How to unlock the full potential of Kenya’s not-for-profit sector

By Mercy Kuria

In the heart of Kenya’s socio-economic landscape lies a dynamic and burgeoning not-for-profit organisations (NPO) sector. Comprising a diverse array of entities such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society organisations (CSOs), trade unions, trustees, self-help groups, and private foundations, this sector remains a crucial driver of Kenya’s progress.

Over the past three decades, Kenya has witnessed an unprecedented surge in the number and activities of these organisations, underpinned by their ability to pool resources effectively. In the recently published Annual NGO Sector Report for the year 2021/2022, the sector contributed a staggering Sh175.9 billion to the economy, a figure that could be even higher if compliance with annual reporting were more widespread. This begs the question: Is the NPO sector operating at its full potential?

Kenya’s NPOs, both local and international, have made substantial contributions to the country’s socio-economic development. Beyond the inflow of vital foreign currency, these organisations have offered direct and indirect employment opportunities to thousands of Kenyans.

Moreover, they provide training, internships, and volunteer programmes, thereby equipping our well-educated youth with the skills and experience needed in the job market. According to the annual NGO Sector report, in the financial year 2021/22, the sector employed 71,096 individuals.

Perhaps one of the sector’s most significant achievements is its role in improving the welfare of Kenya’s underprivileged population. Operating at the grassroots level, these organizations deliver tangible impacts where they are most needed. As highlighted in the annual NGO report, the top three sectors favoured by NGOs were health, children, and education, all with a direct impact on citizens’ lives.

Their interventions have yielded notable outcomes, including reduced infant mortality rates, improved maternal and child health, enhanced reproductive health, and the prevention of communicable diseases. In education, NGOs have supported research, scholarships, and sponsorships for basic and higher education, among other programs.

In the realm of children’s welfare, various initiatives targeting vulnerable children have been implemented, encompassing mentorship, advocacy for child-friendly policies, feeding programs, human rights advocacy, and the provision of basic needs.

Despite these remarkable accomplishments, Kenya’s NPO sector faces challenges that hinder it from reaching its full potential. As the sector’s impact continues to expand, it is imperative that supportive legislation be enacted to facilitate its operations.

The Public Benefits Organizations (PBO) Act, passed into law in 2013, was meant to fulfil this need. It aimed to establish transparent and efficient regulation of civil space in Kenya, with clear rules on registration and incentives for organisations engaged in public benefit activities. However, despite aligning with the 2010 Constitution and international standards on freedom of association, the PBO Act has yet to be operationalised. 

Currently, the regulation of non-governmental organizations in Kenya falls under the NGO Coordination Act of 1990, a framework meant to address the evolving needs and challenges faced by the sector. The delay in operationalizing the PBO Act led to some development partners to withhold support, emphasizing the urgency of this matter.

Encouragingly, the commitment of the ruling political party to operationalize the PBO Act, as outlined in its manifesto under “Governance: Strengthening Leadership Accountability and De-Personalizing Politics,” is a positive sign.

The Not-for-Profit Organisations (NPO) sector in Kenya cannot be underestimated. Its contributions to the economy, job market, and the welfare of the underprivileged are undeniable. To harness this vast resource, the government must create a more conducive legal and regulatory environment for the sector’s smooth operation. This action will ensure that Kenya maintains its position as the preferred base for international NGOs in the region, further cementing its role as a powerhouse of social and economic development.

The writer is a Manager, Assurance- Government and Public Sector at PwC Kenya.  

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