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International NGOs do not listen to solutions for Kenyan sex workers

22 February 2024
“Active listening and critical self-reflection of those in positions of power”, that is the recommendation of sociologist Lise Woensdregt. Her research shows that Kenyan sex workers have solutions to their problems, but international NGOs, despite their good intentions, do not listen to them.

Lise Woensdregt spoke to 99 male sex workers in Nairobi, Kenya, between 2017 and 2022 to understand whether cooperation with international non- governmental organizations (INGOs) worked in their favour. She also spoke to 15 employees of the INGOs.

Commitment to social justice
Sex work and same-sex relationships are prohibited in Kenya. These laws and societal prejudices force Kenyan men to operate in the shadows. As a result, they are exposed to violence every day. More than 70 Kenyan organizations led by sex workers are therefore committed to do what they can to achieve social justice. Woensdregt's research, which is part of a project commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, focused on one of the 70 organizations. This organization participates in partnerships with various INGOs, including some from the Netherlands.

Partnerships and balance of power
Community-led organizations are increasingly involved in partnerships in the international development system. These collaborations aim to reduce the power imbalance between organizations in the Global North and organizations in the Global South. Woensdregt conducted her research in order to understand how power relations practiced in such partnerships influence the existence and activities of community-led organizations. “It is striking that INGOs often put their own expertise above the knowledge of the communities they want to help,” says Woensdregt. “INGO employees felt that they were taking this knowledge into consideration, but they did not realize that they were not listening to what the sex workers had to tell them”.

Getting stuck in statistics and frameworks
The research also shows that, due to a strong focus on statistics and frameworks, INGO employees that aim to improve their practices, are unable to incorporate other forms of knowledge, such as that gained from people's stories, into their policies and programs. “The result is that INGOs fall short in achieving their goals. Moreover, these dynamics perpetuate the power inequalities that they try to reduce by including community organizations into partnerships.”

Start with critical self-reflection and active listening
Woensdregt emphasizes that partnerships for marginalized groups must emerge from the experiential knowledge of these groups. “This applies not only to partnerships in the international development system, but also to all kinds of collaborations that involve vulnerable groups and where the aim is to give them a 'voice', including in the Netherlands.” The research shows that giving 'a voice' should not be the starting point in such relationships, instead the focus should be on improved active listening practices, which start with critical reflection from those in positions of power.

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