CASE STUDY: The experiences of CISS in West Kenya

By Mrs Perez Odera, Director


Community Initiative Support Services [CISS] is a non-profit-making development agency registered as an NGO in the Republic of Kenya. It is based in Kisumu in the West. We believe that people are the reason for and the means through which development can be achieved. Unless communities or groups of people are aware of their roles and rights, they are not in a position to bring about change. The past experiences of these populations have shaped how they relate to the context of today. If this process is carefully studied, we can  understand why certain situations are now in place. So in CISS we have put huge amounts of resources into in-depth studies of the communities we work with.


CISS works among different ethnic groups, mainly farmers working with crops and animals on poor, unrewarding land. Many of the men go away to find work in the towns leaving female-headed households. The communities with whom we work were subjected to colonial rule for a very long time. All development decisions were being made for them, not by them. The result was a loss of initiative, loss of confidence in their own ideas and in their ability to put such ideas into practice. The development masters did not stop at this; they made people believe that the values and way of life of local people was primitive and backward  - not useful at all. Gradually, people got used to others speaking for them. Gradually they came to believe that good initiatives can originate only with the developed West, not locally.

Colonisation has had many negative effects. However, one aspect that seemed to work well was the provision of basic services to the poor majority. With Independence, many people thought that these services would continue. However this was not the case. Kenya soon slipped into a situation common to many new states in Africa - management of services and wealth, access to services and wealth, were with only a few people at the top of the pyramid. For the rest - abject poverty and lack of essential services.

And the response from the community?  Those controlling the services and wealth can offer job opportunities, political goodwill, limited access to the services. To have a chance of getting these, sycophancy has to be offered. Non-sycophants are reduced to low-key protest, limited and ineffective since many are afraid of victimisation. Others do not even have an idea that they had any right to be heard. Some leaders who had tried to educate the people about their rights have been accused by those in power of being engaged in subversive activities.


Given all this, many people do not have the time or skills to learn about their rights under the constitution. Widespread political patronage have characterised and influenced the people during elections. The poor and hungry are easily bought to vote for self-seeking leaders. But after the elections – the leaders just keep away until the next time.


Development is what people can do for themselves, not what one person can do for another. Good development agencies like to work with groups which are ready to participate fully, to generate ideas, offer resources to implement these ideas. And for any activity to be sustained, there has to be those who own it and will work for it. The predicament in this region has been that people wait for services to be provided to them by the development agencies. Their own efforts in initiating, managing and eventually sustaining projects are limited. So CISS, together with many other concerned agencies, decided to provide civic education.

The aim: to provide communities with the capacity to demand their rights when and if needed.


At present, there is a big push for demand-driven development approaches. This means  that the possible beneficiaries  have to know what they need and want, are able to ensure that projects are kept going, remain sustainable even after the departure of funders and helping agencies.

But how can such an approach work with people who have no confidence in their own ideas? Instead they ask us to tell them what to do and how to do it. There is a whole process needed before any demand-driven development becomes possible, the process of people becoming aware of their own strength, value and role in the process.


Sustainability of Projects

We started by mobilising the people and grouping them into interest or focus groups. Some of the groupings were done by sex, age, number of children and occupation. In each meeting, the people were asked to indicate successful projects which they had initiated through the advice and support of outsiders that had been operational for at least a year after the withdrawal of support. They also identified those projects which they had initiated on their own during a similar period of time and  gave a rating in the performance of both at that time. This exercise was done many times as they varied those projects initiated both at group and also individual levels. Through this process, it became clear that the projects which were initiated through the local communities both at personal or group level were more sustainable. It further became clear that the one who has a problem is best placed to determine the solution - not an outsider. If projects are to have a meaning to any specific group of people, then those concerned have to play a major role in the initiation of such projects and all the steps that follow. Members were challenged to be aware of this in all their development aspirations.

Problem identification

Secondly, the team of facilitators were given time to group themselves away from the  population and to come up with what they perceived as the community’s major problems. Each group was also given a chance to do the same. On comparing the prioritised problems it was realized that the two groups had completely different views. The conclusion was that what people from outside a community perceive to be the problems that affect a community may not necessarily be correct.

People’s perception of Improved Living Standards

In all development initiatives, people talk of the need to improve the standard of living for various communities. However, the indicators for measurement are widely varied and may not reflect what the target population may have in mind. In fact each individual perceives what for them are indicators of better life.

In the following exercise, each person was asked to come up with his or her dream life by stating some of the facts they consider to indicators of better standards of living. They were also asked to state why each has not been able to achieve the preferred standard. It was interesting to note that people understand development as the provision of such facilities as transport, housing, education and health facilities without any reference to good governance, appropriate laws, security, accountability and transparency. Moreover, the community’s own roles in determining the aforesaid did not feature at all.

After lengthy discussions we concluded that unless communities take an active role in demanding the various documents containing the regulations which guide their rights, study them and work out strategies, then it would be difficult for them to have a say in what affects them in every sphere of life.

Knowledge of Various Policy Papers and Regulations

For clarification, we asked people to name some of the very common regulatory bodies like the Kenya Revenue Authority and identify their powers which are stated in the Police act. These powers concern the public, trade, agriculture, the sugar authority and many other areas. We eventually realized that people were not even aware of the existence of these bodies let alone what they are about.

The community then demanded lessons on how they can go about pressing for their rights.


We started by training a group of community volunteers who were to be known as the paralegal community workers. These were given lessons on democratisation – the key idea being that the majority opinion ought to be the guiding factor in decision-making. The next topic was human rights, the key idea being the equitable distribution of resources. Gender issues, particularly around resource distribution, roles and responsibilities, were discussed at length and considered in relationship to traditional beliefs.

In the management of public affairs the need for transparency and accountability was emphasized. It was noted that many people did not see the need to vote due to the lethargy which had set in among the community members. Their argument was that in the past the voting in elections was rigged during elections so going to the polls seemed pointless. The rights of voters and the need to vote by learning the approved voting process each time was emphasized.

Another area which generated a lot of interest was the need of and use of legal advice through lawyers. Legal advice was noted to be very expensive and out of the reach of many people.

The issue of costs led the people to discuss the importance of economic stability in exercising ones right in a society. It was clear that those with a sound economic base have better bargaining power in all aspects of economic development. Community members were challenged to address this critically.

Only the introductory aspects of these topics were covered during the training of the paralegal volunteers. Topics were carefully selected to ensure the usefulness of the messages to the target population.


The community trainers were recruited from some of the social and development groups in the community. They were to go back and carry out what they had learnt using the adult learning methods, and avoiding confrontations with those who felt that the issues being addressed were not a concern. For the rest of the communities not represented by these groups, other development workers with the mandate of civic education were consulted for collaboration and co-ordination.


Community Groups

Since we took these steps in civic education, we have seen many community groups coming up to address the socio-economic needs of the people. We are convinced that once such a forum exists then it is easy for communities to use it to press for their needs. As a group they form a critical mass able to pool resources to cater for legal support or representation when needed. In addition, they can press for changes they wish to effect even in their relationship with development agencies or representatives of various sectors of the Government.

Gender Awareness

The idea of sharing of roles in the family between men and women is presently being debated a lot by both women and men in the community. Although in practice there is little sharing, particularly of activities which were originally the domain of either men or women, we believe the discussions are a good starting point. Many of the women who went through the courses are much keener in following matters pertaining to family property than their counterparts. The current general belief among most of the women is that it is just as important to educate the girls as it is to educate the boys. As a way forward many see the sense in exposing male and female children equally to household chores. The idea is however not popular with most older members of the community. Many of them feel that such a move leads to confusion among young people in areas of traditional taboos. To us the fact that the issues are being debated is a good sign.

Participation in the Savings and Credit Scheme

Following discussions between CISS and community members, many are currently participating in savings and credit within our areas of operation. There are over 1,000 women and a few men in various groups. Once they improve on their economic status they have a strong base for political and development bargaining. Normally those who are well placed make sure that their standard of living - housing, education, health facilities, clothing, food – all stay the same or improve. Now, savings and credit group members can start to concern themselves as well

Participation in the last general election

It was amazing to see the number of people who participated in the last general election compared to the previous years. Their determination to vote out the previous regime was demonstrated in the outcome of the results. This has shown them that they can achieve a lot if they could choose to work together as a team.

We are fully convinced of even better results in the areas of social responsibility that is our focus in the year 2003.