Jonathan. P Friday:
July 21, 2006
We are now in Gulu Town of Gulu District in Northern Uganda. We spent yesterday traveling and unfortunately didn’t get here until the evening. So we have only one day to meet with groups here – we plan to meet with the director of the peace studies program at Gulu University and possibly a couple of other groups. We spent 3 days in Pader Town of Pader District – Pader District and town were created in 2001 and they used to be a part of Kitgum District. Pader Town was at one time considered the epicenter of violence in the conflict so since its creation, until recently, the district has been unable to develop very much. The town is more of a township and is surrounded by Pader Town IDP (internally displaced person) camp. In fact, we were staying behind FRO’s office in Pader Town in a motel of sorts, and directly behind us was part of the camp. I think the camp’s population is around 28,000. The camps are a sad place but not too different from the displaced communities of Jinja except for the building structures. People are idle but many are conducting some economic activity, mostly in the form of selling agricultural produce, which includes production and sale of local gin. There are many children with potbellies from malnutrition and who WAIL when they are upset. This to me was the saddest part. However, people are still living their lives and trying to maintain – there may be more hope than you’d expect. These people are the epitome of resilience, especially the women. We also visited Lira Palwe Camp, about 20 minutes from town, and met with beneficiaries of FRO’s programs there. The road to Pader alone tells you that the District has been marginalized – only a skilled driver could manage it. It is covered with potholes and there are whole chunks of the road missing, so while driving on it FRO’s driver was constantly swerving and shifting gears. The truck didn’t have the best shocks, so needless to say this leaves on soar, especially since half the people traveling there are in the back of pickup trucks. FRO was the first group to use the roads leading to Pader in 2004 when it was till very dangerous and its staff all has stories of near ambushes from the LRA. All of FRO’s staff is from Pader because they are the only ones who have been unafraid from the start to work there. Fortunately, it is much safer there now, although there is still not running water or electricity there although other Northern Districts have it. Through discussions with FRO and what they showed us we learned a lot of the latest developments about the situation. One example is that the World Food Program (who has been the only org. providing foodstuffs in mass) is continuously reducing its supply of food provided to the camps to encourage people to move out of the camps to farm – the policy of beginning to move away from the camps, ‘decongestion’, is a policy that many NGOs and groups have been advocating but it is a slow process since people are still afraid of the LRA (which is now much weaker than its ever been). I was very impressed by FRO’s work in the North – Jen and I learned a lot about grassroots organizing. FRO has an elected committee in each camp in Pader District which is made up of 5 camp members who do the ground work for them. For instance, the committees identify the most vulnerable people in the camps, such as orphans living in child headed households or HIV/AIDS victims, to become the beneficiaries of various sponsorship and empowerment programs. Also, FRO is planning to train the committees in human rights monitoring (something largely ignored during this conflict) and in HIV/AIDS care. The committees, along with local government reps, have identified families in the camps which are most heavily affected by HIV/AIDS and which it will train in how to care for family members that are HIV positive. In this way, families are empowered to care for their own more effectively. THIS is grassroots development. FRO also has a vocational training center in Pader Town Camp where it conducts tailoring training for child mothers (mostly former abductees) and carpentry training for formerly abducted men and boys. The projects are supported by the European Union. So far, the first group of people trained has graduated and were given start up kits which included equipment to help them start their own businesses. The biggest challenge is funding to provide a sufficient amount of materials in order to get beneficiaries started though. FRO is adamant about empowering people to help themselves – they say they give people 25% and they have to do the rest, which makes sense in order to truly make people self sufficient. The problem that FRO has found is that international NGOs, although doing some good work in the North, sometimes make it harder for smaller CBOs to do their work. For example, intl NGOs have paid the committee to do ground work for them and this sets expectations for FRO to do the same when it does not have the capacity to do so. This is only some of their work – they also do peace building exercises, sports and games programs for the children they sponsor, they plan to help some people start piggeries and poultry farms, and help identify the most vulnerable IDP camp members for other groups. They work closely with many other CBOs in Pader and there is a strong CBO network there in which groups support each other and work together.
Being in the North has only strengthened my conviction that grassroots groups are the ones doing the best work. Only they truly know how to benefit their communities in a sustainable or even entrepreneurial way. They and their families have been affected by the war and they are major stakeholders in their work. International NGOs and groups should support their work rather than trying to come in with their own ideas and projects.
I hope that our internship program can accomplish this. I have been thinking about sending interns to the North as well – hopefully the security situation there will continue to improve, because if you want to learn about sincere grassroots development, this is where it is. FRO’s biggest challenge is capacity building – there is not even an internet café close to town and they don’t have updated computers, equipment, etc. If we could find interns to assist which some of this, they would greatly improve their capacity to find funding for projects.
But again, interns would only assist in grassroots projects and learn from them. People here are more than capable of improving their situation, they just need a little assistance. I have been thinking about a name for the program as well – ‘Uganda Grassroots Development Internship Program’ – I think it’s a unique concept and now that we have many sites all over Uganda to potentially send interns, it could attract a wide array of students in different fields of study.