At Nuru we try to avoid starting programs that run parallel to the development responsibilities of the national government, such as building our own private schools, repaving public dirt roads, or providing electricity to remote villages. Instead, our approach is fundamentally based on partnership with the community. That means that we intentionally work within the governmental frameworks already in place, instead of creating projects that operate outside of preexisting systems of governance and management. This means that in each of our five areas of development we seek out the cooperation and support of the government officials and experts concerned with our respective programs.

In a perfect world that would mean that Nuru is able to maximize impact as a non-governmental organization by combining it’s innovative approaches to development with the government officials’ intimate knowledge of their communities and resources at the ministry level. However, working with “The Ministry” can be a tricky task. According to Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perception Index, Kenya is ranked 146th out of 180 countries evaluated on the level of corruption in their public sectors of work. This ranking places Kenya as one of the most corrupt countries in east Africa, worse than the country’s poorer neighbors, Uganda and Tanzania and tied with conflict-ridden Zimbabwe.

Here on the ground this level of corruption translates into constant battles with government officials, whose normal mode of operation is in direct conflict with Nuru’s strict policy of no handouts, no free lunches and certainly no bribes. Of course, not all ministry officials are after money. There are a few ministry workers we have met in each of our program areas who have been invaluable in the success of Nuru’s work. But, unfortunately, for many officials, finagling cash from western NGO’s is considered a part of their job description.

At this point in the seed project, the main ministry official we deal with in education is the District Education Officer, or DEO. The DEO is basically the head honcho of all the Kenyan Ministry of Education’s programs at the district level. He has the ultimate power in hiring and placing teachers in schools, assigning government funding to new education projects and promoting teachers to headmaster posts. In Kuria West, he’s the ultimate boss-man of education.

In order to develop a strong, reliable relationship with the ministry, Francis and I try to meet with the DEO once a month to update him on our latest initiatives and plans for the future. Most of the time the meetings are pretty perfunctory– we tell him what we’re doing and he gives his approval. Yet, earlier this month Francis and I approached the DEO with a slightly more specific request. Over the past few months we have implemented a few programs which have been pretty controversial in the teaching community, such as training farmers on checking teacher attendance in school and holding mandatory teacher seminars without offering a “sitting allowance” (aka paying a fee to each teacher who participates).

Everything we’ve done has been submitted to the DEO ahead of time, so that he may give us his opinion and formally approve our work. Although he has given us his approval formally in the past, he’s never taken any concrete steps towards publicly displaying his support for Nuru. Therefore, last month we requested that he publicly endorse our initiatives to the entire community during a community-wide meeting in November before the schools closed. In that way, we could legitimize our unorthodox way of evaluating teacher performance in a public forum.

Surprisingly, the DEO agreed to our request. He proposed that we hold a meeting for all parents, teachers and head teachers from our area so that he could talk with them about Nuru’s involvement in improving their educational standards.

Although I was excited by the prospect of the DEO making a strong statement of support for Nuru’s work, I was a bit nervous about the meeting. Sure, the DEO had committed himself to endorsing Nuru’s work in a community-wide meeting, but he had also alluded to the necessity of Nuru providing lunch and transport fees for the inconvenience we were causing him.

I’d explained to him clearly that Nuru was not interested in paying for lunch and transport for every person who attended our meetings, otherwise we’d go bankrupt! In fact, we expected that all Nuru members attend our meetings on time without any sort of monetary perk for their trouble. He seemed surprised by our response, but still committed to attending our meeting in the coming month.  Still, deep down, I felt like the DEO’s quest for a “free lunch” was far from over…