Kenyan rights groups under fire: are officials abusing the “Beijing Consensus”?

Previously on openGlobalRights, United Nations (U.N.) special rapporteur Maina Kiai correctly noted that the Kenyan government recently attempted to cap local NGOs’ foreign funding. This attempt was aimed at undermining NGOs’ ability to hold their government accountable.  

Chapter 4 of Kenya’s Constitution states that Kenyan citizens have fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and more. In Kenya and elsewhere, human rights NGOs work to promote and respect these rights, so it stands to reason that any act seeking to restrict these groups is unconstitutional.

Kenya is also party to international conventions demanding respect for its citizens’ human and democratic rights, and the government must fulfil these commitments. Its recent effort to restrict foreign funds to local NGOs clearly violates these obligations. 

The on-going case at the International Criminal Court against two prominent Kenyan leaders, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, was an outcome of human rights advocacy by many NGOs, especially those based in Kenya. These two leaders are charged with orchestrating Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007-08, which killed more than 1,200 and displaced over 600,000. It is in these defendants’ interest to cap foreign funding to Kenya’s local human rights NGOs.

Kai observes that the Kenyan government tried to sell its proposed restrictions as unifying acts that would help Kenyans “speak with one voice.” The government portrayed local NGOs as “ money scavengers” “chasing foreign cash” and serving as agents of foreign intervention.

The ‘Beijing Consensus’ 

Of note through all of this is the rise of China as the world’s second-largest economy along with its intense interest in Africa, free of any strings attached to respect for human rights, democracy, or good governance. China is keen on distinguishing its economic interests from African countries’ internal governance and human rights conditions. Some call this the “Beijing Consensus,” a new paradigm aimed at undermining the “Washington Consensus” and the efforts of some Western countries’ to exert political influence in Africa, including over states’ human rights behaviour.

Even if China has no such plans, many African leaders are abusing the “Beijing Consensus” by challenging Western countries' attempts to promote human rights standards through local NGOs. Consider Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for decades, and is regarded by Western leaders as a dictator. Mugabe enjoys good relations with China, which gives him financial support for his programs. In 2005, the Guardian newspaper quoted Mugabe as saying, “We are looking to the East where the sun rises, and have turned our backs on the West where the sun sets.” Given the history of colonialism, Mugabe said, Western countries had no right to lecture Africans on human rights.

The Kenyan government’s attempt to limit the amount of foreign money local NGOs can receive to 15% of their budget follows an alarming trend shaking the entire NGO sector. According to the 2009 civil society law of Ethiopia, NGOs defined as “Ethiopian Charities or Societies” may not receive more than 10% of their funding from abroad. This law, which was implemented in 2010, has severely weakened or shut down many Ethiopian NGOs.

Too early to rejoice

It is too soon to rejoice that the proposed Kenyan NGO bill was narrowly defeated in December 2013, since officials can easily revive it at any time. The people of Kenya, the international community and influential personalities and organizations must speak out against the idea of foreign funding caps to local NGOs, as these will lead to impunity, more human rights violations, and a decline in good governance.

Funding is the lifeblood of NGOs, wherever they are. What openGlobalRights authors Ron and Pandya observe for other parts of the world is also true for Africa, where most local NGOs rely heavily on foreign money. As is true in other African countries, it is challenging for some Kenyan NGOs to raise funds domestically. According to conversations with resource mobilisation expert Dr. John Chikati, however, Kenyan NGOs are still doing a better job raising funds locally than counterparts in Ethiopia, Egypt, Djibouti, and Eritrea.

Better Financial Controls

Local NGOs in Kenya and elsewhere must also change, however, chiefly by becoming more accountable and transparent. One major criticism of local NGOs is that they use their limited resources in inappropriate or wasteful ways. Many believe local NGOs mismanage their funds because they do not face the same kind of regulations applied to for-profit corporations. NGOs should respond by creating structures that are transparent, accountable and exhibit proper financial controls.

Instead of trying to cap foreign-sourced NGO funds, the Kenyan government should develop better mechanisms for monitoring those funds’ use.

Kenyans should respect their own constitution and the international conventions in which they are a state party. Just as an attempt to kill peacekeepers is aimed at killing peace itself, the government’s campaign to kill local civil society is really aimed at killing off Kenya’s democratic system.