Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Civil Society in Kenya

One of my earlier experiences working in the ICJ Kenya offices was sitting outside, sharing lunch with a few of the staff.  They were chatting about the vicissitudes of vetting processes, how to make sure police officers and judges weren’t corrupt, and things like that.  Good, interesting stuff.  But one thing I learned quickly about the Human Rights work over here is that they absolutely love acronyms – CRADLE, CHESO, KNCHR, KHRC, IEBC, IIEC, etc.  It’s a bit jarring initially.  But after a little bit of dutiful research, it becomes easier to follow along with the conversations.

So, here we are, chatting about the vetting process, chatting about how ICJ Kenya was involved in some of the initial work on the issue of vetting judges.  Then the conversation turned more general – they explained to me the role of CSOs in fighting for democratic rights, for the rule of law, for good governance, for accountability, for Kenyan prosperity.  It sounds fantastic, but I have no idea what a CSO is.

CSO is the acronym used for Civil Society Organizations.  This is a phrase that is not used in Canada.  Or if it is, I am not invited to those parties.  The closest concepts that we use are ‘non-profit organizations’, which are now ‘not-for-profit organizations’ (NPOs), or ‘charitable organizations’, or even ‘Non-Governmental Organizations’ (NGOs).  But my conception of a CSO does not match any of these things.  NGOs, or at least ones that people generally talk about, are generally international organizations – think Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or Greenpeace.  NPOs and charitable organizations are generally domestic in nature – The Rotary Club is a charitable organization, and the Edmonton Folk Festival Society is a NPO.  A CSO is similar to all these entities, but the one major difference is what I think is a commitment to improving society at the local, provincial or national level.  NGOs aim to promote certain concepts (the environment, human rights, right wing libertarianism) on a global scale, NPOs and charitable organizations may not function to better society at all.  CSOs, at some level, are stakeholders in the policies and laws that govern the land.

It’s a curious distinction.  A law firm is not a CSO, even though it may occasionally undertake public interest litigation that betters society.  But a Law Society, the regulatory body of lawyers, is invariably a CSO, even though a particular Law Society may rarely engage in any services that are directed to improving society.  It has less to do with the type of work that is done, and more to do with the goals and mission of the organization, and its standing in society at large.  Law Firms, at their core, are money-making enterprises; Law Societies regulate not only individual lawyers, but, more broadly, the role of lawyers in society.

Anyways, over and above what a CSO is, their role in Kenyan socio-political life is massive.  As a major draw for foreign funding, CSO jobs have become highly sought-after by the best and brightest Kenyan professionals.  Obviously, at least in the legal field, there is still good money to be made in private practice, but the fact that there are real, viable alternatives has created a much different legal community than is found in Canada.  

In Canada, public interest is served by a few, committed, persistent groups of individuals, often working in a volunteer capacity.  The first thing that comes to mind are organizations like the Autism Society.  Wonderful, necessary organizations, advocating for change, but that are often marginalized because they (a) lack sufficient funds to engage the government, the media, and the general public, and (b) they lack the political 'clout'.

In contrast, the sense I am getting here is that CSO are not fringe players in the movement towards democratic and rule of law principles in Kenya.  They are the prime catalysts.  They are the organizations responsible for educating the public (both international and domestic) on what the government is doing.  They are actively engaged WITH government, on the development and implementation of important legislation and decisions (including, say, the Constitution, for example).  And they have a large and loud voice when things are not going well, especially in the media.

ICJ Kenya is one of the CSOs that is at the forefront of Kenya's developments.  CSOs have a massive role to play over the next year - elections are coming up (and no one wants to see a repeat of what happened last time), there is an 'incursion' in Somalia that is raising some flags, there is a massive case in the ICC about the 2007 post-election violence, there are massive legislative reforms underway thanks to the implementation of the new constitution, and all the while, there are still human rights concerns and issues around the country, both from past grievances and ongoing problems.  There's really no time to pause and breathe - it's full-steam ahead, all the time.  

I'm glad to be a part of it.

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