Champion of Local Democracy: John Gitonga

Meet ICLD mentor John – an extraordinary individual with a captivating journey to the world of local democracy. From his successful corporate career to his academic achievements in Development Studies and engagement with UN programmes, John’s diverse experiences have molded him into a genuine champion of local democracy.

With a passion for social justice and a deep sense of compassion for those in need, John’s story is sure to inspire and leave a lasting impression. In this article, we delve into John’s life and explore the experiences that have made him the local democracy advocate he is today.

John Gitonga’s path towards the field of local democracy was rather unconventional as he had primarily worked in the corporate sector, where he helped companies enhance their management practices in specific areas of focus. During his time fully immersed in corporate work, John stumbled upon the UN programme Global Campaign on Urban Governance, which was his first introduction to the concept of urban governance.

The programme was promoting decentralization in East Africa by identifying innovative local governance practices between the civil society, the local authorities, universities and partnerships. To say that he got inspired by the training is to say nothing:

– I became very passionate, John says. I had never encountered something so uniquely good that made me realize that this is where I belong.

After participating in that programme, John became a coordinator for the Lake Victoria Cities Development Strategies initiative, which marked his initial foray into the realm of development, and he has been involved in it ever since.

From Inspiration to Action: The Journey of a Local Democracy Champion

The journey of a corporate worker turned local democracy champion began when John Gitonga realized that his interventions could make a difference in the lives of people beyond just the profit-driven corporate world. Fascinated by the opportunity to use his management knowledge to support local authorities and urban practitioners in providing better services to the community, he found himself empowered by the UN training in key components of local democracy.

– When we were trying to promote decentralization, I realized I could do something that actually helps the community. By working with local leaders, elected officials, and residents in urban areas, my interventions could reach a much wider target group than just the corporate staff, suppliers, and shareholders who were solely focused on profit.

Despite recognizing the gaps in service delivery as an urbanite himself, it wasn’t immediately clear to him that he could play a role in supporting local authorities to improve their service delivery through strengthened democracy. John Gitonga continues:

– This realization inspired me to work towards better service delivery plans, creating linkages between communities and local authorities, and supporting practitioners to do their jobs more effectively. Ultimately, I saw an opportunity to contribute to the community and make a positive impact by leveraging my skills and expertise. And I loved the knowledge that I can be an agent of change, particulary in promoting local democracy in East Africa.

Johan Lilja, Secretary General och John Gitonga in Visby office 2022

Mentoring local democracy

Since 2015, John has been actively engaged with ICLD through different roles and has encouraged numerous teams to become agents of change. Among other things, he has helped them explore and apply innovative methods to engage citizens in local decision-making processes. When reflecting on his accomplishments in this field, John highlights a particular instance where he mentored a team from Kajiado County in Kenya in their change project aimed at increasing the participation of marginalized groups in decision-making. The team discovered that women in rural areas were represented by their husbands in meetings, and people with disabilities were heavily underrepresented. To address this, the team developed innovative approaches to decentralize decision-making and increase citizen participation in Kajiado County, creating village-level champions, and using mobile phones to inform women of meetings. These efforts led to a 47 % increase in women’s participation, which was a significant milestone in empowering marginalized communities.

However, mentoring at ICLD has not only meant giving John’s expertise to the teams, but also expanding his own knowledge in local democracy:

– I have learned a lot about issues related to local democracy, sustainable development, and good governance, says John Gitonga. I’ve really learned a lot from ICLD, different perspectives. I didn’t know much about the difference between equity and equality. Today, I preach the gospel of equity and equality to people and you can tell they are learning.

One area where John has found particular value is in community-based participatory research, or CBPR, which he learned at ICLD. The method allows for the involvement of the local community in the research process, which is highly useful when conducting research in informal settlements.

Having recently started as a mentor for ICLD Sustainable Futures Network, John is filled with enthusiasm as he discusses his plans for future work.

One aspect that particularly excites him is the opportunity to create a platform for children who are often overlooked in citizen participation efforts. He is passionate about creating a space where the perspectives of these children can be heard and given due consideration within urban settings, which he believes will broaden the scope of citizen engagement and lead to more inclusive and representative decision-making.

About John

֍ Born and raised in Kenya

֍ Went to the secondary school and college in Kenya

֍ Holds a bachelor’s degree in Development Studies and a Diploma in Urban Development Studies from the Institute of Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands

֍ Father of four: two daughters and two sons

ICLD Champions of Local Democracy

Gender or status does not matter, the important thing is that the person we are looking for has democratic values to live and inspire others. They may have gotten through difficult situations – but never backed down from the front lines of democracy, and they all have a personal story to tell. They have also been or are part of our operations. We present them in our series “Champions of Local Democracy”. Get inspired!

Alumni, Champion of Local Democracy, Change agent, ICLD Mentor,