Expats, the 'scaffolds' of locally led organizations

The home where Nuru International expats stay in Migori County, Kenya. Photo by: Jessica Hansen

Editor's Note: Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar joined the board of directors of Nuru International, a nonprofit organization, in 2014.

It was a late Sunday afternoon on another beautiful day in western Kenya in early 2012. The seasonal rains hadn’t been coming so the sun shone brightly without any hint of a cloud in sight. Jake Harriman, CEO and founder of Nuru International, wanted to chat but we hadn’t yet found time between visiting farmer households, writing reports for donors, cooking dinner, washing socks and boxers, and catching up on emails. Finally with downtime, we settled in a hammock and chair on the porch in front of the house where we and our other expat colleagues lived.

“So, Thomas … we have been working here as expats in Migori County for over three years now. We’ve built a strong Kenyan team that is helping farmers in the community overcome extreme poverty. We’re clearly making a difference, but you know we’re planning to exit the project in a couple of years so that the Kenyans can run the programs on their own. Why do you think we expats should exit?” Jake asked.

“Sustainability,” I responded. “We have limited time, money and resources. If we want Nuru Kenya’s programs to expand beyond Migori County, then they must be locally led and sustainably funded, which means we need to exit.”

This “exit” of our expat team — planned even before we first entered Migori County — was one of the reasons I was excited to join Nuru back in 2010. This precept was the driving force behind the Nuru Leadership Program, which I still lead, as well as Nuru Social Enterprises.

“Why does Nuru Kenya have to be locally led?” Jake pressed. “Why can’t expats continue the work? Donors and practitioners are asking me why Nuru is pushing so hard to build up a Kenyan team and move expats toward the exit. Let’s assume money is not an issue — either NSE generates millions of dollars in profit, or we can raise funds to pay for programs and expat staff. Is there anything fundamentally wrong with expats staying?”

“Maybe we aren’t asking the right question,” I responded, straightening up in my chair. “Instead of asking why should we exit, perhaps we should ask, why should we stay?”

Jake perked up a little too: “What do you mean?”

“What assumptions would make us think we need to stay for Nuru Kenya’s programs to be successful?” I referenced Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” which describes the initially good intentions of those who come to help what Freire calls “the oppressed.” These “good intentioned” who desire to bring forth justice believe they have to liberate “the oppressed.”

“In three years, haven’t we learned that Nuru Kenya wouldn’t have come this far without the active participation, ownership, and ideas of farmers and local teams?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course. Beneath our debate was an unspoken commitment to expat exit. This unanimity was accentuated by how different Jake and I were.

On one side, you had a country boy from West Virginia with dirty blond hair and an all-American look who ventured from his family farm to battle zones, serving as a platoon commander in the U.S. Marine Corps.

On the other, there was me, a city boy from New York with jet black hair (minus the graying) and an unquestionably un-American look — having immigrated from Seoul, South Korea, at age 8 — who ventured from the Big Apple to teach history at suburban middle schools.

Years after Jake turned in his rifle and I turned in my chalk, we ended up on the same porch in a remote village in East Africa. Despite our differences, we shared the belief that an enduring expat presence in poverty eradication projects was ultimately detrimental and unnatural.

“Even with a consistent flow of resources, we can’t stay because, at the end of the day, expats are coming from the outside. Why should we lean into the prevalent perception that nations in poverty need outsiders to come and tell them what to do and how to do it?” I questioned with increasing passion. “At Nuru, we believe that to live in poverty is to live without access to meaningful choices. Doesn’t living in poverty deprive people of reaching their full human potential? After all, isn’t ‘being human’ best expressed in making meaningful choices, setting your course for the future, choosing what to eat instead of desperately foraging for scraps like a dog, actualizing your potential as Maslow described in his hierarchy of needs? History has proven these convictions! As our founding fathers described in the Declaration of Independence, all men have the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Any ethnic or people group that has fought for independence has made this clear as well: Men and women are willing to lay down their lives for the right of self-determination.”

That day, Jake and I concluded that poverty alleviation is about restoring justice: creating a world where people living in poverty are no longer pushed to the margin, but rather are in the center — not as beneficiaries who need to be “acted on,” but instead, as protagonists of their own liberation from poverty.

I think back to this porch chat with fondness as our expat staff prepares to exit Kenya in June 2015. It took seven years to hit this milestone in our proof of concept; and in this time, we’ve raised up an organization of 250 local leaders who have helped over 78,000 people take their first steps on the path out of extreme poverty.

Nuru Kenya is in the capable hands of Country Director Pauline Wambeti, a Kenyan woman who overcame childhood poverty and has proven her effectiveness in empowering her fellow citizens. The more I interact with Nuru Kenya staff like Pauline, as well as my colleagues at Nuru Ethiopia since 2014, the more I understand that our expat staff must not be permanent fixtures in the community, but instead a temporary “scaffold” that supports a locally led organization until it is ready to stand on its own.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Thomas Hong

    Thomas Hong, the leadership program director for Nuru International, has worked in education and leadership development in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mongolia and Uzbekistan. He holds a B.A. in Economics and master’s degree in teaching from the University of Virginia and an MBA in international organizations from the University of Geneva.