Kenyan CSOs, NGOs to fight proposed foreign funding restrictions

A demonstration organized by Kenyan civil society against the country's parliament over salary increase for legislators in May 2013. Kenya's civil society and local NGOs are fighting the government's proposed amendment to cut foreign funding to 15 percent. Photo by: bwanacollins / CC BY-NC

Civil society and nongovernmental organizations in Kenya are currently working on a unified strategy to combat legislation that would cut their foreign funding to 15 percent, including challenging the bill in court if and when it passes.

These organizations seem “either frustrated or fatigued” at this attempt to restrict their sources of funds, Katrin Seidel, director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s East Africa regional office, told Devex.

Many Kenyan CSOs and NGOs have already come under a more silent attack in the form of threats by the government led by President Uhuru Kenyatta for their work on human rights violations and support for the International Criminal Court investigations in the country, according to Vukasin Petrovic, director of The Freedom House’s sub-Saharan Africa Program.

These organizations — particularly those focused on strengthening democracy and human rights, and combating corruption — receive substantial funding from outside Kenya. So it’s the government’s proposed amendment to drastically cut foreign funds that has the aid community ready to work together to get the proposal taken off the table.

First disclosed by the government on Oct. 30, the proposed legislation would restrict the amount of funds Kenyan “public benefits organizations” can receive from external sources to just 15 percent of their budget. The provision would also allow for greater government monitoring of PBO finances.

The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law finalized on Wednesday its comments on the bill, and argued it fails to comply with the constitution as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and noting that the “application of this provision will starve many PBOs of resources, essentially extinguishing their right to associate.”

“It is difficult to see how restricting foreign funding of PBOs can be deemed necessary in a democratic society,” added the Washington, D.C.-based ICNL.

Precedent in Ethiopia

For the NGO community in Kenya, the amendment looks all too similar to one that effectively “destroyed” the same community in Ethiopia, Petrovic told Devex.

In February 2009, the Ethiopian government adopted its first comprehensive law governing the registration and regulation of NGOs, which is now considered “one of the most controversial NGO laws in the world,” according to ICNL. The proclamation, among other provisions, restricts NGOs that receive more than 10 percent of their financing from foreign sources from legally engaging in human rights and advocacy activities.

But the restrictions envisioned by the Kenyan bill are in fact more wide-reaching than the restrictions enforced by Ethiopia, according to ICNL. The 15 percent foreign funding cap in Kenya would affect the full range of PBOs, including those working in health and economic development.

Four years later, of the more than 1,000 organizations in Ethiopia that focused on human rights and democracy before the law was adopted, fewer than 10 remain active. Petrovic said that if the legislation is passed in Kenya, “we can expect similar effects of the law here.”

And if the government also installs a government-run body that provides annual allocation of budgets, as is mentioned in the Kenyatta’s Jubilee Manifesto, it will assume full control of all activities and projects carried out by CSOs.

“It can financially starve organizations that are critical of the direction the government is taking, while at the same time ensuring that NGOs still provide the needed social services,” noted Seidel.

Several governments around the world are cracking down on activists and advocates by passing laws and regulations, imposing vague registration requirements and placing limits on foreign funding. During her confirmation hearing, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power pledged to respond to the “crackdown” on civil society taking place in countries such as Cuba, Iran, Russia and Venezuela.

As for Kenya’s reaction to the proposed legislation, Petrovic believes civil society in the country is much more vibrant and better organized than was the case in Ethiopia in 2009.

“I expect that Kenyan human rights organizations are ready to mount a much stronger response,” he said.

Unified strategy

Kenyan NGOs and CSOs are trying to come together and point out to the government the essential role CSOs play in the socio-economic development of the country, a sector that provides thousands of jobs.

“The discussion should be around Kenyans and the risk of lack of access to services,” said Mike Mutungi, CEO of health NGO I Choose Life Africa. “The first goal is to get the bill rejected. The second option would be to have the president reject it. The odds do not look good. But one has to give it all they have. This is about the Kenyan nation.” 

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the CSO Reference Group — a network of Kenyan CSOs working in a wide range of arenas — vehemently oppose the proposal.

“If one looks at the fact that civil society contributes over KSH100 billion [$1.2 billion] to the economy, employs more people than the manufacturing sector per capita, benefits millions of Kenyans throughout the country and especially the vulnerable and marginalized amongst others, it is difficult to see how the Jubilee government will achieve many of its campaign promises, let alone Vision 2030,” the CSO Reference Group said in a statement on Monday.

This group is expected to lead the response and petition strategy moving forward — and has already developed a petition to collect physical signatures and suggested social media hashtags — but frictions, including ethnic and political rifts, have left some unsure on whether civil society will be able to coordinate and sustain the kind of resistance needed.

“Despite the great contribution to political transformations in the past, NGOs are not unanimously perceived as credible and beneficial,” Seidel explained. She agrees with Petrovic that it looks like there is little to be expected from Western donors and diplomats in the form of public support for CSOs, although for good reason.

“After the strong partisan statements before the elections, there is a sense that any interference would be interpreted as proof of a foreign agenda,” Seidel said.

The Kenyan government has painted a picture of civil society being donor-driven and pushing donor agendas. It wouldn’t be surprising if donors choose a more behind-the-scenes government engagement approach — a strategy that was lacking in Ethiopia, Petrovic noted.

Whether the government will follow Ethiopia’s example and impose further restrictions on how available funding can be used — such as limiting administration costs to 30 percent of the budget, which effectively strangled most organizations — remains to be seen. The current bill follows a proposed media law that would introduce a government-controlled tribunal to handle complaints, revoke journalistic accreditation and impose fines.

“I think most people are taken by surprise by this powerful onslaught on democratic institutions, media and CSOs,” Seidel said.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has reported from more than 20 countries.