Global Policy Forum

Civil Society’s Policymaking Role


By Joyce Mulama

June 19, 2006

Few would dispute that civil society organisations (CSOs) have grown substantially in number and influence over the past decades. But, are these groups at a point now where they play a determining role, alongside government, in public policy-making?

Not yet, says Tiberius Baraza, a researcher in the Governance and Development Department at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research -- a non-governmental body based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. "Civil society participates in decision-making at a very elementary level. This is not enough for a democratic system of government," he told IPS. "The ideal situation is one in which CSOs are involved in identifying what the needs of the people are, setting the agenda in establishing policy objectives, adopting the policy and subsequently monitoring and evaluating the policy," Baraza added. "But it is not being done adequately."

Similar words come from Faith Kasiva, executive director of the Coalition on Violence Against Women. "When the government comes to us, it is always so that we can rubberstamp what it has already decided on. These are not consultations," she says. Alternatively, interaction between CSOs and government may occur -- but fail to translate into policy.

"In workshops, we (government and civic activists) would agree on certain things -- but the final draft arising from these consultations would be different altogether," Paddy Onyango, executive director of the Citizens Coalition for Constitutional Change, told IPS. "We have worked with the government in many instances, including creating a policy which would set Kenya on zero tolerance on corruption. But, the state has short-changed civil society."

By way of example, he cited the Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act of 2003, which defines how the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC) should operate. "There were things we wanted in place…For example, we wanted the KACC to be given prosecutorial powers," Onyango said, noting that this was seen as key to bringing persons held responsible for corruption to book. The anti-corruption commission -- a body created to investigate alleged graft -- was not granted prosecutorial powers, however. These remain in the hands of Attorney-General Amos Wako, even though the length of time it takes his office to conclude corruption cases has caused it to be labelled incompetent.

Those who orchestrated Kenya's biggest-ever corruption scandal, the Goldenberg affair, have yet to be put behind bars. The scandal concerned the fictitious export of gold and diamonds from the East African country in the early 1990s, something that is said to have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Kenyans also await a resolution to the Anglo Leasing saga, which has dogged the administration of President Mwai Kibaki. This matter involved the awarding of multi-million-dollar government contracts to a fictitious company, Anglo Leasing and Finance, to build police forensic laboratories -- and supply a system to produce passports that could not be tampered with.

But amidst this gloom, there is cause for hope. "Kenyans have enough capacity to compel the government to hear their voices, to show the government that they will not just accept anything that comes their way. We saw this during the referendum," said Baraza, in reference to last year's vote on a new constitution for the East African country. CSOs conducted an education campaign ahead of the referendum in which they called on citizens to vote against the proposed constitution. Ultimately, the constitution was rejected, even though it had been championed by government.

The document made provision for a strong presidency, against the wishes of many Kenyans, who had wanted executive powers to be shared between the president and prime minister (a post created under the new constitution) -- apparently to prevent previous abuses of presidential authority from being repeated. The preference for limited presidential powers emerged during a national inquiry by the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission to find out what Kenyans wished to have included in their new constitution.

Civil society's ability to influence government policy will come under discussion later this month in the Scottish city of Glasgow at the CIVICUS World Assembly (Jun. 21-25). CIVICUS is a non-governmental organisation based in the South African financial centre of Johannesburg, which focuses on the right of citizens to have a voice in the political, economic and cultural affairs of their countries. The word "civicus" is Latin for "of the town" or "of the community".

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