When Madonna visited Kenya last week, she snapped a photo of a murky, trash-filled stream in a slum in Nairobi. “Imagine this is where your water comes from!” she wrote on Instagram, plugging a local NGO that works on water sanitation in Kibera, one of the largest informal settlements in Africa.
The image soon had over a thousand comments, most of them critical. “Next time do your research before you disrespect a whole community like that,” wrote Octopizzo, a hip hop artist from Kibera, who identified the stream as an open sewer that, he claimed, few Kenyans would ever drink from.
“The first place these white folks suffering from savior syndrome visit is a slum. Rise above that. Kenya doesn’t need your help if the only thing you see here is filth,” another comment said.
Madonna’s unsuccessful publicity attempt comes at a time when the Kenyan government is threatening to send thousands of expats who work in the NGO sector home. A former British colony and one of the largest hubs in Africa for international charities and NGOs, manifestations of the so-called “White Savior complex” strike a particular chord in Kenya.
Over the past few weeks, government regulators have been tapping into this sentiment by criticizing the international NGO community for not hiring Kenyans and paying foreign staff more than local employees.
“Kenya doesn’t need your help if the only thing you see here is filth.” Kenya, with its good weather, political stability, and English-speaking population, is a popular destination for aid workers, volunteers, and NGOs. An estimated 12,000 expat NGO workers live in the country working on issues from human rights to maternal health and conservation, according to figures from the NGO Coordination Board, a government body that regulates the sector.
These organizations aren’t contributing as much to the country as they should be, according to the NGO Board. The agency released a circular last month claiming foreign NGO workers of earning on average four times as much as their Kenyan peers. They fail to transfer jobs to local workers, and instead stay on in Kenya as lifelong “career expats,” the regulator said.
“You cannot tell me that in the whole country we [do not] have a Kenyan who can fill the space of the expatriate. We have overqualified Kenyans in this country. They need to be given first priority in the NGO sector,” said Fazul Mahamed, head of the NGO Board, at a briefing in Nairobi on June 23. “Wouldn’t this money make better the people of this country?” he said, citing figures for expatriate salaries of 1.8 million Kenyan shillings (almost $18,000) a month.
NGOs have always had to demonstrate a reason for hiring a foreigner and show that a local is being trained to take over that position. “The law is not new, but the government has never been as demanding of it,” said Fred Olendo, administration manager for the NGO Council. Now, the NGO Board promises to enforce those rules.
Mahmed said he would revoke the license of any organization that doesn’t demonstrate attempts to hire locals or even the pay gap between Kenyan and foreign staff. Work permits will not be given to foreign NGO workers unless their organization identifies a Kenyan who will eventually take that role. Volunteer programs are also coming under scrutiny with a rule that local hires need to match the number of foreign volunteers brought in.
NGO staff in Kenya say the salary gap Mahamed cites is an exaggeration and by no means the industry average. Others point to the jobs and services NGOs bring to the country. They provide healthcare, schooling, and services in areas of the country neglected by their local governments. Last year, the sector contributed 160 billion Kenyan shillings ($1.5 billion) to the economy, according to Mahamed.
“We have overqualified Kenyans in this country. They need to be given first priority in the NGO sector.” Still, the difference in living standards between foreign NGO staff and the communities they serve is often stark.
In a country where 42% of the population lives below the poverty line and one in five working age Kenyans is unemployed, these foreign workers often live in gated compounds, send their children to international schools, employ drivers, cleaners, and cooks—trappings that upper middle class Kenyans also enjoy. In some cases, it is those who don’t use the services provided by NGOs that criticize them the most.
“Among the relatively well-off there is some resentment about ‘white saviors’ and NGOs, but if you get out into communities with few services and not much connection to the government and its services, there is generally appreciation for NGOs,” says Jennifer Brass, a professor from Indiana University who has studied the role of NGOs in Kenya.
Critics say there’s more to the government’s campaign than just righting injustices in the NGO world. “A Kenyan might be fooled into thinking that these rules are good, but they are not in the interest of the country,” Suba Hill, head of the Civil Society Reference Group (CSRG), an umbrella organization for international and national NGOs in Kenya, tells Quartz.
Hill says foreign NGOs are being caught up in a broader crackdown on Kenya’s active civil society, which has held the government accountable for everything from forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings to historical grievances like the use of torture chambers under the repressive former president Danial Arap Moi.
According to Hill, the government has become increasingly hostile to NGOs after local groups called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to pursue president Uhuru Kenyatta and his vice president William Ruto over their role in ethnic violence that claimed more than 1,000 lives after a disputed presidential election in 2007.
“I think this is a general anti-foreign sentiment on the part of Kenyatta more than the Kenyan people.” In the last two years, more than 1,000 NGOs in Kenya have either been forced to close or threatened with de-registration because of alleged links with terror groups or financial violations. Proposed amendments to a 2013 law meant to support NGOs in Kenya include restricting their sources of income, expanding the government’s control over the sector, and eliminating tax breaks and other benefits.
The goal of the administration with the help of the NGO Board, according to Hill’s organization CSRG, is to “drive a wedge between local and international NGOs” and starve local organizations who depend on funding from abroad.
It wouldn’t be the first time foreigners have been a target in Kenyan politics. Kenyatta’s presidential campaign in 2013 centered on the idea of Kenyan sovereignty and resisting “Western meddling” like the ICC case. The ICC charges have been dropped, but the court has warned that it will prosecute Kenyan officials if there is violence before or after the 2017 election. Now that Kenyatta faces reelection next year, his party may be rehashing some of that sentiment .
“I think this is a general anti-foreign sentiment on the part of Kenyatta more than the Kenyan people,” Brass said.
The latest crackdown fits into a larger pattern in the region. Uganda passed a bill last year that makes it difficult for NGOs to hire foreigners. NGOs in Ethiopia are barred from raising more than 10% of their funds from abroad. “I think Kenya is trying to follow the trend,” Yann Libessart, a spokesperson for Médecins sans Frontières.
It’s not clear how or to what extent the NGO Board will enforce its latest measures. The agency lacks the capacity to carry out inspections and larger NGOs have agreements with Kenya’s ministry of foreign affairs directly. It is an issue of national pride for some Kenyans.
“We don’t want to be seen as needing to be taken care of, and we want to take charge of our own destiny. That is basically the right thing to say,” says Otseino Namwaya, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Kenya. “It’s one thing to say that and another to put it in reality.”
Still, foreign NGO workers in Kenya have remained mum, uncomfortable with commenting lest they draw the NGO Board’s attention. Several have admitted feeling worried and frustrated.
“We work specifically on building local partner capacity,” said Paul Healy, Country Director of the Irish charity Trocaire. “The future belongs to local partners who have deep roots in the community. But in terms of accountability, in terms of development effectiveness, you can’t do that overnight. You still need technical knowledge which complements, supports and builds local civil society, and you still do need a dynamic within the development agenda that brings in expertise from all over the world.”
Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.