Daraja is a Tanzanian organisation, with a 100% Tanzanian board of directors*, but we have some non-Tanzanian staff. And we work in accountability, a field which seems more closely related to politics than would be the case if we were delivering health, education or water supply services. Several times we have been asked what right we expatriate staff members have to be doing this. I also came across a recent blog post by Owen Barder, answering a related question about his unwillingness to blog about Ethiopian politics.
I have a number of responses to this question, but let me stick to three main points here.
First, I don't think the fact that we work on accountability makes us any different from expatriates working in less obviously political sectors. People working in development often create a very artificial divide between technical and political issues. Everything has a political component to it, even if sometimes it is convenient to ignore this and concentrate on finding technical solutions to what look like technical questions. But say you work for an NGO that installs rural handpumps. Unless you are putting handpumps in every village, you have to make a decision about which villages get a new pump and which don't. That is at least partly a political decision. You will also have to make (also political) decisions about which local partners to work with. The same goes for donors working in any given sector: political decisions are being made all the time without admitting that they are political. What could be more political than the lack of access to basic services across much of Tanzania?
Second, I do agree that some issues are "out of bounds" for comment by non-Tanzanians. In particular, we have to stay clear of party politics. I don't think we have the right to provide support to Chadema, TLP, CCJ or even CCM as a political force. That would be interfering with the democratic rights of Tanzanian citizens. But that is something that we do not do and we will always strive to ensure that we don't do this. There are many ways to work on accountability without expressing preference for or providing support to any particular political party.
Which brings me to my main point. The work we do is all about making Tanzanian governance more responsive and accountable, it is not about influencing the particular decisions made by that governance system. We create space for debate, but we leave citizens and leaders to fill that space with their views. We create platforms for citizens to make their voice heard, but we don't tell them what to say. We even develop tools that help local government get its message out to citizens, but it is up to local government to decide what that message is. It has become a cliche to say that we are "facilitating", but for once I think this is actually true. The role of government is to listen to the needs and priorities of citizens and respond accordingly. We help this work more smoothly. We are the oil in the engine, we're not driving the car.
In this way, we are arguably less political than the NGOs and donors that are actively involved in making decisions about how public money is spent. To stretch the metaphor further than it should probably go, they have at least one hand on the steering wheel.
* We also have a sister organisation in the UK, Daraja Trust, for fundraising purposes, but Daraja in Tanzania is an entirely independent legal entity that is not directed by Daraja Trust.