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Research: Need, convenience influence where NGOs locate in Kenya

February 15, 2012
Bloomington, Indiana --

Conventional wisdom says that national politicians dictate where service provision in Africa happens -- governmental officials use the power of patronage to influence where various actors, including nongovernmental organizations, offer their services.

But newly published research by Jennifer N. Brass, an assistant professor in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, finds that isn't the case. In Kenya, she determined, NGOs tend to go where they are needed: where services are lacking, and where rates of poverty and disease are high.

Image of Jennifer BrassAnother factor that influences NGO location is convenience, she found. Organizations set up shop in urban areas and in places with decent roads, giving them better access to donors and making life more comfortable for their employees. But seeking relative convenience doesn't mean the organizations are isolating themselves from the needy, Brass said. In Kenya, there is need everywhere.

"Even if NGOs are operating in Nairobi or another city, they may not be reaching the poorest of the rural poor, but they can still be addressing real needs, because there are so many people who are poor," she said.

Brass' article, "Why Do NGOs Go Where They Go? Evidence From Kenya," was published this month in the journal World Development. Her related article, "Blurring Boundaries: The Integration of NGOs Into Governance in Kenya," will be published by Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions and is currently available online. For the research on NGO location, Brass gained access to and analyzed a data set maintained by the Kenyan government's NGO Board and checked the information against data from the United Nations and a variety of Kenyan government agencies. She also interviewed about 100 people, most of them NGO employees and government civil servants.

The study included regression analyses of data on the number and location of NGOs; need factors, such HIV rates, adult illiteracy and lack of access to clean water and health care; convenience factors, such as urbanization, paved roads and distance from the capital of Nairobi; and political factors, such as voter support for the ruling party and turnover of members of parliament.

"No matter how I ran the regressions, there was no statistically significant relationship between where NGOs are located and the political factors," Brass said. "What I find, instead, is that the need factors were statistically significant, and the convenience factors were also significant."

One potential shortcoming, Brass said, is that the accuracy and completeness of the NGO Board data can't be confirmed. Even so, the results provide meaningful information not only for students of African politics and governance but for donors who contribute to NGOs operating in Africa and want to know if their resources are being put to good use.

The articles are part of a book-length research project that examines the changing role of NGOs in Kenya and their relationship with the government. In the "Blurring Boundaries" article, Brass explains that internationally funded NGOs were seen as a threat during the time of Daniel arap Moi, Kenya's president from 1978 to 2002. But since the election of current President Mwai Kibaki in 2002, NGOs and governmental agencies have increasingly worked together or complemented each other; in some rural areas where the government is weak, NGOs may serve as a de facto provider of public services.

"Why Do NGOs Go Where They Go? and "Blurring Boundaries" are both available online. To speak with Brass, please contact Jim Hanchett at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, 812-856-5490 or jimhanch@indiana.edu; or Steve Hinnefeld at IU Communications, 812-856-3488 or slhinnef@iu.edu.

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