Stranger Than Fiction

What happens when you combine The Office and development work? You get The Samaritans, a mockumentary of life working in an NGO. The show focuses on the daily operations of an NGO in Kenya called Aid for Aid. It satirizes the bureaucratic inefficiencies of the modern day aid industry and its love of development

The new country Director, Scott.
The new country Director, Scott.

The pilot episode introduces the characters and a dysfunctional organization that may be harming Kenya’s development as opposed to helping it. Incorporating a very relevant theme, the first two episodes of The Samaritan focus on how the organization counterproductively applies for its largest grant ever. This is a large part of the daily minutia of actual NGOs who rely heavily on grant funding. In another scene that may hit a little too close to home, Scott, the new country Director at Aid for Aid, uses the words “barriers to change”, “capacity building”, and “political economy” to send a message that says absolutely nothing about Aid for Aid’s mission and goals. While NGOs may use their vocabulary to a little more effect, you can find NGO papers littered with these exact same words. Maybe from an outsider’s perspective what is a norm in NGO culture might seem borderline absurd.

The show’s scenarios and hi-jinx may seem extreme and unbelievable but many of the story lines come from true stories of people working in NGOs. The show’s website even has a contact section where they encourage actual NGO workers to submit their own real life experiences with NGO inefficiencies. The show’s creator, Hussein Kurji, says inspiration for the show came from a story of a real NGO, whose mission was rhino preservation, holding an auction with top prize being a rhino hunt. Does Kurji’s inspiration and plotlines seem absurd? Absolutely. But he says that since airing he has gotten many responses from NGO workers saying The Samaritans is more truth than fiction.

Kurji hopes his satire of the aid industry will create a dialogue about the industry’s shortcomings. What works and what does not work in the aid industry? Already the show’s popularity is growing. A range of media sites such as the BBC, Buzzfeed, and Devex have all run articles about The Samaritans. This show could generate a new conversation about the accountability of NGOs and the increasingly bureaucratic nature of grant making and development work. Are these changes making development work increasingly ineffective, as Kurji seems to propose from his show? The increasing buzz surrounding The Samaritans may be what the development industry needs to start a conversation about NGO accountability.

Aid for Aid's logo
Aid for Aid’s logo

The Samaritans is a groundbreaking concept not just because of its commentary on the aid industry but also because of its origins. Begun by a Kenyan production company, Kenya is not known for its entertainment industry, especially not television. The preferred entertainment method is radio. But Kurji has worked against the odds to create a show that is not only funny but has a social commentary relevant to both developed and developing countries. Kurji did not even have the money to initially create the show. He relied on the support of 74 Kickstarter backers to fund the first season. The show still needs funding help so it is currently selling the first two episodes online for $5.

It remains to be seen whether the aid industry will address Kurji’s NGO commentary. But regardless, he can be proud in knowing that he has shed light on a topic that has mostly gone unnoticed. As NGOs adopt more business-like attributes, perhaps we in the development community should consider how we are holding NGOs and ourselves accountable for quality development work. Does the NGO industry exist to serve workers’ martyr complexes like the characters in The Samaritan or are they actually there to serve developing nations?

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