Kenyan human rights activist Maina Kiai. Photo by: Flickr / CC BY

LONDON — Development actors have become so focused on targets and processes that they have lost their ability to put people front and center, Kenyan human rights activist Maina Kiai has said.

“We cannot continue speaking for people.”

— Maina Kiai, Kenyan human rights activist

Addressing a packed audience at the Bond conference in London, United Kingdom, on Tuesday, Kiai said the sector has lost sight of the people its projects are designed to help, and posed the question: “How do we go back to our roots?”

“We have become too comfortable … We focus on logframes … indicators … and we’ve forgotten that our work is with people … We have lost our linkages with people,” he said.

Kiai, an activist with Human Rights Watch and former U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said NGOs need to stop patronizing aid recipients and connect more with them.

“We cannot continue speaking for people. People can speak for themselves and the challenge for us, even in development, is to let people do as much of that work [as possible] for themselves.”

Kiai also challenged development organizations to stop working in competition with one another. “We compete among ourselves because the funds are limited. It’s no longer about a common goal … We are all suffering [as a result],” he said.

Working in solidarity will allow aid groups to hold big donors to account, he added.

“Even if we are contractors of government, we must never lose the element of speaking truth to power and holding governments and business accountable,” he said. Offering the example of the U.K. Department for International Development to the London-based audience, he said: “If all of you who are getting funding from DFID challenged them, there would be no one else to fund but you.”

He added: “You can’t leave the job of challenging DFID to the Daily Mail.”

About the authors

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.
  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.