Gospel & Culture blog
A disturbing story on NPR's "Marketplace" described some awkward culture changes due to the influx of NGOs in Kenya's poverty-stricken slum called Kibera. With so many NGOs operating in the home to hundreds of thousands of people living on less than a dollar a day, aid agencies are now competing with each other for access to constituents that they can train. If your NGO teaches health practices, sewing, or dance lessons, you need people to come get trained-- especially when foreigners come to see the NGO in action, or when you are filming a PR video. The NPR story explained that now Kibera residents are requiring NGOs to pay them so-called "sitting fees" or they will not attend the events. The reporter failed to see it from another point of view: many residents of Kibera are apparently more excited a handout - shrewdly re-branded as a "sitting fee" - than they are about investing in their long term capacity to run businesses.
Either way, the news is upsetting. Because- and the reporter especially failed to mention this - Kibera is still in great need of compassion ministries. On top of poverty come all of the secondary issues related to women, orphaned children and young people living in poverty: rape, dysentery, malaria, AIDS, gang violence, drug abuse. If Kibera's problems don't justify the existence of countless NGOs, then what region does? It's not that NGO destinations like sub-Saharan Africa or India have too many NGOs, it's that the services they deliver are still seen as paternalistic and (bizarre as this may seem) self-serving.
So there are some benefits to the scrutiny of these NGOs. Such negative PR presses them to examine whether they are designing their social action plans- are they really scratching where it itches? Are they addressing needs that local leadership identify? In other terms, the scrutiny creates competition among suppliers of aid. The supply of NGO "goods" (training events) seems to be greater than the demand, so market forces are forcing the product that each NGO offers to be more valuable. In this case, the product must be a mixture of training, compassion, and compensation.
Here's a possible long term fix: What if all the NGOs refused to pay sitting fees? They may avoid the "handout" mentality. And their constituency may temporarily shrink- but only until they re-design their programs in a way that residents find valuable again.
I was moved when I heard that the Olympics has a new team this year: Ten refugees who could not compete in their own country of origin were invited to compete in the Olympic Refugee Team. Remember, these swimmers and runners (and in one case, a judo fighter) do not have "refugee" as their primary identity: They are athletes. They have back stories too-- where they have had dreams of being in the Olympics for years. They have been training for years, with the support of coaches and families. It's not like these folks were let into the Olympics just as a PR move, or simply out of sympathy- though the Olympic Committee did intend to cast a spotlight on the refugee crisis. Still, these men and women earned their spot. In that way, they're not that different from any other team in the Olympics.
Then I thought, "But is the Refugee Team really a team, if the athletes come from several different countries, including Syria, Turkey, and Iran?" And then I realized that most countries competing in the Olympics have teams that are composed of multiple ethnicities and even national origins. The Refugee has more in common with the other teams than I originally realized. The Refugee team is just a more stark example of the sort of globalization we're all experiencing.
What was your response when you learned about the Olympic Refugee team?
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor