Processing Poverty

Forgive me if this blog post is not as courteous or as balanced as it should be. I am processing out loud what I have just experienced in a slum in Nairobi. I was part of a team of academic advisors escorting a group of doctoral students on a field trip to the slums. Part of me found it very difficult, because I felt like I was just perpetuating the trend for slum tourism that the film Slum Dog Millionaire catalysed. In our defence we went at the invitation of a kenyan run mission agency Hope for Africa International, but on one level we did just airdrop in, walk around, take some photos and then leave.

Systemic Sins

The slums of Nairobi are a strange experience – because Kenya is a country rich with natural resources, fertile land, beautiful scenes and lots of good infrastructure compared to many African nations. It was not that long ago that Malaysia and Kenya had comparable economic futures. I walked the slum with a church leader from Burundi. Burundi is an hour’s flight away and it is a poorer country than Kenya by some margin. But there are no slums in Burundi, the reason for this is apparently the intervention of the government to restrict movement. So from what i understand from talking to people here, it is a lack of government intervention, unrestrained urbanisation, corruption in the political system that has mishandled the billions of pounds of economic aid that has come into the country that has lead to the huge slums of Nairobi. (I am very happy to be corrected on this). So my first visceral reaction to what I saw today was anger, that this slum didn’t need to exist in the first place.

The business of poverty

Talking to some church leaders here, it was reported to me that the Kibera slum – arguable Africa’s biggest slum, has over 3000 NGOs working in it. Most of them are Christian run. On the one hand this is a huge credit to the church for getting its hands dirty and getting involved. The activism the church demonstrates in some of the most difficult parts of the world is hugely encouraging and it is driven by a christian desire to respond to the love and mercy they have received by God and wanting to pass that on to others. Even Atheists like Matthew Paris writing in the Times acknowledges the impact of Christians in the world’s suffering.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

But the report of 3000 agencies makes me wonder if they could be working together better. Samson a Kenyan mission leader asked simply:

What would it be if they worked together? This slum is someone’s business – some people want it to be like this .

It is hard not to become cynical about the business of poverty, when Kenyan leaders are explaining that they feel some of the aid agencies are not doing work that will genuinely help the situation because it is more lucrative to keep the status quo. Or the amount of overlap and replication that must be going on for 3000 agencies to be working in the same slum – albeit a slum which has over 800 000 people in it. Is the reason there is replication because of the need to justify to donors back home the unique aspect of their work rather than find ways of partnering with others on joint projects? I know this is not just a Christian problem – the non faith based NGOs often have the same problems. But we Christians have got to sort this one out. I have seen in many situations that due to either tiny theological differences, large egos, nationalistic pride or often sheer pigheadedness Christians refuse to work together. Instead we fall out with each other start our own thing, don’t consult and come up with clever marketing campaigns, use “celebrities” to promote the latest project and hope no one will ask us any difficult questions because they are feeling guilty about living in prosperity while others are in poverty.

The snare of immediacy

As someone who is passionately committed to fostering and adoption it was very tempting to grab one of these gorgeous and amazingly happy Children and offer them a home in the UK where their risk of dying from preventable diseases such as diaorhea, malaria or end up being abandoned to become a street child, falling into crime, drug addiction etc are greatly reduced. I have met many people who after the experience of seeing this kind of poverty have felt motivated to get involved and start up their own aid agency, orphanage etc. In one sense this is so much better than the apathy that pervades our cultures I am loathe to critique it. On the other side well meaning people often inadvertently disempower local people, create dependence cultures, create culturally inappropriate responses or end up replicating what other people are doing.


As you can see I am feeling frustrated, angry and desperately sad. I am not offering any solutions at this stage – in one sense who am I to even dare to think I have anything to add to the conversation. But I did see cause for hope today. I saw a Kenyan run outreach centre running a school that started with 50 children in a two bedroom flat in the slum now running in 13 locations serving 6200 children. I saw micro finance programmes running with the parents of the children offering them the chance to take a loan out so they can start a business to earn their way out of poverty . I saw an empowerment programme for teaching mothers the trade of dress making over a 6 month course and then giving the graduates a sewing machine to set them up in business – and the school providing a conduit to making large orders from the newly trained up workforce. I heard testimonies from pupils and parents about how they had not only been offered hope, practical help , real loving relationships, skills and empowerment, but they also come to a living faith in God and were now very keen to share it with others.

I am thinking out loud, so please forgive the venting, there is hope and there is much we can do if we can only find ways of working better together.

13 thoughts on “Processing Poverty”

  1. As someone who has been on two mission trips to africa and spend portions of the last month volunteering in the million stron Khayelisha township in South Africa, i completely agree with everything you said, i am angry too but as feel powerless as to what to do to help

  2. It is really horrendous that the churches within a mile of the slums of Kibera do not see any social / moral / Christian responsibility towards the folk contained therein… apart from ‘employing’ some and paying a miserable pittance to sort their church members’ laundry or wash their pastor’s Mercedes.

    Well ranted!


  3. I think you raise some really important questions. Many of your criticisms of NGOs I think are generally fair, although in many ways I would say the NGOs are simply passing on the desires of donors. Many donors want to give to organisations that can promise low overheads and projects with immediate and tangible results. Unfortunately this can mean that in reality the NGOs that get funding are those who do little planning and evaluation (hence low overheads), duplicate the work of others (the easy way to be “successful”), and achieve short-term “results” rather than addressing long-term issues.

    I would say that progress towards eliminating poverty can and does happen, but it happens with much thought and planning (identifying and addressing the underlying issues), local leadership, and many organisations working together in partnership despite the challenges, frustrations and lack of immediate results. The question is whether donors are willing to support these ways of working…

  4. I think the fact there’s 3000 NGOs and the slum is still as huge as ever speaks for itself really. Poverty in Kenya will never be resolved by Westerners – no matter how good their intentions. The number of orphanages that have been started in Kenya by Westerners with absolutely zero experience of childcare baffles me, especially when in our own countries we would work as hard as we could to get children into a proper home environment with institutionalisation being the very last resort. If poverty is to end in Kenya it must be ended by Kenyans – people who truly understand that poverty and what needs to be done to tackle it.

    I do think you are right as well in that Christian NGOs tend to reflect the general problems of the NGO sector – more accountable to donors than to beneficiaries, leadership dominated by the elite and not led by the poor themselves, going for the short term sell for donors satisfaction rather than grappling with the long term complexities of reducing poverty.

    But I hate to dwell on all thats wrong in Kenya, indeed in Africa, when there’s so much that’s right. Maji na Ufanisi – Christian Aid partner in Kibera trains and empowers communities so they can provide their own water and sanitation facilities – with only capital inputs from donors. Some communities have even moved out of the slum as a result of these types of programmes. Hope and Homes for Children – works to support families so orphaned children can be cared for in a family environment rather than in an institution. And if the church and church leaders really take on board the implications of living a life of integral mission amazing things like this happen to transform entire communities –

  5. Thanks Krish. There have been some interesting reports on the BBC world service about slums recently, some with video clips such as this one by Paul Mason – Do we have to learn to live with slums?:

    Having always believed that getting rid of slums should be a primary aim, there were some aspects of these reports – especially where graduates were choosing to return to the slums – that made me start to think I may need to look at this from a few different perspectives.

    There are some other reports if you run a search on ‘slum’ on the Beeb news site:

  6. We need to find new effective ways of addressing world poverty. Government instability and corruption will insure that anyone who tries to intervene in any fundamental and permanent way will fail. I’m all for volunteering and donating to the world’s poor; and adoption is a possible solution to some problems. But as long as there isn’t a local effort to make substantial changes, the organizations will be unsuccessful. If food aid to Africa just keeps oppressive governments from having to address real problems, and the Chinese government is making money off of the adoption industry, are we really improving things? We have to figure out how to continue helping while making these programs more effective. Buying Sudanese Christians from the Muslim slavers doesn’t help them if the booming business just encourages the Muslims to kidnap more of them. I’m not saying anyone should stop, but that that’s definitely not a long-term solution.

  7. Thanks for this Krish. My journey into working for a Christian NGO began with a trip to Kibera slum when I was 17 and I really resonate with your mix of emotions. If I may, I’d love to respond to some of them. Firstly, I’d suggest that there might be 3,000 NGOs working in Kibera, but I suspect many of these will be extremely small, localised projects. I completely agree that often there is a need for better coordination, less fighting and so on but lots of small, localised projects where people try to help each other can be a really good way of people lifting themselves out of poverty. It’s also helps avoid some of the problems you identify which can be caused by overseas agencies (dependency, disempowerment etc).

    Your blog highlighted some of the amazing work which Christians can and are doing in response. I think it’s absolutely fantastic that Christians are meeting basic needs like health and education. But I wanted to encourage you that Christians are also challenging governments about their need to respond in these situations – not avoid their responsibilities and get rich off the profits. Have a look at one of Tearfund’s “Inspired Individuals” – Kelvin. Kenyan born and bred, an ex-prisoner himself he set about reforming the Kenya prison system on his release. He started off by just providing basic goods in prisons but has since been lobbying the Kenyan government to change the whole system; they have now invited him to help write their prisons policy ( Tearfund partners with churches all over Kenya that adopt this approach. They meet basic needs but also campaign to fix some of the root causes of poverty – for example the lack of employment in rural areas which drives people into slums in search of a better life (

    The last thing I want to encourage you with is that international aid works! I always find it frustrating/sad that you just don’t see the press covering stories of the amazing things aid can and does do. This post is already too long, but to name just a couple of examples… Aid has helped towards making 15 million people in Ethiopia “food secure” – I find it incredibly amazing that in the midst of this famine in East Africa, all the work which has been done in Ethiopia to try and provide long term solutions has paid off! Unlike Somalia, there’s no famine in Ethiopia right now (although they are still suffering from serious drought) – it’s moved a long way from the Live Aid days. Aid has transformed education in Tanzania – 98% of primary school children now attend, compared to 50% of children in 1999. Both of these transformations were carried out by the governments of those countries – donor countries helped build the necessary skills, but the money was planned, spent and monitored by those in the county. (

    I hope this has encouraged you. I’m not trying to pretend there aren’t difficult and bad things about how we (both Christians and secular) respond to the poverty we see, but we’re learning and things ARE changing. God is moving in slums and we get to be a part of that response – let’s be responsible in how we do it, whilst clinging tightly to visions of slums like Eden…

  8. “If you knock at the door, we may let you in.
    If we let you in, then you may enter.
    If you show you listen and respect us,
    then you can start asking us questions,
    not giving us answers.
    If we change, it is because
    we develop our own answers.
    It will take time.”
    (Ethiopian leader, quoted by key informant)

  9. I agree with you Krish, and why you are angry, but its so hard to know what to do, and wether we are just interfering with things that don’t concern us.

  10. Of course I am distressed, of course I am dismayed. Jesus predicted this; ‘the poor will always be with you’

    Does not mean to say we ‘do’ nothing. I support NGO’s in Pakistan, and South Africa. I struggle to support my local church as it struggles in engaging with the poor around it.

    The problems are much bigger than the individual. But also the responsibility if the individuals within it. I once showed my daughter where I was born… her response ‘did I have to’ yes it was an end terrace house in a very poor area of Leeds. God gives permission to feel enabled to better self, Chrisitians have a responsibility to increase the infrastructure to help that individual, empowerment is only enabled through opportunity.

    Governments have to create the tone to stop explotation due to religion, sex, and basically not take money for themselves. In the UK Christian projects are having funds drying up as the government promote austerity on poorer communities. I am not seeing bankers struggling though….. It is human nature to self preserve. The early Church condemned this like of community spirit though. The challenge to the Human Rights Act starting.

    We cannot do this alone I have people in Pakistan praying for my family as we face redundancy issues… why? Because we are all in this together and we have responsibility to use our gifts as talents. I am humbled that a Christian in Pakistan facing fear of persecution prays for me, and I for them.

    Enough said time to do. Talk to us Krish we maybe able to help.

    God Bless,

  11. Great, God bless you so much for being the eye of the poor and sharing out what comes from your heart and you have seen happening and need to happen. God is looking for a person who can advocate for His people. You are such a blessing. Tumaini Church Raila in kibera and its church youths ready to work with you in striving to eradicate the problem.
    wanga vincent,
    youth chairman.

  12. This week, I just closed a workshop I used for five years where I taught vulnerable women how to sew and make crafts- all for sale. Starting with Ksh 5,000 I managed to get a turnover of at least 1.2 million shillings annually from sales. I was able to pay the women a minimum of Ksh 5.000 per month in advance of sales and sometimes when sales were good Ksh 10,000 per month.
    I had to close because the women had stopped coming a few months ago. They said they make better money from handouts from aid agencies, churches and mosques. These agencies said that they raised money on the sob stories such as slums and so were unhappy that I had succeeded in upgrading the economic lives of the women. Right now I have had to store the left over supplies n my small two-bedroom flat because I don’t have alternative storage.
    I have started taking an hour’s trip out to the Mai Mahiu IDP camps where I teach a group of women sewing. I sell the things they make and pay them out of the proceeds. There are between thirteen and eighteen women showing up to the room where we work. This is much harder than what I did before because it is costly and hard on me cos I cant find a comfortable but affordable place to stay while I am there.
    I believe in the discipline of work. It helps deal with depression, learned helplessness, despair, crime and drug abuse. IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE WHO IS WILLING TO HELP ME KEEP THIS DREAM ALIVE? With all the discouragement of the opposition I get from those who want to keep the status quo I feel like giving up…

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