Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What should we think of the Kenyan government? Part III

Yesterday, I went to Busia’s District Development Committee meeting with Maria and a few others from the library. We presented our project to the Committee, which consists of all relevant government and civil society bodies in the region. Maria was nervous for the day, saying that it was the forum for securing local political support for the project.

The District Commissioner opened the meeting with a prayer, saying he hoped that the group could leave Busia better than they found it. In his opening remarks, he noted that an NGO was present. He thanked us for being there, saying that Busia is completely saturated with NGOs but they rarely tell the Committee or even just him, the District Commissioner, what they were doing. It makes it difficult, he said, to manage development in the region, since local government initiatives might be overlapping or even contradicting what the NGOs were doing. What better anecdote to start a consideration of how we should interact with government at all levels that to consider that thought.

The truth is, parts of the government are corrupt and inept, for a variety of reasons, not all of them in the control of any particular individual. But that doesn’t matter. Non governmental organization may exist to supplement what governments are able to do. But they are not supposed to replace or exclude government—by including them, problems and all, NGOs can support the development of political systems in addition to their primary work. For example, governments can consider how their programs can be more effective based on how they can positively interact with NGOs. In my small experience in Busia, they are happy to do so.

At the same time, however, we want our project to run as smoothly as possible, without lengthy delays that might result from relying on government. So how do we marry these two?

First, there are different arms of government. Kenya National Library Services is a parastatal, which has the capacity to manage the library and a proven effectiveness at doing so. We are thrilled to be working with them, and hope that the local communities concerns can be successfully integrated with KNLS guidelines (more on that in future blogs!).

With local government, Maria has faced many disappointments, some of which I’ve outlined in the past few blogs. Promised Community Development Funds have never materialized, land politics have abounded and seemingly arbitrary boundaries have complicated the “public” nature of the library. However, at the same time the mayor, town council members, and other local politicians have all pledged their support and we see no reason to keep them out. How we will integrate them, though, will be critical to our timeline. We’ve decided that we do want community development funds—this type of project is exactly what they were created to fund. However, we’re not going to wait for them to start building. Instead, we’ll ask for something that could greatly enhance the library’s functionality, but won’t hold us back if it doesn’t come through in a timely manner. In particular, we’re asking members of parliament from both sides of Busia’s road for a vehicle for a mobile library. We could run several programs for communities in areas that have trouble travelling to Busia, like computer training classes, writing contests, programs to develop research skills, and book loans. But if it takes 3 years to go through, we can carry on with our other activities without worrying. This way, we both make this a government project and avoid many of the fall-backs that working with government can entail.

I don’t see any reason to try to avoid working with government, though at times it can be frustrating. Over time, we can build successful relationships and hopefully strengthen the capacity of those who are charged with leaving Busia a better place than they found it.

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