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Grassroots struggles and NGOs

Civil society in Kenya is under pressure from the increasingly repressive regime of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. But these groups are themselves fragmented, with well-funded elite NGOs disconnected from the concerns of the grassroots. The best way for the groups to find strength is by connecting their struggles

Recently I came across a cartoon by Kenya’s celebrated caricaturist Gado (2013) addressing the ‘draconian’ Public Benefit Organisations and Media bills. In Gado’s version of a famous analogy the headings in four pictures are: ‘First they came for the opposition, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t opposition. Then they came for the media, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a journalist. Then they came for the NGOs, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t NGO. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.’

The cartoon raises an important lesson of uniting struggles in an increasingly repressive state. But the illustration is incomplete - and points to a story that continues to exclude grassroots struggles from ‘meaningful’ political or social dialogue. Indeed, when they come for you, there is no one left to speak for you. But the story doesn’t start with the opposition or with the media, nor does it start with NGOs. The story starts and ends with grassroots that have continuously been silenced and exploited from all sides - equally by politicians, the media and NGOs. In times of increased state hostility towards any form of activism, we must have a critical look at the utility of NGOs in advancing grassroots struggles.


In order to understand the functioning of NGOs it is important to take a look at their history and the wider socio-cultural, economic and political realm they function in. The origins of NGOs in Kenya are traced back to the colonial era, which - as a system of control and exploitation – unsurprisingly restricted freedom of speech or association. Hence, formal NGOs were of a religious (mostly Christian) or philanthropic nature with no political aspirations and primarily involved in service provision (Kameri- Mbote, 2000). It follows that these organizations were not intended to bring about change, but merely to treat the ‘symptoms’ of oppression. Thus NGOs played a vital part in making colonial rule socially acceptable as they defined existing problems as related to being ‘uncivilized’ rather than injustice, exploitation or oppression (Manji, 2002). Unsurprisingly, most NGOs did not aid the liberation struggle or , to the contrary, even help to choke radical political activity. It was a massive grassroots movement, the Mau Mau, that fought British colonialists – and suffered their wrath. But as Kenya bargained for independence during the Lancaster House Conference in the United Kingdom, Mau Mau veterans or representatives were not invited and their interests were considered to be of little concern to the new Kenyan elite. Ochieng (1989:204) points out that ‘the majority of African nationalist leaders who took over the running of the state from the British had already accepted, and were committed to, the bourgeois tenets of Western democracy and capitalist production’. Indeed, the government manifested its capitalist path for Kenya with Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965. NGOs as ‘moderates’ aided this process, hence contributing to the demobilization and silencing of popular movements like the Mau Mau (Manji, 2002). This was the creational phase of ‘development’ NGOs’ in Kenya. With it, language changed from Africans being ‘uncivilized’ to ‘underdeveloped’, but the discourse remained basically the same, rooted in racist misconceptions and flawed understandings of ‘development’. The Kenyan state was increasingly centralized and authoritative under the ruling elite led by President Jomo Kenyatta. Thus the state was the main agent of development and NGOs were subordinated, allowed to exist as ‘independent, if malleable, organs of patronage’ (Ndegwa 1996:26).

Continuing his predecessor’s path, Daniel Arap Moi viewed the civil society (just like any other ‘independent’ form of oversight or opposition) as a threat, which needed to be contained. At the same time, Kenya was not spared from the debt crisis of the 1980s that swept across the continent. In 1981 Kenya adopted the neo-liberal Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) which were developed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of debt-restructuring. SAPs shifted the responsibility for development from the state to the market and non-state actors. Hence donor money shifted from the state to NGOs (Chegge, 1999). However, the increased funding for NGOs had multiple reasons. First, donors argued that the state was too corrupt to fund it directly, and NGOs presented new hopes to bring about democracy and development (Gibbon, 1995). Second, Western states used the withholding of aid – or channelling of it to NGOs - as means of control (Campbell, 2008). Further, the funding of NGOs was intended to silence criticism and social uprisings in opposition of the SAPs (ibid), which caused widespread unemployment, poverty and decrease in social amenities. It was indeed during these times that social movements such as Bunge la Mwananchi were established addressing socio- economic inequalities, corruption and repressive leadership (Gachihi, 2013). NGOs were yet again used to mitigate symptoms of inequalities and oppressions and choke grassroots activities. The new ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ rhetoric (ironically advanced by the World Bank) framed the individual – and more so the poor- as ‘both the problem and the solution to poverty, diverting attention from the issue of the state’s redistribution or global trade policy’ (Kamat, 2003:3). Similarly, through ‘capacity building’ neoliberal economic and political tenets were communicated to the people (Cambpell, 2008). But the new funding strategy of donors had yet another effect: part of the national elite that had previously been attracted by the state now moved to NGOs, which had become more lucrative due to increased funding; additionally Moi’s repressive regime had created a large ‘displaced elite’ from the political opposition, who sought out for alternatives (Ndegwa, 1996).

After the end of the Cold War, there was no need for the West to court Kenya’s governmental elite for alliance, which is demonstrated in their decision to suspend official aid in 1990 in order to pressure for multi- party elections. These trends led to the worsening of already tense state-civil society relations, especially since NGOs had multiplied into thousands and their funds and elite membership increased exponentially. In this political environment the Kenyan government enacted the NGO Act of 1990, whose purpose was to control and limit NGOs, as Ndegwa (1996) states. In response, NGOs started to oppose Moi’s regime progressively, not due to grassroots demands, but to ensure organizational survival (ibid). NGOs benefited from the international demand for multiparty elections in the quest for democratization and an alliance of the political opposition, civil society and international actors based on a ‘coincidence of interests’ - as John Githongo (2013) terms it - became stronger and united in the quest for democracy.


The history of NGOs reveals several facts. First, NGOs inserted themselves in a neo-liberal agenda that was echoing national and international demands of ‘development’ and ‘democracy’. Second, there has been a disconnect between grassroots movements and NGOs, manifested in a general lack of interests by NGOs in grassroots struggles and an unwillingness to communicate with (not ‘to’) the grassroots. These two revelations constitute the basis for maintaining systems of unequal power relations that choke uniting and radical political activity on the ground. Indeed the Public Benefit Act No.18 of 2013, which was enacted January 2013 by the Kenyan legislature, places NGOs in the ideological paradigm of liberal democracy. In her interpretation of the Act, Kisinga (p.3) asserts that ‘the law will enable the country reap the benefit of enhanced contribution by CSOs towards the implementation of the new constitution and realisation of development goals under Vision 2030.’ We do not want to propose that NGO should generally oppose governmental goals, but it is pivotal that NGOs critically analyse their roles in promoting structures, values and behaviours that reaffirm systems of oppression and injustice. Vision 2030 in particular has been criticised several times for worsening economic inequality, disowning communities and promoting private (corporate or individual) ownership of essentials such as water or land.

But let’s have a deeper look at the understanding of the term ‘grassroots’ before we continue. According to Batliwala (2002:396) grassroots are ‘those who are most severely affected in terms of the material condition of their daily lives’. They are most affected due to lack of access to resources, political power, representation and opportunities (economic and social). However, grassroots can be conceptualized beyond defining a people, but rather an identity that it is deeply connected to the awareness of systems of oppressions, based on class first, and then all other forms of oppression – be it based on religion, gender or sexual orientation. Grassroots movements, then, tend to demand immediate and radical change as the issues they are organizing around directly affect the wellbeing of members and the grassroots in general.

NGOs on the other hand often maintain moderate paths as their existence is secured through organizational funding and high salaries ensure that staff is not vulnerable to national economic conditions. Further, G
grassroots demand for structural and long-term transformation of systems that oppress and exclude them from access to political, social and economic benefits. As Leigh Brownhill (2009) demonstrates, social movements from 1870 to 2007 in Kenya have been concerned with the commons ‘food, land, freedom’. The (imperial) capitalist system through commercialization of these commons removes the same from grassroots’ control leading to systems of patronage, dependency and continued exploitation of Africa’s resources and labour force.

Land has been at the centre of conflicts all over Kenya; this includes land grabbing, dis-ownership, land and house evictions, foreign determined usage of land and instigated ‘ethnic’ clashed leading to displacement of people. Land grabbing may be direct by politicians (e.g. a lá Ruto (Standard, 2013)) or a scheme to cheat or evict people in order to sell the lands to companies or private investors (e.g. Coast, Maasai lands (Kantai, 2008)). In her analysis of extractive resources Moloo (2014) criticizes the Kenyan civil society for ignoring the historical and political context of mining in Africa while completely disregarding experiences of communities who face the consequences on the ground. Recent protests in Turkana are a testimony to action on the ground opposing such practices and the lack of involvement of other actors demonstrates the solitude of such struggles. Also the government’s co- owned mega- project of the Lamu Port and South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) (which is by the way part of Vision 2030) seems promising in displacing a number of Kenyans form their ancestral lands. Additionally, high profile agendas such as the Green Revolution and REDD+ programmes supported by the UN, silently and legally disown people of their lands as it is happening in Embobut at the moment (Vidal, 2014). The house and small business demolitions and evictions in urban centres are connected to the issue of land, systems of patronage and oppression. Numerous house evictions all over Nairobi and other urban centres have displaced hundred thousands of families and left them with nothing but the clothes on their bodies (Amnesty International, 2013). Almost every month a story of forceful evictions is in the media, yet it continues to happen.

Land grabbing and house demolishing is yet another issue that demonstrates the narrow mindedness of issue- and location specific organizing. There is much space for supporting community organizers that are already agitating grassroots activity and joining people and communities to find a united strategy addressing the multiple layers of oppressions that surface in an act of house demolishing and land grabbing equally as addressing systems of land ownership and distribution.

The loss of land equals loss over food security for communities, which leads to a second central concern of grassroots organizing: food. High food prices have affected especially the most vulnerable as high unemployment rates and low salaries prevail. Multiple demonstrations of the ‘Unga Revolution’ were organized by a number of community organizers and many Kenyans took to the street demanding for a reduction of food prices. Recent uprisings against a planned introduction of 16 percent Value Added Tax on basic commodities (supported by the IMF and World Bank) and subsequent demonstrations regarding the felt consequences in different part of the country demonstrate the centrality of food in grassroots struggles. Likewise the widespread introduction of GMOs and chemical fertilizer to farmers in the name of a Green Revolution risks food security and diversity and increases farmers’ dependency on companies that are selling the same (and actually funding the Green Revolution like Monsanto). Effective propaganda machinery combined with high funds from Green Revolution donors with vested interests have managed to engage grassroots in their agenda, while critical voices and alternatives float only in the cyber space.

A third major concern of grassroots organizing is concerned with freedom. Freedom is certainly a more complex concept and deeply rooted in direct and indirect oppression of the most vulnerable. Disowning, evictions, exclusion from access to justice and political representation, restrictions in association and speech as well as structures that maintain poverty are all central to creating systems of oppression. In that regard it is not only the state that is held responsible, but equally companies, banks, the civil society, religious leaders and international actors that continue to promote neo-liberal structures that perpetrate oppressions at the micro and macro levels. This means systems of oppressions are preserved through basic human relations, aspirations and opinions, equally as they are maintained through structures, policies and administration.

Besides these factors, the direct military threat on grassroots in Kenya is alarming; it has been seen in violent crushing of political activity and uprisings, increased police presence and in the brutal force used to disown people of their lands. Members of grassroots movements and grassroots activists are frequently arrested, threatened or killed. Similarly, the same may not get as much public attention and receive less or no response from national organizations or the international community, especially when they take place outside the urban centres. Grassroots movements are generally more prone to hostile confrontations with the state. This is because the movements tend to have a large popular support which is itself a danger to political elites and they have fewer financial resources and networks to influential actors. In contrast, the elite heading resourceful NGOs often have close ties with each other as well as to political elites, donors, foreign media or members of the international communities such as ambassadors. It is from these concerns that some grassroots activists and social movements have opted to collaborate with the civil society. Gachihi (2013), while acknowledging the limitation of the civil society to advance change, asserts that the grassroots movement Bunge la Mwananchi was ‘forced (...) to build subsistence alliances with neo-liberal human rights organizations to challenge the impunity of the state that has continued to slow down the social activism of the movement’. He argues that the hostile environment including arrest and extra-judicial killings of grassroots activists necessitated an alliance with members of the political elite and civil society, especially human rights organizations that offered protection to activists. This cooperation can lead to greater security as well as influence and networks to demand that grassroots concerns are addressed. On the other hand collaboration with grassroots may also lend NGOs justifications to donors as they can increase their popular support indirectly through grassroots leaders. As NGOs come with their own donor mandates and strategies, the nature of grassroots movements - and more so the ideology – may be compromised. Funded grassroots movements tend to institutionalize, build hierarchies and clear defined power imbalances. Informal grassroots leaders now become formal organizational elite; their access to resource and political influence increases as they are exposed to donors, NGOs and civil society actors from elite circles. This opens up security and funds, but may also alienate or compromise leaders and create grievances that some are paid, have greater access to security, while others are not. Seeing both advantages and disadvantages of this process, it depends largely on the consciousness of the movement, dialogue within the movement and individual willingness to further the cause whether such a transformation will increase or decrease popular support and the overall efficiency in representing grassroots demands and getting them heard and acted upon. Such cooperation demands a conscious reflection on issues of legitimacy, autonomy, unity and political consciousness of the nature of cooperation.

As for NGOs, they have been complacent in strategizing around grassroots struggles, which starts with re-evaluating systems of power and oppression within the sector and supporting grassroots’ political activity on the ground. In simple words, NGOs have little popular support, as they have not spoken out, when ‘they’ came for grassroots and continue to come. Thus it is not surprising that no one is left to speak for the grassroots. But let’s have a closer look at the political environment of NGOs and why indeed they may be advised to start showing interests in grassroots struggles and ideologies.


As they say, history repeats itself – at any rate we can learn from history. Recently the Kenyan government has proposed significant provision to the new PBO bill that would stifle the autonomy of NGOs. Indeed, there are a few parallels regarding the current PBO bill and the NGO Act of 1990. In both cases an increasingly autocratic regime intended to suppress public activity that could pose a threat to the political leadership. Specifically the media and the civil society were targeted. In both cases, only when NGOs were targeted directly – and more so their funds - did they rise up in unity. However, in 1990, NGOs knew that the new sole superpower US and its alliances which had emerged victorious and pulsed with a thriving economy due to the collapse of the USSR had their back. Today – in light of the slow decline of the US as the only superpower and their continuous entanglement in un-prestigious moral vendettas, the rise of unconcerned and cheap China and other BRICS states – the support of the West is certainly less effective. Above that, seeing the current propaganda machinery, the government will make sure to support NGOs and political activity that is not attacking state power, leading to further disunity.

The recent proposed amendment of the PBO bill is specifically targeted at a number of advocacy NGOs that have continued to demand justice for the victims of politically instigated post- election violence of 2007/2008. The current head of state, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy William Ruto have an uneasy relationship with the civil society dating back to 2010 when (former) International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Moreno Ocampo named the two as being among 6 Kenyans who bore the greatest responsibility for the post- election violence. During the election campaigns in 2013 many civil society actors cautioned against electing candidates that faced charges of crimes against humanity – an argument which was also strongly brought forward by the international community, spearheaded by the US. After Kenyatta controversially won the March 2013 election by a few thousand votes, civil society actors filed a petition to overturn the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) election results. Despite evidence of a number of irregularities during the tallying, Kenya’s Supreme Court affirmed the win for Uhuru Kenyatta as fourth president of Kenya. Since then these NGOs have been organizing and advocating for the continuity of the ICC process and the protection of ICC witnesses, as some have been killed and others frequently faced bribery or intimidation.

At the same time Uhuru and Ruto have rallied a political alliance with other ‘discredited’ heads of state against the West in order to ensure their personal freedoms and lay the path for freeing themselves from Western demands of democracy and human rights (while maintaining Western neo- liberal allies to ensure ‘investment’ and capital to benefit the political/economic elite). In that regard Uhuru and Ruto, their supporters and parts of the media presented the ICC case as a matter of Kenya’s sovereignty in the run up for the elections of 2013. NGOs were portrayed as partisan and representing foreign interests. The manifesto of Ruto and Kenyatta’s coalition party Jubilee is to be understood in this light:

‘The Jubilee Coalition government will introduce a Charities Act to regulate political campaigning by NGOs to ensure that they only campaign on issues that promote their core remit and do not engage in party politics’ (cited in Churchill, 2013). Further, Ruto stated in a political rally that, ‘NGOs should stop interfering with government matters; writing letters to their donors abroad and compiling reports about post-election violence. Its none of their business’ (cited in Ndungu, 2011). Sections of the media repeatedly called on ‘imperial’ NGOs and individuals; prominent civil society actors were termed as ‘moles (...) who crucified Uhuru/Ruto at the ICC’ (Kenyan Daily Post, 2013). John Githongo (2013), a prominent civil society actor, asserts: ‘During the election campaigns earlier this year, a virulent and effective propaganda onslaught against the ‘evil/civil society’ was rolled out’. Recently, Ruto’s lawyer Karim Khan claimed the USAID was ‘using proxy civil societies to get witnesses for the court’ (Ndonga, 2014). As Bratton (1987:34) asserted a quarter century ago, due to the dependence of NGOs on foreign funding, ‘[g">overnments can easily dismiss them as dancing to the tune of a foreign piper with no legitimate right of entry to the domestic policy arena.’ The political elite indeed utilized both foreign funding as well as the foreign support of NGOs campaigns to discredit NGOs. Bratton further suggests that for NGOs to enhance legitimacy they must devote greater effort to building community based constituencies. It is striking that the political elite rather successfully managed to change public opinion on the ICC matter, making it highly unpopular among Kenyans and as a symbol of foreign domination while it was these same Kenyans that vocally demanded for the ICC trials in the aftermath of the post-election violence. It suggests that NGOs have not managed to build a strong community base. This explains why many Kenyans have incomplete or biased information about the ICC process and the work of NGOs. This is especially true for the rather elitist NGOs that spearheaded the fight for legal prosecution of ICC suspects.

The ICC trials are of political and personal concern to Kenyatta and Ruto as their political power and credibility as well as the personal freedom depend on these trials. Similarly, the petition around the integrity of the election process and results directly threatened Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s political survival and ability to influence the ICC process. The more autocratic and personalized a state becomes, the more will it constrain NGOs and all other actors that threaten its legitimacy, power and interests as was the case under Moi’s regime. And when they come, it will hit grassroots the hardest. It is time for grassroots activists, NGOs and all other actors that claim to advance change for the benefit of the people to critically reflect on their past, consciously know their present and progressively strategize on the future – and to do so with the people.


Land, water, food and freedom from violence and oppression are the basics of human existence and dignity. There have been multiple uprisings, demonstrations and spontaneous or organized movements both in rural and urban areas around these issues. Looking at these struggles and the lack of NGO support thereof, it becomes clearer as to why NGOs do not have popular support to back them up (as for example in the advent of controversial amendments to the PBO bill). NGOs have been yet another instrument of power that grassroots can hardly access and that reproduce structures of economic inequality and exclusion from power. Maybe the threat of losing out on funds will wake NGOs up to rise above single issues and be conscious of the bigger picture, to provide spaces for social innovation and change. If NGOs want to be ahead of the game, they should take a step back and support the actions that are already taking place on the ground. With an increasingly hostile and militarized government it is time to re-evaluate struggles and find unity among different actors. Already multiple attacks on grassroots activists have been reported. With this in mind grassroots leaders and activists should re-evaluate their relationships with NGOs and other partners as well as the trend of institutionalizing and personalizing grassroots action. A unity in movements and political actions requires a complete re-strategizing and change of tactics and the trickling down of conscious and critical political communication with grassroots that do not have access to such information. Foremost, willing actors have to start networking and building a movement that values different strengths as well as builds and mentors people, understands grassroots struggles and ideologies. Most importantly, we need to find the unity in causes and people, because if everyone stands for themselves, when they come for you there will indeed be no one left to speak for you...

* Leila van Rinsum is completing her BA in Political Science at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.


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