"We have a right to know" – boosting community participation in Turkana
Jerusha Ouma Governance Programme Officer
31st May 2012
Kenya's system of devolved budgets should give local people the opportunity to have a say in how community projects are funded. But what happens when no one knows that they have a right to be involved? Jerusha Ouma on an Oxfam project to raise awareness and boost participation in Turkana.
As I walked through the villages in Turkana County, Northern Kenya a couple of years ago, the reality of decades of marginalisation and poverty hit me hard. Most of the area was dry, sandy, and rocky with poor roads that meander through river beds. I met women walking long distances to fetch water from open dams and rock catchments. School and hospital facilities were far apart and not well equipped and stories of frequent violent conflicts and cattle raids from neighbouring pastoralist communities were well known to children and adults alike. Sadly this remains the case to
I have often asked myself, what could be contributing to this? In Turkana County, many people do not have access to information regarding government development plans, budget allocation and utilization of funds for development of their areas, and so they are not able to participate in the implementation and monitoring of funds meant for development. They are not even aware of their right to participate and to hold the fund managers to account.
I once asked a community meeting what government funds were available to them for development and was told:
"We do not know of any government funds or projects available in this community. All we know is that Oxfam has been supporting us with water, food and cash to take care of our basic needs. They also teach us on how to keep hygiene, but we do not know what the government does."
And when we finished the public sensitisation meeting, they told us to 'greet the people of Kenya' upon returning to our base. Meaning, they did not think they deserved to be called Kenyans.
Oxfam's effort to empower communities in Turkana County to demand more participatory, inclusive and accountable governance is very timely. The project was introduced when community awareness of local governance issues was very low and their participation wanting. A huge gap existed within the civil society structures as there was no way to mobilize the communities to demand accountability from the government. The people did not believe that it was possible to question their leaders and hold them to account.
Achievements and impact
To date social auditors have monitored several projects in Turkana County. Such projects include water facilities, schools, health facilities, bursary awards to needy students and income generating activities among others. The social audit teams involve other community members in the projects tracking process. This has widened the scope and reach of the social audit process for the benefit of the Turkana People. Various public fund managers and contractors have been forced by communities to refund misappropriated money or to redo some projects that were not done to the required
One example is the Ngisiger open air market in Turkana North Constituency funded by Local Authority Transfer Fund (LATIF). The project was identified by the area local leaders with little consultation with the community. The identification of the site was disputed since the project was to be constructed within the compound of another project. This resulted in conflict. The local authority advanced a payment of Ksh 500,000 (out of the budged Ksh 1,500,000) to the contractor to begin the work on the project. Unfortunately, the contractor misappropriated the funds and construction of the
market did not begin. When community social auditors followed up with the Local Authorities, they were shocked to find that their records showed that construction of the market was complete. When they put pressure on the local authority officials, they actually confirmed that the amount advanced to the contractor was misappropriated. The issue was pursued further by the social auditors and the contractor was summoned to repay the misappropriated funds. With the support of the community, a new site for the project was identified and the contract was awarded to a new contractor who
accomplished the work.
Overall, the Oxfam capacity building programme has been a unifying factor within the community, showing that men and women can come together and discuss development issues. It has also narrowed the gap between the government and the community.
"It empowered us to make demands since we have a right to know the use of public and devolved funds…no one will intimidate us anymore on why we shouldn't ask," said one community member. And another added, "We learnt to demand to be involved in all stages of projects management and to approach the fund implementers in a friendly manner so that we are included."
Government officials also acknowledge impact of the Oxfam project. A District Development Officer from Turkana Central said: "The training changed our perspective, when the central government disburses funds we lay it on the table and share the budget and how we intend to spend the money. Initially we did not share these plans with other actors, nor inform the community on the amount of allocation."
I observed that the local members of parliament (MP) are disconnected from the community. Those who surround them tend to block accessibility to the leaders. When it comes to the social audits MPs mostly respond by giving additional funds to complete projects. Whenever there is a problem the MPs are alerted by the committees on what it is that the auditors have discovered and they eventually intervene to fire fight but do very little to address the embezzlement.
Challenges and opportunities
Change is gradual and the community need to be educated several times, as awareness is a continual process. The Oxfam project is still very essential in Turkana. An overview of current levels of participation by the community shows that they are still averagely low compared to other parts of the country, in specific areas of project identification, implementation and decision making. Notably, there is a rise in the percentages of community members attending awareness seminars and it is only through the awareness that participation will diffuse to the other areas of project life cycles.
There is still resistance to social auditors by sections of the political leaders who view them as a threat to their political careers.
- The two-pronged approach of engaging with the government and leaders on one hand and the community on the other is very instrumental to the success of the project as it provides synergy in reaching the project goals.
- Training a team of social auditors as selected by the community is very effective. The auditors are recognized leaders and persons trusted by the community.
- Sensitivity of governance issues demands that the local partner be at the front of the advocacy and awareness campaigns. This ensures there is less resistance to the project as a concept introduced by outsiders. When leaders realise it's a local group and community groups championing for change, they bow to the pressure.
The 2010 constitution of Kenya presents many opportunities for reforms and communities in Turkana need to learn more about it, especially provisions on devolution, their roles, and responsibilities and how to effectively engage with the upcoming county government.
The process of changing peoples' mindsets to embrace the culture of accountability and constitutionalism takes time and effort. If the local organizations and communities are not well supported, lack of accountability could continue.
The work to enhance citizen participation in Turkana has been used as a case study on local governance, part of a series of five papers drawing on experiences from Nepal, Tanzania, Viet Nam, Malawi and Kenya.