NGOs and development in Africa: Lessons for donors

Monday, 3 March 2014 15:10 GMT

Pamela Achieng 26, a Kenyan living with HIV take notes during a tailoring class at a centre run by the Beacon of Hope NGO west of Nairobi, November 29, 2005. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

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With so many NGOs in Kenya, why such little progress? In an attempt to unravel this mystery, Sarah Ooko spent five days in the village of Nyaoga on the shores of Lake Victoria

An aerial view of Nyaoga village in Western Kenya reveals a vast savannah of short trees, lush grass and occasional hills. Rectangular mud-thatched huts, with iron sheet roofs dot the horizon. Villagers from a distance seem to be tilling small pieces of land, roaming into different homesteads and going about daily activities.

Nyaoga, located along the shores of Lake Victoria, is a predominantly fishing community. At dawn, fishermen row their boats on the deep waters, cast their nets wide and hope for a good catch. Women remain ashore – bathing their kids, washing utensils, doing laundry. As dusk approaches, they light fires, place pans atop, and ensure oil in them is sizzling hot - ready to deep fry the fish caught that day. Most fish is sold in the village's evening market. What’s left is for eating at home.  

Despite their hard work, residents complain of meagre earnings and the village is blighted by high levels of illiteracy as well as HIV infection which has left many widows and orphans. Fish populations in the lake have declined over the years due to pollution and over-fishing. Left without an alternative income source, save for small-scale animal rearing and crop production, poverty looms in the village. As if that's not enough, Nyaoga is susceptible to malaria and the lake's polluted water exposes children to bilharzia and diarrhoeal diseases.

Nyaoga, like thousands of other rural settlements across Africa, grapples with development challenges. It also attracts American NGOs. Kenya is home to nearly 9,000 registered national and international NGOs - many of which receive donor funding from the United States. And many more - who knows how many – are operating without registration.

I spoke with experts on development issues who feel the contribution of NGOs and charities to Africa’s development – half a century since they began operations - is minimal. In fact, according to the 2012 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Progress Chart, Sub-Saharan Africa is off track in achieving almost all the targets by the deadline of 2015.

Every Kenyan is aware of the plethora of NGOs operating in our country and many are frustrated by these organisations’ inability to address Kenya’s challenges. Most Kenyans I talked to feel that whenever NGOs begin work in an area, livelihoods seem to improve. But once they close shop, the gains made are often reversed and communities continue to suffer. It seems to me therefore, that there are inherent weaknesses in the way NGOs work to promote sustainable development in Africa.

With so many NGOs, why so little progress? In an effort to unravel this mystery, I spent five days in Nyaoga talking to villagers and NGO staff on the ground. My stay offered some interesting insights. Here are few things Americans should consider before donating to, or establishing, NGOs in Africa.


Above all, view the people of these marginalized communities as fellow human beings; they may be facing major challenges but they are not lesser beings. And even though they require assistance, they also have something to offer to the world.

Nyaoga residents lacked wealth but had plenty of inspiring life lessons to offer. Their warmth towards strangers amazed me. Everyone I met spared some time to smile, say hello and inquire about my welfare. I talked to women who had built a shelter for a recently widowed mother, and men who campaigned against gender violence. Above all, the community upheld values of hard work, peace and love for fellow neighbours.

Any project implemented in such communities should safeguard these values. If a programme takes away what is important to the people, the social fabric of that community will be destroyed. NGOs should understand that no culture is superior to others. They are simply different ways of life. In this spirit, foreign NGO workers should desist from imposing their culture on communities. They should instead work with local residents to achieve desired objectives.   

Instead of simply replicating projects that worked elsewhere, NGOs should listen to the local people. An NGO in Nyaoga supported married women to go back to school but did not involve their husbands. Upon graduation, some abandoned their spouses and children for fellow 'educated' men. The sustainability of project could not be guaranteed if residents - especially men – became wary of supporting similar measures.

When Americans encounter problems of the developing world, it seems to me they can be overwhelmed by feelings of sympathy, pity and guilt. But that's not a reason to give. Donations should go towards solving a genuine, specific problem and not because people feel pity, as this could expose donors to manipulation.

After visiting Nyaoga I discovered that some people - despite having sufficient means - realised that if they fabricated 'sob stories', they could tug at the heartstrings of international donors and make easy cash.

Some could falsely claim that they often go hungry, so as to get small business grants from donors. Others could claim they lack school fees for their children - despite Kenya's government offering free primary education - to secure additional 'income' from NGOs. Such stories are common in Kenya.

Potential donors should verify that the NGOs they support are properly registered and fully transparent. The organizations need to provide detailed budgets and accounts, so all donated money can be tracked. Money should go towards project implementation and not administrative expenses such as inflated salaries, expensive cars and lavish housing.

Americans need to scrutinize leadership structures. Instead of a one man (or woman) show, credible NGOs have boards comprised of all stakeholders - donors, government representatives and targeted beneficiaries - separate from the management. This fosters transparency by providing a system of checks and balances.

Many NGOs around Nyaoga seem to work in isolation even as they address similar challenges. For instance, almost all NGOs in the region have HIV/AIDs programmes. Most also implement water projects. If the NGOs took a coordinated approach they could compensate for shortcomings and avoid duplicating efforts.

While in Nyaoga, I learned that partnership with government is especially significant for the sustainability of projects. The lifespan of an NGO is often limited but government structures and institutions are lasting. For instance, donor funded schools or hospitals often collapse when funding runs out. But those supported by the government survive, even with reduced support.

Nyaoga boasts a dispensary built by Give Us Wings (an American NGO) to improve access to health services as the nearest hospital is located miles away. The NGO meets most operation costs but works with Kenya's Ministry of Health to get some medical supplies and additional staff.  With this collaboration, the government will eventually absorb the facility and sustain its operation long after the NGO departs.

Donors should focus on real, not imagined problems. Their priorities should fit into country development plans. In Africa, for instance, an overview of pressing challenges can be obtained from the African Union. These blueprints will help donors to verify the authenticity of the challenges and needs voiced by members of the community, as some residents have become adept at tailoring their needs to appeal to donors.

Finally, although it's inevitable for NGOs to form ties to the communities where they operate, they should be ready to leave the community once they have served their purpose. Fred Olendo, the finance and administration manager at the National Council of NGOs in Kenya notes that some charity organizations have been accused of fostering dependency among communities to remain in business and serve their own interests.

The very best NGOs follow an old proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." They may begin by providing hospitals, schools and water services, but afterwards they empower communities to demand those services from their governments. An empowered citizenry will fight for its rights rather than forever rely on donors. In the same vein, donors should ensure NGOs are accountable not only to them but also to the people in communities like Nyaoga.

Sarah Ooko is a development journalist based in Kenya. Her stories address challenges that compromise Africa’s ability to achieve the millennium development goals. Ooko reported from Nyaoga in association with Round Earth Media, which is training the next generation of international journalists while producing global news and information for audiences in the U.S. and around the world.