“Philanthropy is a white person’s thing” : The Middlemen Part 3

Posted by | August 26, 2016 | Academic, Blog_Post, Cultural Commentary | One Comment

A good number of the young Kiberans I interacted with during my PhD fieldwork argued that philanthropy is a white person’s thing and that the few black Africans who donated financial assistance or services always had a political motive. Therefore, their projects were short term and very uncertain.

This month is an exploration of social networks in Kenya. In last week’s post, ‘When Philanthropy Fails’, 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.

During my PhD fieldwork in Kibera, it became apparent to me that Kibera was dominated by organisations funded by USA citizens, foundations and groups drawn from diverse institutions and sectors. Local Kiberans had also organised themselves into self help groups that participated in diverse activities such as jewellery making, farming and dance. However, even these groups actively solicited funds from foreigners. I never encountered any organisation that was funded solely by Kenyan or African philanthropists. When I inquired about the existence of such projects, the young people would point out some infrastructural projects such as street lighting and some public water tanks engraved with the names of politicians. Kenyan corporate companies fund a lot of scholarships to children from settlements such as Kibera. However, all the young people I met who received scholarships had received them from USA based donors. The young people argued that philanthropy is a white person’s thing and that the few black Africans who donated financial assistance or services always had a political motive. Therefore, their projects were short term and very uncertain.

Their disturbing perceptions of African philanthropy compelled me to probe some middle to upper class Kenyans on their views of NGOs and donating money to slum projects. In this article, the term class refers to the social differentiation that exists between people with varied forms of economic, social and cultural capital. Some people simply have access to more capital than others. This commonly used definition of class was conceptualised by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. There is no comprehensive class analysis of current Kenyan society in the scholarly literature. The African Development Bank published a report The Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the Middle Class in Africa with some class estimates in 2011. However, many scholars did not agree with the estimations presented in the report. In the sociological literature, Professor Beverly Skeggs conceives of class based on what research respondents perceive and experience it to be. In the case of Kibera, the young Kiberans I interviewed largely perceived of themselves as lower class. They felt that they enjoyed limited access to various forms of economic, social and cultural capital. Additionally, they experienced social exclusion regularly as residents of a low-income settlement.

In my quest to establish the state of Kenyan philanthropy, the first conversation I had with an upper middle class woman who worked in a government parastatal stood out. In between bites of salmon at a trendy patisserie in a high-income suburb she asserted, “You know even those poor people they take advantage, it is not that easy to trust them Faith!” In another conversation with a middle class professional chef, she remarked, “It’s so hard to hire and work with someone from Kibera, how do you trust those people? When I hear Mathare (a low income settlement in Nairobi) or Kibera I am biased negatively, no matter how good the person is.” When I brought up the discussion on the potential of Kenyan philanthropy in Kibera with an upper class businessman he asserted, “Those people did not help me to be where I am today and everyone should be in a position to help themselves.” His equally wealthy friend joined in the discussion and asserted, “Every man for himself.” A  friend from a middle-income suburb adjacent to Kibera  told me he was not interested in the slum environment or the residents even though his aunt resided in the area. Similarly, a young friend from a suburb very close to Kibera also took me to task for my interest in slums as she perceived that Kiberans were dangerous.Their sentiments were evidence of the socially differentiated nature of Kenyan society and they are not representative of dated sociological literature that paints Kenya as a collectivist society. Apart from the discussions of ethnic divisions and discord within Kenya, social class divisions are largely undocumented.

In the midst of social class divisions, local philanthropic ventures by individuals and groups are on the rise. The Kenyan Indian community is very active and effective in diverse philanthropic efforts. However, they are often accused by indigenous Kenyans of segregating themselves economically, socially and residentially. Indigenous Kenyans are more focused on philanthropic ventures in  their rural communities of origin as opposed to the multi-ethnic urban spaces. Established companies have foundations that predominantly focus on provision of scholarships to underprivileged students. Diverse Churches actively engage in diverse forms of charity in urban settlements such as Kibera. Well established charity organisations such as the Rotary club and Lions club enjoy vast membership from Kenyan Indians as well as some Indigenous Kenyans.

In the past few years, many voices in the African continent have argued that it is not a hot bed of disease, death and poverty. Therefore, they are very vocal about the media images used to raise awareness for various NGO and philanthropic causes. The middle classes are particularly vocal on social media that they want a nuanced understanding of the continent. One that captures the challenges as well as the positive opportunities and happenings that take place daily. However, even as we demand for a nuanced understanding, it is also fruitful to ask whether the voices of the people that genuinely require help will not be drowned out. Also, as the criticism of foreign philanthropy intensifies, it is prudent to ask, are the growing wealthy Africans willing to replace their counterparts and provide long term solutions and support to lower income struggling Africans? Are we as Africans best placed to provide the services and goods which we have critiqued the Western donors for providing? Or, should all forms of philanthropy be eliminated because they breed dependency, corruption and greed?

Like many African countries, Kenya is a hierarchical connection society. Who you know matters significantly. Strong family connections and political connections ease the navigation of daily life. Therefore, for any of the young Kiberans to improve their life circumstances, they will need a social connection that already has access to the goods, jobs and opportunities that can improve their lives. Education, material goods and services can provide foundational pillars for a healthy existence. However, they need to be complemented by social relationships. For the middle to upper class Kenyans I have discussed, Kibera is a space that is filled with people who spoil the image of their country and the continent in general. The dominant representation of the Kiberans is what media scholar Stuart Hall describes as “Othering”. This is because they are perceived as “The others, the outsiders.” Hall establishes a connection between representational practices and power when he argues that the act of stereotyping based on representations is a form of symbolic violence.

The power to represent Kiberans has been exercised by various actors within the international and local context for years. In some cases, even Kiberans have exercised this power over each other. The representation has attracted attention that has led to foreign monetary contributions and financial gain for some residents and organizations within Kibera. However, the same representation has led local Kenyans to distance themselves from the image of Kibera and local philanthropy ventures in general.

Part four continues next week.

About Faith

Ph.D Media & Communication

One Comment