In order to help you make an informed decision about whether to support us, we have provided below some general answers to questions you might have about our foundation and its mission.
- Why should I give money to Africa when there are plenty of legitimate needs at home?
- Exactly how will my contribution be spent?
- How can I be sure that my money won’t be “eaten” by corrupt individuals?
- Why should I contribute to a small, new foundation when there are larger, more experienced agencies that provide aid to Africa?
- What is the relationship between your organization and the current Kenyan government?
- How do you avoid the paternalistic attitudes and bureaucratic inefficiencies that seem to plague many development organizations?
- How does the war on terrorism in Kenya affect the work of your organization?
- Where exactly are the villages in which you work?
- Why are you focusing on only one small geographic area?
- What are the long-term goals of your organization?
In spite of the many positive aspects of African life, the fact is that the majority of rural people still live without basic resources granted to even the poorest segment of our own populations. In an age where industrialized countries consume a share of the world’s resources vastly disproportionate to the size of their populations, we believe that addressing global inequities is a responsibility of every citizen. The efforts of our foundation represent one small attempt to reduce global disparities in resources by partnering with local communities in Western Kenya. Despite rising inflation in Kenya in recent years, a small donation can still go a long way towards poverty reduction.
Each year our local board of governors recommends for funding a set of specific community-based projects in the areas of education, health care, local enterprise, agriculture or environment.
All funded projects go through a screening process in which a written application is reviewed by both our local board of governors and our board of trustees. Your contribution will go directly to one of these projects.
We work hard to keep our overhead costs to a minimum. Approximately 80 percent of your contribution will go to directly support projects chosen by community members, and 97 percent of contributions go directly into the local economy in Maragoli. All members of our international board of trustees and our local board of governors are volunteers.
In the rural economy of Western Kenya, where the average daily wage for a farm laborer is about one dollar, a small contribution really does go a long way. A $25 donation, for example, will cover nursery school fees and desk for a child for an entire year, while a $50 donation will provide a school uniform and lunch for an AIDS orphan for a year. A $100 contribution can fund a new latrine for the primary school, $200 can outfit an entire science lab with basic equipment; and $500 can enable the construction of a water tank.
In spite of the best intentions of the current government, corruption is still a significant problem in contemporary Kenya. Instead of viewing public service as a civic responsibility, many leaders view a government position as an access route to money and resources for one’s family, clan, or ethnic group. No matter how “understandable” such practices may be when viewed in the context of resource shortages or colonial history, corruption is not tolerated by our international board of trustees or by our local board of governors.
Our organization is 100% committed to financial transparency and accountability, and we have instituted numerous financial safeguards to ensure that your money is spent wisely. Our most important safeguard against corruption is the fact that we deal directly with local community members, thus leapfrogging the various layers of Kenya’s bureaucracy. In addition, we have gone to great lengths to choose only persons of the highest moral integrity to serve on our local board of governors. We also follow rigorous accounting procedures: all disbursed funds are receipted, and project implementation is documented through photos and written descriptions posted on our web site. We disburse funds by bank checks (no cash), and whenever possible, we pay businesses directly for supplies rather than paying individuals. Finally, we contract for an independent audit in Kenya each year and provide details of our projects and finances to donors in our annual reports.
If a primary goal of development assistance is to meet real human needs and foster community development, there are significant advantages to being small. Smaller organizations can adapt to local needs much more readily than large, bureaucratic entities, and they can ensure local participation and decision-making in projects. Overhead costs can be kept low, and flexibility can be maintained. In short, we believe our small foundation maintains a people-centered focus rather than becoming overly driven by donor priorities or prone to bureaucratic inefficiencies. Certainly, it is important for larger, more established NGOs to work with African governments on the “big fixes” such as infrastructure development, but there is a very important niche for small organizations such as ours that are predicated on community involvement and partnerships with local people.
Our local chapter of MACODEF is registered with the NGO Coordination Board and operates as a non-profit organization under Kenyan law. Official registration by the Kenyan government allows us to operate a special bank account for non-profit organizations. More importantly, though, it provides us with a stamp of legitimacy that facilitates channels of communication between our local board of governors, district development officers and other non-governmental entities. This strengthens our position in applying for funds disbursed by the Kenyan government or by international foundations to NGOs. Responsibility for project design and implementation, however, rests entirely in our own hands, allowing us to maintain an important degree of autonomy from bureaucratic control.
In recent years the entire development enterprise has come under fire for promoting dependency and paternalistic views of Africans, for placing donor goals and needs above those of local communities, and for promoting political and bureaucratic control by state elites over people living in rural areas. We are sympathetic to these critiques and thus have designed our foundation on the principle of empowering local communities. While our organization works towards the “development” of resources and their equitable distribution in rural communities, we categorically reject the implication that Maragoli people are “underdeveloped” in any moral or spiritual sense. In fact, we have found more often than not learning and growth on the part of board members and donors come from the insights of our friends in Maragoli.
We also recognize that most rural dwellers do not represent some idealized version of full-time subsistence farmers but in fact are best viewed as marginalized workers who, perched on the edge of Kenya’s precarious wage economy, make ends meet in a variety of ways. We understand that it is naive to assume one unified “culture” at the village level; rather, as in any community, there are divisions by gender, age, religion, clan affiliation, income and educational level.
In spite of the many points of view that are present, however, many shared interests exist as well. Our local board of governors and on-site project coordinator are committed to identifying culturally compatible projects that reduce poverty and to harnessing existing community institutions in implementing these projects. Moreover, our organizational structure involves a partnership between an international board whose members have all spent considerable time in the Maragoli area and a local board of governors whose members are deeply committed to social justice and poverty reduction in rural Maragoli. We believe these distinctive features allow our foundation to avoid the pitfalls encountered by many development agencies.
Western Province, where most Maragoli people live, is far away from the sites terrorists have targeted in Kenya, and therefore the work of our foundation has not been affected at all. Kenya first appeared on the “international terrorism radar screen” when the American Embassy in Nairobi was bombed in the late 1990s. Then terrorists bombed a hotel on the coast and narrowly missed downing an Israeli jet as it took off from the international airport in Mombasa. This event led both Britain and the U.S. to issue a travel advisory for Kenya, and British Airways temporarily suspended flights to Kenya. The Kibaki government responded by tightening airport security and by arresting more than 200 alleged terrorists, including the alleged perpetrators of the most recent attack. In the wake of these measures, Britain reinstated daily flights and lifted its travel advisory, and the U.S. has eased its stance as well. More recently, most of the Kenyan government’s counter-terrorism measures have focused on Al Shabaab’s activities near the border with Somalia. Western Province has not been directly affected by these activities.
Our work is primarily focused on two villages, Vigetse and Vigina, that are situated right on the equator in the Vihiga District of the Western Province of Kenya. The nearest city of any size is Kisumu, about 30 minutes away. Though the villages are within walking distance of the north shore of Lake Victoria, they are best reached from the Kisumu-Kakamega highway via Majengo and Bukuga. The Uganda border is barely an hour away. A large number of males work or are in search of work in cities such as Nakuru, Nairobi and Mombasa, and return home infrequently. Thus, despite the distinctive rural environment, the villages have the feel of “bedroom communities” and include many female-headed households.
The two villages consist of approximately 300 compounds, each belonging to an extended family, which are spread out over roughly six square kilometers of fertile land. The estimated total population of the area is 3000 adults and children. Most compounds have several houses, a cooking hut, and a small shamba, or garden. The 0.5-1 acre plots are usually delineated by a fence of bushes or trees. The villages are crisscrossed by many small paths winding around each household and down to the springs that supply water to the residents. At the center of each village stands a primary school and church; the village of Vigina is home to a secondary school as well.
Though our long-term goal is to expand our efforts, there are good reasons for starting with two villages. First, our organizational philosophy lends itself to small, focused projects. Because we stress a holistic approach to development, it makes sense to focus on an area where we can foster sustained input from people in the community who are intimately acquainted with local needs and politics. Second, the historical connection between members of our board of trustees (many of whom taught in this area) and people in Vigetse and Vigina (some of whom now serve on our local board) makes these particular villages a logical place to start. Third, since we are a relatively young organization, it makes good fiscal sense to start out with a modest agenda in one area rather than succumbing to the temptation to do more than our capacity allows.
Over the first five years, we have grown our organization slowly, keeping it focused on a very small geographic area and gradually building complementary programs in education, health care, environment, agriculture, and cottage industries. We have constantly monitored our programs through our local board of governors and project coordinator and adapted them in response to feedback from the community. Our financial target was to raise a modest $100,000 over this five-year period through a combination of individual contributions and donations from larger corporations and foundations or government grants. Through the generosity of a small group of dedicated donors, we were able to reach this goal. Our board of trustees met with our project coordinator and local board chairman in Michigan in 2009 to review our first five years of work, and we all agreed that the impact of our projects had been considerable. We set several goals for 2009-14, including completion of the rural health clinic, broadening our environmental projects to include solar cooking and lighting, initiating a sustainable agriculture program that would provide school lunches for students, and building of a community resource center and new MACODEF office. The trustees and the local board will meet for the tenth anniversary of our foundation in 2014 to chart the way forward and discuss the possibility of expanding our work to other nearby villages.