In August 2010, following the post-election violence of 2008, Kenyans voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution. This was a development of huge importance, not least because there had been many previous attempts to overhaul the old constitution.But the new version was also a far-reaching document, the significance of which in advocating wide-scale reforms – such as offering devolved constituency-based governments, decentralization and control of financial resources and decision making as well as unprecedented space for civil society to hold the State to account – cannot be overestimated. At the same time, translating the ideals of this constitution into reality could be a lengthy and complicated process, given the difficult political context in Kenya..
The socio-economic context in Kenya also provides a considerable challenge. Out of a population of 40.9 million, over 46% of Kenyans live below the national poverty line, with more than 19% of this group surviving on below US$1.25 per day. Two-fifths of Kenyans (41%) still lack access to improved water services and 69% to improved sanitation. Life expectancy stands at 55.6 years, and infant mortality at 81 per 1,000 births.1 HIV prevalence in Kenya is at 6.3%, which means that between 1.3 and 1.6 million people in the country live with the disease.2 Across the country, communities have been left to fend for themselves with little access to State support such as infrastructure, education, water and sanitation – areas that would normally be deemed State responsibility.
This is the context for the ‘story behind the well’ of the Makutano Community Development Association (MCDA), a community that came together in 1995 to try to provide for itself the type of life that is now enshrined in the new constitution. The MCDA is located along a 23km dirt road – which the community built entirely on its own – two hours from Nairobi in the Ikombe Division of the Yatta District. As well as building the road, the community also used considerable resources of its own (together with external support) as primary inputs into the construction of 9 dams, 17 sub-service wells, 162 pit latrines and a secondary school that has seen attendance increase by a factor of ten. In a semi-arid landscape prone to droughts and floods, 10,000 acres of land have now been put to productive use.
What is particularly remarkable about this story, however, is the emphasis that was placed on building the capacities of local people both to engage in and also to control their own development – particularly through the creation of community-based organizations and associations. Back in 1996 there were only 10 informal associations, primarily burial societies and savings groups; today the MCDA has a membership base that includes 84 registered community-based organizations (CBOs) working across activities ranging from construction and water provision to home-based care and micro-credit. Moreover, central to almost every activity that the MCDA has engaged in, is its commitment to harnessing the contributions of locally owned assets – labour, time, money, and local physical resources such as land or raw materials. Such contributions, made by community members living in very difficult economic conditions and with little to spare, challenges conventional notions of passive communities awaiting aid or incapable of controlling their own development agendas.
Today, even the government has come to recognize and value the example provided by MCDA. In fact, local members of parliament and others have begun organizing study tours and exchange visits for its new CBO partners, so that they too may learn from the MCDA’s successes.
These successes did not happen overnight, as a report from the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF) makes clear: ‘In the 1990s, Makutano was vast, rocky and perhaps known for all the wrong reasons – poverty, yawning illiteracy rates and biting hunger.’3 Access to the nearest water point was a 15km walk; erratic weather patterns contributed to high levels of food insecurity; water-borne diseases were widespread; and there were few education and employment opportunities.
In 1995, under the leadership of Raphael Masika, 60 concerned citizens representing 21 villages and 10 merry-go-rounds and burial societies met to discuss ways to improve their community. Sitting under a tree in the compound of what is now the Father Makewa High School, Masika says they asked themselves: ‘Why can’t we bring these associations to another level? Why can’t we help each other the way we help each other when we die?’
Even the simple act of meeting was not easy. ‘You must understand that it was a very difficult democratic space at that time. Government was very suspicious of people meeting and I had to go to the authorities and explain to them what we were doing,’ says Masika. Having assured political authorities that they were not a threat, the group continued to meet, becoming a registered self-help group in 1995, and then a CBO in 1997 under the name of the Makutano Community Development Association (MCDA). The motivation for formally establishing itself as a CBO came from Masika, who had by then retired from Action Aid, an international non-government organization (NGO) that was promoting the establishment of community-based structures in other communities.
The MCDA’s formalization into a CBO occurred in the same year as the establishment of the KCDF, the first indigenous philanthropic institution in Kenya. KCDF explicitly and actively sought to provide an alternative to the conventional ‘project funding’ model, focusing on supporting and building the capacities of communities, rather than focusing on sectoral projects, which was (and still is) common in Kenya