Sunday, October 24, 2010

Outstanding seminar in Lira

Just finished an excellent week in Lira, in north-central Uganda. The 20 seminar participants, radio journalists and announcers, worked hard, and really took to heart the lessons that we were teaching. One intriguing exercise I had them do was "man on the street" interviews. Residents were asked to say something positive about the candidate they're not voting for. (Like asking Republicans to say something nice about Obama, or Dems to praise McCain). The soundbites they brought back were very interesting. (Click here to see photo album from the Lira seminar.)

Feeding a culture of dependency?

From the Parkville Luminary

KAMPALA, UGANDA—In every city we travel to teach peace journalism, we convene a meeting of citizens interested in working for peaceful elections in Uganda in 2011. As our organizer Gloria reports, upon being asked to attend the peace meeting, the invitees’ first question is invariably, “How much will I be paid?”

This infuriates Gloria who, like me, believes that one shouldn’t have to pay people to make their community a better, more peaceful place. Yet, the culture of donor dependency is so ingrained here that asking for payments or handouts from non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) has become second nature for many sub-Saharan Africans.

In Uganda, it is not at all unusual for NGO’s to hold professional seminars and pay the attendees a “sitting allowance” to show up at the workshop. This is not a typo: NGO’s conduct the seminars and pay Ugandans to attend. Many reporters have told me that they have been paid to sit in on other journalism seminars, and that making sitting allowance payments is a common practice, though there were no obtainable statistics on this phenomenon.

I find this practice abhorrent, and refuse to pay even one shilling ($1=2259 shillings) to those attending my workshops. I feel like the attendees are already getting a university-quality course for free at the expense of the American taxpayer. (My program here is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy-Kampala and the U.S. Agency for International Development). We do reimburse our attendees for legitimate transportation expenses, but nothing in excess of those actual expenses.

Indeed, this constant badgering for sitting allowances and “facilitation” (cash payments that usually far exceed actual transportation expenses) is part of what academics call a culture of dependency here in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a culture that many argue is debilitating.

About $50 billion in international assistance goes to Africa each year. However, “over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population -- over 350 million people -- live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.” (Wall Street Journal, 3-21-09).

Countries like Uganda are alarmingly dependent on international aid as part of their federal budgets. In fact, 27% of Uganda’s current budget comes from international donors—down slightly from the previous year. (New Vision-Uganda, 6-9-10).

This dependency upon donors has a corrosive effect on African governments and societies, leaving them corrupt, debt-laden and thus less attractive to investors. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya writes that “disempowerment…is perhaps the most unrecognized problem in Africa today… To the disempowered, it seems much easier or even more acceptable to leave one's life in the hands of third parties (governments, aid agencies, and even God) than to try to alleviate one's circumstances through one's own effort.…I have found it to be as substantial a bottleneck to development in Africa as inadequate infrastructure or bad governance, and it has added an extra weight to the work of those who want to enable individuals and communities to better their circumstances. The corruption and graft that have tainted so much of Africa's leadership in the post-independence period are well-known; the misappropriation of funds, outright theft, incompetence, and cronyism that have characterized too many African governments for decades have been often catalogued. What perhaps is less well understood is how, because of a failure of leadership at the top of the social tree, the culture of corruption - and dependency - has too often eaten its way down to the roots.” ( , May, 2009).

I have seen and experienced the disempowerment that Maathai discusses both in individuals and in institutions. I can only hope that the work that we are doing, well-intentioned though it may be, isn’t contributing to this cycle of dependency.

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