A reflection on Nkirote, a woman from a small village in Kenya, and James, a country director of an NGO.
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 a day. I have often wondered about the person living at this level, like a woman whom I will refer to as Nkirote, who donors believe they are helping.
Early in my career, in a small village in the countryside of Kenya, Kinoti (the head of our project station) and I visited Nkirote, one of our nutrition project beneficiaries. We spent an hour with Nkirote on pleasantries over a sugary cup of tea, reviewed the last three weeks, and planned a training session about kitchen gardening for her women’s group.
As we prepared to leave, Nkirote turned to Kinoti and directly asked him, “Kinoti, you and your group including the many Wazungu (white people) you came with, you have been with us for three years, but I’ve been asking myself: What we have really gained?” Kinoti and I looked at each other in shock.
She continued, showing some agitation now. “You have made us do many things, making compost, growing those red things called beetroots which I cannot even feed my children because they taste like soil and make your mouth look like you drank blood. The mosquito nets you brought are already torn and they cannot protect anyone from being bitten!”
“You and your Wazungu are taking us for a ride!” she declared. “How has my life changed? We expected by now we would have something the women can depend on to make some money. But it has just been try this and try that.”
“You both get a pay slip every month and you ride in that nice car. You are the people who have benefitted the most because your faces are smooth and shiny,” she added.
We were dumbstruck. It was totally unexpected. Clearly Nkirote had been taking stock of the three years we had spent with her and her group. Perhaps she had been put to this task by the other group members. I remembered all the songs, dances and ululation performed when our donors and CEO came to see the projects. Villagers called them the nice Wazungu (Muchunku in local dialect) who had come to help improve everyone’s lives. Suddenly everything had turned sour, and tough questions were being asked by a someone who moments earlier had been an unassuming poverty-stricken country woman.
On our journey back to the office, Kinoti and I did not talk much.
I still think about Nkirote, her lined, sun-tanned face, hands rough from working in the fields, her three mud-brick and grass-thatched huts, a makeshift roofless kitchen and rickety pit latrine, her small children running around the compound, her husband who spent his days taking local brew, her skinny dog, two donkeys and three goats.
At the other end of the spectrum is James, our CEO, who came to Africa years ago to work as a soil scientist. After several years, he and his family found themselves in Kenya working for a donor-supported project in a government agricultural-research institution. After many tries, he raised donor funds and started a nutrition NGO. His wife also worked for an international organization. They lived in a spacious compound in the leafy suburbs of Nairobi, in a house with seven bedrooms, a lush garden, two gardeners, a cook, a maid, and driver. His two young children attended international schools where the fees for one term can pay half a years’ salary. James had many cars, personal vehicles as well some for projects. So many cars were parked in his compound that often, one had to be moved for another one to get out. I had never seen a motor boat in Nairobi but there was one in the compound, which I was told was towed to Mombasa by the driver when James’s family flew on their annual holiday. What a life!
The house doubled as a head office for the NGO so I often talked to his domestic workers. James’s maid, Ziporrah, gave me the low-down on their lives. She had been their first employee. At that time, the couple owned a small Japanese saloon car. She even feared that they would not afford to pay her for long. James’s wife was studying to earn a degree. Although the house was paid for by the project, it had little furniture and luxuries. Over time Ziporrah watched the couple transform before her eyes. She told me that ‘mzee’ got a lot of money from abroad and started projects, left his other job, employed ‘you people’ and then he started to buy all the cars and the furniture. His wife finished her studies, then got a well-paying job with a big organization.
One day, James’s personal assistant showed me a document which she had printed and hidden in her drawer. She wanted me to see how the “other” side lived. It was a letter from James to his lawyer, giving instructions to set up a trust fund of $50,000 for each of his children to get them “started off” in life after college. This was in addition to their college fund. Some may accuse us of prying, but people like James take money from donors which they claim will improve the lives of people in Kenya; someone should hold them accountable and no one else is doing it.(1)
Again, I thought about Nkirote working in the fields, her mud-brick and grass-thatched huts, makeshift kitchen, and pit latrine, her small children running around, her dog and donkeys and goats. Her children would have to succeed through sheer hard work and determination, navigating the unforgiving Kenyan education system which has little sympathy for the poor. Yet James’s children were benefitting from education and trust funds to attend Ivy League schools, set up with money raised in the name of helping the Nkirotes of this world out of poverty.
Some say that NGOs create jobs and therefore those of us in these jobs should be grateful and be quiet, or else quit if we do not like it. When we first started working with Nkirote’s group, I had a job and a meaningful livelihood. I believed as they did that our NGO would benefit them. I worked my heart out to make that happen. And then, like Nkirote – and prodded by her – I began asking myself questions. Slowly, reluctantly, I concluded that those women were not the real beneficiaries. As for myself, I still often wonder: Have I been a pawn in the game just like Nkirote — or a beneficiary?
The author: This was submitted to us by someone working at an NGO in Kenya who has asked to remain anonymous. The story describes experiences a few years ago, at a different NGO. The author is on Twitter at @NGOSceptic, and wrote another story that we’ve published, Life as a Kenyan Professional Working at an NGO: The Mentoring Myth.
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.
veena bakshi, @vibione: In 2000 I was shooting some ad films in Bangladesh. We were accomodated in a beautiful boutique bungalow hotel in Dhakka in an exclusive residential area where all one could see were UNICEF cars. We were told 90% of the UNICEF staff lives here!!!
Sharad Mohan, @SharadMohan12: I was in DRC when refugees came from a neighbour country. To serve them over a dozen UN /funded ngos came in.Their staff hired the poshest houses and had unmatched perks. At the first sign of rebels attacking the city, they left in UN planes leaving behind even their laptops.
Abubakarr Kamathor Sesay, @KamathorSesay: On point. A similar thing is happening in Sierra Leone here. Several so called NGOs are just using situations to their advantage. The people who run these NGOs are mostly in it for the money
Gustavo, @Gustavo20109330: NGOs are a complete disaster and a danger to national security in Brazil.
kuriel, @Kuriel23: In Zimbabwe NGOs are just there to fund the regime. I haven’t seen one person whose life was tranformed from poverty to aid independence by these NGOs rather they create a dependence syndrome within the people.
Pointblank, @PStarllin: It’s a worldwide mafia including UN. Out of the 100% grant, only 20% reaches the actual beneficiary. The 80% goes to maintain the egoistic so-called good samaritans. I am speaking on behalf of the Sri lankan beneficiaries. Every quack who come as a saviour, savours luxury 1st.
Jack Rexton, @RextonJack: An NGO director in Honduras gets his cable tv, electricity bills etc. paid by the NGO. Some even bring their mistresses to work at the NGO, use employees to pick her up at home, take her to office, take to university and back home, repeat. Very little money reaches the poor.
Notes and Sources
Boat image at the top is a generic picture by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay. Names in this story have been changed to protect privacy.
1. I’ve described my own experiences, working in a relatively small INGO. All of this applies to the large agencies, as well. In his book The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free, Alex Perry writes: “In 2013 the package for a UN middle manager in Goma [the capital of Kivu province in the Congo] included a tax-free salary of $75,099–$301,443, a $75,000 car, a hardship allowance of $23,250, rent subsidies for a lakeside villa that could go for $10,000 a month, all travel and most living expenses, business-class flights home, and school fees paid anywhere in the world of up to $25,129 per year per child, for an unlimited number of children.”