Is Kenya’s crackdown on NGOs about fair wages, or silencing government critics?

The Kibera slums stretch into the distance, the city of Nairobi on the horizon. (Credit: Schreibkraft/Wikimedia Commons)

By Megan Iacobini de Fazio

The fallout continues over a move by Kenya’s Nongovernmental Board to address the wage disparity between local and foreign workers, with some suggesting that the motives have more to do with silencing government critics than wage fairness. But the issue of wages has taken hold with locals, creating a complex situation.

In June the NGO Board, a government institution that is responsible for regulating the NGO sector in Kenya, accused NGOs of hiring expats over locals, and of paying them salaries up to four times higher than those paid to their local counterparts. The Board, headed by Fazul Mahammed, has threatened to revoke the licenses of NGOs who do not reduce the wage disparity between local and foreign employees and who do not hire and train more local staff.

One group speaking out against the decision, the Civil Society Reference Group, an umbrella network of more than 150 local, national and international nongovernmental groups, issued a statement saying that “Kenya is likely to lose a huge chunk of the over Kshs 400 billion that NGOs bring into the economy annually if the poorly thought out, ill-advised and misguided circular issued by the NGO Coordination Bureau on employment of expatriates working with NGOs in Kenya is implemented.”

While most foreign NGO workers in Nairobi have remained largely silent over the issue for fear of coming under the Board’s scrutiny, Kenyan civil society – including human rights organizations, security researchers and local NGOs – has come out in force to criticize the NGO Board and its latest set of regulations.

“Ever since Fazul has been appointed CEO, the Board has become the voice of the government” said Peter Aling’o, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. “Fazul’s bullish body language is representative of his own approach and that of the government, which is becoming increasingly intolerant to independent voices, especially those who seek to expose things which undermine good governance, human rights and the rule of law.”

The adversarial relationship between the government and NGOs, as well as civil society, date back to the 2007 election and the violence that erupted afterward. NGOs and many within civil society led the calls for accountability in the International Criminal Court. NGOs also called for greater accountability during the 2013 elections, and pressured the ICC to pursue President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto over their involvement in the post-election violence.

This latest move should be seen in the context of the upcoming election, which will be held in 2017. “The government is still sensitive about the role of NGOs, and is looking for every opportunity to control them and limit their voice in the run up to the election,” Aling’o said.

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But the NGO Board and its recent tougher stance are winning some support among the Kenyan public, and the online campaign #NGOInequality has gained traction with employees who feel undervalued and underpaid in the NGO sector. Twitter users have condemned the inequality between expats and locals as “a new form of colonialism” and have praised Mahammed for “smoking out discrimination.”

Ishbel Mchwa has studied the effect of dual salary systems in the development sector and is involved in Project Fair, which builds on a strong body of research in order to provide practical alternatives to the dual-salary system.

“Many NGOs are concerned about the potential unfairness within their own reward systems and are keen to address it, but finding an alternative that works is the key,” Mchwa said. “Our research suggests it’s more about fairness than equality. Yes, equal pay for equal work is essential, but also there is a recognition that international workers may face additional costs to do with relocation.”

It is not the first time that the government has appealed to public sentiment to justify its approach to NGO and civil society. In 2014, the government attempted to win the support of the public by accusing NGOs of using foreign funds to undermine the security and sovereignty of Kenya and accusing them of having terrorist links. In 2015, the government also deregistered close to 1000 NGOs, a move that was later repealed.

Despite the government’s repeated attempts to foster hostility towards foreign NGOs, research shows that the Kenyan people support the work of these organizations. According to a survey conducted by Freedom House in 2015, 86 percent of respondents believe that human rights groups impact positively on the life on Kenyans, and 80 percent said they would be at the very least ‘concerned’ is these organizations were closed down. The vast majority of respondents claimed that corruption is the greatest challenged faced by Kenya, and that curtailing it should be the main focus for NGOs.

According to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), Kenya is losing a third of its state budget – the equivalent of $6 billion – to corruption every year.

Rachel Opondo, who heads up the expat issue in the Civil Society Reference Group, said that the NGO Board statement is likely designed to extort money from expats seeking to work with NGOs in Kenya, and that there have been reports that the Board is arbitrarily prescribing fines and fee.

Aling’o agreed that “the government should be focusing on ending corruption and on equalizing salaries across the board – in the private sector and in government jobs too. By focusing only on NGOs, the government is unfairly and unilaterally attacking civil society.”

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Local and international NGO often provide basic services like health care and education in areas of the country where there is little government presence, such as in the northern and northeastern regions. An effective way of reaching the most isolated areas is partnering with local organizations who already have an established presence and network on the ground.

But “this circular is intended to intimidate international NGOs and keep them too busy fighting for survival to engage in meaningful work alongside local organizations,” Opondo said. The fear that critics have is that this move will drive international NGOs that are not willing to pay bribes, out of the country, starving local organizations of the funding and driving a wedge between the two.

Despite this fraught context, Oxfam, one of the world’s biggest NGOs has recently announced that it will be moving its headquarters to Nairobi in 2017. Talking to local news outlets, Oxfam’s international head of media Matt Granger said that other cities in the global south were considered, including Ankara and Bangkok, but that after weighing up the pros and cons, Nairobi offered the best option.

Writing in Oxfam’s blog, Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s executive director, said that a Memorandum of Understanding and a Host Country Agreement had been signed with the president and the ministry of foreign affairs of Kenya. She then went on to give her personal thanks to President Uhuru Kenyatta “for being such an enthusiastic champion to help us realize our plans.”

Oxfam is not only looking to move its operations South, but is purportedly also moving towards a model that is more engaged and supportive of local organizations and social movements. Byanyima, in fact, is one of the signatories of an open letter that called on the sector to reposition itself in service to social movements and other expressions of indigenous civil society. The letter commits the signatories to a “set of global organizing principles” that include a pledge to “promote and protect media, civic and democratic space for citizens to self-organize, express themselves and take action.”

How Oxfam will stay true to this commitment while operating in a Kenyan context that is growing increasingly hostile toward foreign NGOs and local voices remains to be seen.


Megan mugMegan Iacobini de Fazio is a freelance writer with a passion for culture, food and music from different corners of the world. With a background in international development, Megan has spent the last few years working in East Africa as a communications specialist with different social enterprises, a sector which she is interested in covering – albeit with a critical eye. She tweets @Meganiacobini, and you can reach her at meganiacobini@gmail.com

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  • Ethiopian_one

    Ethiopia’s model is great, may work well in Kenya not all NGOs are the same, often the benefits are far less and even dangerous to the locals…