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November 15, 2018

Proposed NGO Regulation Sits Quite Uneasy With Me

It Is so easy to mock NGOs. I know, because I do it all the time.

Charities may be charitable, but they are not unselfish. It is worth bearing in mind that NGOs – like aid agencies – are run by people.

People want jobs, and incomes, and influence and to do things (we all do). So there is an inherent incentive to not resolve an issue: what if poverty were actually ended?

All jobs would go up in a puff of smoke. This is possibly a bit extreme – poverty is so widespread that it is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon (and I doubt it will be resolved by NGOs). But you see the issue.

If you were faced with the question of finishing a project and closing it down because targets were achieved, or thinking up extensions and expansions, you would probably also choose the latter because it meant that your salary (and possibly healthcare/car/allowances/driver/security etc) were extended, too.

Good intentions, as charity blogger Saundra Schimmelpfennig said, are not good enough. I have emailed a few people who were busy collecting all sorts of things to ship to Kenya.

I pointed out to them that Kenya has perfectly good supermarkets where you can purchase things. No need to collect knickers (thank goodness not used underwear in that specific case, but I have also seen collections of used bras) in California to bring them here because Nakumatt, Naivas, Tuskys, Uchumi and the lot have them. Seriously, people. Supermarkets! In Africa! Who’ would have thought?

I recently emailed an evangelical ministry in the US to ask why they were putting together buckets (not figurative buckets, but real buckets, with things like vitamins, nail clippers and other hygiene items in them) to care for terminal HIV/AIDS patients. You can get all those things in Kenya easily.

They responded quickly: Yes, they knew that there were supermarkets here, but their ministry members prefer putting the buckets together themselves, and then ship them over.

The underwear people said that buying and sending the knickers makes the process of helping more tangible and immediate for their kids.

Which is very well, but why not take the kids to a local homeless shelter if this is about educating your kids? And the bucket people as well.

Good intentions are lovely, but I always find it a bit depressing that non-profits let good intentions override common sense. You want to help, but you have no inclination to do a bit of mental work on how your kind of help might not be ideal (less efficient, carbon footprint, not putting any money into the local economy that you want to help etc)?

It is also worth bearing in mind that in industrialised countries, donations to charity are what people have left after their income, from their job, is spent on the things they need to live.

In Africa, this is almost inverted, especially in the poorer countries, you will find so many NGOs and aid agencies that they almost seem to dwarf the private sector.

And that will not fix an economy. I suspect it does the opposite, it undermines initiative because there will always be some well-meaning saviour group that will come to fix things – both for the government and for villages (road potholed again because there’s no maintenance? Surely some dumb donor will recarpet it. Need a new borehole? Surely some dumb mzungus will come and sort it out).

And yet.

Aside from all these structural issues (conflicts of interest, creating dependence, ignorance and treating ‘Africa’ like a giant do-gooder theme park), there are of course also good things that NGOs do, and I do not just talk about jobs that they provide to local employees, and the purchases they make in the local economy.

That is one reason why the proposed NGO regulation sits uneasily with me. It is clearly aimed most urgently at the advocacy and governance NGOs that have been so roundly vilified as stooges of the West in a PR campaign co-scripted by, funnily enough, a British firm. But what is the collateral damage?

I have seen first reports of famine in Turkana (yet again) – no funding for NGOs to provide food aid? Unless you think cutting a little girl’s clitoris out is kinda no biggie, wouldn’t you rather take foreign money, too, to advocate against female genital mutilation and help with treatment? I am sure every one of you can think of a number of urgent social causes where you would want as much support as you can possibly get.

And the proposed NGO regulation also seems symptomatic of what the new administration’s approach recently has been – symptoms and PR rather than addressing issues.

A website to report corruption? Meaningless unless you have an effective institution to follow up. Citizen service centres? Meaningless unless you fix the institutions and processes behind it that actually deliver those services (i.e. the process to issue IDs, or the process to register companies).

The police go after journalists reporting KDF wrongdoing, rather than the authorities dealing with those wrongdoers? The police accuse a severely injured rape victim of lying after their colleagues already failed that girl horrendously?

Security is lousy, but instead of fixing the institution that is charged with looking after security, that is the police, this task is fobbed off on residents who are told to spy on each other? Those residents who pay taxes to fund the police? Surely that’s missing the point by many miles.

Same as with NGOs. If the government can demonstrate, credibly, that it will be able to take over, competently, without bias, the services that the NGOs provide, I would feel a little easier about this. But that is not the case, and will not be anytime soon. In the meantime, why not check if NGOs break any existing laws, and if not, leave well alone?

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