National Government and PBOs need to talk

First published Sunday Standard, January 29, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group 

Irish stateswoman Bernadette Mc Aliskey’s words this week continue to ring in my ears. She said, “Most activists don’t choose activism, their personal circumstances leave them no choice.” It is a truth known by many. Poverty, unfairness and a sense of injustice radicalizes. When combined with collective punishment, individual anger rapidly turns into widespread disaffection.

Bernadette’s insight offers wisdom for government leaders but also parents and teachers. We all painfully know the dangers of young men and women radicalized by violence and hatred. The same applies to communities of dreamers and change agents alienated by national policy and behavior.

Kenya has one of the oldest, best resourced and effective civil societies in Africa. Both Kenyan Presidents – Barack Obama and Uhuru Kenyatta – said as much in 2015. Commitment to four core values has kept civil society resilient. These four values are development, human rights and the rule of law, non-violence and neutrality from party politics.

These four core values have been severely tested by the delays in commencing the PBO Act (2013), four years of hostile legislative and administrative attacks and the recent abrupt transfer from the Ministry of Devolution to the Ministry of the Interior. The latest shock was the January 6th unsigned memo from the Principal Secretary instructing all County Commissioners to audit all NGOs for “nefarious activities that threaten national security including money laundering, diversion of donor aid and terrorism”.

It is worth noting that specialized Government agencies and development partners do not share the blanket charges of money-laundering, donor aid corruption and terrorism. Neither the reports of the Central Bank of Kenya’s Banking Fraud Investigation Unit nor the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission address this as a central concern. It is not that incidences do not exist but that the number of instances do not warrant viewing the 30,000 strong sector through this lens.

Influential leaders have started to worry that it seems that the very existence of Public Benefits Organisations poses a threat, not just to Jubilee, but to the state itself. In a press conference this week, Council of Governors Chairperson Peter Munya voiced their concern with the deteriorating relationship between National Government and international and national Public Benefits Organisations working across 47 counties.

This coming week, leaders of 500 public benefits organisations are gathering in Nairobi. They have invited the Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery for a dialogue. This will be the first opportunity for the Government to communicate a vision and policy framework for this forty-year-old sector since the move to the Interior. The dialogue could be an important one in many ways.

National Government has an opportunity to reassure the sector it intends partnership not prejudice, collaboration not conflict. PBO leaders likewise, have a moment to press for provisions that deepen public accountability and an enabling environment envisaged in the PBO Act (2013).

If they both miss the opportunity, they may open the door for a different conversation to dominate. That conversation may see new narratives of partisanship, open defiance and civil disobedience, replace traditional commitments to the non-partisanship, rule of law and policy dialogue.

The current relationship is not working. The National Government knows it. PBO leaders know it and the public knows it. What’s missing is an agreement on how to fix it. There is a parable that offers a clue for the Cabinet Secretary.

There was a military leader who, despite fighting bravely, lost the war. His opponent, admiring his courage, asked him to answer a question for his life. The question was “What does a woman want most in life”. In vain, he sought the answer from thousands. Finally, he turned to a mchawi who promised the answer in return for marriage. He was horrified. She was simply the most hideous person ever known.

However, to save his life he agreed. Her wish granted, she told him, “What a woman really wants is to be in charge of her own life.” His life was saved. As he approached his new bride on the first night, he found she had turned herself into the most beautiful woman. But then she told him, she would only do this at night when they were alone or during the day with others. Choose one, she said. The wise groom smiled and told her, “You choose.” The woman smiled back and from that day on, she remains beautiful both day and night.

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