My research in Kenya provides disturbing evidence of how foreign NGOs (non-governmental organisations) leverage their financial strength and access to the establishment to insert their single issue agendas into national policy formulation processes.
The foreign NGOs first set up a façade of local NGOs, CSOs (civil society organisations) and other seemingly authentic grass roots organisations which, by lending a semblance of legitimacy to their policy agendas, can become deeply embedded within both the body politic and the body civic. This in turn allows the policy formulation process to be hijacked by denying political access to those with dissenting or alternative viewpoints and manipulating access to the media.
In Kenya, this kind of malfeasance has led to new legislation and policies that are not in the best interests of either the country or her citizens. The Wildlife (Conservation and Management) Bill (2009), for example, panders solely to the agenda of the international animal welfare lobby while ignoring the very real conservation issues facing Kenya.
The key issue here concerns representation. Such NGOs wield extraordinary power but fail the most basic test of good governance in that they are neither elected, transparent nor accountable to those whose interests they claim to represent. Such NGOs have no innate right to speak “on behalf of the people”, nor do they have any special rights to impose their minority views.
While governments rely primarily on national legislation to regulate NGOs, there is a growing awareness internationally of the necessity for transparent self-regulation so the sector can contribute positively to social development by being transparent, accountable and ethical in all its activities. But given the worldwide trend for NGOs to evolve from being simple service providers to embracing advocacy and activism, especially in the policy arena, I personally doubt whether such steps will be adequate to address this key issue of representation.