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In Kenya, U.S. aid groups focus their efforts

Mary Stucky Jan 16, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Drought and war in the Horn of Africa have left a wide swath of the population there homeless and hungry. The United Nations says some 11 million people need aid to survive. Many of those displaced have headed to Kenya, which itself has deep economic problems. But for all the international aid Kenya has received over the last 30 years, life expectancy there has actually shortened and poverty rates are unchanged.

Mary Stucky reports.

Mary Stucky: Thirteen years ago, an American tourist named Mary Steiner arrived here on the shores of Lake Victoria in southwestern Kenya. What she found would change her life — and life for thousands of people here.

Mary Steiner: I met with the women’s group, women who’ve lost seven of their eight children. I listened. They said that they wanted health, that there were too many women dying and we want it to stop.

So Steiner partnered with Elijah Omolo, a Kenyan who’d grown up here. Together, they started a non-governmental organization — or NGO — to address the dire needs in this area of Kenya. Omolo came up with the name — “Give Us Wings.”

Steiner: He said what we need is someone to give us wings. People are smart, people know what’s important to them.

The people wanted medical care — so Steiner went back to the U.S. and raised enough money to build what’s now the Nyaoga Medical Clinic. The clinic serves more than 15,000 people in a region rife with malaria and AIDS. Next, they built an adult literacy school and hired a teacher. On my visit about 20 women were studying here. Many have brought their small children to school with them. Some women have gone on to high school — and university.

Milkah Ajimo says she wants to be a teacher.

Milkah Ajimo: We are dreaming something, which is changing our life. We are saying English, we are somebody.

An estimated 4-7,000 NGOs work in Kenya. Despite all the organizations and money, overall Kenyans have seen very little improvement in their lives.

Ellya Zulu is executive director of the African Institute for Development Policy, a think-tank based in Nairobi.

Ellya Zulu: The U.S. NGOs, which come with their huge overheads, you still see that quite a bit of that money is not ending up to the people who need to use it. We need to keep emphasizing that they can account for each and every penny.

Zulu says donors should demand to see an independent audit and the tax form 990 that NGOs have to provide under U.S. tax law. Another rule of thumb — give money not things. For every dollar spent shipping food to Africa, $2 is spent in transport. And, donors should look for hard evidence that programs are working. Most experts agree that donors should look for NGOs that collaborate with each other, stay long enough to solve problems, and then move on.

Fred Olendo is with the National Council of NGOs, an independent group that monitors NGOs in Kenya. Olendo says donors should support NGOs that work closely with Kenyans.

Fred Olendo: The idea is to have them own the process so that they will build the capacity of the community to solve their own problems.

Back in the village, Mary Steiner says her NGO is getting ready to leave the community near Lake Victoria.

Steiner: There are many people who have better health care, better education. There are people who believe in their own power. They are moving forward on their own.

Near Lake Victoria, I’m Mary Stucky for Marketplace.

This report was produced with the assistance of Sarah Ooko.

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