The Middlemen Part 2: When Philanthropy Fails

Posted by | August 11, 2016 | Academic, Blog_Post | No Comments

Donors and visitors to Kibera are very comfortable around the middlemen. They are smooth talkers and well connected to local leaders in the area. However, most of the community members do not trust them.

In last week’s post, ‘The Middlemen’, I introduced a series on social networks in Kenya. I explore the complexity of Kibera residents Susan and John’s thoughts on social mobility and development in Kenya. John complains about Phil, a young man who has moved out of Kibera and “dumped” them as he no longer picks their phone calls or visits them.

Young Kiberans refer to the middlemen of development as sonkos’ or wadosi (slang word to mean rich people or bosses). They are largely male and in the course of my doctoral research, I met only one woman who played the role of a middleman of development. She was a stout woman of about 50 who ran an orphanage for young children of about ages 5-13 in lower income Gatwekera. Her short hair was covered in dust and she was dressed in tattered clothes and well- worn shoes. I did not have the opportunity to visit her orphanage or talk to her at length. The young man who introduced me to her claimed she was the owner of three rental homes in the developed Ayany estate and only lived in Gatwekera to portray an image of poverty to donors. He claimed she disguised herself as a poor woman to attract more funding to the orphanage and that she treated the children very poorly. “She has managed to educate her own children to university level with the donations,”he declared.

In a study of slum discourse and community journalism, Dr. Brian Ekdale discovered a young artist in Kibera who was frustrated with a well-known international aid organization that released a fundraising brochure featuring a photo of him and his friends on the cover.

“The organization sponsored no activities in Kibera, so neither he nor any of his neighbors were direct beneficiaries of the group’s fundraising efforts. The resident complained to representatives from the organization and even hired a lawyer to send a cease-and-desist letter. Once the brochure reached Kibera, the artist said his neighbors began harassing him about the money they assumed he was receiving from this organization.”

The existence of “free” NGO money in the form of donations has led to cases of community competition for the funds. Like the case above, this results in social exploitation and division. This distracts many Kiberans from being mutually responsible for the benefit of each and every community member. They are instead preoccupied with how they can attract donations and funding so they can potentially become middlemen of development.

In the humanitarian relief context, sociologist and media scholar at the University of Leicester, Dr. Jonathan Ong argues that donations can potentially cause a form of social division in the form of status anxiety for those in a community that do not benefit directly from the donation or relief. He spent several months interviewing people in some of the disaster struck villages affected by the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. He discovered that villagers were very envious of those who had benefited from the humanitarian relief. Some people would go to the extent of sending text messages to relief co-ordinators to report that their neighbors were undeserving of humanitarian relief or aid. This would lead to strained interpersonal relationships and emotional turmoil. Well-meaning monetary and material donations would result in negative outcomes.

Numerous donors and development agencies from the Global North countries feel it is their moral obligation to keep supporting African countries and some Asian countries with material and monetary donations. In the context of Kibera, the donations help create diverse Non-Profit or Non Governmental Organisations(NGOs). The official statistics of the organisations are hard to come by. Daily Nation writer Muchiri Karanja estimates there are between 6,000 and 15,000 NGOs operational in Kibera. A walk around Kibera reveals there are so many NGOs spread out in Kibera. They provide diverse services such as  basic healthcare, primary school education, community radio and sanitation services. My attempts to find out the exact number of NGOs in Kibera did not bear much fruit. A young man I met during the fieldwork in 2013 informed me that his attempts to document all the NGOs on a dedicated webpage were fruitless because many of the organisations did not want their data to be publicly available. They were also reluctant to foster partnerships with other organisations.

After we chatted about middleman of development Phil’s departure from Kibera, I asked John and Susan about a new health and education NGO in Kibera that has attracted vast global media attention. Susan observed, “They have a lot of money but I guarantee you when you visit the free health clinic you’ll be given malaria tablets even if you don’t have malaria, huko kila kitu ni malaria! (There everything is malaria!)” John nodded his head, “It is true, halafu (then) the mzungu woman is very strict with the staff members, and you know she is in charge of all the donations and money. They have a lot of money!” Uncomfortable silence falls and I recall how some of the young people I interviewed during my doctoral research used to describe Kibera as a gold mine. Some of them would encourage me to look for good wazungu in England so that we could start a cause and change the community. Never did they suggest that we should seek out black African sponsors from Kenya or neighbouring African countries.

Part three of the series ‘Social Networks in Kenya’ continues next week.

Relevant Sources:

Ekdale, B. (2014a). Slum discourse, media representations and maisha mtaani in Kibera, Kenya. Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 35(1), 92-108.

Ekdale, B. (2014b). “I wish they knew that we are doing this for them” Participation and resistance in African community journalism. Journalism Practice, 8(2), 181-196.

Kibere, F. N. (2016). The Capability of Mobility in Kibera ‘Slum’, Kenya: An Ethnographic Study of How Young People Use and Appropriate New Media and ICTs (Doctoral dissertation, Department of Media and Communication)

Ong, J. (2015, March 27). Does humanitarian aid mend communities or break them? The Guardian. Retrieved from



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Ph.D Media & Communication