A Fundamental Difference

Working in Kenya, I often get struck by how often acronyms get tossed around, but one in particular gets tossed around a lot: NGO.  NGO stands for Non-Government Organization, and when it comes to development work, NGO are the hot thing.  I thought I might talk a little about the impact of these NGO here in Kenya as per my experience.

An NGO is not something easily described, especially those that have manifested themselves in Kenya (I cannot speak for other NGO around the world).  On the outside, an NGO may appear most closely related to as an American charity or non-profit, and in fact many organizations that become registered NGO in Kenya are also registered as 501(3)(c) organizations in the USA.  At least for me however, this analogy breaks down due to my own personal interpretation of what a charity or non-profit is: a secondary project for some designed to help those unable to help themselves for whatever reason, but with the goal of ultimately elevating people back into, “normal,” society.  For example, homeless shelters provide shelter for the evening and food, but will often be coupled with adult education programs or drug rehabilitation programs with the goal of making those they serve productive members of society again.  Charities often attack social ills that exist due to humans being what they are: human.

In Kenya, this may often be the case of NGO and charity work.  A popular example is the NGO focused on enabling orphans to attend schools, have nutritious meals and lead a structured life that would better enable them to succeed.  The difference I notice is just the sheer number of NGO that are at work in Kenya (which is reported to have the highest number of registered NGO in the world).  In fact, the number is so large I would even classify it an order of magnitude different when compared to the USA.  As a result, the motivation and driving factors behind societal progress are much changed: ultimately a fundamental difference in the very fabric of society.

In the USA, progress is often considered in terms of material gain (not a bad thing; our strength as a species relies upon our ability to create tools to manipulate our world in an advantageous fashion), as well as the stability and security of life achieved through this material gain.  The concept of progress is no different here.  Kenyans want the same things as Americans, but what is different is how we go about achieving those gains.

The primary motivator behind much of progress in the USA has been the development of the privately owned business model and theentrepreneurialspirit: the individual’s drive for individual profit that some considered inherently human.  In some cases, particularly in the USA, such a motivation was woven into the social tradition; you may have heard of fabled, “American Dream.”  The great thing about profit is that no matter how inherently selfish the goal is, one cannot gain without an exchange of some form of limited resource (be it natural, service-based orcommodity-based), and one cannot exchange without other people.  Individuals interacting with one another for their own personal ends is the underlying motto of American-style capitalism, and it works, very well.

NGO work changes all of this.  NGO still attempt to increase material wealth, but not for the profit.  Instead, NGO work theoretically eliminates the profit middle-step and operates on the fundamental level of human philanthropy.  Whereas profit has led the USA to the notion of, “What is good for you is good for me,” NGO work started with that concept at its foundation.  It’s a form of social refactoring: one model has operated hundreds of years (USA), and has then had some of its better parts combined with a more philanthropic approach to life and transplanted into an arguably virgin environment where a new society can be raised up based upon these philosophies (Kenya).  I am not saying this has been the intention of it all, but to me, it’s what is happening.

Asidealisticas this may sound, some natural human tendencies have not been checked by the NGO model that have been checked by the business model.  The first: accountability.  NGO often receive funding from governments or other NGO with very little accountability.  Money is sometimes in the form of grants that after the initial vetting process have no follow-up to ensure the funding is going where it is said to be going.  If an NGO is able to put on a good face to get through the vetting process, oftentimes they can walk away with heaps of free, unfettered, cash.  This cash flow does not seem to be letting up any time soon.


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One response to “A Fundamental Difference

  1. David P

    What exactly would you say Kenya is short on in terms of manufacturing and industrial capabilities?

    One of the things I find most frustrating in teaching my Entrepreneurship & Communication class is that my students don’t hold the same business values as me — the things that make inherent sense to me, having grown up immersed in American capitalism, just don’t come off as sensible to them. So many of them come from rural areas where you’d be hard-pressed to find a world-view that goes beyond their own village, and most of them have hardly even been to Nairobi, much less observed any of the Western-style capitalist views that exist there.