Category Archives: Community Organizing


Nairobi: Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was the pervasive ubiquity of NGO’s – non-governmental organizations – in Nairobi.   I had read that 90% of the Kenyan developmental funds come from the “donor community,” but until visiting the city and seeing all of the NGO’s headquartered here for all of Eastern Africa and beyond, I had no real idea what it all might have meant.  Quickly in my mind at least Nairobi became NG-obi!

 Group after group after group we met with got money from European Union countries or private and church foundations.  We ran into at least three (3) Ford Foundation funded operations, and probably more that that received funds from U.S.AID – the United States Agency for International Development – including the Solidarity Centers here (and later in South Africa) and a whole lot of other outfits as well.  Catholic funds from Germany and the Netherlands were big on the progressive front.  Oxfam was also an important funder.

 What this had produced was a startling “client-ism” culture.  It took me a couple of meetings, but not too many to start to recognize that at a certain point towards the end of the meeting with various NGO’s there was going to come an elegantly phrased expression about whether or not there was a way to “partner” with us.  The first time I heard this expression, I took it at face value and gave my usual response that I was just visiting and had no sense if we were going to do anything in Kenya or Eastern Africa, but was just trying to learn, blah, blah, blah.  Quickly I realized that this was a graceful pitch for resources, so I as rapidly began to re-emphasize the fact that ACORN was an organization of poor people living in the United States is relatively the same stew.  Most accepted all of this with grace, but one could tell that this was simply part of the gambit of normal and everyday conversation in NG-obi.  One always tried to take a shot at the goal, if for no other reason that the off-chance of scoring no matter how low the percentage shot.

 Perhaps my favorite was a hugely talented woman running an NGO in Kenya which though autonomous had been created in the mirror image of a U.S. group that was involved with both women and civic participation values.   Until less than a year ago the executive director had been a representative of a consortium of EU donors and clearly had been hired to make rain.  She shared a 3-year plan that would have them raising roughly $5M USD for programs over the period, which would have been massive by any standards, especially Kenya’s.  She confided when I asked her directly that she was only passing through for 3 years or so before she hoped to move up and on, and I dare say her trajectory could be limitless in NG-obi.  She was a player all the way, every day!  I did find it ironic though that for all of the programs and special projects that she was designing to increase transparency and accountability of government and other embryonic institutions, when I asked her some questions about her own internal structure, she did not bat an eye in describing the fact that she claimed 28,000 members yet there were only about 180 individual and association members who actually paid enough dues ($25/year lifeline) to qualify to attend the Annual General Meeting (AGM – and man, did I hear that abbreviation a lot!) and of that number only about 60 usually attended to make policy for this huge NGO for any given year.  Wow! 

 Similarly, there was another great irony that had taken the form of a constant dispute between the developing labor movement and NGO’s.  The Kenyan Human Rights Commission had been totally supported by the donor community and had without a doubt played a fantastic role in the dark days of Kenya in fighting against illegal arrests, abridgment of rights and free speech, and tens of other issues, and had been – finally and to its everlasting credit – on the winning side.  The organization is run by a very small board, composed largely of Kenyan activists, many who have lived in the U.S. and E.U. for decades and started the KHRC as ex-pats trying to do right by the home country.  All of the money then and now comes from outside of Kenya.  The rub though is that now that there are labor rights and unions have started organizing and winning, not surprisingly as legitimate representatives of the workers, they want to take back their pride of place on issues around workers and workers rights.  Unfortunately, KHRC wants (and with donor support can do so for quite a long time) to continue to noodle around in this area, and perhaps even go after the unions around issues of internal democracy and so forth.  I’m sure there are always issues to be found in unions, but a natural alliance instead becomes a huge area of contention, while the real problems with both government and employers are ignored.  Talking to the KHRC junior staffer handling this also gave me pause since she was less than a year out of college at the Nairobi University and was skeptical when I described to her that most unions in fact allowed their members to ratify collective agreements and other internal issues.  She just did not know, but her naivete hardly mattered, because the money kept flowing and she had a job to do.

KHRC sign in front of their compound celebrating 10 years of critical contribution and struggle for human rights in Kenya.

The Certified Organizers of Kenya

Nairobi: Kibura is a huge slum.  The degree that a slum can be said to have “boosters,” Kibura had them.  This was reputedly the worst of the worst and as I was told frequently with more than a million residents, this was “the largest slum in sub-Saharan” Africa.  Low-slung with no dependable access to clean water or sanitation and a housing stock that literally could be washed away in the rains in this normally dry country, Kibura was amply able to live up to its reputation.

 Talking to organizers first with the Kibura Grassroots Initiative they pointed out the difficulty with “flying toilets.”  It seems that without any real sanitation system the makeshift system involved depositing feces in plastic bags and then and then under cover of nightfall with no street lights obviously, one let the “toilet” fly as far away from where you lived as possible.  One frequently noted downside though was that if you were walking the ally paths of Kibura at night on the way home from work or whatever, it was not unknown to be hit by a flying toilet.  A related scatological phenomenon also found its way ingenuously into the problem of street crime.  Cab drivers and others would counsel against rolling down the windows in traffic in the downtown area because the “armed” in armed robbery frequently involved someone coming up and threatening that you either relieved your self of your possessions, or they would throw in the window the results of their most recent relief.  One of my most able guides, Mary Forbes of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, told me frequently of showing up at social events and hearing one partygoer or another mention that they had just had an unfortunate incident with the s***throwers.  This is life on a different edge.

 In one meeting with organizers and activists involved in projects and programs in Kibura, I found something unusual, fascinating, and unexpected though.  I met with two young organizers who were active in, and one chaired, the Community Organizations’ Practitioners Association of Kenya (COPA-K).   They explained the program in detail and I was greatly impressed.  At the end of the conversation I found myself trying to figure out a way to link our training school, the Community Labor Organizing Center in the US and Canada with their program into a global training network.  That would indeed be something!

 Here’s how it all seemed to work.  They have 200 members of the association of organizers.  They have an annual training session which keeps all of their members up to date, and when they first go through the formal training upon completion they are officially “certified” as community organizers.  This qualifies them more fully to work for community organizers for the host of NGO’s that seem ubiquitous in Nairobi.  Some of them have graduated in community development at the local university, but this additional certification makes a big difference in credentializing them as organizers with the NGO’s.  It seems that for a five year period they had gotten assistance in these efforts from an community organizing center in the Philippines though that time was now past.

 There’s not a community or union organizer working in the developed world who has not at one time or another in fright or frustration while examining the craft and trade as practiced often at its worst, said often in despair that it was a shame that organizers are sometimes not required to be licensed or certified in some way or another.  Usually our more progressive instincts take over soon after the exasperation passes, but the value of good and solid training is never totally lost on anyone.

 Our colleagues at COPA-K have the thing down to a fine point with their own association and certification process in place.  There is much to learn from them about their experiences in such a world.

Two staff from COPA-K in the center. One either side are Susan Chege and Elijah Omolo, from the development organization Give Us Wings, who helped arrange the visit.