Remarks by British High Commissioner Christian Turner at CSO annual gathering

Remarks by British High Commissioner Christian Turner to Civil Society Organisations reference group annual gathering 22 May 2015, Nairobi

High Commissioner Dr Christian Turner

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to have this opportunity to be with you, at what feels a particularly timely moment to revisit, reflect upon and review the role of civil society in Kenya today.

As some of you may know, I am a student of history. It teaches us many things – not least among them the importance of self critique, reflection and appreciation of lessons learnt.

I am also a student of Kenyan animal stories as a way of understanding those lessons. Let me share one of my favourites, about a mouse, a chicken and a cow. One day the farmer’s wife brings a mousetrap into the house. The mouse, alarmed by this, rushes to tell the chicken. The chicken replies “a mousetrap is not my concern, I am not a mouse”. So the mouse goes to the cow who is unconcerned – “do I look like a mouse?”. That night, a snake is caught in the trap. When the farmer’s wife goes to investigate she is bitten by the snake and falls desperately ill. Everyone knows that snake bites are best cured by chicken soup, so the farmer kills the chicken to make soup for his ailing wife. But her health gets worse, an eventually she dies. For her funeral feast, the farmer slaughters and serves the cow.

I think the message is clear – whatever the challenges, we must work together to address them. In that context, I have three key messages for you today.

  • The first should not surprise anyone in this room. The UK supports a vibrant and accountable civil society in Kenya. This year the UK Annual Human Rights Report observed ‘A vibrant civil society can be a multiplier for all human rights, driving sustainable economic development and reinforcing good governance; and a force for stability and the rule of law… Economies and societies tend to thrive when people freely contribute ideas and hold their governments to account.’

  • NGOs and civil society organisations in Kenya make an enormous contribution across a wide range of sectors – including governance, human rights, security, health care, agriculture, natural resource management, education, economic growth, and women’s advancement among others.

  • They also make a significant contribution to the Kenyan economy. Figures available for 2012 show that the NGO sector alone employed over 200,000 people, most of whom were Kenyan. In that same year, civil society contributed 15 percent of the budget (Ksh 152 billion of the Ksh 1 trillion national budget), with most of this going towards health and education.

  • The 2010 Constitution has provided the blueprint to establish one of the most modern democracies in the world. In Kenya, the constitutional gains and democratic reforms you have seen in recent years would simply not have been possible without the collective effort of the CSO Sector. Civil Society is enmeshed within the fabric of Kenyan society, helping channel the collective voice of Kenya’s citizens in areas where this needs to be heard. Put simply, civil society, when given the space to work, builds a better country.

  • My second message is that this powerful role for civil society carries a responsibility, including clear accountability and transparency. As we retain the space for civil society, CSOs must be seen to lead the way in setting the highest ethical standards. This means ensuring proper regulation, and a renewed commitment to transparency. The UK supports greater accountability for NGOs and civil society, and recognises the need to ensure that organisations are not being used for illicit purposes, such as terrorist or extremist financing. We are encouraged to see CSOs and Government working together to that end.

  • I should like to commend the Ministry of Devolution and planning and the Public Benefits organizations Taskforce for their commitment to the 8 hearings across Kenya to solicit feedback from the public on the PBO Act, 2013. We support the full implementation of the 2013 PBO Act as it was originally envisioned, and the legislative framework it provides for enhancing good governance and accountability. We encourage the balance between mechanisms that preserve the work and independence of CSOs with the need for increased transparency and accountability, and strongly believe that can be achieved simultaneously. We are ready to offer our further support to that end.

  • My third message is that, for its own part, the UK government is committed to transparency both from ourselves and our partners. As one of the largest bilateral donors to Kenya, with an annual aid contribution of around Ksh 24 billion to support Kenyan development and prosperity, the UK understands better than most the need for accountability and transparency. We need to justify every Shilling we spend in Kenya. This means we insist on rigorous accountability mechanisms with our partners, both in Government and the non-governmental sector. Everything we write, and all the decisions we take (projects, procurement and spend) are available for public scrutiny. We expect all our CSO partners to fully abide by the reporting requirements as stipulated by Kenyan law.

  • This is also true in our shared fight against terrorism. You will have seen press reports yesterday of concerns about UK, US and Norwegian Government funding of a Coastal NGO, Haki Africa. We carry out extensive due diligence on all the organisations we partner with, to ensure that they are not being used for illicit purposes, such as terrorist financing. We have not seen any evidence to suggest Haki Africa’s activities pose a threat to national security or jeopardise Kenya’s efforts at combating terrorism. If we were in possession of such evidence, we would of course take this extremely seriously.

  • The broader point is key: we need to work with communities at a local level if we are to defeat the scourge of terrorism. The UK experience is that winning the trust of communities is a critical component of the fight against terror. Communities beat terrorism. We need to address software as well as hardware, to tackle the underlying causes that lead some individuals to become radicalized and turn to violence.

In conclusion, in order to work effectively together governments, CSOs and communities need to build trust and dialogue. It is our view that trust, accountability and openness will enhance, rather than undermine, a tough response to terrorism. Engaging communities, and respecting their rights in line with the Kenyan Constitution will, in the long run, give us the best chance of defeating those who wish to change our way of life. Human rights and security are not mutually exclusive – they are mutually beneficial.

The same is true for the broader goals of civil society, whether working on community engagement, education, poverty reduction, health or governance. You have a vital role to play, in line with the Constitution and share principles of transparency and accountability.

Or to bring it back to the mouse, chicken and the cow, we must move from the battle ground to the common ground; we need collaboration not confrontation.

Published 22 May 2015