Sunday, August 5, 2012

Thoughts on a Field Visit

Last week I accompanied my coworker Jannet on a field visit to Alebtong, a nearby district. Jannet runs the program for Children with Disabilities (CwD), which entails paying school fees, providing uniforms and other scholastic materials, and supporting families with seeds for food security/subsistence farming and commercial agriculture. CCYA also operates a parallel program for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC). 

Let's review the situation in which these families live (warning: generalizations to follow): Uganda is a developing country, in the low income bracket. About 30% of Ugandans live on less than $1/day. Poverty is the norm here. This means, among other indicators, that many children walk without shoes long distances to reach a school which may or may not have teachers show up that day. They return home to huts without electricity (so no light by which to study at night), and usually charcoal stoves are used for cooking, giving off much smoke. The average family has 6.65 children. Running water is unlikely nearby, so the women and girls travel by foot (or bicycle if they're lucky) for hours to retrieve it everyday. Hygienic sanitation is rare, mostly just pit latrines without much maintenance. Meals are served at best twice a day, without much diet variation or nutritional value. Risk of water-borne diseases or health problems related to malnutrition is high. Unemployment due to lack of education and skills, along with a lack of export industries, means families have virtually no income.

That's pretty much your standard, run of the mill, sub-Saharan African poverty scenario. Corruption tends to show up in such situations as well, a topic which merits an entire dissertation in and of itself. Grand corruption permeates nearly every echelon of government. Far too often, aid money doesn't reach its intended recipients because it mysteriously winds up in someone's pockets. Monies meant for development projects never appear, even though the books say they should. Meanwhile, President Museveni* has been promoting a campaign to increase the number of districts (roughly equivalent to American states) in order to improve service delivery and accountability. His rationale is that smaller physical areas would increase the ratio of government officials to citizens. Yet during his terms in office, the number of districts rose from 56 to 111, without corresponding results as promised. Alebtong is one of these newer districts, and clearly, drawing new lines hasn't helped anyone, perhaps other than the bureaucrats. In such a corrupt system, increasing the number of government offices seems like it will only increase the opportunities for more corruption. 

On top of poverty and corruption, there's another major factor: conflict. The (LRA) conflict took place in this area, and across much of the north. Women and children were abducted, villages decimated, homes displaced, sexual violence committed (and with it the spread of HIV/AIDS), and social ties ripped asunder. Luckily, most IDPs have returned home and rebuilt, and many abductees have escaped and reintegrated into their families and communities. Suffice it to say, widespread trauma still exists, and communities are still recovering from the scourge of war, or, as the locals tend to call it, "the insurgency." Whatever feeble livelihoods families may have possessed before the war were utterly destroyed, and they have had to re-create them from scratch - when they have nothing.

This trifecta of poverty, corruption, and conflict exponentially magnifies the affect of any one single element. Case in point, between the impact of decades of political violence, armed conflict, and low life expectancy associated with poverty, almost 50% of Uganda's population is younger than 15. Whoa. 

Enter CCYA, to assist especially marginalized families with basic necessities. With this aid, families can afford to keep their children in school (as opposed to dropping out because of inability to pay fees - by the way, for what is supposed to be universal FREE primary and secondary education), an absolutely crucial component for breaking the cycle of poverty. This can really make a huge difference in the lives of these children and their families, and it is important and valuable work.

But - even if the kids can stay in school, the quality of education is low and opportunities for higher education are even more limited. In rural areas, state education does not produce capable, competent, competitive high school graduates. A billboard around the corner from my house (that I mentioned in a previous post) claims that 256,700 youths cannot find jobs every year -- so even if a student is able to afford university, there simply aren't jobs for all the graduates (hmm, sounds familiar). Ok, that aside - let's say that the family is able to set up a working farm, and they produce enough to meet their immediate needs and sell the surplus for profit. But the roads are in terrible condition, and they don't have any form of transport, and it's a day's walk to the nearest trading center. Getting their goods to market is a significant challenge, but let's say they beat the odds and they make it to the market, eager to sell their good-looking maize.

Well, the next stall over belongs to a family with more money, so they can afford to take their raw maize to a mill and grind it into pretty good quality flour. Processed flour fetches much higher prices than raw maize, which is readily available to a larger portion of the public so it is less lucrative in the market. So the original family comes back home from the market with not a whole lot gained. Maybe they decide they want to process their maize too, to be more competitive at the trading center. But they don't have access to a mill. And they don't have access to credit to build a new mill, because they don't have any savings or other form of collateral. Maybe they'll get lucky and CCYA will be able to help them form a Village Savings and Loan Association with their neighbors so they can set up a revolving credit scheme and eventually raise the capital to build a mill.

Ok, so then they've got an operational mill, and lots of nearby farmers become their clients and they start to turn a profit. Awesome! But - those roads are still really terrible, and it's cost and time-intensive to get to the market to sell their goods. And they want to expand their farm, but to do that they'd need better irrigation systems, which is basically impossible when the nearest borehole (example) is so far away. The government was supposed to pave a better road and dig a closer borehole, but neither has happened yet. Without addressing these larger structural issues -- which one could argue amount to human rights violations -- individual interventions are ultimately limited.

Fortunately, this family knows their rights. They are courageous and won't take no for an answer, and they organize their community to demand that the government fulfills its duty to provide decent public services for them. And they win! Yippee!

Right about here would be a great place to end this hypothetical story, and everyone lives happily ever after. But in reality, of course, it's not this easy. Even if all these elements went as well as we could hope, if a family member falls ill, or drought strikes, or conflict flares back up again, it's all back to square one. I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but this isn't such a hypothetical for many of CCYA's beneficiaries. This sort of chain of events (like Had Gadya or The House That Jack Built) is the reality here, for far too many families.

An undergraduate degree in Politics, Sociology, and Peace and Conflict Studies, seven and a half years of professional experience, one year of graduate school, and about six weeks interning in Uganda, and I'm just starting to scratch the surface of these complexities and challenges. So much still seems way over my head -- solving the problem of poverty seems to be right up there with curing cancer and reversing climate change. I do believe that the rights-based approach to development** (which incorporates a political analysis about the structural and systemic causes of poverty and advocacy/organizing component alongside service-delivery to meet immediate needs), is one of the best tools we have available.

And, it's not enough. Sometimes it's hard to decipher where to even begin: what is the right entry point to create the biggest impact, who are the most strategic stakeholders to engage, when and how? Even if we got all that right, the most organized campaigns are nonetheless limited by the resources available to the duty-bearers. Even if the Ugandan government were a sterling example of honesty and efficiency, if there's simply not enough capital to (fill in the blank here), the community will still suffer.

Big, tough, troubling questions. Just your typical musings during a torrential thunderstorm on a Saturday night in Lira.

I do want to end on an optimistic note, however. I firmly believe in Rabbi Tarfon's credo from Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors): "It is not upon you to complete the task, nor are you free to desist from it." This summer internship (all three weeks left of it) is not about solving all of the problems of poverty in Northern Uganda, it is about trying to understand them better. I'm don't expect to figure out everything about development during grad school. I doubt that I'll see the end of poverty in my lifetime. Maybe even my future children's lifetime. But I'm still going to keep trying. Because, again, even though paying school fees for a couple of students and providing seeds to their families doesn't solve the entire problem, it sure makes a great big difference in their lives. And that really matters.

*This Wikipedia site is the first that comes up in a Google search for "Museveni". No official state website shows up on the first page of search results at all - check it out.

**Yes, I know this link is really long. But I'm taking entire courses at Fletcher about the RBA, how am I supposed to summarize it in just a line or two?