AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Kenya’s first mockumentary takes on the NGO world
Caitlin L Chandler | February 10th, 2014

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Anyone working in international development for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) over the past few years has likely had one of the following experiences:

1) Witnessing an external consultant or boss being flown in from abroad to “manage” the field office in [insert any non-Western nation here. Note that field office can just mean the capital city of any country outside the U.S. or Europe]

2) Being shocked at the lack of ethics in workplaces where the aim is “helping other people”

3) Working for or interacting with NGOs (such a broad category that it encompasses all manner of organizations) that serve no apparent purpose.

Finally, a new TV show exists to highlight some of the absurdities of the international aid sector. The slyly named The Samaritans is a comedy about the perils – and pleasures – of the “NGO world”. Created by a Kenya-based production company, it chronicles the work of Aid for Aid – an NGO that, in the words of its creator, “does nothing”:

You’ll recognize the stock characters. The new Aid for Aid Country Director, Scott, who lacks any experience working in Kenya makes his debut in the Pilot with this brilliant introduction, “many of you will be asking who I banged to get this position…I’m not as wet behind the ears as some of you may think, I’ve worked for my mothers NGO since I was six years old.” With two master’s degrees from the U.S. and an internship to his name, why shouldn’t he be running the organization? Then there is the mistreated intern, the pill-popping Deputy Director, and of course a male employee who calls everyone “sweetie”, etc.

We  interviewed The Samaritans creator Hussein Kurji of Xeinium Productions to find out his vision for the series and why rhinos play a part in the comedy.

What inspired you to create the series?

There are over 4,000 NGOs registered in Kenya, and over the years I’ve listened to the stories of friends who’ve worked for NGOs. One day I was asked to pitch a comedy series, and a combination of The Office plus NGOs stuck in my head. Maybe these crazy stories would make good comedy?

What’s the craziest story you’ve heard about an NGO?

I heard from someone in the US that an organization was having a charity auction to raise money for endangered rhinos and the prize for this charity auction was to go hunt a rhino in Namibia. [AIAC note: Yes people, this happened. You can even see it on the Colbert Report and CNN].

There is no end to the crazy stories. I think it kind of dawned on me when I was working at a five-star hotel here in Nairobi a few years ago that NGOs aren’t always what they seem. All these guys were gathered around eating lobster bisque and discussing how to reduce poverty. Something didn’t seem right.

How is the show evolving?

We’ve been developing the show for two years now. We pitched the show at DISCOP an international TV expo that was held in South Africa, and we won. We got good responses from networks and distributors but they all wanted to see a full pilot.

To raise funds, we used Kickstarter. Also an NGO – ironically – contacted us, said they loved the show and wanted to highlight the issues it raised – so they gave us some money for production as well. We went live in October 2013.

Ever since we went live, we’ve had a lot of interest in watching the full episodes, but are still trying to figure out funding the full season and distribution. We may make it available for rent online, but Amazon takes six months to put it online, and Vimeo is expensive and not everyone can access it.

How did you find the different actors?

We had an open casting call, and reached out to friends who spread the word online, as well as by word of mouth. Several of the actors aren’t career actors; for example the person who plays Scott has an NGO background. He’s worked mainly behind the scenes as a documentary filmmaker – he’s originally from England so he’s faking an American accent for us. We do have some professional actresses, such as the women who play Martha (Allison Karuiki), Suze (Sarah Hassan) and Elizabeth (Fridah Muhindi). In fact the character of “Driver” has acted in Out Of Africa.

Why do you feel comedy is an appropriate way to critique the lack of accountability in the NGO sector?

Comedy is comedy – you can make serious situations more approachable and more widely viewed if you do it through comedy. I think laughter is the best medicine, clichéd as that is. The tagline for the show is ‘the Samaritans is a comedy about an NGO that does nothing’; we can exaggerate reality with comedy. Although, I have to say someone from Afghanistan sent me an email and said, We don’t have a Scott in our office but we have an NGO just next door who has a Scott in their office.

Do you think NGOs perpetuate inequality?

I don’t know if they intend to perpetuate inequality but with the international NGOs – the large global ones – they get caught up in so much red tape. Staff members know that some of the policies or structures aren’t working but the machine is so big – how can you change it?

One of the themes captured in the online clips is that some people who work at NGOs have a martyr complex, in that they think they’re doing good but they cultivate habits that perpetuate harm – whether it’s mistreating staff, having unhealthy coping behaviours, and so on. How does this figure into the show?

We explore this martyr or savior complex with Scott from the beginning. His character, of all the characters, doesn’t grow or learn as the series develops. He’s definitely a martyr – he thinks he knows it all.

There’s starting to be a lot more conversation in international development around NGO accountability – how NGOs should have mechanisms that give decision-making power to the people they’re supposedly serving, and to assess their impact that goes beyond donor driven evaluation systems. Does this come out in the show?

In the first episodes we introduce a rival NGO – the guys next door. This NGO is the complete opposite of Aid for Aid – so we show that they have good governance and are actually accountable to their stakeholders. We show how this works well for everyone.

We do explore some of the absurdities of donor driven grant-making, among other things. The major story arc of Season 1 is that Aid for Aid is about to apply for the largest grant that the Nairobi field office has ever applied for. In Episode 2, their first task is to come up with an acronym before figuring out what the grant’s about. As the show goes on, we show the 13 or so steps of the grant process that they have to go through.

What do you hope to achieve with the show?

We’re the first Kenyan mockumentary, and we’re pretty happy with the traction the show has gotten so far. We are aiming at creating local content for international consumption and we hope that we can find co-production partners and networks globally to work with us on this journey.

I’d like to go on for as long as I can. We know we’re critiquing a “big machine”, and we don’t expect the show to change anything overnight – but we’d like to start a dialogue, to get people talking and thinking about in what contexts aid works and for the organizations that are broken, how do you fix them? We’re also going to touch on scenarios and issues in the show that are beyond just NGOs, looking at broader issues around international development.

You can follow Aid for Aid on twitter: @afa_kenya. Xeinium on Vimeo: www.vimeo.com/xen & Facebook: www.facebook.com/xeinium 

 

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Caitlin L Chandler

Caitlin L Chandler works in international public health, with a focus on young people, HIV and sexual and reproductive rights. She is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and is a long-time contributor to Africa is a Country.

57 thoughts on “Kenya’s first mockumentary takes on the NGO world

  1. Everyone criticising this show is probably benefiting in one way or another from the NGO world. Working at the UN for 4 years shows how much nothing these organisations do. Tone down the butt hurt people and enjoy the amateur show.

    • I have to question people who work for a company for four years and claim they do no good. What the hell were you doing there for four years!?
      An NGO, like a government, is as good as the people who work for it. Simple.
      Perhaps it’s a good thing you left… which brings me to my other point… lots of ‘I spoke to someone who… I know someone who… I heard of someone who…’ in this article.
      Also lots of people saying ‘Yes, it’s true, I worked for an NGO once upon a time…’

    • @Maurice,
      Could it be that during your 4 years at UN you did not enough interest in your interaction with the NGO environment to learn something about what they do?

      • I think it’s great. There are the minority in NGO’s and even a few NGO’s themselves that really do work hard for the good of people and do what they say they do. The rest spend their lives reveling in mediocracy and double standards surrounding themselves with people who are more useless then themselves to make them look good and ensure there is no threat to their position. To those that walk the walk keep up the good work and keep pushing for what you believe in and change will follow. For those that don’t the spotlight is in you!

  2. I interned in one of the NGOs in Kenya lady summer, I ended up being one of the victims and I regret having worked there. Of course the part working with my fellow Kenyans was fulfilling and fun. The boss of that company should either rethink of his second, this whole mzungu nonsense should be dealt with.

  3. I am working in NGO in Ethiopia (World Vision). World Vision has done some good things in the past in Ethiopia. But now it is as corrupt as a hell. The country director, American as your Scott, is abusive and misappropriates resources. She hires her friends and even her children’s tutor and pays a huge amount of aid money. She usually violates staff rights. When the staffs go to court, she bribes people in the justice system and even politicians. As you said the staffs have already developed unhealthy coping mechanisms such as spying on coworkers for the country director and the organization is presently being accused of working of some intelligence agencies.

  4. Not always a fact. I have had 3 bosses before,one British and two Kenyans. It has only turned out that both the first (British) and second Kenyan were superb but the 3rd is a waste of space!!!

    • Anyone ever joke about ‘African time’? You know, where the clock’s say ’1ish, 2ish, 3ish’ and don’t have a minute hand?
      It’s a joke for a reason. Ever tried to get work done with guavamints in Africa? NGO’s have to toe the line with local government, donor agencies, etc. etc. Easier said than done. NOT the easiest environment to get stuff done in.

  5. World is full of incompetence, ignorance and corruption. Why, of all organizations, do we expect NGOs to be perfect?
    I think it is a great idea for the sitcom. Where can I watch it?

  6. NGO Modus Operandi:
    1. Get large foundation to believe you can solve any problem you read about in the Economist,
    2. Discredit and disparage anyone with competing capacity to secure “Feasibility Stage” funding,
    3. Go to Target Country,
    4. Hire large villa,
    5. Rent or Buy large 4 WD,
    6. Hire local Driver,
    7. Hire appealing translator,
    8. Drive around country side for 6 months during “Formulation Stage”,
    9. Take lots of photos, and send reports of the dire situation,
    10. Submit report showing that you need more funding to proceed with “Implementation Stage”,
    11. Relax whilst donor put together response,
    12. Set up FB and Twitter accounts to showcase your work so far,
    13. Do the rounds of the embassies and brush up on your local language skills,
    14. Follow up with the Ministries to “Validate” your concept,
    15. Plan for independent verification visit by lining up contact from steps 12 and 13,
    16. Ensure you know what validator likes and make he/she has a suitable experience,
    17. Secure next round of funding and implement by spending 45% or less of the budget raised on direct activities.

    Taken from experience dealing with NGOs over last ten years in South East Asia. So very NOT IMPRESSED.

    Simple rules:
    1. If you want something done in your country, do it yourself and people will back you.
    2, No need for expensive expats who know nothing on the ground.
    3, Use local people and train them up.
    4, Bring in trainers and create a climate of personal growth, not dependence
    5, Back social enterprises by using social media, crowd funding and reliable training/implementation partners.
    6. Ensure national objectives are met first then introduce global policy objectives inline with national policy directives.
    7. Demand to know the overheads, on costs, fund raising commissions and other costs of running the social enterprise and ensure that there is full compliance with local accounting and labour laws.
    8. Only support Community Based organisations.

    NGO model is just a new form of political/social/cultural/economic colonialism. Reject it.

    For the record we do no work for large NGOs. I doubt we will in the future after this response…

    • Amen!

      I’d add one thing: make organisations answerable to the people they are meant to be helping, not just to donors. I think this is important not just to prevent bad policy now but to prevent mission drift over time.

  7. I am still waiting for the first African ethnologist who does his/her ethnographic research in the United States or Western Europe and then finds out about this horrendous torturing phenomenon:

    “In Western societies women are tortured in an incredibly rude fashion – literally – and it all happens with their full consent. To please their men, they are obliged to walk on 4-inch high, thin spikes under the back of their feet. Never mind that their backs ache, and their toes tend to become forever deformed. They all do it as long as they have the physical stamina to walk on these instruments of torture. Once they revert to flat shoes, they are considered dowdy old matrons, who are no longer desirable to men…..”

    • Well, its impossible to help people effectively if you don’t respect them and you clearly don’t seem to respect Africans. Looks like show might be onto something.

  8. This was exactly my experience with an International NGO in Kenya. Unethical behavior seemed to be the rule, not the exception, and seeing how certain people were -protected- gave me little hope. It was a very negative experience.

  9. I dare say that there is no NGO that is open for business and does nothing!

    We (you included) have a duty to ensure that NGOs, these voluntary, benevolent, public benefit organisations do something good for somebody at some point in time; the very thing that they set out to do when they first opened their doors. When we (you included) stop caring and stop appreciating what NGOs do and instead tend to spend time critising them and singing praises for other sectors (e.g., private sector, politicians, media, etc.), then it suddenly starts to look like they are not doing anything; it is simply because our (your) interest is somewhere else. Try this in your personal relationship and you will see..!

    The only NGOs that are doing nothing are the ones that have closed shop or are yet to be ‘born’!!

  10. I am happy to see the diversity as well as individuality portrayed in The Samaritans. And that’s the type of world we want, isn’t it? I understand the fact that there are (few) NGOs doing “nothing”, but many NGOs are affecting lives positively and attracting real professionals.

  11. in conclusion, the comments here are interesting to go through what is flaw is concept of generalization, it’s so much simplified on the other hand. it’s hard to believe NGO does nothing applies to all at least for me, questions are which NGO, when where and how, we don’t want to create something to create another problem rather a solution. you can’t simply say NGO does nothing at least they write a good report which makes their donor happy back home! also NGO is more local based and resourced while few it depends upon funds from (I)NGOS. So, here i think lack of clarity on INGOS and NGO definition is misleading to nowhere. I am very critical on NGOs and INGOs, my country has several hundreds of NGOs for 29 million people due to the fact that GOV is lacking its outreach, which i partly agree but again some are good on bringing money but not spending for the right cause some are good on creating local jobs and the lists goes on…what is pity and threat and danger that i feel is no one wants to put a developing country (poor country) or even a rich country into the vicious cycle of dependency! that would be too late to criticize on approach of INGOs, NGOs and even the government who ultimately has the power to decide on what should be let in and give a way out? that’s why GOV is so important, isn’t it?
    I’d just say this film is a smart way to fool people like us :-) i remember old saying : people like to be fooled among full of fool people..chinese proverb of course who wants to be alien, right?
    good luck folks watching the film i go for meditation (sleep)
    no one is poor it’s just how we see
    help for help is not help
    aid for aid can be like AIDS

  12. All in all and having been said so much, we have to give credit to most NGOs; they have to some extent created a change but it mostly depends on the community and individuals who these NGOs work with or for. If you are gullible and wish wash, then why not ruled for a “fool” is a “wise” man’s bread. So whether working or partnering, take a stand with your community for it remains even after.

  13. Think I remember reading somewhere that the advent of mobile phones have added more value to African lives than four decades of official assistance and charity. Technological innovation, private investment, entrepreneurialism? No these things can’t possibly help Africans since they potentially put the foreign aid industry out of business.

  14. Hey, lighten up! It’s a mocumentary, like “The Office” or “Spinal Tap”. Those are funny, and no one says they mean every office is dysfunctional or every band is a joke. They’re funny because there is a germ of truth to them, and that’s great because humor can be a great way of forcing us to confront our own foibles. I’m looking forward to seeing how this show evolves over time.

  15. Once a gentleman I met in Nigeria asked me, ‘do you know how to get rick quick?’ innocently I replied, ‘rob a bank’ and he said, ‘ah that’s too complicated, nowadays all you need to do is set up an NGO’. I was cross with him for belittling the efforts of the millions of NGOs popping up everywhere, but well now I realise he wasn’t exaggerating at all.

  16. I think this is a genius idea! I taught English in the Dominican Republic for almost 2 years, and the more I found out about NGO’s, the less I liked them, including the Peace Corps and many orphanages, STD/STI training, etc. Peace Corps is built for American youth, not for the communities they ‘serve’. Let’s drink to that! One non-profit orphanage was really a sex-trafficking operation. STD/STI info, while useful, is generally rejected bc Dominican men don’t want to have sex without full pleasure, etc.

    NGO’s are usually just like businesses, so this could be just like “The Office”. Excellent subject to parody!!!

    Also, young Americans know they can get “good jobs” without experience when they go abroad, especially to “3rd World”. Good idea? Not always very careful… Plus, who the hell is being hired? So many crazies!

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