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NGOs working to reduce poverty

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Richard Ssewakiryanga is the executive director Uganda National NGO Forum which brings together NGOs in Uganda to provide a sharing and reflection platform for NGOs to influence governance and development process and enhance their operating environment. The Independent’s Mubatsi Asinja Habati interviewed him about their activities.

Richard SsewakiryangaIn the will next few months The Independent run a series of works about National NGO Forum. When was the National NGO Forum formed?

The decision set up the National NGO Forum was made in 1997 but the organisation was legally registered in 2001 with the NGO Registration Board in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It took time to register the National NGO Forum in its earlier years because at the time there were intense discussions on whether an NGO forum of legally registered NGOs really needed to register again.

There was also an element of resistance by some sections of the NGO community and others in government against registering the organisation. Eventually several circumstances dictated that it got registered in April 2001.

What was your agenda?

The core agenda at the time of formation was for the National NGO Forum to provide an avenue through which NGOs could engage collectively in policy advocacy on areas and on issues which NGOs felt a united front would lead to greater chances of success. The mid 90s was also a time when the number of NGOs grew exponentially and government was desirous of an agency through which NGOs could collectively engage in policy processes. Therefore, there were circumstances both on the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ side that led to the formation of the organisation.  After 10 years in 2007/08 the National NGO Forum went through a rigorous reflection process to chart out its agenda for the future. This process led to the launch of a robust strategic plan in September 2008 which lays out and strengthens the identity of the National NGO Forum as an independent and inclusive national platform for NGOs in Uganda. We exist to provide a sharing and reflection platform for NGOs to influence governance and development processes in Uganda, and enhance NGO operating environment. The specific programmes we implement are contained in our Strategic Plan available on our website.

Let’s focus more now on the NGO sector more broadly. How many NGOs exist in Uganda?

The NGO sector in Uganda is a growing one. Its most exponential growth was witnessed after 1986 when evidently a relatively more conducive environment for NGO formation and operation was put in place. From a paltry estimate of less than 200 NGOs in 1986 to 3,500 in 2000, 4,700 in 2003, 5,500 by end of 2005 and the number presently is estimated to be in the region of 8,000. This numerical presentation of the NGO sector growth has to be read with caution though, as it is drawn largely from the official NGO Registry of NGOs at the NGO Board. A study by the Office of the Prime Minister in 2003 suggested the sector could in fact be a lot smaller as only between 15-30% of NGOs that register go operational. Secondly there are chances that some NGOs operate without registering with the NGO Board.  It has to be noted that the perceived growth in the NGO sector is not an isolated development as evidently there has been growth in several other sectors in the last two decades. The number of media houses and outlets has increased many-fold, the number of educational institutions whether primary, secondary or university have more than tripled. Even the population of Uganda has increased considerably. As with all the above trends, the key challenge has always been quality. 

What would you say is the central ideology of NGOs?

First, you need to appreciate that NGOs exist as diverse organisational forms. Diversity is not only a central characteristic of the sector, but also one of its key strengths. Secondly, it is crucial to note that NGOs exist and operate in a context. Their agenda is shaped by forces in a strong global, regional, national and local environment. Today, NGOs face strong global influences resulting from a dominant neo-liberal ideology driving the global economy. These influences have conditioned many developing countries and NGOs to be reactive rather than proactive in shaping their economic and political choices. Extreme power imbalances that shape the global economy are reflected at country level: poverty and deprivation co-exist with wealth, powerlessness exists with the transformative potential of citizens, and severe socioeconomic and political injustices reign yet more equitable distribution of resources is possible.  The notion of ‘private sector-led growth’ has weakened the capacity of the state to respond to unbalanced development, leading to widespread social disruptions which threaten the soul of many nations. It is in this context that hope is often found in NGOs: actors that not only provide essential services to the more disadvantaged sections of society, but also offer space where socioeconomic and political pressure can be nurtured to challenge injustice.

There have been allegations that many NGOs are briefcase entities and that some work to serve personal interests of their founders. What is your response to such views?

A politico-economy analysis of NGO formation would reveal that NGOs get formed for various reasons, some of which are indeed selfish. There have been many labels on NGOs, from them being ‘briefcase’ or even ‘kavera’ entities to being ‘flash disk’ NGOs. In a society, where life is increasingly becoming very difficult, in part because of the failure of the state or even the much touted private sector to provide adequate opportunity for citizens, such phenomena are not surprising. As the National NGO Forum, while we acknowledge the existence of such entities, we are inspired more by the positive things about NGOs. There are empirical studies, such as one commissioned by the Office of the Prime Minister  in 2003 which established that a great number of NGOs were formed and driven by altruistic reasons. They thus work day and night to see a better future for humanity.

Many Ugandans wallow in poverty. Some studies put the poverty levels in Uganda at 35%. What are NGOs doing to address the poverty situation in the country?

First it is important to understand that poverty is a condition perpetuated by several factors; ill health, illiteracy, disempowerment, conflict, bad leadership and governance, depletion of natural resources and the environment, inequitable development opportunity, marginalisation, unemployment, etc. It is therefore essential to understand the contribution NGOs make to poverty reduction that we locate this contribution in the context of their work addressing the underlying causes of poverty.

Whether addressing ‘natural’ or ‘structural’ vulnerability; whether doing it from a ‘basic needs’ (direct service delivery) or ‘rights-based’ (policy and advocacy) approach, there is widespread consensus that NGOs have made and continue to make a significant contribution in getting rid of pervasive poverty and socio-economic and political injustices, bringing about more widely spread national health and wealth. NGOs have been the catalysts for recent successful global campaigns on debt relief and access to essential medicines. It has been acknowledged that the achievement of Millennium Development Goals will require meaningful involvement of NGOs (because) of their unique knowledge of local realities.

NGOs’ niche has been the provision of a wide range of services where the state and the market have been overwhelmed, failed or simply ignored the problem partly because often they are party to the problem: relief and rehabilitation in humanitarian emergencies; anti-corruption work; conflict resolution and employment creation. In Uganda, NGOs have traditionally been heavily involved in education, health and agriculture. For example in Uganda, it is estimated that NGOs and Faith Based Organisations have been contributing around 40% of services to a sector like health. More recently their contribution is significant in environment, microfinance and HIV/AIDS. The Civil Society Index puts their impact at as high as 2.3 out of 3. Powerful local NGOs have become a well recognised element of local development, where they speak with authority on issues affecting the poor and marginalised and are able to influence the highest level of national and international policy making.

But what has been the real impact and contribution of NGOs and civil society organisations to development, especially at grassroots level?

A number of attempts to document the contribution of NGOs to development have been made most notably in a research in 1999 as part of the John Hopkins Comparative Non Profit Sector Project. Then, it was estimated that civil society in Uganda in 1998 alone accounted for about $89 million in expenditures, an amount equivalent to 1.4% of the country’s GDP that year. It found out that the sector employed over 230,000 workers representing 2.3% of the country’s economically active population and 10.9% of its non-agricultural employment. Civil Society was estimated to be one-and-a-half times that of the public sector workforce and over half as large as that in the fields of manufacturing combined. The sector is therefore quite critical for Uganda’s development aspirations. In 2010, the National NGO Forum will undertake a comprehensive study on the value, current size, scope and contribution of the NGO sector to Uganda’s development. This study will give the much needed information to compliment previous researches.

On the issue of NGO impact at grassroots, it would be right to state that most NGOs are found and are active at grassroots levels- whether working in research, policy or service delivery. Some of the most powerful NGOs have had considerable impact at grassroots level. The work of GUSCO in Northern Uganda has been crucial to formerly abducted children, Kabarole Research and Resource Centre’s work is empowering people in the Rwenzori Region,while the work of URDT is changing the lives of many people in Kagadi in Kibaale district.

Given your admission earlier that there could be some ‘quack’ NGOs in Uganda, do you have any quality assurance mechanism in place to overcome the ‘pseudo’ NGO phenomenon?

Again, we adopt a more progressive view to overcoming this reality. In 2006, the National NGO Forum, DENIVA and other NGOs came together and started a process to develop a Quality Assurance Mechanism. This process, which was widely consultative, including in the media culminated in the adoption in 2007 of an NGO Quality Assurance Certification Mechanism, popularly known as the QuAM. The QuAM is an NGO developed and managed voluntary code of conduct whose aim is to help NGOs grow in good internal governance. The QuAM has 59 indicators of good and ethical behaviour and practice for NGOs and the idea is to promote the QuAM so that NGOs adopt it voluntarily, knowing that their adoption of the principles contained in the QuAM will help them improve on their work and make them truly publicly accountable organisations.

The QuAM has been well received and several NGOs are going through the process, being handled by an independent QuAM Council. I am pleased to inform you that the National NGO Forum was the first NGO in Uganda to successfully go through the QuAM process. While we did qualify for the QuAM Certificate of good practice, a number of gaps were found to exist in relation to the 59 principles and so we are now focusing on an action plan to help us improve our governance and impact.

There has been debate on the future role and relevance of NGOs as direct citizen spaces such as ‘bimeza’ become popular. Secondly there is the unending question of who NGOs and civil society represent especially when we have institutions such as Parliament. How would you respond to these views?

Firstly, the view that NGOs are in competition for space with citizens is not correct. In fact, many NGOs exist to provide the space for citizens to engage directly in shaping their own destiny. However, when citizens take their own initiative, this must be appreciated and respected. NGOs or civil society more generally, is a natural phenomenon. Just like in human life where everybody belongs to an associational life - within a family, village, etc, NGOs are a reflection of associational and human life. Therefore there will never be a day when NGOs are not relevant.

Secondly, we need to understand the representative and participatory arenas in the discourse on democracy and citizenship. Parliaments play an important role in the representative democracy discourse because they are directly elected by citizens, while NGOs and other civil society groups have an important role in the participatory arena. These democracy spaces are both important and compliment each other. There is therefore no need to view them as negatively competitive. We exist to make the state more effective and government more responsive.

Any comments?

 As the National NGO Forum, we strongly believe that many Ugandans need to understand better the value and contribution of NGOs to changing people’s lives and providing opportunity for many marginalised citizens. Many a time, NGOs are portrayed negatively in part because society and the media are more attracted to the negative things in life. This series on ‘NGOs and Development’ initiated by The Independent Magazine will hopefully help counterbalance the negative image and understanding of NGOs in Uganda. I would like to encourage a lot more NGOs to take advantage of the series and highlight the good work they are doing for the cause of humanity.

Comments (9)Add Comment
you ate thieves
written by asdfghjkl;, November 09, 2009
smilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gifsmilies/grin.gif. ngos are just after donations and enriching the owners.
NGOs exploit poverty
written by sikele, November 10, 2009
NGOs are reducing poverty for those who run them. The poverty of Africa is the raw material for NGOs. Why are their numbers increasing at the same time as the rate of poverty levels. NGOs may soon turn into fixed assets because of the economic crunch in the west where they have been fundraising, or register with other NGOs resident in the west to get western government's tax dollars. Things will change for you NGOs too are the econimies in the west collapse and even the attitudes of the governments there. They will want to concentrate on fixing their own economies and you money making NGOs purpoting to give services will also experience the crunch.
written by Tendo kaluma, November 17, 2009
For a society that is increasingly in need of more technologists and engineers-to give advice on the many projects that require a high degree of ingenuity. I hope we can impress it upon those NGO, who express a desire to come to Uganda, to also provide a specified percentage of their work force as handy folks, capable of building log cabins, or making solar ovens. It helps quite a bit, when the helper is not as green on engineering matters as the one who seeks the help. I hope this regulatory body will be able to speak to this issue, since most of the NGO money is spent on such implementors and adminstrators.-request for an NGO engineering corps.

written by Patriot, November 17, 2009
A cheecky friend of mine told me NGO stands for Nothing Going On. As mentioned above NGOs are reducing poverty for those who run them. Some NGOs create problems such that they solicit money to "solve them" eg street beggars are encouraged by NGOs to stay coz they give them food.
sup :)
written by Bulla, August 31, 2010
NGO smilies/smiley.gif
i love NGO they do so much for the poor hehe smilies/cheesy.gif
their just adorableeee smilies/tongue.gif
keep up the good work NGO smilies/wink.gif
xoxoxo smilies/kiss.gif
written by dk, August 31, 2010
unfortunately most NGO's are used as experiments for the Donor nations and Companies.
coz at the end of it all you fail to see their impact.
to reduce poverty
written by rakhmani, March 08, 2011
to reduce poverty must do economic emprovement and sosial equity for everyonesmilies/cool.gif
scail worker
written by TWESIGYE AMON, August 28, 2013
NGOS are good because the provide employment and acts as voice of the voiceless in the community
written by madeira plastica, December 05, 2013
I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing to comment!

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