The Role of the Civil Society in Kenya

The Civil Society in Kenya plays an important role in many facets of this country. In most circles, the Civil Society is the “third sector”. The other two circles are the government and business. Generally, the Civil Society in Kenya works outside the government to manifest the will and interests of the people.

According to the World Bank, Civil Society refers to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing their interests and values of their members or others based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious, or philanthropic considerations.

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations:

  • community groups,
  • non-governmental organizations (NGOs),
  • labour unions,
  • indigenous groups,
  • charitable organizations,
  • faith based organizations,
  • professional associations, and
  • foundations.

The BBC World Service depicts Civil Society as a concept that originated around 2500 years ago in ancient Rome and Greece. It then developed in Europe during the Enlightenment until its state today. BBC says that one description defines Civil Society as follows,

‘A civil society is a public space between the state, the market, and the ordinary household, in which people can debate and tackle action’.

It could also include any voluntary collective activity in which people combine to achieve change on a particular issue – but not political parties (even though Civil Societies have a political dimension). By this definition, Civil Societies include:

  • charities,
  • neighborhood self-help schemes,
  • international bodies like UN and Red Cross,
  • religious-based pressure groups,
  • human rights campaigns in repressive societies, and
  • non-governmental organizations improving health, education and living standards in both the developed and developing countries.

John Githongo argues that in the Kenyan imagination, ‘Civil Society’ does not mean non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in sanitation, water, health, famine relief, etc.

Rather, ‘Civil society’ to most people refers to those NGOs that mainly receive foreign funding, which involve themselves in advocating for rights, tackling corruption, clamoring for and promoting the constitution – generally in the area that speaks about governance in Kenya.

History of Civil Society in Kenya

The history of the Civil Society in Kenya goes back to the 1920s when Africans started forming welfare associations. They used these associations to advocate for their rights and express their dissatisfaction with the colonial government rule and treatment. Such welfare associations included:

  • Kavirondo Taxpayers Welfare Association,
  • East African Association, Taita Hills Association, and
  • Ukambani Members Association.

These welfare associations also had a political dimension. They advocated for the plight of their ethnic community members. Some made efforts to be trans-tribal such as the East African Association.

The Role of Civil Society in Kenya

The Civil Society in Kenya has played some crucial roles in the past and the present.

1Promoting peace and security

The Civil Society in Kenya has been vital in promoting peace and security, ethnic cohesion and religious tolerance in our nation. More so, the civil society has enhanced and promoted inter-tribal cultural exchange to enhance more understanding of each other’s culture.

It has achieved this by engaging the different ethnic and religious groups in mutual interactions. Such mutual interactions include group meetings, cultural festivals, awareness campaigns, and religious feasts.

2Fighting against disease

The Civil Society in Kenya has also been ahead in the fight against disease in Kenya. Examples of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) working in this field are the:

  • Kenya Aids Consortium (KANCO),
  • Kenya Network of People with Aids (KENWA),
  • Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS in Kenya (NEPHAK), and
  • National Aids Control Council (NACC).

These CSOs are instrumental in curbing the HIV epidemic that is a huge challenge in our country. They are HIV consortia (apart from NACC) that exist to strengthen their response to the epidemic. These consortia are vital complements to the government.

The civil society organizations were vital in the fight against HIV epidemic when the Kenyan government was reluctant to acknowledge the existence of AIDS. At the time, the civil societies were confrontational with the government with regard to the approach towards HIV/AIDS.

They demanded more support from the government, which they felt, was not doing enough to take action against the epidemic. The pressure was especially in the 80s and the 90s when HIV diagnosis emerged and its cases became more prevalent countrywide.

More so, there is the Kenya Consortium to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria (KECOFATUMA). It is an informal body of civil societies, which serves as an advocacy arm of 500 NGOs, community, and faith based organizations and private sector groups dealing with Aids, Tuberculosis (TB), and Malaria in Kenya. The consortium works:

  • to better the information flow from donors and government to grassroots organizations and back again, and
  • to increase the ability of the Civil Society in Kenya to mobilize resources both locally and internationally.

3Implementation of vision 2030

The Civil Society in Kenya is playing an important role in the implementation of Kenya’s vision 2030.

It is setting a civil society agenda in respect to vision 2030. The agenda is focusing on issues such as health, education, water and sanitation and housing under the social pillar. It is also mainstreaming other key issues such as gender, the environment, the marginalized, the vulnerable and persons with disabilities.

The Civil Society in Kenya is doing this alongside the government and the private sector.

4Sharing of resources

The Civil Society in Kenya is playing a vital role in resource sharing. It undertakes jointly such activities as:

  • providing education (e.g. church sponsored schools),
  • providing healthcare (e.g. health institutions run by churches),
  • water and sanitation (laying of water pipe system by civil agencies and also sewerage management),
  • Providing food (e.g. food aid schemes by Kenya Red Cross), and
  • economic incentives (small capital to grassroots communities to start economic ventures).

They do this alongside the government and the private sector.

5Watchdog for the society

The Civil Society in Kenya plays the role of an alliance that acts as a watchdog for the society. It checks the governance system to prevent such government excesses as authoritarianism and dictatorship, corruption and embezzlement of public resources.

It also takes part in the fight against discrimination based on gender (e.g. women rights). More so, it safeguards the execution of the constitution of which they are a part of its dispensation.

The Civil Society in Kenya provides a voice for the public. It enables the public to voice their criticism, opinion. discontent, and (re)commendations to the government where necessary. 

Some achievements of the Civil Society in Kenya

Achievements in governance

The Civil Society in Kenya played a huge role after the Post-Election Violence (PEV) in 2007/08. It was at the forefront in championing for the return of peaceful co-existence among Kenyans. It achieved this through public awareness and vigorous campaigns.

The Civil Society in Kenya played a huge role in agitating for the return of multiparty democracy. It was unequivocal in fighting the dictatorship under former President Moi and his political party KANU. Many of its members faced harassment, torture, unlawful detention, and even some losing their lives in the process.

Prominent names that featured in this struggle include Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki and Bishop Alexander Muge. Other honourable mentions are Reverend Timothy Njoya, Bishop David Gitari, and Bishop Henry Okullu.

Due to this agitation, the Civil Society dream came to be in the 1992. The historic appeal of the Section 2A of the Constitution ushered in the era of multi-party democracy.

The Civil Society in Kenya has also been equivocal in the multi-party era. It advocates for the ‘new’ Constitution. It ensures the government does not subvert the democratic gains made over the years.

The Civil Society in Kenya has been a loyal companion of the opposition in parliament over the years. Both were allies during Moi’s authoritarian era, and together, they launched a platform for pro-democracy crusades. Hence, all the achievements of the opposition have the Civil Society in Kenya as part of the credit.

Fight against disease

The Civil Society in Kenya has been successful in averting epidemics in Kenya.

The National Aids Control Council and its affiliates have been combating successfully the spread and effect of HIV/AIDS. They create awareness, provide ARVs and free condoms, and promote the overall methods of curbing of the disease.

More so, KECOFATUMA and its affiliates have played a vital role in curbing malaria and TB. They do this by providing vaccinations, medicine, and free mosquito nets.

Disaster management

The Red Cross has had success in its accident, flood, famine and other disaster response programs. The result has been alleviating the disaster effects.

The Civil Society in Kenya also organizes charity campaigns to help Kenyans facing disaster. Such an example is the Kenyans for Kenya. This campaign went towards alleviating hunger for northern Kenya famine stricken residents.

Slum upgrading projects

The Civil Society in Kenya has proved a great partner to the government in the slum-upgrading project.

It has contributed to the establishment of better housing and sanitation projects in slum areas for the slum dwellers. It is also providing incentives for them to bring out the potential of slum dwellers as creators rather than consumers. An example of such incentive is through economic support.

The efforts are paying off gradually. For example,  numerous housing projects are coming up in areas like Kibera. Economic incentives take part in these areas, such as garbage incinerators to provide heat for food ovens in Kibera.

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I comment on the current political and social issues in Kenya. I am also passionate about devolved governance and public finance. Follow me on social media.

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