Kenya’s Community Foundation Is Challenging the Dependency Mindset

A community-led approach to development

June 2024
June 2024
Supported By :
Magic Cabinet

In the 1990s, a group of Kenyans came together to dream up a new kind of organization that would put communities in charge of their development. The original impetus behind the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF) was to explore new and more sustainable community development in Kenya. The idea of a public foundation evolved as a way to accumulate permanent financial resources for the long-term benefit of Kenyan communities.

The key belief behind the foundation is a belief in communities’ inherent assets. A story that illustrates the foundation’s approach: about a decade ago, foundation leaders visited West Makueni County, where communities were struggling with a lack of water. Through a series of dialogues and consultations, they helped the community realize that if everyone contributed a small amount, the community could address its water problems – and have money left over to demand that the government play its role too.

KCDF seeks to challenge the dependency mindset that still runs deep in Kenya. They believe in “horizontal philanthropy”, and lifting systems of giving and reciprocity that form the backbone of local communities.

The foundation is now in its fourth decade, and it has become a standard-bearer of Global South community philanthropy. They have received resources as part of USAID’s localization agenda, and recently received funding from Ford Foundation’s Weaving Resilience program, which involved sending funding directly to innovative leaders in the Global South…

We spoke with Grace Maingi about KCDF being a pioneer of community-led development work in Kenya and their continued work of shifting power and holding key actors in the development ecosystem accountable. 

Vincent Mwangi

One of KCDF’s priorities is to promote communities, and this can be connected to your emphasis on the importance of grassroots community ownership to the work for the longevity and success of the projects. Tell us about how you use an asset-based community development approach to achieve this. 

Grace Maingi

We recognize that communities bring resources to the table. They are not just the recipients of support or ideas, but there’s a lot they bring to the table – in innovation, the traditional knowledge they have, or, importantly, their resources including funding.

We are moving away from the misplaced ideology that communities are just beneficiaries, the receivers, they don't have the solution, or the solutions have to come from external sources, to where communities are the drivers, they're at the center.

We believe that when communities have access to resources, they will more often than not channel them towards solving the biggest problems they have. 

Let’s say a community wants to build a library. What are the resources they already have? There are parents in this community, maybe someone has the ability to help with the wiring, and another has the ability to source for books. We encourage them to tabulate what they have, both in cash and in-kind. And then we match what they have.

Vincent Mwangi

In 2020, KCDF signed on to an open letter organized by #ShiftThePower. Directed at iNGOs, it referenced a “master/servant relationship” and demanded: “Our plea is that you work with us, not against us. We need to be supported, not competed with, and certainly not replaced.”

A lot of larger development agencies and foundations are talking about localization, though they haven’t always been hitting their marks. What do you see as KCDF’s role in advancing the Shift the Power movement?

Grace Maingi

Shift the power is very much a buzzword right now. But to what extent are practices and policies having a focus on localization and shifting power?

Some of the global conversations we have had are to have a seat at the table to influence decisions, shift mindsets and make sure that policies and practices follow through and so whether it is pledges for change, we all work together. 

We’ve done a lab helping international NGOs in Kenya develop more equitable partnerships. We walked them through: What does that look like? What does it mean to shift power, to have trust-based relationships? We brought in some grantee partners and had a chance to provide feedback to these organizations.

We don’t see ourselves as outsiders in the philanthropy community. We see ourselves often as helping bridge a gap, enhancing [a development project] that hasn’t come out very clearly, and often being advocates for communities.

Vincent Mwangi

You mentioned your work to hold government accountable and increase community voice and agency in policymaking. There have been calls for African governments to be held accountable for how they use aid money, as well as other monies such as loans. What does strengthening community voice and agency mean and what does your advocacy work look like?

Grace Maingi

Yes, we have an emphasis on strengthening community voice and agency. What this simply means is how do we build accountable governance structures, with devolution in our country, whereby the government system is looking at bringing services and resources closer to the people. We have a big desire to see more community engagement. The community has been able to speak to what needs to happen.

We have been privileged enough to work in the public participation of citizens in governance processes. The Kenyan constitution appreciates and recognises that citizens are supposed to be the ones driving development and having a voice on where public funds need to be channeled. We have public participation frameworks at the national level and at the county level, which is more of a regional level. We, therefore, work with different civil society organizations to be able to help citizens recognize that they have a role to play in public participation. 

As part of our policy work, we also focus on how to ensure that it’s easier for Kenyans to give – not only from a corporate but also from an individual level and streamlining accessibility to the underserved in the communities that we work with. 

Vincent Mwangi

A recently released report by Partonis on Power Inequalities between different NGOs in the Aid System, asks an important question about the extent to which different initiatives succeed in contributing to shifting power. What would you say is the role of sustainability in shifting power? 

Grace Maingi

Sustainability is core to our being as KCDF. We emphasize and convince people of the importance of having sustainable communities. This is not easy, as you can imagine, because, people want to see big projects with big results. Some people feel like working with communities does not yield the quick results they want to see. 

One thing we know is that when communities are not at the center of it, sustainability and accountability go out of the window. Sustainability is a long-term process, you know when you are changing people’s minds, practices, and habits, that does not happen overnight. This also includes developing partnerships, developing relationships, which for their success need to be organic. The important thing in this is how we remain accountable and achieve the results we want. 

Development challenges that have been caused by years, if not centuries of issues, cannot be solved in a five-year program. We use a holistic approach ensuring that we’re just not trying to resolve one symptom, but addressing all system issues. 

Vincent Mwangi

What’s next?

Grace Maingi

We are focusing on helping communities to recover from shocks. We have seen how unforeseen global events such as COVID-19 increase chronic vulnerability. So we are building that resilience, that muscle - how do we recognize that historically, communities have had their ways of building their resilience - from food storage systems, drying produce whenever there’s a drought - those are resilience mechanisms that maybe we don't recognize as much.

Another way we are building resilience mechanisms is by helping civil society organisations be financially resilient. It is wrong to think that for you to be a civil society organisation, your main work is constantly being in survival mode and constantly having to fundraise to do the work that you do. We are doing this by helping organisations acquire assets that can generate income for them, shifting the mindset that Civil Society Organisations have to be poor, hence our advocacy around cost support.

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