by Mwikali Mutune
Several times during 2020, INGOs working in women’s rights spaces in Kenya were exposed for blatantly oppressing women of colour within their organizations. As an African woman within this sector, I am grateful that these behaviors were called out. But it wasn’t enough, and the resolutions were belittling to the victims. Are we ready to discuss how this affects African women, who often feel obligated to remain silent in order to protect their incomes?
When international NGOs working in Kenya, such as IWHC (International Women’s Health Coalition) and Women Deliver, found evidence of racist behavior towards employees of colour, they did not dismiss perpetrators (all of whom were white women) or even distance the organizations from them. Instead, they said that the perpetrators had chosen to step down, but nonetheless deserved to be celebrated for their achievements. There were no genuine apologies or reparations towards the affected. Even worse, some of the organizations hired other white women (who had also been implicated in racist behavior) to replace those who ‘stepped down’.
What about the Kenyan-based NGOs active in the African women’s rights sector, where I’ve worked for five years? I was shocked at first, and remain deeply disappointed, that the majority of these organizations replicate the same attitudes as the western organizations I mention above. I have witnessed not only verbally offensive behavior from employers towards employees, but also economic and socially oppressive tendencies. I have seen young African women asked not to speak when their experiences deserved to be heard, and I have also seen young African women brazenly fired for doing the right thing in particular situations.
One friend recently worked for a white woman who runs a small local foundation in Nairobi.(1) Her office was a space within her employer’s large home. My friend regularly reported to the office at 7:00 am. One morning, the traffic was fairly light and so my friend arrived early, at 6:30 am, and rang the bell. Starting earlier would allow her more time to work and she was happy with that. She waited 5 minutes, rang it again, then her employer came to the bedroom window and yelled that she should have arrived at 7:00 am, not 6:30 am. Even worse, she would not open the gate until 7:00 am. My friend sat on the pavement on a cold Nairobi morning for half an hour. She quit the job that day.
This is just one example of many interactions between what NGOs call ‘local/national staff’ and ‘international staff’. These interactions are mostly anchored in white supremacy, which needs to be eliminated if women’s rights organizations truly want to achieve equality.
In one organization I previously worked for, I frequently witnessed these superiority complexes first-hand. Whenever representatives of a donor organization visited, everyone was walking on eggshells that day. We had a preparation meeting to discuss who would say what, the kind of impression to create, gifts to offer the donors, etc. And while I am grateful that this organization gave us all opportunities to speak for our work directly, I always grappled with the intensity of preparation for these specific visitors.
Over time, I realized it was because there were unspoken expectations between donors from the global North, and funding recipients in the global South. Our gratitude always needed to be reinforced to placate these white donors’ savior complexes. I often wondered, doesn’t the work speak for itself? Why did we need to organize gourmet lunches and stretch ourselves to this extent? If we stood for the ideals of gender equality and fought for the achievement of the same, why was it that white women and African women were treated very differently? While I have indeed met amazing white women who embody the ideals of equality within the African context, they are a minority.
Further, I made the mistake of opening up about my pansexuality while working there and this was met with mixed reactions. It was my first experience being in a space where I wasn’t sure I would be protected. This put me in a constant space of anxiety, wondering whether an organization working for all women would be there if I were attacked or even arrested for who I chose to love. Some saw it as a monetary ‘positive’, since it would enforce their diversity narrative, but there was nothing set in stone to ensure my personal safety. Others saw it as something that needed ‘no addressing’ because nobody had to know if I had just kept it to myself.
Another problem we must address is matronizing. I have met many young African women who’ve been held back by older African women, who tend to hold the top positions in these organizations. These older women tend not to foster dialogue and cross-learning between themselves and younger employees, but instead dictate what should be done. And should you dare offer fresh ideas, you shall find yourself on the streets with no job.
This behavior mimics the superiority ideals carried by white women at the top of many international women’s rights NGOs. It retains power for a certain group of older women, while providing little or no growth opportunity for younger women. Is this not how patriarchy functions?
Even economically, white-led women’s rights organizations continue to suppress ‘other women’. One of my friends was working as a HR assistant within a certain international women’s rights organization. Over dinner, she told me she had been shocked to learn that over the previous 4 years, her direct boss (the African HR manager) had received no salary increase, while the white Country Director’s salary had tripled. Yet, these directors were the same women appearing on international panels to discuss how much impact they were making to advance equality within disempowered communities.
Salaries are a huge indicator of inequality. When ‘international staff’ move to an African country, they get multiple allowances as well as a salary, which is often not adjusted to match the lower cost of living. Along with housing, car expenses, etc., these expat gender-equality staff are routinely paid according to New York or London salary scales, while a Kenyan woman’s salary is based on the cost of living in Nairobi. Despite platitudes about diversity and antiracism, African women remain ‘the other’ within these organizations, even as white women ‘champions of gender equality’ grow richer.
There is also the issue of job qualifications. International NGOs tend to hire less qualified white women in positions of power (whether locally or internationally) even when more qualified African women apply. I personally experienced this in the first half of 2020. I talked about it with peers, and we agreed that hiring is often based on personal networks. This undermines the narrative of equality, and keeps African countries dependent on aid.
Finally, I will say that cishet women in Africa, like in the global North, tend to be preferred in hiring decisions because they are less likely to question the level of protection they would receive from organizations that claim to fight for all of us. A majority of these organizations only want that kind of ‘unproblematic’ labor because they really don’t offer a safe environment to queer women for work, which for me as a queer identifying African woman, is an issue. How then, do we negotiate these protections? How do we focus on work when we don’t know whether we are valued in workspaces or are just disposable statistics? As I move into my 30s, I need answers, and INGO Gender Equality organizations need to provide tangible solutions. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Decolonize. Have diversity at all levels of power.
2. Compensate fairly across the board.
3. Let women from each community lead initiatives in that community, and listen to them when they suggest how to improve the work.
4. Stop creating little cliques that exclude some women from conversations that affect their lives.
5. Organizations often ‘head-hunt’ — they ask friends within the movement who they should hire for certain positions. Hire based on the quality of the candidate and not based on your networks. If you are head-hunting, do not post the vacancies as if they are aimed towards the public.
6. Provide true safe spaces for co-workers to speak their minds without fear of repercussion. We cannot say we value honesty, diversity, authenticity and all these other big words if we do not embody those ourselves.
While the above suggestions may not be exhaustive, I believe they’re a solid start.
The author: Mwikali Mutune is a development communications specialist in Nairobi, Kenya. Twitter: @Mwikali_Mutune.
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Notes and Sources
Top photo: Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Kenya, by Jorge Láscar, CC-BY-2.0. In 1989 Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai led a protest to stop construction of a U.K.-backed business complex in this park. Despite strong government backing for the project, the high-visibility protests caused funding to be withdrawn and the project was cancelled. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work; she was the first African woman to receive a Nobel prize.
(1) I have refrained from naming organizations depicted herein specifically, simply because they are a microcosm of a larger systemic issue, which is where the focus of redress should be both internationally and locally. Rethinking aid is now more than ever hinged on ensuring social justice, and not just provision of basic needs.
Comments from Twitter
We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments Please add your own comments at the bottom of this page.
praise chinyemba, @mahong92: Best reading ever
Pat Kumalo, @KumaloPatricia: Well crafted article. We can’t as women demand gender equality in the patriarchal society. Yet, we oppress each other on the basis of race, religion and sexual orientation. Foreign donations should be reworked in a manner that they don’t reinforce racial and economic superiority
Steve Kemp, @sjk_steve: I frequently see this behavior, especially in small NGOs and startups. Most disgracefully in organisations claiming to ‘build local capacity’. The donors have the power to change it and challenge blatant hypocrisy. But they don’t seem aware or interested. @gatesfoundation
Britain’sFutureWillBeInOurHands!, @wemustleave1: Precisely! The wealthy have adopted the platform of supporting poor countries often to enhance their own careers &/or justify their often excessive wealth & celebratory lifestyle by patronising others.
Wilson Khimario, @wilkhim: This piece has really made me reflect. So many truths in there… Big fish eating small fish in this INGO space is the norm.
Risper Njeri, @MoonNjeri: That was a good read and it hit the nail on the head… Unmasking the dark side of these so called NGOs
SSESANGA CHRIS, @SsesangaChris: As well as Racism
Omondi-Alvins Gacira, @Omondi_Alvins: Your suggestions are worth being heard. African women should know their worth, express yourself freely and don’t hesitate to walk when your value is undermined.
NGO Sceptic, @NgoSceptic: Thank you so much for speaking out. I have often noted that gender programs are for women outside the organization while oppression and inequality persist inside programs.
srinivas J, @srinij86: Hope INDIAN feminism activists and office bearers of such foreign NGOs are listening
Left: “Sometimes I feel like a sign board.” A Kenyan professional, working at a Western NGO, tells what it’s like: Pointing the way for an ever-changing succession of ex-pats who are paid much more, but don’t know what to do.
Right: Celebrities and Saviours: A UK charity vows to hire African filmmakers … but it continues using celebrities to get attention. That creates a focus on feel-good solutions — which often won’t get the job done.
Left: Why won’t they hire local talent? World Vision, UNICEF, Save the Children, and others issue frequent reports on how they’re helping people in distant lands. Why do they prefer to hire Western photographers for these reports?
Right: Pygmalion and Golem. A U.S. Navy crew builds a school in Djibouti, Africa. That seems nice. But the underlying message is not merely harmful, it is downright racist: “You can’t do anything without our help.”
Left: Bad aid in action. A TV celebrity wanted to give desks to every school in Malawi, so UNICEF plans to do that. It won’t improve education, but it looks good. It’s an example of how self-serving aid projects actually hurt.
Right: Cash transfers. Why not just give aid funds directly to the people you want to help? This approach has been done, results have been studied — and it proves quite effective.
Other stories about karma colonialism
Left: UNICEF needs the “needy.” This photo is from a UNICEF fundraising appeal for “needy families.” It is the very opposite of the “empowerment” that they talk about.
Right: Millennium Villages Project. The MVP was supposed to prove that Western aid could end extreme poverty in five years. It didn’t. But its failures offer insight into the true intents of Western aid.
Left: Charity is not development. The aid industry promises development but does charity. They are opposites. Aid projects are the new, softer face of colonialism, often achieving the very opposite of what they promise.
Right: What would make a better future? There are ways that wealthier countries can genuinely help others, if they want to. Give the aid money directly to the poor, for example. Here are ideas.