Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party addresses his supporters. (Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

Kim Yi Dionne: In this guest post, Jennifer Brass shares insights from her important book on the blurring boundary between government and nongovernment actors in providing public services in Kenya and beyond. This is the third installment in this year’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular.

Presidential elections are often tense in Kenya, which holds national elections on Aug. 8. There was considerable violence ahead of the 1992 and 1997 elections, and prolonged post-election violence in 2008. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands were displaced during these election periods.

The most recent elections in 2013, though largely peaceful, were tainted by failed electoral technology that was, ironically, meant to prevent electoral tampering. Afterward, many argued that the country chose “peace over democracy” in accepting the disputed verdict that Uhuru Kenyatta won. Even top electoral commission officials reportedly questioned the results.

Kenyatta himself may have orchestrated some of the 2008 post-election violence — the International Criminal Court (ICC) later charged him with crimes against humanity but dropped the charges after key witnesses disappeared or refused to testify.

Concerns over Kenyatta’s rule continue

Kenyatta’s authoritarian tendencies have done little to allay fears that the 2017 elections will be peaceful, free and fair. Legislation passed in 2013 introduced new restrictions on journalists, adding to crackdowns on human rights and civil liberties. Threats against journalists have been increasing ahead of the 2017 elections, according to Human Rights Watch. Extrajudicial killings have also been on the rise.

Kenyatta campaigned in 2013 against “meddling foreigners” trying to control Kenya. His administration continues to present nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) — independent nonstate actors like Care, Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders — as part of the “foreign plot” to control the country. Members of parliament loyal to Kenyatta argued that NGOs conspired with the ICC against the Kenyan leaders. The Kenyatta presidency has used this line of argument to justify attempts to reduce NGO funding and freedoms.

My research on NGOs in Africa suggests that the Kenyatta administration is acting against its own interest when it targets NGOs. As I show in my book, “Allies or Adversaries? NGOs and the State in Africa,” these issues weaken trust between NGOs and the central government. Most NGOs in Kenya provide services related to things like health care, education or clean water.

Most do not engage in politics. (Only 4 percent of NGOs in Kenya are primarily interested in governance issues of democracy, human rights or corruption.) My book shows that when Kenyan citizens receive services from NGOs, the government benefits. It is therefore against the government’s interest to reduce the funding and freedom available to them.

Kenyatta’s campaign against NGOs

After the 2013 election, Kenyatta’s allies introduced legislation to restrict NGO funding from foreign sources to 15 percent. In 2014, Kenyatta’s Mashujaa Day speech included repeated verbal threats to NGOs, echoing the sentiments of Kenya’s second president Daniel Moi, who led the country from 1978 to 2002. In 2015, one cabinet minister used the presentation of the first Annual Report on NGOs to emphasize that these organizations should move away from political activities.

The government agency responsible for registering and monitoring Kenya’s NGOs, the NGO Coordination Board, announced strict new rules on expatriate NGO workers in 2016. Although the board presented the move as linked to wage disparity, many analysts saw this as an effort to silence critics of the government.

Ahead of this year’s elections, the NGO Coordination Board has become more politicized than in the past. It warned Western donors against funding NGOs active in efforts to influence the election. The Board also shut down a USAID-funded civic education NGO campaign and banned the NGO. And it attempted to deregister the foundation of a leading opposition politician — but the courts did stop this move. The Kenyatta-appointed head of the NGO Coordination Board, despite having been exposed in the press for forging his university degree, remains in office.

The Kenyatta administration also effectively refused to implement the Public Benefit Organizations Act from 2012, which was designed to improve working conditions for NGOs in the country. The government has ignored at least two court orders to implement the measure.

What is the role of NGOs in Africa?

When I began the research for my book, I started with the perspective of NGOs in competition with the state. The hypothesis originally driving the study was that NGOs were undermining the Kenyan state. I thought that when NGOs provide services, they “let the government off the hook” from their responsibilities. When that happens, citizens then realize that the government wasn’t meeting its end of the citizen-state bargain, and citizens distrust the government more. The evidence I found reveals the opposite to be true.

First, when people interact with NGOs providing services in Kenya, citizen views of the government are generally more favorable than when there is no contact with NGOs. Many citizens give credit to the government for services received, regardless of who funded or implemented the programming. Creating obstacles for these organizations could actually lower popular views of government, not raise them.

Second, instead of letting government “off the hook,” NGOs work in close collaboration with Kenyan ministries, like the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Agriculture. These NGOs often literally extend the government’s reach. For example, in my book, I relate how an NGO helped the government by providing transportation for a civil servant — an agricultural extension officer bringing veterinary care to additional rural, remote locations that she would not be able to reach using only the budget allocated to her by the government.

Finally, evidence tells us that NGOs work where they have more freedoms. The more that Kenya moves away from democracy, the less likely NGOs are to concentrate their efforts there — be it for education, health care or providing humanitarian assistance in war-torn neighboring countries, like Somalia and Sudan. Nairobi could lose its appeal as a hub for NGOs throughout East Africa, which would also mean a loss of jobs and income for Kenyans involved in these services, in the NGO sector, and for global organizations based in Kenya.

Given these findings, the Kenyatta government may wish to reconsider its repeated attacks against NGOs. The country as a whole is likely to benefit.

This guest post is the third installment in this year’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular. Check out our other posts:

 Jennifer N. Brass is an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Public & Environmental Affairs and author of the book “Allies or Adversaries? NGOs and the State in Africa.” Follow her on Twitter at @jennifer_brass.