Diversion of Organization

Ideas and Issues International Personal Writings

Nairobi     Eventually when organizers meet, no matter how well intended or polite the manners, the facts will hit the table hard and fast. Mark Splain and I met with several trainers of community organizers at the COPA-K offices, Peter Ng’aug’a and Abisai Mugara. Having been on the ground for a several days now, we were more and more curious about exactly what community based organizations were really doing about what Davinder Lama of the Mazingira Institute had called the “intractable” problems of Kibera and other huge Nairobi slums.

I had met Peter before during my first visit. He had called and asked for the meeting when he had heard we were in town. We spent some time talking about training, the training methodology and philosophy they were using, and who they were training. I asked if there were organizations they had trained that worked in Kibera. They said absolutely, and Abisai listed seven or eight of them by name and “neighborhood” in my notebook. So, I said, why are we failing so badly? What are we doing wrong? What are these organizations really doing?

Our brother organizers were taken a bit by surprise since they were from a more gentlemanly organizing tradition in Kenya than we must practice at least at ACORN. At first they pushed back a little, as they should have, but fairly quickly they looked us in the eye and conceded that after encouraging beginnings, all of these organizations had gotten diverted by “partnerships” that had shifted their missions from their initial visions, spirit, and even struggle, to becoming “project based” and what seemed to be “donor directed.” Part of this is the usual problem of the work ending up without resources and having to “follow the money” particularly, but here in “NGO-ville,” where donor money is so central to all, it often must come down to the hard question of making the deal with the donors or not working at all. Having trained as an organizer and built something, it must be grueling to walk away from the work — and a job — so too many well intentioned efforts get off track and diverted. We are not there, so we can’t be sure and can only guess, but even without judging, this is what our brother organizers offered as an analysis to “what happened to real community organizing in the slums.”

We talked about different techniques. I laid out our experience with dues. I articulated the differences between ACORN as a “union in the community” that was not an NGO. They shared their concerns on what it took to come up with new strategies and curricula for training organizers. We had a good exchange when all was said and done. We walked away with offers of support on both sides.

Of course that does not change anything in Kibera and the other slums of Nairobi. There the donor dollars continue to flow, the projects are planned, the schemes are piloted, and nothing really is changing including building a mass organization of community residents. Something has to change about all of this!

A railway line passes through Kibera. Kibera has a railway station, but due to absence of effective commuter train system in Nairobi, most Kibera residents use buses and Matatus, or share taxis.