‘Mockumentary’ needles NGOs in Africa
2014-03-01 18:12:50 -

Remember the one about the anti-poverty conference where everyone binged on lobster bisque? Or what about the guy who tried to run over his colleague, and then got sent to Nairobi for a holiday at three times his usual pay?

Kenya-based producer Hussein Kurji just couldn’t escape absurd anecdotes about charities across east Africa.

“The more and more stories I heard from friends and NGO workers, the more I thought, okay, this may make for good television,” says Kurji in an early-morning internet video chat from Nairobi. And it does.

The Samaritans is a satirical take on the development world through one useless NGO, where employees use Scrabble to come up with new projects and play rock-paper-scissors to allocate funding.

Irish development experts say the mockumentary rings true, but have differing views on the lessons to be drawn from the series.

In the show, there are running themes of “ego, decadence, race, and general inappropriateness,” says Kurji, who spent his early childhood in Newbridge, Co Kildare after his family fled Kenya, fearful of the spreading Indophobia in the region at the time.

As the first episode begins, the office is reeling from the forced departure of the country director, a friend-of-wildlife caught on film shooting a rhino. The local second-in-command Martha has been looked over yet again for the top spot in favour of Scott, a wet 20-something American who’s fresh from a six-week internship in Casablanca.

The series – with two episodes available online and more in the pipeline – continues in this vein: sushi-fuelled meetings, cringe-inducing racism, the bureaucrat-ese and buzzwords only thinly concealing the fact that this NGO does absolutely zilch.
The aim of the series isn’t to give any blanket prescriptions, but to encourage a wider audience to debate the shortcomings of the aid industry, says Kurji. “We are not experts in the field by any means, we are making a comedy, as entertainers.”

The Samaritans has appeared at a sensitive time for internationally funded NGOs around the world, with countries as diverse as Russia and Ethiopia bringing in laws to restrict foreign-funded groups.

It would be wrong if criticism of international and foreign-funded NGOs were channelled into a crackdown on dissenting voices, says Ronaldo Munck, head of civic and global engagement at Dublin City University.

But there is a “disconnect between the rhetoric of international NGOs and the reality” which needs to be addressed, he adds.
Like the characters in The Samaritans, development NGO workers pepper their reports with clichés like ‘bottom-up’ and ‘empowerment’ but, Munck points out, the words rarely reflect the truth.

When NGOs are fed from abroad, they tend to adopt the agenda of their donors. In the case of Ireland, that means the Irish Government or the Catholic Church.

“My take is that Irish NGOs are fulfilling the same role as missionaries. It’s western, paternalist, even imperialist. Even with the best intentions in the world,” says Munck.

Development projects often undercut local people like a water project he worked on with Irish nuns in Uganda once, he says. People there liked the nuns but wanted to sort the problem themselves. “Why should a bunch of nuns sort out water in Uganda?”
Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas, the Irish association of NGOs, says that while tensions exist between “stakeholders”, Irish development groups are working on listening to all sides.

Dóchas has also come up with a code of conduct and standards to make sure everybody knows what to expect from different projects, and can judge when an NGO has fallen short of its obligations, says Zomer.

The Dóchas director also takes issue with how the Irish public responds to the impression of plush lifestyles at NGOs, an issue highlighted in The Samaritans.

There’s a focus on soaring overheads but that includes money spent on necessary long-term research, monitoring and evaluation, he says.

“NGOs are being forced to do things on a shoe-strong, no pilot projects, no staff training – none of the things that in the private sector would be considered quality control.”

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