Local fundraising and claim-making in Kenya

In this second week of the Change the Game debate we examine how local fundraising and claim-making work in practice. We start with Kenya. Late last year the Kenyan Parliament put forward a law that would prohibit local NGOs to receive more than 15 percent of their funding from abroad. The bill was rejected, but it served as a wake-up call for Kenyan civil society: it is time to strengthen the support from its own citizens. But is the emerging Kenyan middle class even interested in development cooperation and would they be willing to contribute?

Saturday is prime time in the shopping malls of Nairobi. Families, young couples and groups of friends stroll through the luxurious indoor shopping malls in their most fashionable outfits. Although dozens of these malls were built over the past decade, they can barely keep up with the growing purchasing power of the new middle class. As in other emerging economies, the Kenyan middle class is increasing rapidly. According to a recent study conducted by the African Development Bank, the middle class currently takes up16.8 percent of the Kenyan population. But it’s not only the retailers that are set to benefit from the growing purchasing power of Kenyans; this group is increasingly being presented as an important actor in international development as they are able to contribute to development in the country itself. The question is, however, would they want to?


Shopping in a luxurious indoor mall is not for the faint-hearted. After an initial security scan at the gate that separates the complex from the main road, there are two more security checks where bags and bodies are examined for bombs with a portable scanner. At a distance, heavily armed soldiers keep a watchful eye on the visitors as they pass by. Shopping mall security has increased dramatically since the attack on the Westgate shopping centre last September. Following this massacre, in which 67 people died and 175 were injured, Kenya has remained in the highest state of alert. The effects on the Kenyan shopping experience are clear immediately upon entering The Junction shopping centre, one of the largest in Nairobi. When I visited this mall in 2012, it was a place to see and be seen. The mall was alive with people, with the loud bass of music blaring from the stores and laughter adding to the buzz. Now all one could hear was the hollow clacking sound of someone’s heels on the tiled floors.

My questions about civic engagement with development issues are therefore directed only to a small group of visitors. I meet Moses Kuria with his two sons Brian (11) and Dennis (9) in a trendy café at The Junction. ‘Kenyans are naturally generous donors’, he responds to my inquiry about the Kenyans’ willingness to give. ‘Most Kenyans give every day, either to a sister who is getting married, a brother having to go to the hospital or the funeral of a distant relative. But that is also the problem; we give so much that at the end of the month we have nothing left to give.’ But it’s not just a money issue, he admits when I point to the iPhones his children play with it. ‘It is also about trust, because how can you be sure that the money is well spent?’ he asks rhetorically. This sentiment is confirmed by many other visitors in the mall. Joseph and Cecilia Gitaki for example, on a day trip to Nairobi with their three children, believe it’s the lack of involvement of the Kenyan community with development issues. ‘Over the years we have seen aid workers come and go, living in their beautiful houses in Karen [a wealthy suburb south west of Nairobi housing a large expatriate community, red.] driving fancy cars, but we haven’t been involved in what they actually do. Now all of a sudden they want us to contribute to development? They will have to come up with a really good story to convince us then.

Wake-up call

Distrust of ngo’s is widespread in Kenya. Especially in circles of the government, civil society organisations are seen as a threat. Owing to the persisting critique from human rights organisations and the indictment by the International Criminal Court of the president and vice president on charges of crimes against humanity during the 2007 elections, the government wants to limit the power of civil society. In an attempt to do so, the Kenyan Parliament proposed an amendment to the public benefit organisations (PBO) act that would prohibit Kenyan NGOs to receive more than 15 percent of their budget from abroad. In addition, each NGO would be under strict government supervision. This bill would mean the end of the more than 80 percent of the local organisations who rely almost entirely on foreign funding.

The controversial amendment was ultimately rejected by parliament with 83 against 73 votes and 8 abstentions. Yet the fear remained. ‘For civil society organisations in Kenya this was a real wake-up call,’ says Janet Mawiyoo, director of the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF). Up until now many organisations thought it was easier to hold up your hand to Western donors than to mobilize resources domestically. With the PBO act it became painfully clear just how vulnerable this dependence of the West has made Kenyan civil society. Now you see that gradually more and more organisations are looking at the opportunity to raise funds locally. According to Mawiyoo this is a good thing: ‘For far too long, civil society organisations in Kenya have been counting on the West for funding. Kenyans were not involved in developmental processes taking place in their own country. As a result, they do not always see the importance of development cooperation. This should change, because development is something that concerns all of us, and Kenyans themselves have a very important role to play.’ The idea that the middle class in Kenya is the most important group for domestic resource mobilisation is nonsense according to Mawiyoo. ‘Everyone has something to give, whether it is money, time or knowledge. The idea is to create an enabling environment in which all Kenyans feel free to contribute.’

KCDF has been working on strengthening local resource mobilisation since 1997. The organisation currently supports more than 300 local projects on the basis of a matching principle: the local organisation raises half of the funds itself and KCDF contributes the other. This approach seems to work well. ‘The funding applications are piling up’, says Mawiyoo. ‘It gives organisations pride when they see that they can mobilize resources in the community themselves. Moreover, it is often not as difficult as they thought beforehand. Kenyans are generous people. Helping each other and offering financial support is deeply rooted in our culture. Organisations need to find a way take advantage of that potential.’

An important component of successful fundraising, according Mawiyoo, is to send out a personal appeal to people. ’Everyone has had help from someone to get where they are now. So it is only fair that they give back to the community. We try to personally approach as many people as we can and then look for a connection between their personal history and the projects we support.’ Mawiyoo stands up and picks up a box full of business cards from her desk. ‘These are the people I still want to call this week,’ she says holding about 20 cards in her hand. ‘Yes, it takes a lot of time to have a personal approach’ she answers my unasked question. ‘But ultimately it is worth the investment. Many of my personal contacts know someone in business or in government who can help us, so slowly but surely you expand your network.’


KCDF supports organisations in developing their fundraising abilities through training sessions. The organisation strongly relies on traditional structures in the community and utilises an African concept of philanthropy: harambee, which can be understood as the coming together of people to contribute to a common goal. Traditionally, these meetings are arranged by families to raise money for family affairs such as weddings or funerals, but it is becoming more common for local organisations to organise harambees to raise funds for development programs. Such activities can range from dinners to musical performances to a raffle of goats.

In this context the foundation Boosting Young Entrepreneurs (BYE), one of KCDF’s partners, organized a football tournament for girls last year entitled ‘Football for Biogas’. The director of this foundation, Gerald Kweri, receives us in his office in the high-altitude coffee and tea-rich landscape of the Murang’a province. ‘Shall I welcome you in Dutch or Kenyan?’, asks the long, broadly smiling Kenyan in fluent Dutch. After his studies at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Kweri returned to his hometown Kigumo where he and a few other young people from the community founded the BYE foundation. ‘BYE focuses on the promotion of girls’ education through biogas plants. This may sound unlikely’, seemingly answering my puzzled look, ‘but it’s actually quite sensible. In 2010 a group of Dutch students came to Kenya to investigate the underlying causes of poverty in this province. Many girls in the region were found not to go school because they were responsible for household chores like fetching firewood. By using biogas, girls no longer need to spend time looking for firewood and they can go to school. In addition, biogas allows considerable savings on paraffin and reduces medical costs, since cooking daily in smoke fumes is harmful to both eyes and lungs.’

Deborah Nyambora is one of the women who was provided with a biogas plant by BYE and is eager to demonstrate her recently installed device. As if reading from a cookbook she lists the ingredients necessary for the production of biogas: ‘Two pounds of cow dung and two litres of water, stir well until it becomes a coherent mass, and then let it to run through.’ As she explains, I bend over a little too far to see the process up close and have to grab a banana leaf to prevent myself from falling into the pit of cow dung. ‘Yes’, Nyambora laughs, ‘biogas is dangerous business you know!’

‘The idea behind the project is that though the use of biogas households can save enough money to repay the cost of installation, which can amount up to 100,000 Kenyan shillings [about 840 euros, ed.], within eighteen months. This allows BYE to place another biogas plant in the home of the next family’, explains Kweri. While this method works well, BYE would like to provide more people with this opportunity in the near future. In achieving this aim, the organisation finds a good partner in KCDF. ‘Together we can expand our domestic resource mobilisation strategy which not only enables us to help more people, but also puts our project on the map.’ Besides football, BYE wants to organise other fundraising activities such as a high tea for tea factories that benefit from the conservation of local forests. ‘As yet it only concerns small amounts of money,’ admits Kweri, ‘but we hope that with more publicity, we will ultimately be able to reach the entire community.

Dirty underwear

Living Positive Kenya (LPK) is one of the other local partners with whom KCDF works. Under the leadership of Mary ‘Mum’ Wanderi this organisation supports HIV-positive mothers with young children to start their own business with microfinance loans. Since HIV-positive women are often single mothers, LPK also decided to set up a childcare centre where women can bring their children on weekdays. ‘Many of our Western donors did not want to contribute to the construction of the childcare centre because it does not directly involve AIDS prevention and the result of their work would not easily be quantified in numbers. We, however, see this as a crucial part of the project and so we had to look elsewhere for funding’, explains Wanderi. ‘Moreover, funding from abroad diminishes each year. AIDS is no longer a popular theme among donors, so if we want to continue our work we need to focus on other financing resources.’

To achieve this, LPK organizes regular harambees for people from the area. Although these fundraising activities are successful, it is not easy. ‘Many people are hesitant to give money to development organisations. In the past, they were often disappointed by seeing the money disappear in the pockets of administrators and politicians. Some organisations leave it at this, but there are a lot of people who are willing to make a donation in kind and LPK tries to make use of this.’ Wanderi shows a storage closet packed with bags of flour. ‘This will serve us for quite some time,’ she laughs. ‘Yes, you do not always get what you want, but at least it is a sign that people are willing to contribute. And in this way, you do create awareness in the society.’

Wanderi gets a phone call. ‘If we want to have 100 chickens from a local tour operator!’ she exclaims enthusiastically. ‘Look, these are donations we can use. ‘Not only can we sell the eggs, but we can breed the chickens and give them to the women in our program so that they themselves can get an additional source of income too.’ Not all donations are equally useful though. ‘The weirdest thing we have ever received? Dirty underwear! “You are poor and so can use anything, right?” said the woman who came to deliver the bag. At those moments I long for the days when the fight against AIDS was still a top priority for Western donors,’ sighs Wanderi.


Like Wanderi, Harry Oostrom also sees that many Kenyans would rather donate in kind than in cash. Oostrom, former director of Festival Mundial and COS Brabant, is active at Imani Foundation, a rehabilitation centre for street children since 1992. ‘Most Kenyans have grown up in a culture of corruption and greed. The elite just want to get richer and the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.’ Oostrom is therefore somewhat sceptical about the potential of local fundraising. Particularly for initiatives that do not offer an immediate improvement for the entire local community it will be difficult to find financial support, Oostrom suspects. ‘Children’s homes in Kenya have a bad reputation because of major corruption scandals and other malpractices. As a result, a large part of Kenyan society lost confidence in this type of projects.’

Yet, there are Kenyans who remain willing to give to Imani. The organisation receives a lot of clothes and other donations from local businesses such as food surplus or children’s beds. In addition, Imani works with many volunteers from the area. One of them is Ongeri Magati. In daily life, he is a drummer at the Kenyan National Theatre, a goup that tours the world on a regular basis. Whenever he is in Kenya, he provides music and dancinglessons to the children of Imani in the weekends. Why did this busy young man decide to donate his precious time and not his money (of which, judging by his shiny watch and expensive shoes, he surely could afford to miss)? ‘Anyone can give money, but making music with kids is something that suits me. I can immediately see the result and know that my contribution is well received,’ says Magati.

Kenyans for Kenya

Tom Were, program coordinator at KCDF recognizes Oostrom’s concerns, but retains a positive outlook. ‘It takes time to develop local fundraising abilities but there is reason for good hope.’ Were refers to the results of the World Giving Index, on which Kenya is ranked 33rd on the list of countries most willing to give to development. Particularly in the ‘helping a stranger’ category, Kenya scores surprisingly high with its 9th place. As an illustrative example, Were mentions the Kenyans for Kenya campaign, which was organised in 2011 by the Red Cross, Safaricom, KCB Bank and other local businesses to raise money for the drought in the north of the country. ‘In no more than a few weeks, this campaign managed to collect more than one billion Kenyan shillings [approximately 8.4 million euro, ed.], a record’, Were says. ‘What the Red Cross and other partners did well was to involve young people in Kenya through the use of social media and exploiting technological opportunities such as sending money via Mpesa. This mobile phone technology, developed in Kenya, provides a very low-threshold way of making donations. The sum of many small amounts can add up to a very large sum,’ said Were.

‘Kenyans are willing to help’, he says, ‘but must first be convinced of the goal. Many Kenyan organisations that receive money from abroad only feel accountable to their Western donors and not to the population. This makes the core message of organisations shallow in the eyes of the people and has the result that developments of Kenyan civil society are merely manifestations of changes in public policy in the West. Every few years, local organisations must adapt their approach in a way that they may fit within the available subsidy streams in the West. First food security programs were set up, then gender was the main domain and now it is all about renewable energy.’ Were shakes his head, ‘All these changes make that programs are often not sustainable. Mobilising local funds ensures that organisations are less vulnerable to a sudden drop in funding. What is more, it enables organisations to set their development agenda themselves and match it to local demand rather than the supply of foreign aid.’

Local fundraising allows organisations to lay a better claim on public services to which they are entitled, a phenomenon called claim-making. ‘Once an organisation succeeds in mobilising local funds, it shows the government that the people are behind the goal. This provides the opportunity for a more powerful lobby’, says Were. ‘Particularly around election time, this asset can be used effectively. Local politicians exist by the grace of the people and will do anything to get elected. When organisations receive support from potential voters, it gives power.’ This is also important at a national level, according Were, because in order to counterbalance the pressure that the government exerts on civil society organisations, strong support from the people is crucial. ‘Local support makes an organisation strong and shows that it is not, as the government claims, just the voice and agenda of the West. An organisation that is backed up by the people is a more equal player and can be more openly critical of the government. In the end, a strong civil society represents the voice of the people, not the voice of the world.


The lobby tactics described by Were are all too familiar with Ezra Mbogori, director of the human rights organisation Akiba Uhaki and Chairman of the Civil Society Organisations reference group, the main lobbying group in the field of development cooperation in Kenya. My question how it came to be that the government is now threatening to silence civil society with such strict measures encourages him to give an inspired oration. With a sense of drama he turns his chair to the window, takes a deep breath and begins: ‘It all starts in 1988… ‘The monologue takes about an hour and a half and includes several intriguing conspiracy theories.

According Mbogori, the bill that was filed in 2013 fits into a long tradition of the Kenyan government to weaken civil society in Kenya. In the first years of President Daniel Arap Moi‘s rule, who was in power from 1978 to 2002, civil society had relatively free rein. This changed however in the late eighties, when NGOs started to call attention to the abuse of taxpayers’ money by the Moi government. Parliament then passed a law that determined all development funds were to be allocated by the government. In response to this, a lobby group was set up in collaboration with international organisations to put pressure on the government. This pressure reached its peak during the international meeting on aid effectiveness in Paris and led to the law being changed. Civil society regained space to operate freely.

In 2009, under president Mwai Kibaki, the international group was able to effectively lobby for a law that would accommodate NGOs in certain regulations, but when the current President Uhuru Kenyatta came to power, these agreements had not yet materialised. Annoyed by the interference of western parties, Kenyatta proposed the abovementioned amendment of the law to curtail Western funding of Kenyan ngo’s. International outrage seemed to only make it worse and the law was very close to being accepted, Mbogori remembers. Despite this potential catastrophe being averted in part by a strong domestic lobby, he is not yet assured. ‘The government has declared war and civil society must arm itself,’ Mbogori says resolutely. ‘To maintain pressure on the government, it is important to show that development in Kenya is more than Western budgets. This is why mobilising local support, both financially and politically, is so important.’

Mbogori predicts that international organisations will have to play a different role in the future. ‘Their work has to become much more facilitating in nature and they will have to take their responsibility to strengthen local organisations in their capacity to raise funds for themselves and to lobby effectively.’ Mbogori turns away from the window and stands to reinforce his conclusion: ‘That would be the real international development.’