A Fundamental Difference

This is opposed to the business model, where a business may receive an initial investment, but often in the form of a repayable loan, with interest attached.  The business needs to make profit in order to succeed.  Even without government regulation, there is a form of inherent regulation provided by profit-seeking, though in its original form, a bank’s way of enforcing repayment was less than friendly (sometimes government regulation is a nice thing).  With NGO, you are only accountable to the individuals you are, “helping,” and sadly, I have seen far too many cases where the NGO has the perception that because they are providing the service for free anyway, they don’t owe anything to the community.

Helping the community is a fantastic life-mode, but it has turned into a problem in that people approach NGO as if they were a career.  With American (and other nations) groups coming in and throwing money around for the past forty some-odd years, Kenya (and Coast Province in particular, I have heard), has developed a particular social fabric: one does not work for an NGO to help others, but to seek profit.  The exact step NGO tried to eliminate through their social refactoring has manifested itself within their own model.  People work for NGO because they pay better than being locally employed, which can significantly skew the culture away from an atitude of entrepreneurship.  If businesses keep you poor, why would you want to start a business?

This is at least outside of Nairobi.  Within Nairobi, and within the class of Kenyans raised with Western-style business-orientedmentality, there is certainly a quest for profit, and even within the NGO world, someindividualwork for a bit and then move on to traditional profit-seeking employment, but the sheer number of people with whom I have interacted that perceive NGO work as a life-long attempt to gain money astounds me on a regular basis.

The notion that an entire society is employed to help one another is a grand notion but it’s actually not a new one: it’s called communism.  Once everyone achieves the the same level of material gain and stability, then it becomes simply a matter of keeping the metaphorical gears oiled and running.  People become functionaries within their own lives.  I am not going to say that NGO work eliminates the concept of material-based progress, but it ultimately does lead to a fundamentally different society from American-style business-lead development.  Not better, not worse, just different.

For an NGO to be successful, by its own definition, it should be theoretically putting itself out of business and that would not be good for Kenya.  Due to this dependence on what it theoretically a self-destroying organization, NGO work is leaving Kenya crippled, heavily dependent on foreign subsidies to keep the NGO workers employed and not generating local profit to create a self-sustaining model.  The system is inherently flawed as long as it is dependent upon foreign investors who receive no repayment; who are not paying to directly benefit themselves.

There is an opportunity here to create something strange.  As is, we have three models of economics: capitalism, socialism and communism, with varying degrees of government ownership over the infrastructure and economy of a nation.  Should NGO become a big enough factor with regulation by the government and some form of accountability, there could be an upset in the model, where a large portion of a country’s population works for their own personal livelihood, but not for a business oriented to profit making but instead oriented to maintaining the status quo.  A third party approach to communism: a social safety net supported by the people not the government.  This model would particular work in areas with high animosity towards the government by the people, such as Kenya.

Though a new approach would be a nice experiment, it seems infeasible at this stage.  What Kenya needs is to more actively move away from the NGO as a career mentality and move into a more entrepreneurial attitude.  What seems to be lacking is entrepreneurship education and th concept that business can happen anywhere, not just in Nairobi (yet another reason why I wish we could decentralize the country).  Of course, Kenya is also missing some key business needs, such as access to cheap manufacturing and very little local heavy industry.  This does not mean there is no room for business in areas such as technology, transportation (considering its the largest and most active port in East Africa), environmentally-friendly energy and the services that would subsequently arise out of such developments.  However, such a major shift would require not more NGO investment, but traditional business investment with all strings attached, and possibly a little bit of protective government regulation which might irk some of Kenya’s “business partners” such as China, who is basically running a racket on cheap goods in Kenya.

What prompted me to write this post was just a frustration with my own realization of the situation.  Kenya has achieved so much over forty some-odd years of independence, developing in some areas better than many countries had in hundreds of years, but today it is at a cusp.  It’s time to stop developing Kenya like a fetus in the womb and it’s time for it to come into the world, kicking and screaming and teething. It’s time for Kenya to have to learn its own lessons the hard way in regards to population growth, unsustainable ecologies and government corruption, and for the world to stand back and stop acting like it’s a fetus in the womb.  Not because I don’t think people should help one another, but because every day I am here, the more and more the lesson is reinforced that sometimes the best help is letting someone figure something out for themselves.  Only in that way are the important rules of governance, society and progress truly imprinted on a peoples’ mentality.

NB: I like to point out that the argument that donations from the West is not sustainable is inherently flawed if one takes a global scope of, “What is good for you is good for me.”  By developing the rest of the world up to a local-cultural appropriate, but western-like level of stability, many economists would argue it would create better opportunities for the whole world in terms of global trade and global security.  Though I truly believe in this principle, with noticeable precedent set by economic decisions such as the post-Second World War Marshall Plan, I feel that Kenya in particular has moved beyond the need of such drastic development funding, having already received their fair share.  My opinion is not a condemnation of NGO work in general as sound economic policy, but rather Kenya-specific.

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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.