6 and the reluctance to subject all Cabinet Secretaries, Principal Secretaries and Directors to life style audits is worrying. The staggering amounts lost to the tax-payer in the National Youth Service, Eurobond, Youth Fund and other scandals since his speech last year has left public servants and the public shocked.

Returning to the historical and I believe, heartfelt apology for human rights abuses, much has not happened. The Kshs 10 billion restoration fund is still not established and the TJRC report remains stuck in the National Assembly. Listening to human rights victims and survivors of injustice many of them women as far back as the sixties last week (#TruthJusticeDignityKE #WagallaMassacre), I am struck how such an important issue for national cohesion has been handled so ineffectively by the Office of State Law, Treasury and the National Assembly.

Looking forward, the President could address four issues that threaten our national values. They are inequalities, corruption (again), negative ethnicity (again) and the looming electoral crisis (new).

#TransformKE claims that we are the fastest growing economy and third best improved country for doing business. Our triumphalism that we have attained middle income country status needs to be tempered by the reality that we are using half chicken economics. A few people have four chickens and the majority none, so by average we all have half chickens. Growth is not shared.

The Mathare Legal Aid and Human Rights Awareness Advocacy speaks of unemployed youth who turn to crime dying in a hail of bullets by other criminals or the police within three years. They speak of homes that survive on a monthly rent of Kshs 1-2,000 shillings and Kshs 3,000 for food. They and their rural counterparts can be forgiven if they are growing increasingly impatient with these announcements.

When asked why the Tunisian revolution took place at a time that all the indicators pointed to a growing economy, the former Minister of Planning and Tourism once said, “Seems the people in the streets didn’t bother to read our analysis”. The President’s speech need to challenge this more rigorously than the Ministry of Planning and Devolution has done in the past.

Government statistics need to be challenged more. It is not that the economy is not growing or that infrastructure, maternal health access and other services are not improving. All this, thankfully is happening. It is that corruption threatens this growth directly. We may be improving the ease of doing business in the world, but we are only 34 countries ahead of Chad in this respect. Further, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers, we are now the 3rd most corrupt country.

The scale of recent scandals, the reluctance to appoint or dismiss people based on their integrity and the awkwardness of unlawful administrative actions struck down by courts have to be transformed if Kenya is to move forward. Here the President could communicate the principle of command responsibility across his administration. If it is proven that a senior official knew a crime was committed as was the case of the Kenya National Examinations Council, that official goes as well.

The issue of negative ethnicity stalks us still. Dr.David Ndii’s “It’s time to divorce” and the subsequent social media #ArrestNdii #Kikuyus discussions inform us that labelling and polarisation still frames the national question. While I believe most Kenyans believe in the unitary state and are enjoying the benefits of devolution, our individual safety and dignity is still subject to ethnic coalitions and not our constitution. We are not far enough from persecution and extermination ideologies.

The last issue we must address is the looming electoral crisis. We turn to the season that typically leads to intolerance, violence and the loss of 2% of our GDP without an acceptable IEBC as referee and Judiciary as arbiter. The increasing securitisation of media and civic spaces contribute to the precipice we lean over. The President could boldly step into this space and establish a mechanism for all the political parties, observer and election management bodies to agree ground rules for a fair, non-violent and meaningful election. The President could also signal the commencement of the Public Benefits Organisations Act 2013 and the value of independent, factual and investigative journalism. The abysmal turn out at the voter registration this month is a sign that the electorate is slowly turning away from the fundamental pillar of democracy, the ballot. What would be next?

The last word is to the President as he faces this constitutional moment. Two empowering quotes can help ground him. They are Andy Stanley’s “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say” and Elbert Hubbard’s “The proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.” Leadership requires an inability to listen to all views and a recognition that power is not controlling everything in the republic. Ultimately the strength of the republic lies in its people speaking and acting to breathe life into the constitutional promises. The role of the Presidency is to respond swiftly, decisively and champion these constitutional promises. The four areas above would be places to start.

Reflections on turning 50: February 22, 2016

    Once I step over the word amazement, two words describe turning 50 on February 22; alive and self-expressed. I was born on February 22 1966 less than two kilometers from my current home. In between I have lived in London, Dar es Salaam, Harare, Washington DC and spent enough days in Addis to pay as much taxes as the locals. Six cities, three continents and back to Kilimani. The last five years alone seem like a couple of lifetimes. A new love and marriage, family, friends, career in the public interest, a community foundation and twitter.
    Five lessons stand out for me. In my twenties, I used to be told to “slow down, you will burn out”. I know now I am never going to burn out before I die but I can prioritise better. Focus on those things that have the greatest chance of transforming the issues that matter to me, the people in my life.
      Secondly, anything very important or really big I want to achieve is too big for me to create alone or in this lifetime. This informs my work with the Kilimani Project Foundation and my belief in my younger colleagues in the dawn of their careers.
    Thirdly, that while I may still struggle with confidence (this was the norm in the twenties), the biggest handicap at 50 is my ego. Most times my impatience with procrastination and endless consultations is actually my ego speaking. Having the wisdom to know when to interrupt others and when to just listen and know that even the endless conversations allow others to clarify their thoughts.
    Fourthly, even the deepest of disappointments can be handled. A few years ago, I was not shortlisted for public office. Dark and righteous thoughts emerged. “Not even shortlisted to 200 applicants?” and a few others too dark to be repeated. I breathed, gave myself 20 minutes to think dark thoughts and then asked, “OK, what do you want to do next?”. Light replaced darkness.
    Out of that came the Kenya Dialogues Project at the Society for International Development. The project is now a 200 million shilling campaigning force working nationally and across ten counties to protect our public schools, challenge corruption and discrimination and create Kenya in the image of our constitution. If we keep our faith ahead of our fears, our actions ahead of our ideas, disappointments and complaints have no power to rob us of life.
    Lastly, an increasingly predictable question these days, are you going to run for public office? As I look at Kenya through the lens of chapter 6, not all who are in public office act in the public interest. Too many have been claimed by the epidemic of corruption. My work in Kilimani and nationally is in the public interest. For now this suits me. My work is to bring the public interest back into the public offices that have forgotten their primary mandate. For unless those in public office recognise that public service is the privilege not the privileges that come with public office they are useless to the interests of the public.
    Lastly, I want to thank my wife, children, family, friends and even the strangers in my life. You have accompanied each and every one of the four decades of this path traveled so far.
    You are my life and I am grateful.

Six pillars for building better societies with women

Opening remarks to the Timeless Women’s Conference 2016, Nairobi 

I grew up in a pre-dominantly female household of sisters. All of us went to school, all us had household chores.

Three broken bridges shaped my feminism as a man. Abrupt and unintentional teenage relationships with girls that left them very angry and me frustrated. A society in which power and privilege leaves women and girls at danger from violence and rape. A continent in which women do 3-4 times more work than men and earn 30% less.

Since 1989, I have chosen to work alongside women to transform the world around me. From being a member of the Kenyan Mothers in Action in the 1990s to the Pan African women’s rights coalitions in Africa, the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights coalition in the 2000s and Kilimani Mums in 2014.

I have been single less than 2 years in the last thirty six years, married twice and parented a couple of super girls. Yet my journey into my masculinity and the transformation of gender injustice is far from complete.

Africa is deeply unequal. According to the UN Women, 89% Women still in non-formal sector and over-represented in unpaid work. Women still earn 30% than men. Yet, this inequality is not inevitable. Rights based policies and strategies and investment could transform all of this in a life-time.

Our homes and workspaces are deeply in need of new bridges of solidarity if we are to transform societies that layer power and privilege based on our gender. These bridges can easily be built on just six pillars;

  1. Equal pay for equal work
  2. Anti-harassment policies and practices
  3. Child friendly working environment
  4. Affirmative procurement for women owned businesses
  5. Career progression plans that target young people and especially young women
  6. Get out of the way

The UN Women 2015 report is a great overview and call to action …

Photo from MyDressMyChoice campaign: Ruth Knaust speaking to the movement (RIP)

My Promise

zafaraniphotography 1 close up

Tribute to Elijah Agevi, RIP

_MG_0544Transition December 4 2015
From Irũngũ Houghton on behalf of the Kilimani Project Foundation
and Society for International Development
I met Elijah first in 1995. I was then a member of the NGO Council Executive Committee, he led the Shelter Forum, one of the Council networks. I last met him two weeks before he passed away. He was finding a way to stop public land grabs and wanted to hear our progress on protecting public primary and secondary schools.
Elijah’s strength was his ability to move between sectors, across spaces and bridge different communities. His life informs a vision of all Kenyans as planners, citizens actively dreaming, designing and building liveable towns for all. 
His vision was far ahead of us but a consistent theme in most first class cities  including those seeking ‘fair share’ housing plan (Miami Valley, Ohio ) or to provide dedicated land exclusively for open green public squares (Philadelphia). Here and elsewhere, community-devised and community-funded initiatives are part of long-term sustainability plans. Planning is not done to people but with people. Elijah believed in a future in which we all would be urban planners. In this understanding, I too am a planner.
Elijah was also an activist. He had a passion for the right to shelter and beautiful and safe public spaces. In an Africa, where ½ of Africa’s urban population live in peoples settlements, urban inequality is the 2nd highest globally with young men and women are 3 times more likely to be unemployed, we all need to be like Elijah.
This city, country and continent that I live in is therefore, is too important to leave to planners. I will honor Elijah’s vision.
I was happy to hear UN Habitat will honor him posthumously and the County of Nairobi Government will name a street or a public space in his honor.
Go well Elijah. The people’s settlements, NGO and Government offices that you know so well shall remember you fondly.
For more on Elijah Agevi, see