From Skyscraper to Slum: Two Disparate Experiences in International Development

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Written by: Ali Vandebunt (Saybrook College ’21)

This piece was published as part of the YMUN Pegasus Series

On Friday, July 12th, I sat in an air-conditioned, modern conference room in Manhattan, listening to U.N. ambassadors and prominent leaders of nonprofits and NGOs speak about the need to mitigate the global water crisis. On Friday, July 19th, I drove through an unincorporated slum of Nairobi, Kenya called Kibera, watching as residents carried jerry cans of water filled from an unimproved source. Within a week, I was exposed to two of the most divergent places: a well-organized conference with some of the most powerful people in the world and a disorganized slum with some of the most powerless people in the world. Through both experiences, I learned a great deal about the acuteness of the global water crisis, the need for climate-resilient, scalable solutions to this crisis, and projects that groups have implemented to provide clean water to communities around the world. But perhaps the most striking lesson I learned is the difference between the U.N.’s, and generally an international NGO or non-profit’s, reputation amongst communities in developed versus developing countries.

This summer, I worked for GivePower, a non-profit that provides clean water and clean energy solutions in communities around the world that need it most. I really admire the organization’s structure: it invests in the land and equipment necessary to put either solar panels or solar-powered water desalination machines in villages in developing countries, and then it finds local companies to operate the projects, with an emphasis on empowering women to act as leaders of these micro-businesses. As an intern, my tasks included looking for potential sites for new GivePower solar and water projects and surveying the population of another impoverished area in Kenya, called Likoni, to determine the impact of a water desalination machine in that area. Choosing the right location is vital to the success of a GivePower project: if the region is not sufficiently dense, or if the local community does not seem receptive to a water desalination machine, then GivePower’s projects will not reach their full potential. So, for two weeks, I traveled around Kenya and Tanzania, evaluating potential sites for projects, speaking with local citizens who work in these sites, and facilitating networks for GivePower’s future use.  I thought that a visit to the U.N.’s High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development would perfectly complement my upcoming visit to East Africa – the conference focused on clean water during the day I would attend – so I stopped in New York on the way to attend the Forum. During a panel called “Water in the 2030 Agenda”, I definitely acquired a better understanding of the water crisis. I learned that almost 90% of natural disasters around the world are water-related, 500 million children worldwide live in high flood zones, and oftentimes, poorer communities pay more than rich communities to obtain clean water. I also attained a deeper understanding of the reciprocal relationship between climate and water stress, as officials from UNICEF, UNESCO, and the U.N. ambassadors of Kiribati and the Netherlands spoke about their newest water management practices. As I absorbed the information from this panel, I took copious notes for my bosses. Overall, I had an amazing experience at the U.N., and I left New York with a very favorable opinion about the organization and its projects.

 My perception of the U.N. changed hours after I arrived in Nairobi. As I ate dinner with my bosses, Barrett, Kelvin, and Joseph, and fellow intern, Alex, I excitedly described my experience at the HLPF, expecting my bosses to have a positive reaction. Rather than take interest, however, they all expressed disapproval. They explained that many Kenyans view the U.N. in a negative light. Its complex is much nicer than most neighborhoods in Nairobi, and many Kenyans believe that the U.N. spends its money on unnecessary amenities for itself (such as fancy hotels for meetings and travel, refurbishment of its facilities, and nice cars) and spends very little on project implementation. Barrett told me that only 7% of U.N. funding goes towards actual projects, and Kelvin, who actually works part-time for the U.N., described the differences between the U.N.’s travel accommodations in comparison to the local living conditions in the communities they serve. All of them explained that the average income in Kenya is generally lower than in the U.S.; even if U.N. workers are paid around the same amount in both countries, their dollar purchases much more in Kenya, thus local U.N. employees can have more lavish lives. I was shocked to hear these negative opinions after my positive experience in New York.

My experience in the field further confirmed this finding: international development organizations may be seen as helpful yet are often not well-liked. When arriving at the Human Needs Project in Kibera, a potential GivePower site, our party received many glares from Kibera locals. In the thirdlargest slum in the world, one where about 70% of people live on less than $1 a day, we arrived in a nice car; there were few other cars in sight. Our clothes were clean, and we seemed generally privileged. But my most remarkable experience was in Likoni, Kenya, when Alex and I began the process of surveying. We had been perfecting a survey for two months. We had meticulously worded each question, hired Swahili translators to travel with us, and mapped out exactly where we wanted to survey. However, minutes after we began surveying, my bosses received complaints about my group’s activities. Locals were confused as to why foreign university students were wandering around Likoni questioning random people about their relative water deprivation. We tried to explain that we were part of a non-profit and that we were determining the feasibility of a water desalination machine in the area, but the explanation did not suffice: we ultimately had to send our Kenyan translators into the field without us in order to get any survey data. We attempted to exclude any sensitive questions while creating the survey, but in retrospect, it was definitely not wise for an obviously foreign group to go into the field and ask residents potentially sensitive questions about their water usage. I was upset that our methodically-planned survey strategy changed so suddenly, but I understood.

International development organizations, and specifically the U.N., produce incredible projects that positively transform the lives of the communities they help. This paper is not arguing that international development groups should halt their activities, nor that any international organization’s decision regarding local solutions to global problems is wrong. But, I must argue that some aid and international development organizations – perhaps GivePower, perhaps the U.N., perhaps others – need to further understand how their projects and general assistance are received by the communities they serve. Their decisions are often made in skyscrapers in developed nations but affect people living in slums in developing nations. In order for international development organizations to design more effective projects for their constituents, they may need a greater understanding of local cultural norms and of local communities’ specific perceptions of foreign organizations. International development is a very well-intentioned field, yet in order for projects to generate maximum impact, it is of vital importance for organizations to understand, empathize, and ultimately connect with the groups they serve.