Remarks by Ambassador Robert F. Godec at the First CSO Reference Group Annual General Assembly

Chair of the CSO Reference Group, Representatives of NGOs from around Kenya, mabibi na mabwana: Hamjambo!  Habari zenu!

I am honored to join you today to speak about the essential role that civil society plays in development and in progress.  This is an exciting moment in Africa.  Africa is rising, most importantly because of Africans themselves.  Across the continent, old norms are changing; new ideas are being embraced.  People are seizing opportunities to build peace, advance democracy, speed economic growth, and empower communities.  There remain, of course, huge challenges, including insecurity, poor governance, human rights abuses, and corruption.  But the progress is real and it is important.  And, civil society has been central, critical to this progress.  You are at the heart of the change taking place across this continent.

When Secretary of State Kerry visited Kenya two weeks ago, he had the opportunity to meet with representatives of civil society.  He was impressed by the energy, creativity, and dedication that he saw.  The Secretary’s meeting was another sign of the commitment of the U.S. government to stand with civil society in Kenya and across the continent.  This commitment starts at the top with President Obama and includes me and everyone in my Mission.  We are with you as you strive to build a more open, just, tolerant, and prosperous world.

When I think about civil society, I start here: civil society is people coming together to solve shared problems and create a better life.  Civil society organizations feed millions of schoolchildren.  They run vital health clinics.  They report on human rights abuses and seek accountability.  They help teach citizens about democracy.  Civil society gives a voice to the most vulnerable members of society.  And while civil society can be a critic of the powerful, it can also be a great ally, helping them connect with ordinary citizens and build a better nation.  Civil society is a vital part of a vibrant and healthy country.

During a recent trip to Panama, President Obama put it this way: “strong, successful countries require strong and vibrant civil societies.  We know that throughout our history, human progress has been propelled not just by famous leaders, not just by states, but by ordinary men and women who believe that change is possible; by citizens who are willing to stand up against incredible odds and great danger not only to protect their own rights, but to extend rights to others.”

The United States’ own history provides many examples of the critical role of civil society.  More often than not, we have found that men and women – citizens – have been the greatest drivers of social, economic and political change.  Conscientious men and women risked everything – risked their lives – to bring about change.  Civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King inspired the world with their fight against the degrading system of segregation.

Today, American civil society continues its critical work in so many areas.  From our modern system for prosecuting sexual assault cases, which started with crisis response practices pioneered by civil society, to a groundbreaking program to stop drug use, called Drug Abuse Resistance Education or “DARE,” which brings police and community members together in classrooms, there are so many examples where civil society has made the lives of Americans better.

I know that there are many stories, just as inspiring, throughout Kenya.  But, it is also true that today civil society in Kenya is at a critical juncture. So, allow me to offer three thoughts as a friend. First, because the work of civil society is so vital, I urge you to share the stories of your work with all Kenyans.  Kenyan civil society was critical in the restoration of multi-party democracy in the 1990s.  You were the drafters of the 2010 constitution and at the heart of persuading Kenyans to vote for it.  You helped keep the 2013 elections peaceful.  You provide life-saving malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV services to millions of Kenyans.  You help mothers get clean water for their families.  You help farmers grow their small businesses.  You protect wildlife.  You undertake the difficult yet vital work of countering violent, extremist ideologies, and working with at-risk persons to bring them back from the brink.  As you have done so, you’ve created jobs for hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens and spurred growth.  It is no exaggeration to say that every single Kenyan is touched by the extraordinary work of civil society.

Second, for civil society to succeed, it must have open, free, democratic space.  I have followed closely the ongoing debate in Kenya around civil society.  I had the opportunity to make a presentation recently to the government’s task force on Public Benefits Organizations.  I would like to express my appreciation for that opportunity and for the opportunity given to my Mission to attend the other hearings around the country.  I look forward to the task force’s report being made public.  As I did in my meeting with the task force, however, I again urge the Government of Kenya to implement the Public Benefits Organizations Act of 2013 as it stands.  The act would enhance good governance and accountability of civil society while allowing civil society organizations to do their work.  If, after a time, amendments are needed to the act, the National Assembly can consider them.  We all understand, and agree, that accountability and transparency are important for civil society organizations just as they are for all others.  Nevertheless, there are ways to achieve accountability and transparency that do not restrict or impede the vital work of civil society.  As a general rule, regulation should be as simple and as transparent as possible.  Regulation should embrace diversity. Regulation must not be used to silence organizations because they offer opinions or views that the powerful disagree with.

And, as Kenya continues to face enormous security challenges, we call on the government to partner with civil society and non-governmental organizations.  Whether it’s Somalis in Mombasa or moderate religious leaders here in Nairobi, counterterrorism is most effective when governments involve local voices and communities.

Finally, over the years, the United States and other development partners have provided much assistance to civil society.  Indeed, many of our huge programs here are managed and implemented by civil society.  We provide support to civil society organizations that are doing a very wide range of work, from health care to human rights advocacy, because we believe in what you are doing.  The United States has strong mechanisms in place to ensure that as civil society is doing its work, our laws and regulations, and those of Kenya, are being observed and respected.  We are committed to transparency and accountability.  It is vitally important to the United States, just as it is to Kenya.

So, allow me to conclude where I began: the United States and the American people stand with civil society in Kenya.  We stand for your right to exist, for your right to have a voice, and for the right of every Kenyan to take part in building Kenya’s future.  Civil society is helping build a better, brighter future for Kenyans, for Americans and for people around the globe.  For that, we all owe you a debt and a very big thank you.

Pamoja tusonge mbele.

Asanteni sana.