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Centre for Environmental Rights

Civil society organisations have to be deliberate about using language and strategies that are relatable and accessible. At the same time, they have to bridge the gap of knowledge and interest about what they do, what they stand for and why the do it and connect people to that so that it is harder for governments to delegitimise them. 

According to the Global Journal there are an estimated ten million non-governmental organisations (NGOs) worldwide. In Kenya, the number of NGOs grew by over 400 percent between 1997 and 2006 and by 2014, according to the NGO Coordination Board, there were 9,728 registered NGOs. Despite the rising number of NGOs there still is a huge percentage of people who have little knowledge of the impact of these organisations. There are those who believe that NGOs do more harm than good. It is increasingly evident that many governments across the world share that belief, which is why more and more of them are closing in on the freedoms of the civil society through shut downs of these organisations, restrictive regulations and legislations, intimidation and personal attacks among other tactics of silencing them.

In the aftermath of the August 2017 Kenyan general elections, two human rights organisations found themselves on the receiving end of the NGO Coordination Board, the state mandated body responsible for the registration, co-ordination, facilitation and regulation of NGOs in Kenya, with threats of deregistration. This affront was neither new nor unique to the two organisations. Prior to the elections, two other NGOs allegedly allied to the main opposition principals also came under scrutiny and many others have reported frustrations at the hands of the Board. For example, in October 2017, the government ordered the closure of International Development Law Organisation (IDLO), a non-profit organisation that supports the operation of the judiciary. One of IDLO’s board of directors is lawyer Makau Mutua, a vocal and avowed critic of the current government.

The closure and shrinking of civil society spaces particularly for institutionalised movements and NGOs is a phenomenon being witnessed across the world. However, it is the rate at which and nature in which it is happening in societies that could be considered as democratic that is peculiar.  Notably, it is institutions and individuals who critique government excesses or are purportedly allied to supporters of the opposition that are oftentimes surveilled and their operations frustrated. What is equally noteworthy is that when attacked or vilified, many civil society organisations (CSOs) do not enjoy the defense whether privately or publicly from the public.

One would expect consonance between communities of people who have a common ambition to ensure that human rights are upheld. However, it is increasingly evident that there is dissonance between civil society actors and in particular human rights activists and the communities that they represent. This has been in part due to the deliberate delegitimisation and decriminalisation of civil society actors by governments that has contributed to increased apathy and negative perception by the public on civil society activities. Many African states have invested resources in shrinking civil society spaces by not only attacking their financing, but also challenging the profile and integrity of some of them and their leaders. This has been done more predominantly under the guise of preserving national morals, advancing nationalism, countering terrorism or launching wars on corruption and drugs. In reality, these campaigns have only served to reinforce the position of governments as custodians of order.

In Kenya, this was evident during the 2013 elections and the circumstances surrounding the candidacy of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. The two were amongst four other Kenyans who were being investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity related to their alleged roles in Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence. This case was deeply polarising amongst Kenyans and was seen as the thrust that propelled President Kenyatta and his deputy into the executive arm of government. Many members of the civil society registered their support for the ICC process seeing it as a transparent way in which to address the crimes that led to and that were carried out during the 2007/2008 post-election violence. 

While campaigning for the 2013 presidential elections, the two principals accused political opponents and civil society members of using the ICC case to exclude them from the presidency, insisting that the ICC case was an affront to the autonomy of the country. The Deputy President is on record saying that: “NGOs should stop interfering with government matters, writing letters to their donors abroad to support the ICC intervention and compiling reports about post-election violence. It is none of their business.”1  Many NGOs that insisted on the ICC process were considered unpatriotic and the political narrative that vilified them became the popular narrative.

Tanzania, a country that was the picture of stability in East Africa, has joined the watch list of countries with serious threats to civil space. In February 2017, the Tanzanian government shut down the operations of 40 health centres providing HIV and Aids services, accusing them of promoting homosexuality. The government has also issued several threats to NGOs and media institutions concerning their advocacy around key issues such as education, health and freedoms of expression. In July 2017, Home Affairs Minister, Mwigulu Nchemba, warned CSOs advocating for teen mothers’ education and homosexuality saying they faced deregistration.

While delegitimisation of human rights work and human rights defenders has contributed to reducing public support for human rights work and human rights in general, it is evident that civil society has also not invested enough in maintaining a consistent identity and narrative that is accessible and relatable to the public. And this failure has made it easier for governments to shape the popular narrative and transform members of the public into agents of hate and apathy against human rights NGOs and activists. The closure of civil society spaces has not only happened at the organisational level in terms of the ability to exist and organise, but also at the individual level as threats escalated from the unknown to the known and familiar.

This distancing from human rights ideology and actors has contributed in part to the rise in alternative and sometimes anonymous social movements like the online hashtag movements, which are constituted by people who have little or no familiarisation with the traditional concepts of human rights work.  These social movements have been successful in bridging the knowledge and interest gap between the public and social justice actors and shaping the global political landscape. Nevertheless, they have brought to the fore discourses, narratives and debates that were otherwise the occupation of human rights actors and built synergies across sectors such as the creative arts sector, the fashion industry and the sports industry using technology and communication infrastructure.  More notable is the way these movements have generated support and capital from the public. They are relatable, scalable, cross-sectional and continue to evolve. It is a reality that the rise of these movements presents opportunities for learning to the mainstream civil society organisations. It leads one to ask questions such as “How can CSOs and NGOs generate and maintain public support as a way of self-preservation and sustainability of their work and legacy?”

Factors threatening democracy and the space for civil society existence are creating an urgent need for action—but they also hint at an important opportunity. The opportunity is in the narrative; who is advancing it and what is being advanced. Many of these new social movements are being driven by strategic communicators who are not only intentional about building their constituencies and brands, but also are invested and have developed strategies on how to increase their outreach.

CSOs also have to be deliberate about using language and strategies that are relatable and accessible. At the same time, they have to bridge the gap of knowledge and interest about what they do, what they stand for and why the do it and connect people to that so that it is harder for governments to delegitimise them. One way of doing this is through telling their stories. The late Austrian philosopher, Ivan Illich, was once asked about the most revolutionary way to change society. He answered the question this way:

Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step... If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.

Stories are a powerful tool in human communication. They are powerful brand stimulants that can be used to market, profile or position an issue, product, idea or ideology. The stories we listen to and those that we tell shape our ideas of reality and the depth of our perception. Ultimately, through stories, we make inferences and connections that influence our emotions towards the topic or issue at hand. Stories bring people together; they have the ability to create and sustain movements and make unlikely activists and defenders out of ordinary people. Stories are the fabric of socialisation weaved intrinsically by words and prose; shaped by our experiences and emotions. Information is currency and those that use information strategically have a way of ensuring their posterity.

NGOs and CSOs need to be more strategic and active in documenting their stories and their impact using evidence and prose. Let the canvas of memory be rich with numbers, pictures, stories, poems and art that reflect the work that NGOs have done and continue doing. When history remembers NGOs, let it be the stories of resistance, of fortitude and courage. Let it be the stories of preservation and restoration, of how communities of people get to celebrate their rights, their progress and their lives because of the work of the civil society. If left untold, then history will only remember the stories of the hunter where the hunter would say, how he or she courageously rid the society of the venomous “lion” that sought to corrupt morals and values of its members. It is true what Chinua Achebe said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”  Ultimately, without these impact stories, the civil society runs the risk of fighting the hunter alone.

* Caroline Kiarie-Kimondo is a Sociologist and Social Impact Strategist. She currently heads the Grantmaking Programme at Urgent Action Fund- Africa. Views expressed in this article are entirely hers.