The Mystery of Africa: The Case of the Missing Development

As a follow up to my internship for an MA in Human Security and Peacebuilding, I contemplated writing my final report, not as a thesis, but in the form of a mystery story, looking at how development had been stolen from the people of Uganda (and indeed other parts of the world) and examining the issue of Development and Aid Effectiveness.

Background to the Case

Billions have been poured into development and aid over the past 50 or more years since colonial Africa gained its independence. Despite the vast amounts of effort, the thousands of organizations and the maturing culture of development work as reflected most recently in the OECD’s Paris Declaration of 2005, the Open Forum’s Istanbul Principles on CSO Development Effectiveness, and the more recent joint meeting in Busan 2011 during which the OECD recognized the Open Forum’s efforts, the gap between rich and poor persists and the health, education and well being in many parts of the continent remain in a dismal state. Development, for many, has gone missing! People are suffering and dying as a result.

Who are the victims of the crime, who are the suspects and who are the perpetrators?

First, can we say it is a crime? Here I can only pose another question: If it is true that many people live on precious little, that children sometimes go malnourished, that many die from curable diseases, that government sponsored health care in many villages is almost imperceptible, that most children go without adequate education, that girls are mutilated (FGM) for “cultural” reasons, that HIV is rampant, that women are beaten or abandoned by their husbands without recourse to justice or compensation, that roads are near impassible and rarely fixed, that huge amounts of government and donor money end up in the hands of the certain elected officials who act with impunity, that police fail to act in many cases unless they get paid by the victims (or in some cases perpetrators), that government representatives become the prime examples of corruption, would you say there’s a crime going on? And can I be fair in making all these statements? I’ll examine most of these issues in future chapters. You be the judge.

In more practical terms, it is a question: Why are so many Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), government agencies, intergovernmental agencies and other organizations focused on Development and Aid Effectiveness and yet making relatively little lasting progress. Or is that really true at all? Why do the challenges of development seem so intractable? Are they?

What will it take to create sustainable solutions which reflect the needs of all the people of the world?

Not satisfied with just learning about the case, I wanted to live it, indeed, as a good detective, to solve it! Really?

Can a white guy from North America who had never been to Africa, in the space of a 6 month internship, find the solution(s) to a problem that millions, many of whom are much more clever, have failed to solve in 50 or more years? Doubtful.

So what can be realistically achieved? In my role as a participant, amateur detective, researcher and activist, I could at least learn some of what other people have learned through experience and research and then do my own research, add my own experiences and come up with my own theories. Add to that I could propose a few new concepts, share of a few ideas and, perhaps, take a few substantive actions. What is also clear is that this story is not the basis of my Academic report because it is far to broad in its scope.

My Journey Begins

In my attempts to investigate “The Case of the Missing Development”, I spent 6 months in Uganda from May to November 2012. Recently having returned to Ontario, I’m experiencing a little culture shock and a little temperature shock. But my enthusiasm for untangling the case hasn’t waned.

While I have found many answers, it can also be said that, each answer comes with a new question. While unraveling some aspects of the case, others become more perplexing.

Read on to investigate with me and share your comments ….

My investigation started on a dark night in Entebbe. That’s where the international airport nearest to Kampala is located.

I had landed!

Entebbe airport is quite modern, with all amenities that you might find in a North American airport including, dogs sniffing luggage, line ups, security scanners (which scanned my finger prints), computers, cameras which snapped my picture and friendly custom and immigration agents, one of whom collected my money and stamped my visa.

Some early clues about the Missing Development…

The  first clue that something was different was when I realized the airport parking lot was dark, not nearly as lit up as most of the other airports I’d been to. A bit disconcerting, but not to worry, I had arranged to be picked up by a friend. “Allah’u'Abha” (God is most Glorious) was the sign that greeted me when I arrived. That was my friend Desalle and my ride.

The trip to Kampala was not very different than any other car trip except that the steering wheel was on the wrong (or rather the right) side and the boda bodas (motorcycle taxis for hire) were everywhere. Most of the roads on the way back were quite good. Uganda after all had been a British colony 50 years earlier and many of the roads were still intact. Some were also new roads. Kampala is a bustling metropolis and looks much like any other city.

But on the edge of town is where the similarity ended. Many roads were severely rutted red dusty surfaces and poorly lit. Nearing the Baha’i House of Worship and the place I would stay for two weeks, the roads were lined with rows of small one room brick structures and some wooden shacks, homes and shops, with tin or wood roofs.

I decided that this would be a good place to stay for a few weeks just to get acclimatized and to make some connections. I knew that I would be among friends.

Another clue showed up as soon as I headed for bed. The dormitory where I stayed had mosquito nets. While this is common in Africa, it did offer one clue about the Case of Missing Development which was destined to show itself many times during my journey. Malaria, more than just being a disease which potentially leads to death, like many other diseases in Africa presents a significant drain on the economy.

Kampala, not always as anticipated

We all have perceptions of what Africa might be like before we arrive. In my case, some were confirmed and others were completely shattered. One stereotype which had been shared by many people, ironically often by African’s themselves, was that (some) African’s (usually the comment referred to men) are lazy. While it is true that some are lazy, what I normally call under-motivated, just as people in other societies, what I witnessed was something quite different. Everywhere people were working and many at jobs which I personally wouldn’t want. Downtown Kampala offered an example of an extremely busy city where most people were busy working for every sort of business. I was quite surprised to see how many computer and printing shops there were. There were malls, banks and high rise buildings in the downtown core as well as gas stations, traffic lights and grocery markets. And while it was truly a busy city, the one thing that was apparent from a cursory observation was that many of the businesses seemed to be owned by non-native Ugandans or immigrants, many from India or Pakistan and many of whom I later learned sent much of their earnings to their families in their home countries. These businesses did offer jobs to native Ugandans, albeit in some cases with very low salaries. Many Ugandans also work in service industries, Banks, Telecom, Government Ministries and other high end jobs and, as a result, there is also a growing middle class. In other parts of Kampala, there was more of what I expected to find, open markets, very poor homes, thousands of people shopping and selling every sort of good, chickens, goats and cows in the subdivisions, and in some cases very poor infrastructure.

My learning begins

My work in Uganda, revolved around five organizations but lead me to interactions with many others.

The first, was the Baha’i community. Since I was staying near the Baha’i House of Worship, and, myself a member of the Baha’i faith, I quickly became involved in the community life, choir for Sunday services, Ruh’i studies, many gatherings with the Baha’i friends and I visited members working at the Baha’i National administrative centre in Uganda. Here, I learned more about the country and some of the many NGOs. Also a disclaimer, while my views and observations may be shaped by my personal beliefs, the views I share do not represent any authoritative Baha’i perspective, rather my own personal learning.

The second organization of interest was Partners for Prosperity, which happens to be a small Canadian based NGO for which I serve as Executive Director. Partners for Prosperity has many connections to Partner organizations around the world. My first task was to go out and visit a few of the other Partner organizations in the Kampala area and this lead me to some of the actors in the mystery. While visiting, I dispelled a few myths that I had held in my own mind about development.

The third was Caritas Gulu, the organization I was destined to spend 4 months with as part of a CIDA funded program, and the final two included the Gulu District NGO Forum and the Uganda National NGO Forum each of which hosted 2 weeks of my visit. The remaining time was used in visiting various government ministries and interviewing consultants, employees and individuals. I’ll go on to talk about these organizations more in future chapters and how they each play a role in striving for the betterment of the country.

NGOs in Kampala

During my first two weeks in Kampala, I couldn’t help to notice the large number of NGOs. True, it was not uncommon to see NGO vehicles driving around, but it was not as though there were more NGOs than businesses. In fact, except for certain areas of the city, most of the city had a good mixture of activities, businesses, schools, restaurants, hotels, pharmacies, clinics, hospitals and homes. As part of my learning about NGOs in Uganda, I started with visits to Partner organizations, one called the Kewempe Youth Center and another CBO (Community Based Organization) called Pharceed.  They were very happy to greet me, of course, but it was I who needed their help and not the other way around. As a student (and investigator) I have always felt that development was a two way street, where people of all countries and cultures should learn from each other. Certainly I had much to learn.

My journey included visits to many other organizations and interviews with many other people which I will speak about in future posts.

Myths in My Own Mind

The first myth I had somehow imagined to be true about Africa, based on so many of the TV programs I had seen over the years, was that there were white people involved in running most NGOs. While that might be true in some cases, it was not my experience. In fact, most of the white people I met in Uganda were either working along side the African people or they were students. What I began to recognize was that most of the NGOs were run by very capable and well educated Ugandans without any help from Mazungus (a non-derogatory term that the African’s use to describe whites). There were also a few missionaries but there were very few that I would say were in positions of significant authority except that, by virtue of their relative wealth, they could easily hire some of the African people to do tasks for them such as cleaning their laundry and cooking. Indeed many of the African women valued these jobs and were quite happy to get them.

The second myth, or at least misunderstanding, was that the education system in Africa was all underdeveloped. This was only partly true. While I had no way to objectively test educational levels, I found that most of the African people I associated with, some whom I interviewed, had benefited from private schools and were extremely well educated and very well informed on world situations. On the other hand, by the government’s own measures, many of the government schools had very poor achievement levels, suffered from high student to teacher ratios, had poor classroom instruction and high dropout rates even at the primary level. More about that later…

This lead to another mystery in The Case of the Missing Development. Why was it that these very capable people could run their own NGOs and activities and yet didn’t have enough money from the local economy to fund their own activities? Was is simply a matter of numbers (e.g. the number of educated vs. uneducated people or the number of tax payers vs. benefit receivers)? Was it due to the corruption that I kept hearing about? During my visit, I also had an opportunity to speak with an NGO leader who mentioned that Universal Primary Education (UPE) had ruined the public education system. Really? Was this the problem? I had always thought that UPE was a good thing and necessary for meeting the Millennium Development Goals. This was yet another thing to learn more about.

More Clues

Certainly at least some of the economic problems in Uganda can be attributed to corruption in Government. Uganda rated 130th of 174 countries on the Corruption Perception Index. Political corruption is widely acknowledged in Uganda as being a major inhibitor to development and has been a target of recent Uganda National NGO Forum campaigns. In comparison with other developing world economies such as China or Korea over the same 50 year period, GDP growth in Uganda has almost been stagnant even though these countries also suffer from corruption. Even in comparison to many other African nations, the GDP per capita  of Uganda is severely lagging. Is the corruption in Uganda so much worse that it can explain this difference?

Or is The Case of the Missing Development due to the 20 year war from 1986 to 2006 which was primarily fought in the north and prior conflicts? That would certainly hamper development. But could the war in the north explain the lack of development in many areas of Kampala? Certainly war is a drain on the economy but other countries have fought wars and still come out ahead.

My conclusions come in a later chapter….

Who’s Communicating to Who?

My second big realization was that, as difficult as it was for me to understand the African accent, it was equally difficult for many African people to understand my accent. Most Ugandans speak English albeit with a strong accent. However, thinking of myself as a “native” English speaker was a bit of a mistake. After all, I was in their country now. It was me who had the accent, not them. After having read a prayer during the Sunday service, at what I thought to be a very slow pace, James, the head grounds keeper at the temple, alerted me to the fact that I was reading far too fast for many people to grasp what I was saying with my strong accent. This was a revelation to me, and helped me to understand a little about why communication was difficult and why we have to learn a little humility. Next time, I read much slower and James confirmed that I had done it just right.

Building Relations!

In only 2 weeks in Kampala I had enjoyed the interaction with many new friends including a very special individual named Rajy, an Egyption friend who adopted me and made my stay especially welcome, Wes, an elderly Jazz singer who directs the Baha’i choir and who invited me to a local Jazz club where he sang with a band, some local friends, Kadeja, Ellen and Richard, who made sure I was fed breakfast and with whom I shared my daily morning tea, and many others, Joyce  who had arranged my accommodation, Linda, Emmy and Willonah who took me dancing,  Carolyn who helped me address my communications and banking issues and invited me to some gatherings, Gloria, Alex, Brenda, Herbert, George and Kibram and many of the other friends, Aunty Vi, Desalle, Saba, Jojo, Julie, Janet, Patricia, Patrick and so many more who made my first two weeks amazing. Thanks to all of you! Kampala had welcomed me with open arms and made an unforgettable mark but it was time to head north to Gulu. There I would find out much more about “The Case of the Missing Development“.

Recapping my questions:

1) What impact does Malaria and other disease have on the national and local economy?

2) Why is corruption seen as the main challenge to growing the economy, whereas in Korea, China and other countries that have been developing over the past 50 years, corruption, while slowing the growth, has not prevented it?

3) What if anything is different about the education systems (both private and public) that make it possibly less successful than other educational systems and why did some people believe that UPE ruined the public education system?

Many other questions were coming to mind…

1) Was the 20 year war in the north the main reason for the lack of progress?

2) Was there still animosity between factions and what did people really feel about the Kony 2012 video in Gulu?

3) How far had the North come in its recovery from the war which ended 6 years earlier?

4) What opportunities did all of this learning present that might improve the current situation?

More to come in the next chapter: “North to Gulu! The Mystery Deepens…”

Garth Schmalenberg

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