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Professor analyzes NGOs in Kenya

Dan Brombach | Tuesday, October 30, 2012

With their works “Making Democracy Work” and “Democracy in America,” political scientists Robert Putnam and Alexis de Tocqueville respectively laid out theories on the positive relationship between civil society and more efficient, democratic governance within developed nations.  

In her lecture Tuesday titled “NGOs, Civil Society and Democratic Participation in Kenya,” Indiana University professor Jennifer Brass argued these theories from Putnam and Tocqueville are equally applicable to the world’s less-established nations.

Brass said the increase of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Kenya has resulted in a bolstering of civil society and a rise in democratic participation in the areas in which these organizations are concentrated.  She used the Kenyan definition of an NGO as a “private voluntary grouping of individuals or associations not operated for profit or for other commercial purposes but which have organized themselves nationally or internationally for the benefit of the public at large.”

Brass backed up her positive findings with the results of a survey she administered to 501 adults across three districts in Kenya, asking questions about their interactions with NGOs as well as about their recent political behavior.

The survey revealed respondents in areas where NGOs visited two or more times were 27 percent more likely to participate in a political protest or demonstration than those without NGO exposure.

Brass said this significant effect of NGOs on the likelihood of protesting in Kenya shows established theories about the relationship between NGOs, civil society and democratic participation are valid in the case of developing nations.

“It shows NGOs can be considered to be civil society actors … that participatory development does have spillover effects into the political realm,” Brass said.

Despite the correlation between NGOs and greater political and democratic participation, Brass said NGOs are mainly concerned with issues of general development and of improving standards of living.  

“Looking at Kenya, what’s interesting is most NGOs are not doing explicitly political work,” Brass said.

Brass said NGOs are steadily gaining more control over areas in Kenya traditionally thought to be the responsibilities of local and national governments.

“Looking at core policy services that we think states provide, we have NGOs either by themselves or jointly providing about 10 percent of services in education, 12 percent in healthcare and about 20 percent in security,” Brass said.

Brass concluded the lecture by saying that the nearly exponential increase in Kenyan NGOs reflects the broader trend of donors favoring these organizations over governments when it comes to aid provision.  Brass said donors view NGOs as more accountable, cost-effective, participatory and in touch with grassroots communities.