In a mockumentary, we can see ourselves.
The Kenyan mockumentary, “The Samaritans,” continues to inspire conversations about the reality of working in an NGO. After a screening of the first two episodes of the series in DC last week, I had the pleasure to appear on a panel hosted by Nina Oduro of AfricaDevJobs, and moderated by Semhar Araia of the Diaspora African Women’s Network.
In the pilot, with two masters degrees and an internship under his belt, a new director is sent to Aid for Aid by headquarters to assume his position, much to the infuriation of the deputy director who had assumed the job was hers. In the next episode, the team works into the night on a proposal, the director confident that the perfect acronym will boost the chances of their success. The story is laced with subplots of lies, infidelity, and cross-cultural high jinx ensue.
What was my reaction?
I was totally jealous.
Why? First, because my college friend and I, while both living in two separate countries in southern Africa about ten years ago, had an idea for a similar Sorkin-esque show. It didn’t happen, but we thought that the absurdity of life in a foreign embassy or NGO constantly resulted in drama and comedy fit for TV. If only we had taken that screenwriting class…
Secondly, I was jealous because satire is so efficient. Xeinium Productions had achieved in forty minutes what others (including myself) have been trying to do for years! The medium just works.
Don’t let the belly laughs deceive you. Exposing the aid industry and criticizing its folly was what was really happening that night. As we chuckled and guffawed and at times shifted uncomfortably in our seats when we recalled similar situations, we were making sense of the inevitable ambivalent feelings within NGO work.
Xeinium’s fictional characters, which represent key archetypes, are hoping to change opinions about the prevailing status quo of NGOs in Kenya. From the young and arrogant US country director, to the lovable but incompetent finance officer, to the aid worker who makes questionable decisions in her personal life, here’s a list of some of the issues I saw exposed by “The Samaritans”:
- Decisions made far away from where the problems exist (headquarters and capital city) – ignorance about the local context
- Misalignment with local priorities
- Writing proposal in absentia of even consultation with communities to be “served”
- Disregard/displacement of people working within their communities to solve their own problems
- Academic/technical approaches devoid of a grounding in people’s realities
- Use of jargon and trite use of “trendy” terms in aid
- Lack of analysis of issues with regards to power, rights, justice, and politics
- Lack of means/desire to determine a program’s effectiveness and relevance to people’s lives
- Competition for funding among civil society
- Concerns with how money is spent on the organization itself, as opposed to programs
- Donors’ branding policies
- Vested political alignments of INGOs to their government
- Lack of collaboration with local government
- Lack of equity among staff based on race and gender
- Hero/white savior/superiority complexes
- Mental health/substance abuse by aid workers
- Lack of consequences for ineptitude/bad behavior in a nonprofit setting
- Exploitation of interns
- …and I’m sure there’s more!
Of course not all NGOs are alike and social change is a long-term, complex process that rarely fits within the logframe of a project proposal. Even with all these issues, there is “always space for human generosity,” as Kenyan academic and civil society leader Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg stated during Al Jazeera’s discussion of the series on “The Stream.” Though I’ve shared this list, “The Samaritans” serves in no way as a litany of criticism against NGOs. It is much more subtle and effective then that.
I hope in subsequent episodes we get to see these characters “in the field” interacting with communities and that we come to learn more about the perspectives of those they are intending to help. I’ll also be keen to see the team under the stresses of budget cuts, a donor visit, interacting with local government, and reporting the “right” results.
Aid work is not without conflict, not without ambiguities. Under the auspices of “doing good,” much of the industry’s weaknesses can be ignored. This necessitates aid reform. Many different ways of engaging with the frustration, the irony, the hope, and the joy of the work we do all day are welcome.
You can watch “The Samaritans” here.