Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Samaritans: The Story of an African Aid Organization

In my last two blog posts I wrote about poverty alleviation and voluntourism, which are, in my opinion, two of the three parts of the African Aid problem.  The third problem with aid to Africa is NGOs, or non-governmental organizations.  NGOs are non-profit organizations which are privately created and not associated with any government or business.  My issue with NGOs is that anyone, and very often, everyone, feels compelled to start one.

At my conference last week someone approached me and asked me how I liked Botswana.  He told me he spent a few months there about ten years ago and really enjoyed it.  I asked him what he had been doing in Botswana.  He told me that he and a bunch of college friends started an aid organization (i.e. an NGO).  I asked him what happened to it… “I don’t know.”  In addition to sponsoring professors to teach and research overseas, Fulbright also has a student scholar program.  The two Fulbright students to Botswana this year created their own NGO while they were in country.  My guess would be that when those two students finish their Fulbrights and return to the U.S. that their NGO will have a short lifespan.
The problem with NGOs is that they tend to highlight quantity over quality.  I couldn’t find any statistics for Africa, which isn’t surprising as hundreds of NGOs are born and die here on the continent every month.  But according to UN estimates, India has over 2 million NGOs, meaning there is one NGO for every 400 Indians.  The fact that there is no standardization or oversight of these NGOs means that very often parallel projects are created which strain already limited resources, which subsequently leads to abuses.  And when I say abuses I mean MAJOR abuses.

Want to be a millionaire?  Go work for an NGO.  I have met several people during my time in Africa who are Regional Directors or some other big shot for an NGO.  The perks of working in-country include the following: free housing (first class housing with your own generators and water tanks so you don’t have to put up with the inadequacies of real African life), household help (house girl- the woman who cleans your house, i.e. maid; cook; driver; garden boy- the man that maintains your lawn; and nanny if you have children), full tuition paid for your children to attend school (the children attend expat schools which cost somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000 per kid), insurance (every kind of insurance you could possibly imagine or want), minimum of one month vacation annually, two (or more) business class roundtrip tickets home for you and all your dependents each year, severance package (typically 2-3 months pay because you need some time off to “recover” from living abroad) at the completion of your contract, and your annual salary (this typically STARTS around $250,000 which is completely unnecessary as the cost of living is so cheap in most of these places you could live like a king for about $20,000.  Given what I’ve stated here, let’s figure out the compensation for an NGO director with a family of four:
Housing & Vehicle Allowance: $35,000
Household help: $5,000 (these people don’t make much, but they make bank compared to others in the community since they are employed by an NGO)
School for two kids: $50,000 (let’s imagine school is cheap here)
Insurance: ??? (I have no idea)
Airline tickets for the family: $30,000
Completion of contract bonus: $60,000
Annual Salary: $250,000 (we will imagine this is an entry level NGO person)
Grand Total: $430,000

If you look at the earnings and expenditure statements of most NGOs you will see that only about 10-20% of their annual budget is actually spent on the people they are supposed to be helping.  The interesting thing is that Africa has finally begun to acknowledge this.  A filmmaker from Kenya created a television show called The Samaritans which is a sort of spoof about the NGO community.  Having spent a lot of time around NGOs while living here, I would have to say The Samaritans is one of the most accurate representations I’ve ever seen about what aid organizations do (or fail to do).  Below is a trailer about the show and if you would like more information, please click here.

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