PBO Leaders Summit 2016

The Pivotal Role of Civil Society and the PBO Act in Kenya

by U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert F. Godec

-As Prepared-

Chair of the CSO Reference Group, Representatives of NGOs, Distinguished guests,

Mabibi na mabwana, Hamjambo!  Habari zenu!

I am honored to join you today at this important meeting of civil society leaders from across Kenya.  At the outset, I congratulate you on the important, indeed vital, work you all are doing in so many areas to the benefit of all Kenyans.  Thanks to you, Kenya… and indeed the world… is a better place.

Around the world today, in far too many places, civil society has been under attack, prevented from doing its critical job.  Here in Kenya, too, civil society has faced challenges.  But, the recent signing of the PBO Act of 2013 by the Cabinet Secretary of Devolution and Planning Mwangi Kiunjuri represents real and significant progress for Kenyan civil society.  I commend the Cabinet Secretary for doing so.

Kenya benefits from one of the strongest civil society sectors in all of the Africa.  The PBO Act coming into full force would be a major step forward for all Kenyans who benefit from the services that civil society organizations provide, including health care, education, clean water, as well as protecting human rights and advancing good governance. Kenyan civil society and the Kenyan people will be better off with this new legal framework in place.

I know it has been a long journey to reach this point. Many of you have worked hard to make this progress.  I want to recognize and applaud your efforts — and those of your supporters in and out of government — to draft the PBO Act, and to reject amendments that could have undermined its effectiveness.

Now that the very important first step of signing the PBO Act has been taken, I urge the Government of Kenya to take the remaining steps needed to bring the Act into force.  I urge the immediate gazetting of the PBO Act and its full implementation.

The PBO Act is intended to ensure an enabling environment for civil society inside a clear framework.  If fully implemented, the Act will help ensure Kenyan civil society remains vibrant, while also improving accountability and transparency.

And there is a need for accountability and transparency: it is important for the health of the sector.  But while regulation is necessary, it is absolutely essential that it be light and that it fully protect and preserve democratic space for civil society.  For civil society needs space to play its vital role in strengthening democracy and good governance and carrying out its work in many sectors.  I believe, however, these two objectives are mutually-reinforcing, and can be achieved together.  Limited, thoughtful regulation can allow civil society the space it needs and must have.

The U.S. Government firmly believes that a strong civil society is vital to protecting fundamental rights, strengthening democratic institutions, building prosperity, and ensuring security. It can help governments connect with citizens, increase access to services, and build a better nation.

The new PBO Act will allow civil society to deepen and advance its already vital contributions to Kenya and the welfare of its citizens.  For example, civil society already plays a pivotal role in ensuring the protection of human rights, including in linking government and local communities.  Kenyan PBOs are working with local communities to mitigate extremism, draw attention to, and investigate, human rights abuses, and implement Kenya’s National Policy and Action Plan on Human Rights.  This work both enhances the country’s security and advances individual rights.

Civil society gives an important voice to marginalized and under-represented groups, and is helping to advance the rights of the LGBTI community, disabled people, and women and the young.  Civil society protects those who sometimes have difficulty protecting themselves.

Civil society is also deeply engaged on elections, helping to ensure good governance and public participation, in democracy. As Kenya prepares to go to the polls in August 2017, it is important that there be a whole-of-society effort to ensure peace, responsible campaigning, and to encourage people to exercise their right to vote.  All Kenyans, and friends of Kenya, must work to ensure a free, fair, peaceful and credible election next August.  Doing so will secure the promise of the 2010 constitution. And civil society has a critical role to play.  Your continued work, along with the Government of Kenya, international partners and others, can promote and help ensure peace, participation, dialogue, and justice in 2017.

Just as in the United States, civil society plays a pivotal role in so many parts of Kenyan life.  From protecting fundamental human rights to delivering health care to helping educate the young, civil society is critical.  We are all better off when civil society is free to do its work.  So, as a friend of Kenya, once again I welcome the important progress on the PBO Act and again urge the government to take the final step to gazette and implement it.  For a strong civil society is the best guarantee of the future Kenyans themselves want.  A future that is democratic, prosperous and secure.  A future we all seek for ourselves, and for our children.

Pamoja tusonge mbele.  Asanteni sana.