NGOs do a good job, certainly, but they cannot escape the charge that often they are focused on professionalising “development” and people’s struggles through their constant supply of statistics, reports and case studies. Rarely do these organisations tackle entrenched structural injustices underpinning the problems they attempt to solve.
There is no respite for young people in Kenya. They, who constitute the majority of our population, live lives that while supposedly anchored in a new constitution and the prospering civil liberty doctrines of the 1990s and onwards, have no bread, no employment and no justice. What’s more, they have never experienced substantive democracy or (re)democratization; democracy in Kenya, as one young person conveyed unhesitatingly, “is for the rich.” For these youth who were born and came of age in these moments of theoretical change coupled with the proliferation of NGOs meant to safeguard and propel these new moments, “nothing has changed since they were born.” In contrast even though the gospels of prosperity and participation (amongst other neoliberal jazz like “empowerment”) are meant to positively impact the lives of young people, they are excluded from meaningful prosperity and participation.
These organizations, which exist to ostensibly remedy and renegotiate the fortunes of all generations and appear to be a key vehicle through which young lives seeking redress are steered towards, often frame struggles in ways that are not historical or intersectional. In this way they do not, with particular regard to material conditions, highlight the structural inequalities, exacerbated by neoliberalism, that stricture many young lives. Essentially body participation in “participatory meetings” is privileged over questioning the young bodies in police bags all over the country. The ability to cast a vote for more neoliberal democracy, takes precedence over food, real wage employment, gender, sexual and social and ecological justice. NGO organizing then takes on the tenors of NGOppresion.
While the condition of “don’t die survival” persists across age and gender, youth are ‘privileged’ here because they are the majority in Africa and are the generation bearing the accretions of all the injustices of the past and present moments. They are also seen as the age group in which “crisis” is said to have taken form (hence the popularity of statements such as the “youth bulge” “the coming anarchy” and the “youth threat”). Notwithstanding this, they are the generation which offer most hope for our redemption. Really, if they survive (and many don’t) they may just be the only ones left.
Being under 35 they were born during the “lost decade,”-- the 1980s which were characterized by the country’s more sustained engagement with neoliberal Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), as well as the continuous effects of these policies on life; on employment, agricultural sector(s), health care, the environment, education system and social welfare as a whole. As a consequence this is also the generation which is most aware of the acronym NGO as they came of age when much of public life is governed or negotiated by these entities. The state having withdrawn from their lives at every turn (as dictated by the World Bank and “friends”), it welcomed (and in some cases was forced to welcome) the burst of NGOs awaiting “mandates,” “proposals” and “capacity building” monies to govern their lives. The sexiness of the “youth predicament” or the “youth crisis” continues to inspire NGO explosion and refashioning of these organizations, and the “lost decade” of the 1980s continues to give way to more “lost decades.”
The stick-and-carrot strategies of many of these “good governance” organizations promise youth “democracy” and “prosperity” but implicate them further in deeper neoliberal economic practices of exclusion and dependency; in processes that require them to frame their own struggles in concepts and ideas that embed them deeper in the iconography and politics of African misery and the danger of African youth, and in particular male youth. This is not too unlike present governmental interventions such as the announced revamping of the National Youth Service (NYS), which are motivated by discourses of youth peril.
The political economy that sustained and sustains the work of NGOs predominantly revolves around the professionalization of “development” and resistance through the generation of a constant supply of statistics, reports, case studies and log frames. The result has been the “NGO-ization” of resistance, a term made popular by radical Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy in her essay, People vs Empire. Within this commentary, Roy acknowledges some of the good work that NGOs have done, and is careful (as we are) not to push a “they-are-all-the-same” tag. Nevertheless, she argues, there is a broader political context that creates and sustains the non-profit “industry,” and which upholds the symbiotic relationship between NGOs and neoliberal democracy. Consequently, when it comes to youth, NGOs focus on organizing that allows for “capacity/peace/empowerment building,” and anything that goes beyond this and questions pervasive injustice is castigated by these organizations; is rendered unimaginable and unsupportable. Instead, young people are engaged in normative discourses and practices of adulthood, participation and the discordant narratives of renewed and (re)democratized political life. In Kenya the latter in particular have focused on independence, multiparty democracy, civil society dominance, Vision 2030 and a new constitution. This discourse is never grounded in economic, social, environmental, and political justice for youth – and for all generations. And it does not consider that the type of “democracy” many people in Kenya have ever known constitutes police and military violence, high levels of unemployment and dispossession as well as tokenistic gestures of political participation.
Kenya now sits firmly in the neoliberal train, actively formulating policies at every level to push forth the agenda of privileging corporations (local and international), privatization of public resources as well as the commons and the promotion of ‘individual effort and entrepreneurship’ as solutions to systemic problems facing the country. These are accompanied by mega-development projects that ignore both ecological and human costs of those on the path of these developments. As these neoliberal imperatives persist and congeal in various ways in young lives, it is inevitable that we will see even more refashioning of these organizations called forth by neoliberalism, as well as their benefiting from the “dangers” of the “youth bulge.” And if they persist as key vehicles to address the immediate manifestations of youth “crisis,” let us be weary of the ways in which this organizing and oppression can interact in ways that permit for less rupture and more conformity, less non-governmental organizing and more non-governmental-oppression.
* Ruth Nyambura and Wangui Kimari are critical thinkers based in Nairobi Kenya.
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