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Why should foreigners dole out charity while we look the other way?

I sat next to a leading Kenyan at a recent visit to the SOS Kenya Children’s Home in Buru Buru. We were told that the organization has a burning goal: to reduce the proportion of support it gets from foreigners versus locals. So far, it’s an uphill task.

I discussed this with my neighbour in the audience, who told me: “Kenyans don’t do philanthropy.”

This got me thinking. Why should this be so? Why are faraway foreigners more concerned about our orphans, our street-children, our ethnic conflagrations, our poverty than we ourselves are? Why do they put their hands in their pockets to help disadvantaged Kenyans, while advantaged Kenyans look studiously in the other direction?

Two immediate thoughts: Kenyans do do philanthropy. They just do it to their extended families. Most Kenyans of means have many, many dependants from their families, villages and clans to worry about. Social norms demand that you look after your own in these parts. And so well-to-do Kenyans are all-too exhausted to address the problems of Kenyans further removed.

Second, all that money pouring in from overseas is also part of an established industry. The cause may be noble, but the mechanisms are sometimes anything but. Foreign philanthropy is often subservient to the cause of economic advantage or cultural imperialism. It keeps one side giving, and the other receiving. It keeps one side the master, the other the servant.

Knowing this, however, does not help the cause much. We still have to crack the problem of how to look after our own. To do this, we first have to define our ‘own’ to not just be our kinsmen or clanswomen. Kenyans in need should be the problem of Kenyans, first and foremost. We have to stop walking around waving begging bowls at foreigners on behalf of our own people. Raising our hands in supplication requires us to first lower our heads in shame.

There are some encouraging signs out there. Many leading local corporates have set up foundations to do more good around there businesses. The SOS villages have homes sponsored by Kenyan corporate donors, who support the creation of a household and the education of disadvantaged children. And SOS itself leads the way in pioneering a model that aims at bringing up children in circumstances that mimic normal life, rather than setting up artificial environments that mass-produce care.

We can do much more. The first step is to understand that being very rich in a very poor country is not much of an achievement in itself. Building skyscrapers next to slums is not development; removing the need for slums is.

Social responsibility, whether corporate or personal, means being a responsible citizen connected to, and concerned about, the wider social collective. This does not mean signing a few cheques or doling out some loose change. It means deploying the skills and resources we have to create a ‘bigger deal’ – an initiative that has an impact on many more than just our inner circle.

Sometimes, you can do big by thinking small. Sometimes, we can do better by being better in our own lives and businesses. Our lives are bigger when they have greater impact on a wider ecosystem, rather then being confined to a tiny locus. And this impact is not at the cost of personal success – widening the result in fact amplifies and deepens individual success.

Look around you. Your Kenya needs help. It has manifold social and economic issues, many of which its government has abjectly failed to address. The answer is for more Kenyans to lend their brains, time and other resources to generate innovative solutions to these problems – not to sit back and watch donations come in from far away. It is a good way to lead a life, to solve something bigger than yourself. Try it and see.

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