Aid, charity and corruption often become synonymous with the failure of development in sub-Saharan Africa. The focus in many Western capitals is how to justify tax dollars being invested in what is often perceived as bottomless pits of need and helplessness. Failure to transform circumstances is often blamed on the beneficiary, and in Africa’s case, further fuels negative stereotypes of dependence and hopelessness.
That is why the experience of the Kenyan Community Development Foundation (KCDF) to pioneer a different and durable approach to development, philanthropy and African transformation is so important. We seek to shift the power and change the narrative that poor people in Africa have nothing, to one that seeks to put them in the driver’s seat of their own destiny.
The KCDF, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last month, started as an experiment by a group of dedicated individuals, who dreamed of a different type of development model. Instead of focusing on the dictates of the donor, and following a top-down development paradigm, they wanted to build an alternative community with a people-centred approach.
So how does our model differ? Rather than subcontracting out projects, often with short deadlines to external NGOs to implement and try to solve the perceived problem, the idea is based on a simple but critical premise. Our experience has confirmed that communities understand their problems. They have visions of their desired future. They have indigenous knowledge. They are open to learn new things, especially if one takes time to help them understand the rationale and relevance to their lives.
Admittedly it is not always easy. The approach requires listening to communities, unending patience and personal encouragement. Community-led means moving at the pace of the stakeholders, and not on the timetables of the donor. It has meant investing in capacity building of small community-based organisations and local NGOS, and ceding power without taking the credit.
And while we appreciate that resources are a critical component of changing people’s circumstances, the approach is to get communities to value their own contribution, seek out their own assets and own the process.
Often what they miss is the soft skills that can help them unlock already available resources from state or donor funds or enable them to be more effective with what they already had. Skills from group governance to basic financial management practices, planning and forecasting, as well as unlocking linkages to government programmes and supporting the ability to undertake outreach activities, can help them mobilise and leverage not just their own assets but also others.
Poor and remote communities may not have the confidence or know how to leverage county government resources. But with more ability to engage and being able to demonstrate their own capacity, tapping into additional resources like Kenya’s Constituency Development Fund (CDF), becomes possible.
It also forces local councils and government to be more responsive and transparent. In our experience, once local governments see empowered communities, they are often eager to be involved, realising that their political future and the next election outcome may be dependent on it. Communities can make sure money is being invested as it should, and are less vulnerable to exploitation by political patronage and small “gifts” like the popular maize flour (especially in dry parts of the country) that often happens ahead of elections.
Over the last two decades, KCDF grants have been given to groups with varied agendas from education for needy children; advocacy on land rights; small scale business development; family planning; water and sanitation; early childhood development and climate change and livelihood interventions, to name a few. The commonality is we are investing in partnership with communities themselves, and putting in place a foundation to drive these platforms for years to come.
As a Kenyan and African organisation, our financial sustainability benefited from the early exposure to other models of community giving and endowment building in the US and other western countries. We did our best to adapt these models to our context and stick to our mission of empowered communities to be driving their own development.
The idea of building endowments was new in the development sector in Kenya. Initially convincing communities of the validity of pooled funds was an uphill task but with strong assurances of the safety and security of their funds, and the legal mechanisms in place for an independent trust, we have managed to build support from Kenyan communities and individuals, and currently raise significant resources for programmes from the corporates as well. Learning from experience in South Africa, we have also taken the calculated risk to create an investment arm, that will eventually bring a return into the foundation to support our mission work.
In part, KCDF’s success in working with communities is also because we strive to keep some reasonable independence even if it means we miss large grants that come with unfavourable conditions, just to remain committed to community-led development. As a result, we have sought to invest in building a sustainable financial base, often applying very unconventional thinking which we hope will sustain us and allow us to continue to influence the broader philanthropy and development sector in Africa.
It is clear, as traditional development assistance shrinks and the world becomes more insular, that Africa must prepare for an uncertain future. We believe there are valuable lessons that can be learnt from the KCDF experiences, that can shape and contribute to a new type of African philanthropy where ownership is rooted in the community.
As part of our anniversary celebrations, last week we hosted a conference, in partnership with the Africa Philanthropy Network (APN) and the Global Fund for Community Foundations, where we sought to expand partnerships and networks in Africa and globally. The conclusion was that African transformation needs to focus on building a strong independent alliance that believes people-led, local and durable approaches to development.
Janet Mawiyoo has been CEO of KCDF since 2004