By Megan Iacobini de Fazio
Thousands of foreign nongovernmental organization workers in Kenya risk losing their jobs after the NGO Board announced a tightening of employment rules late last month. Organizations fear that the move could affect their work in the country, and many have accused the Kenyan government of scare tactics and inflammatory rhetoric.
The board, a government institution that is responsible for regulating the NGO sector in Kenya, claims that there are thousands of expats working without appropriate permits and cites the large wage disparity between locals and foreigners as one of the main reasons behind the tougher stance.
Feelings of unfair treatment in the workplace are common among Kenyan NGO employees – and not without reason. The humanitarian and development sectors are known for their differential treatment of expats and locals, with the latter receiving fewer benefits and considerably lower salaries compared to their foreign colleagues.
A circular sent out by the board highlighted this disparity, arguing that expats often earn four or five times more than their Kenyan counterparts. The document reported that “expatriates are often too quick to dismiss dual salary systems as a non-issue, and the subject of wage disparities is a taboo topic in the charity sector,” a sentence that seems to be directly lifted from this Guardian article.
During a lavish breakfast briefing in one of Nairobi’s best hotels, the board’s CEO Fazul Mohamed criticized foreign NGO workers for “getting rich from the charity sector,” claiming that the circular is effective immediately, and that organizations that do not comply, risk losing their licenses.
According to the rules, NGOs should only employ expats if there are “no persons with comparable skills in the country.” In this case, the board would only issue a recommendation if the expat were to hire a Kenyan understudy, with the intention of training them to eventually fill the position.
The directive was met with disdain by many NGOs, who accuse the board of using powers it does not have in law to intimidate charitable organizations.
But some local NGO staff are applauding the board’s decision and have taken to social media to commend Fazul for “smoking out discrimination” and “tackling neo-colonialism.”
Unequal treatment of local staff versus international hires has long been a present but largely unspoken issue in Kenya’s development sector.
Helen (not her real name) recently resigned from One Acre Fund – an U.S. nonprofit that works with small holder farmers in East Africa – citing wage disparity and unequal treatment as her main reasons for leaving. While the One Acre Fund isn’t a registered NGO in Kenya, and not subject to the board’s rule, Helen’s complaint illustrates the problems of wage inequality in the sector.
“I realized that no matter what I did, I would never raise [sic]above a certain rank and get paid a higher salary because I was a local hire,” Helen said in an interview. “I understand that managers should be getting a higher wage, but we are talking about people with the exact same job description, doing the same tasks but getting paid very different salaries and receiving different benefits because of where they are from.”
Many local employees agree that this kind of inequity makes it close to impossible for colleagues to socialize outside of the workspace and ends up creating divisions between local and foreign members of the team.
“I often had to miss out on socializing opportunities with my colleagues because they chose restaurants which were too expensive for me; I also couldn’t afford transport to and from my neighborhood, which was far away because it was the only place I could afford to live with what I was making,” Helen said.
But research suggests that large pay gaps have implications that go beyond social life and impact the work being done by the organization. When employees feel undervalued, they become demoralized and disenfranchised from the organization, taking less initiative and “doing the bare minimum,” as some NGO workers put it. It also becomes harder for NGOs to retain talent, as people will work in these organizations to gain experience but then move onto jobs where their abilities are valued the same as those of others.
Helen doesn’t regret working at One Acre Fund and said that she would still be working there if it were not for the disparities between her and her foreign colleagues, claiming that her experience is a common one for local staff.
“It’s time that the government actually did something about it and I hope the rules will be implemented this time. But sadly I don’t trust our government,” she said. “This feels more like a publicity stunt than a real move. They will harass a few smaller NGOs and then forget about it again.”
These feelings are echoed by many people in the NGO community, who believe that this move is just the latest by the Kenyan government to undermine NGOs and civil society.
In 2013, the current government tried to amend the Public Benefits Organizations Act, which regulates the operations of NGOs and civil society in Kenya, in an attempt to restrict and monitor the external funding for these organizations, but the move was shut down after organizations took to the streets in protest. In 2015 the government again clamped down on Kenyan NGOs, which it claimed were supporting terrorism, but was accused by Human Rights Watch and other watchdogs of undermining freedom of expression and association.
An estimated 240,000 people work in the NGO sector in Kenya, and it is undeniable that NGOs play a vital role in providing essential services where the government fails. But the sector is also marred by a variety of challenges, with wage disparity being one of the many.
Although this latest move seems to bring to the forefront issues between local and expat staff that have long been brewing in Kenya, many think that the kind of language and sweeping statements used by Fazul will only succeed in increasing tensions, rather than helping set out a plan for addressing these challenges.
Megan Iacobini de Fazio is a freelance writer with a passion for culture, food and music from different corners of the world. With a background in international development, Megan has spent the last few years working in East Africa as a communications specialist with different social enterprises, a sector which she is interested in covering – albeit with a critical eye. She tweets @Meganiacobini, and you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org