Can the Private Sector Replace NGOs in the Developing World?

By Elijah Wolfson


In western Kenya, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen is sometimes treated like a demigod.

When I accompany him on his visit to local schools, we are barely out of the SUV when we are swarmed by children in sort-of-matching uniforms, singing and dancing. Everywhere we go, people—kids and adults—spontaneously break into a chant: “Asante, LifeStraw, asante!” (“Thank you, LifeStraw, thank you!”) At the Emusanda Health Centre in Lurambi—built with Vestergaard funding—teary-eyed man expressed the community’s gratitude, telling Vestergaard (he doesn’t use the Frandsen part of his last name) that “there are babies being born named after you.”

A few days later, after a treacherous, two-hour wooden longboat journey through the islands of Lake Victoria, I start to understand why.

To get to Maduwa Primary School, you have to pick your way from the shoreline of Victoria—the largest lake on the African continent—through miles of shallow channels cut out of stands of papyrus, massive patches of water hyacinth and other plant life. The Kenyan shoreline of the lake is as indefinite as cheesecloth, with streams fracturing the land into hundreds of islands, small and large. The curves through these waterways are tight and progress is slow; we often find ourselves stuck in one or another shore bank, pushing off with oars or reeds we’ve wrested out of the muddy lake bottom. Finally, the boat docks at the school island, a flat, grassy expanse occupied by a couple of grazing cows and, at one end, a few concrete schoolrooms arranged around a dusty courtyard.

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