Anyone working in international development for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) over the past few years has likely had one of the following experiences: (1) Witnessing an external consultant or boss being flown in from abroad to “manage” the field office somewhere in the developing world; (2) being shocked at the lack of ethics in workplaces where the aim is “helping other people;” and (3) working for or interacting with NGOs (such a broad category that it encompasses all manner of organizations) that serve no apparent purpose.
Now, a new TV show wants to highlight some of the absurdities of the international aid sector. The slyly named “The Samaritans” is a comedy about the perils – and pleasures – of the “NGO world.”
Created by a Kenya-based production company, it chronicles the work of “Aid for Aid,” a fictitious NGO that, in the words of its creator, “does nothing.”
You’ll recognize the stock characters. The new Aid for Aid country director, Scott, who lacks any experience working in Kenya, makes his debut in the pilot episode with this brilliant introduction: “Many of you will be asking who I banged to get this position … I’m not as wet behind the ears as some of you may think, I’ve worked for my mother’s NGO since I was six years old.” With two master’s degrees from the United States and an internship to his name, why shouldn’t he be running the organization? Then there is a mistreated intern, a pill-popping deputy director, and of course a male employee who calls everyone “sweetie”, etcetera.
I interviewed the show’s creator Hussein Kurji of Xeinium Productions to find out about his vision for the series and why rhinos play a part in the comedy.
What inspired you to create the series?
There are over 4,000 NGOs registered in Kenya, and over the years I’ve listened to the stories of friends who’ve worked for NGOs. One day I was asked to pitch a comedy series, and a combination of “The Office” plus [my experience at] NGOs stuck in my head. Maybe these crazy stories would make good comedy?
What’s the craziest story you’ve heard about an NGO?
I heard from someone in the US that an organization was having a charity auction to raise money for endangered rhinos and the prize for this charity auction was to go hunt a rhino in Namibia. [AIAC note: Yes, this happened. You can even see it on the Colbert Report and CNN].
There is no end to the crazy stories. I think it kind of dawned on me when I was working at a five-star hotel here in Nairobi a few years ago that NGOs aren’t always what they seem. All these guys were gathered around eating lobster bisque and discussing how to reduce poverty. Something didn’t seem right.
How is the show evolving?
We’ve been developing the show for two years now. We pitched the show at DISCOP an international TV expo that was held in South Africa, and we won. We got good responses from networks and distributors but they all wanted to see a full pilot.
To raise funds, we used Kickstarter. Also an NGO – ironically – contacted us, said they loved the show and wanted to highlight the issues it raised – so they gave us some money for production as well. We went live in October 2013.
Ever since we went live, we’ve had a lot of interest in watching the full episodes, but are still trying to figure out funding the full season and distribution. We may make it available for rent online, but Amazon takes six months to put it online, and Vimeo is expensive and not everyone can access it.
How did you find the different actors?
We had an open casting call, and reached out to friends who spread the word online, as well as by word of mouth. Several of the actors aren’t career actors; for example the person who plays Scott has an NGO background. He’s worked mainly behind the scenes as a documentary filmmaker – he’s originally from England so he’s faking an American accent for us. We do have some professional actresses, such as the women who play Martha (Allison Karuiki), Suze (Sarah Hassan) and Elizabeth (Fridah Muhindi). In fact the character of “Driver” has acted in the film, “Out Of Africa.”
Why do you feel comedy is an appropriate way to critique the lack of accountability in the NGO sector?
Comedy is comedy – you can make serious situations more approachable and more widely viewed if you do it through comedy. I think laughter is the best medicine, clichéd as that is. The tagline for the show is ‘the Samaritans is a comedy about an NGO that does nothing’; we can exaggerate reality with comedy. Although, I have to say someone from Afghanistan sent me an email and said, “We don’t have a Scott in our office but we have an NGO just next door who has a Scott in their office.”
Do you think NGOs perpetuate inequality?
I don’t know if they intend to perpetuate inequality but with the international NGOs – the large global ones – they get caught up in so much red tape. Staff members know that some of the policies or structures aren’t working but the machine is so big – how can you change it?
One of the themes captured in the online clips is that some people who work at NGOs have a martyr complex, in that they think they’re doing good but they cultivate habits that perpetuate harm – whether it’s mistreating staff, having unhealthy coping behaviors, and so on. How does this figure into the show?
We explore this martyr or savior complex with Scott from the beginning. His character, of all the characters, doesn’t grow or learn as the series develops. He’s definitely a martyr – he thinks he knows it all.
There’s starting to be a lot more conversation in international development around NGO accountability – how NGOs should have mechanisms that give decision-making power to the people they’re supposedly serving, and to assess their impact that goes beyond donor driven evaluation systems. Does this come out in the show?
In the first episodes we introduce a rival NGO – the guys next door. This NGO is the complete opposite of Aid for Aid – so we show that they have good governance and are actually accountable to their stakeholders. We show how this works well for everyone.
We do explore some of the absurdities of donor driven grant-making, among other things. The major story arc of Season one is that Aid for Aid is about to apply for the largest grant that the Nairobi field office has ever applied for. In Episode 2, their first task is to come up with an acronym before figuring out what the grant’s about. As the show goes on, we show the 13 or so steps of the grant process that they have to go through.
What do you hope to achieve with the show?
We’re the first Kenyan mockumentary, and we’re pretty happy with the traction the show has gotten so far. We are aiming at creating local content for international consumption and we hope that we can find co-production partners and networks globally to work with us on this journey.
I’d like to go on for as long as I can. We know we’re critiquing a “big machine”, and we don’t expect the show to change anything overnight – but we’d like to start a dialogue, to get people talking and thinking about in what contexts aid works and for the organizations that are broken, how do you fix them? We’re also going to touch on scenarios and issues in the show that are beyond just NGOs, looking at broader issues around international development.