Kenyan NGO struggles to pay staff in area hard hit by election violence

The Safe Water and AIDS Project conducting an antenatal care study in Kisumu. Further studies have been delayed because of the elections. Photo by: Safe Water and AIDS Project

NAIROBI — The city of Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, is one of the areas hit hardest by violent clashes that have plagued Kenya in the wake of its recent elections. This has led to a difficult operating environment for development actors in Kisumu, as well as in other parts of the country.

For one Kisumu-based NGO, the Safe Water and AIDS Project, or SWAP, the election turmoil has led to a decrease in cash flow, curbing their ability to pay staff.

Kenya has held two elections since August, and both times incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner. Opposition candidate Raila Odinga boycotted the re-run in October and continues to denounce the legitimacy of Kenyatta’s presidency.

As Kenya’s election drama has unfolded, major political announcements have been followed by demonstrations in the streets, leading to a clamp down by security forces. Kisumu, considered a stronghold for the opposition, has been one of the hotspots of violence.

SWAP, which has operated in Kisumu since 2005, conducts scientific research in areas such as antenatal care and menstrual health, and distributes health and hygiene products. Other projects include emergency response efforts and scholarships for orphans. But continuous election turmoil has interrupted the organization’s programming for the past four months. Their office has been closed at times, their employees have been prevented from conducting their field work and some projects, such as some of their kiosks that sell water to communities, have been shut down all together, among other disruptions.

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The organization was planning to do a series of studies with partners on topics including early childhood development, as well as water and sanitation, starting in September. The funding for these studies was factored into their cash flow projections. But all of the studies have been delayed until next year because of the election’s impact on Kisumu. Travel warnings have prevented the principal investigators of the studies from visiting the area. Because of these delays, the organization is not receiving the anticipated funding.

SWAP has also seen a hit to its revenues from sale of health and hygiene products, which is usually around $29,000 per month. Their employees have been prevented from selling the products on many days because of the heightened security concerns surrounding demonstrations and some roads have become inaccessible. In some areas where SWAP has had loyal customers for years, the organization no longer feels welcome because of the tribal divisions that have flared up as a result of the elections.

The NGO typically uses the sale of these products to supplement donor support, but because of the elections, sales revenue has been cut around half, Alie Eleveld, technical advisor and founding member of SWAP, told Devex.  

With depleted funds, SWAP has had to delay in paying staff and has had difficulties in paying their suppliers. They have also had to reduce the amount of hours that their staff works. For some of the staff, that means a reduction from full-time to part-time work.

“We are running out of ideas of what to do. We’ve gotten bad news, after bad news, after bad news,” said Eleveld.

The uncertainty has also demoralized staff who are anxious about job security and concerned about school fees for their children that will be due in January, she said. This is coupled with a rising cost of living in Kisumu because supply routes have been blocked in some areas, making food more scarce and transport more expensive.

With its remaining funds, SWAP has prioritized its contractual obligations to donors, such as research, trainings, and monitoring visits, among other activities. This takes priority over paying staff.

The Safe Water and AIDS Project has kiosks where water is sold to communities. Some have been closed because of the election. Photo by: Safe Water and AIDS Project

Some donors don’t have a good understanding of the realities on the ground for organizations such as SWAP and have placed them in a vulnerable position by delaying project funding, said Eleveld. They are more focused on project outcomes than the impacts that delays might have on implementing organizations. They prefer using existing structures to push forward on field work, rather than pay the overhead costs for the local organizations that are maintaining these structures.

“This has led us to manage so many projects, at the same time, to pay our rent and payroll,” she said. “Funding delays affect us as an organization. I think some donors are not concerned about that. They just want their work to be done efficiently. If we suffer now, I think some of them don’t even realize it.”

Following the inauguration of Kenyatta in November, Eleveld thought the atmosphere in Kisumu could ease back to normal. But on the same day as the inauguration, Odinga announced that a “swearing in” ceremony for him as president will be held on December 12.

“We are very worried about that. We know there will probably be a lot of resistance from the government, who will use police to stop the swearing in. It could even lead to the arrest of opposition leaders and when that happens that could trigger an immediate response in Kisumu,” she said.

While she has faith SWAP will ultimately be able to withstand the election’s impact on the organization, Eleveld thinks the election turmoil could put a dent in the organization’s long-term operations.

“I think we will probably just operate on a smaller scale. We will start the year definitely with a big gap to fill,” she said.

Read more Devex coverage on the Kenyan election.

About the author

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    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.