How NGOs are as complicit as the Kleptocrats

It is now getting on for five years since I lived in Kenya, but the memory of Africa is with me still. Kenya is a land that delights the eye, even when, like me, urban landscapes may be your preferred pleasure. There is nothing, I feel, as beautiful as the view over the Rift Valley which one suddenly comes upon as one drives out of Nairobi towards Lake Naivasha. Likewise, the astonishing mass of flamingos at lake Magadi, in the early morning sunlight. I could go on.

These memories were brought back to me by reading a recently published novel, Ten Weeks in Africa, by JM Shaw. There is a review of it here.  It is a very good book, and quite possibly an important one too.

Though the book is fiction, and set in a fictional country, it is all too clear to me that the place that Shaw has in mind is Kenya (though there are elements of Uganda as well). The plot focuses on one of Nairobi’s vast slums which a British NGO is planning to help by building schools and clinics and other infrastructure. However, the money the NGO has paid out has been stolen by the minister’s nephew. So far, so very predictable. But what is really jaw-dropping, and also has the sad ring of truth, is that the paymasters in London do not really mind that their money has been pinched by the lords of misrule. In one of the key scenes our hero goes to London to explain to the British government minister that the money has gone astray, and that all his efforts to help the poor are being frustrated by the “Batangan” government – but the British are not interested, just as the corrupt African minister predicted. The money will continue to flow whatever happens.

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Now, why is this?

The book, if I read it rightly, portrays the aid industry as just that, an industry: if they confront the problem of theft, the money supply will be cut off at source, and they will be out of a job. Thus the NGO’s are every bit as guilty as the African kleptocracy, and the kleptocracy view them with contempt – because they know their money is being stolen, but cannot bring themselves to do anything about it. The relationship between donors and African governments is an abusive one, but like battered wives, the NGO’s do not want to face up to the truth about their abusive partners.

I have said it before now: the Department of International Development should be shut down. It does far more harm than good, keeping greedy despots in power. This sort of aid is not part of the solution, it is one of Africa’s continuing problems.

The book is delightfully Graham Greene-ish in tone, and there is some truly great comedy in the portrayal of the corrupt government minister, Pamela Abbasi. But it is comedy of the very darkest sort. Mr Shaw writes well about the horrors of Africa (and goodness, this would make a super film) and he is of course correct in identifying the underlying cause of all the problems of a country like Kenya – namely the competition between various tribal groups for power and resources, the chief resource being foreign aid, of course. Perhaps if that dried up, Kenya’s politics would be a little less murderous.

I lived in Kenya for four years. I do not know how long Mr Shaw spent there, but his research has been thorough, and his fictionalisation of fact is masterly. This book is a real eye-opener, a revelation of an evil that the British government happily tolerates.

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