Kenya Balancing Act: Human Rights, Civil Society, Neo-Colonialism, and Democracy

05/13/2013 06:08 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2013

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What are we to make of Uhuru Kenyatta's (and his fellow International Criminal Court (ICC) indictee, William Ruto's) recent election to the highest offices in Kenya? Many in the West consider the two to be warlords in suits, whose ignorant tribesmen followers would have voted for them if their fingernails were dripping blood. When I commented to a human rights activist that Kenyatta was fairly elected, he just said, wearily, "Hitler was elected too."

Background: In 2002 Kenya conducted elections generally considered fair. It was unable to reprise that result in 2007, when deadly intertribal turmoil resulted from that election. The ICC charges stem from the 2007 events. Still, Kenya, along with South Africa, is widely considered the leading country in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of economy, intelligentsia, technology, middle class development and... democracy. The 2007 civil war was perceived as a tremendous blow to Kenya's progress and image on these levels. The stakes in the current election were less about who won than that it transpire peacefully with high citizen involvement.

It was a bar set by the Kenyans themselves and they made it over that bar. There were some irregularities, but, even as the opposition protested the irregularities and called for a do-over, everyone, including the opposition, took enormous care to not escalate the situation. And the April 16 swearing-in and convening of the new Parliament was a combination of pomp, circumstance and national joyfulness that any democracy could easily relate to. (I particularly like the tradition of the House and Senate speakers wearing English barrister style wigs; Harry Reid, eat your heart out.)

I write this not as a political analyst, but as the founder of an American-based international NGO, TechSoup Global, that supports the use of technology in civil society across the world. We are currently developing with major global funders what we believe is a comprehensive, and therefore radical, approach to capacity building for civil society. For a variety of reasons, Kenya seems like the right place to pilot our concept.

So what does Kenyatta's election and the ICC indictment process mean for us? With the proviso that I am a Westerner most of whose family perished in the Holocaust and who thinks that one can forgive, but should never forget, and that true reconciliation can only be built on honest acknowledgment of what occurred, I have to say that my visit last week to Kenya has complicated my world-view, and my view of my organization's appropriate stance.

2013-05-13-2newplaygroundjoy300pxls.jpgThe plain fact is the civil society is taking a huge hit in Kenya right now. Civil society, of course, covers a wide span. Amnesty International is civil society. So are "Briefcase NGO's" that feed heavily at the international aid trough. So is the very locally grounded Kenya Community Development Foundation and so is Shining Hope for Communities (pictured -- if you click through on one link, make it this one) which was born out of the efforts of a Kenyan Wesleyan University student and which is still funded by small contributions from that student body (among other donors) and which provides a range of demonstrably effective early education services for girls in Kibera, Africa's largest slum. But in Kenya today, civil society is widely perceived as lining up with 'neo-colonialist' donors and the ICC, intent on convicting Kenyatta and Ruto, and thereby negating Kenya's finest hour, the successful elections. NGO stands for "Nothing Going On," is the quip of the moment.

As it happens, one of Kenyatta's key proposed programs is to provide every first grader with a solar powered laptop. The initiative is being applauded by those who think we can't progress without investing in technology at a grassroots level. Others consider it grandstanding -- the wrong tech at the wrong time for the wrong audience.

But it's not about laptops. It's about whether all the necessary actors -- government, business, civil society, individual citizens -- can work together to improve conditions. And the 'action' must be driven and, on a basic level, owned from inside the country. Does that perspective make alleged human rights abuse, on some level, 'negotiable; i.e. if the people of a country freely elect the alleged abusers? I can't say "yes' to that question, but it's harder for me now to say a categorical 'no'.

One point that does seem clear to me is that international actors must take their lead from indigenous constituencies for change. Sanctions did not end apartheid; South Africans did, and sanctions helped to the extent they were aligned with the direction of the indigenous anti-apartheid movement.

As I write this, there has been some recent good news in the world. Serbia and Kosovo have reached a historic tentative accord. (Although read this from the Serb President before you get too happy.) The key driver seems clearly to have been economic incentivization that created the political will in Serbia to face down its ultranationalist diehards. It's progress and it could never have happened without the engagement of political leaders -- on both sides -- whom some human rights activists would have liked to see jailed for life.

In Kenya, the reality on the ground is that a credible government has been freely elected and there is vast opportunity for coordinated activity for change. Meanwhile, the drama plays out of whether or not Kenyatta and Ruto will appear in the Hague. The balance between repudiating colonialism and protecting human rights is infinitely tricky. We must get it right.