James in Uganda asks…

by Sasha Alyson

I recently received the following email from a man in East Africa (@BaroleJ):

Hi, I’m James in Uganda. Been following you on Twitter for a couple of months now. I want to ask for some advice. I am head of an NGO that has completely refused foreign aid… How best can we help our fellow Africans, especially the youth, understand the concept of not selling out to these colonialists that come in all forms? How then can we instill knowledge, skill, or otherwise unto Africans so as to help each other grow, spiritually, economically and socially?

That’s a good question, a hard question, and the answer will vary with one’s circumstances. And I certainly don’t have the best answers. I don’t live in Uganda, and my focus is not what people in Africa (or Asia, or Latin America) should do, but rather what the West should stop doing.

Having said all that, and having been asked, I’ll offer my thoughts about what I think is possible in some circumstances. You, James, and anyone else reading this, know your situation better than I do, so it’s up to you to decide if — in your case — this advice is good, bad, or just a good start. Others are invited to add comments, and their own advice, below.

My first suggestion is: Don’t tell them what’s wrong. Instead, ask questions that encourage them to think deeply about what’s going on. From schools to governments to global NGOs and the U.N., we’ve got enough people already who want to tell everyone the “right” answer. If it’s really right, then people can figure it out themselves, if they have information and guidance to think about the issues from different perspectives. The world needs more such people.

Get the conversation going. You can start by looking at an INGO project that claims it will improve education, agriculture, or whatever. Talk with others about it. How much money will they spend? Where will it go? What is the likely impact? Will it have hidden impacts? Have there been similar projects in the past? What did they promise? What was the outcome? Other stories on this site could provide a starting point for discussions. (Stories listed below look at some of these issues. For example, when a corrupt government collects fees from a foreign NGO, that NGO is propping up that government.)

Use thoughtful, open-ended questions. Help others – and especially young people – develop the habit and ability to ask questions about the forces that shape their lives. Schools based on “memorize for the test” produce graduates who think somebody else has the answer. Nobody has the answer to many of the hardest questions facing us today. And often, schools and government and foreign agencies also shape the questions. The World Bank and U.N. ask, “Will this raise GDP?” But we also should ask, “Will this create a stronger sense of community among ourselves – or will it weaken our social fabric?”

A lot of good questions start with WHY, or sometimes with HOW. You may need to ask the first questions, but then you can ask other questions, based on the reply. After they start thinking freely, and feel permission to go outside the box, children and youth will soon come up with their own questions. (Adults may take longer!)

In 2012 (left) children were able to carry things without UNICEF help. Did UNICEF really believe in 2020 (right) that a UNICEF-branded pack was what these students most needed?

For example: UNICEF gives free backpacks, with its name in big letters, to schoolchildren in many developing regions. If this happens where you live, some questions might be:

  • Could children carry their things themselves, before they got these backpacks?
  • These often replace locally-made bags, which had designs reflecting a region or ethnic group. Is it better to have bags that advertise UNICEF?
  • Have these backpacks improved education quality? Do children learn more because they have a UNICEF backpack?
  • Do you think children who get these will feel like they need UNICEF to help them have a better education?
  • What do YOU think would improve school quality?
  • Why do you think UNICEF chose to spend its money on this, rather than anything else?

Those are my thoughts. Please use the Comments section below, to give your own ideas, or to comment on what I’ve written.

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments. Please add your own comments at the bottom of this page.

AJETUNMOBI OLUWAFEMI, @Fajetunmobi: 1) Africans should be afforded knowledge of their history with a purpose of redefining their personality and future. 2) Africans should be taught to see the economic potentials in Africa based on economic realities.

Yungin’, @edrinenollan: The last part of your article got me thinking, if people could really ask questions before they say yes to foreign aid as you suggested, we’d be living better for sure

Mily, @dark_ekstasy: Imagine if we started from our own backyards here in Africa. If we actually started funding our own activities. Imagine if a sizeable number of the population in a country gave less than a dollar every month from their monthly wage (and some people can afford way more than this)

Where is Jack Ma ?, @Jaya_Jaya_Ram: Never ask help from foreign NGO’s, most of them are missionaries (conversion). Look for revenue sources like small scale mfg of home products related to local tradition and use online portals to sell them. Ask Individuals or corporates for sponsorship for training funds. In India there are lot of such trusts which are self reliant and not dependent on anyone for funding.

Lillian, @muz_lillian: Social enterprise could be more helpful. 1. There’s baking a larger cake and ensuring all targets get a slice. 2. Beneficiaries get to have a say in the agenda.

Dr Arour Schannuong, @ArourM: Bravo James in Uganda. That’s the mindset we African youth should have, & start to believe in ourselves rather than foreigners especially westerners & Europeans with their illicit hidden agendas.

Harold Godwinson, @HaroldOWessex: When Japan opened up to the world in the late eighteen hundreds they sent their best and brightest pupils to further their studies in the West. Then they brought them back to enrich their homeland. Africa’s diaspora doesn’t seem to come back. Maybe that’s a starting point.

EATegrity, @EATegrity_Sonia: I’ve worked with NGOs & smallscale, emerging farmers in South Africa & now advise farmers to create their own market access and become independent from NGOs. Encourage community driven projects & support what’s already happening on the ground. Also support indigenous knowledge & help reduce reliance on external inputs which disempowers communities that could be using resources within communities (think local seed savers & growers) & compost makers

Abdisalam Yassin, @AbdisalamYassi1: Good question put in a spirit of love for freedom. We can dispense with seeking foreign aid by: first, believing in ourselves, our capabilities, and our cooperation; and second, in having vision and acquiring the local tools to realize that vision. We have to build with our hands.

[Sasha adds: Many comments look at the issue of how to get funding, and I think the solutions fall into three categories. (1) Rely on volunteers. This can work well, but is hard to sustain. (2) Ask for donations, locally or from abroad. It is difficult, however, to avoid the trap of doing what the funders like rather than what you feel is needed. (3) Provide a product or service that offers value, that people want and will pay for. Often I’d say this is the best choice. When I’m not blogging, I spend most of my time working at a private school started by colleagues and myself in Laos. Parents are happy for an opportunty to pay a moderate tuition if it means their children learn and engage in a range of activites – from reading and math to debate and dance. And it’s sustainable. The first school, opened four years ago, has grown into three, all run by Lao people who developed their skills by working with us, all with local teachers.]

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13 thoughts on “James in Uganda asks…

  1. I have read most of your articles, they are well written and elaborate.
    After finishing the last paragraph, I always ask my self, what is the interest of the writer.?

    • That’s always a good question to ask. I’m a former publisher in the USA, now doing education and literacy work in SE Asia — where I have been alarmed to see that aid organizations, which claim to be helping education and much else, are actually doing great harm. Overall – there are exceptions — I find them dishonest and self-serving, and felt I have an obligation to speak up. And to encourage others to also do so.
      BTW, you may like this tweet that I sent out last August:
      My father used to tell me,
      “Whenever anyone tells you anything,
      your first question should be,
      ‘How would they be better off if you believed them?'”
      -Lant Pritchett, in The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning

  2. I concur with almost all your points. However, foreign aid is a complex and entrenched system that is not easy to avoid or step out of. I would just add not to be closed off to what can be learned from what has gone before…even negative impact has value in understanding how best to change actions and attitudes.The questions posed above about the UNICEF backpacks are a great example…more local anthropological and sociological understanding would surely have resulted in another solution. But the answers to the last question..WHY UNICEF chose this solution..is indicative of deep systemic problems which require solutions beyond the local.

    • Thanks for commenting. The main focus of this site is, in fact, those deep systemic problems of the aid industry. As a U.S. taxpayer, I feel my goal should be to highlight how Western aid undermines other societies, and try to make it stop. James asked for advice about his situation, and I hope we’ll get some comments from people who’ve addressed those questions, in similar circumstances.

  3. I’ve been asking myself the same question about how an NGO without foreign aid can stand but for the case of my country, I think it’s because of chasing the “bag”. Some of the authorities no matter how wise, settle for securing money from these foreign bodies than engineering ideas on how they can overcome these problems.

  4. Am happy to be commenting on this……
    Am a Ugandan, grown up in uganda, so atleast I have a good image of what this talks about,unfortunately everyone who has tried forming an NGO,tends to take everything archived from that NGO to their stomach thats why people here nolonger have much trust in NGOs however much one tries hard to be so close to the vision of the NGO, still the people running it will spoil the interest of the rest……there are many projects that have been formed but they end up breaking off before reaching the climax because those involved, come with personal interests, but I feel a country like uganda would love to have as many NGOs but those running them differ interms of understanding…….

  5. Well Said. UNICEF, the UN and the like, add no value and market their institutions. Just selfish interests.
    Thanks for the writeup

  6. Again, great write up.
    As a youth in Uganda, I think it’s better to learn our situation better and understand it.
    For instance, The kind of economy we have, what activities are favoured by our weather and climate.
    Educate ourselves more, do more local research rather than rely on manipulated reports, figures and fixated figures from outside.
    Just thinking

    • Good point. As a Ugandan I am happy to hear our youth speak of self advancement from within. We shouldn’t be looking elsewhere to solve indigenous problems. We aren’t always going to depend on the West, otherwise, what was independence for? Most people associate NGOs with foreign aid. I am surprised James as head of an NGO doesn’t know what to do to educate the youth. How do you form a NGO without a purpose? As Africans we need to embrace indigenous knowledge systems to educate our children. We need to learn to create our own wealth, technology, science, art, etc. We are a rich nation being exploited by Western govts in cahoots with corrupt African leadership. Let’s go back to our roots and begin from there.

  7. To sum it all, there is no such things called free aids or services from international organizations to African countries, They have silent agendas behind them.

    They may come in the name of bolstering education, the question is, why branded school packs?
    They are prioritizing the presence both in our region and minds of those carrying packs as mostly are kids.

  8. Ugandan ex-INGO emergency staff here. I think there’s a haphazard commitment by politicians towards self reliance. Every donor grant has a huge training budgetline, which +ve impact is another day’s debate. There’s a whole disaster/emergency department in PM office e.g, but a small small flood & u see a shambolic response.
    PROBLEM: Political cronyism & interference,
    incompetent officers out to make a killing & eating big wages, CORRUPTION, unrealistic procurements, cooked Value for money audits , any learnings ignored.

    Even with the right questions asked, we have reached pandemic levels where we seem content with handouts.

    Why do business projects seem more successful? Maybe that’s the way to go.
    Thanks for your audience.🙏🏿

  9. …1 the system is not broken that is how it was built , the Ugandan education system almost 60% is used to teach individuals how to study and get jobs ….instead of teaching one how to be creative . showing how to play with money in the bussiness .2.NGOs won’t help if the system is damaged. Lastly some NGos are like ..roses up are the nice good smelling petals yet down are very sharp thorns . Thank you.

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