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Dilemmas of a development worker

By Jos Van Steelandt

How can NGOs avoid leading to the state avoiding its responsibilities and being deligitimised?

Seven years ago, I visited Uganda for the first time. Since then, I have been frequenting the pearl of Africa and started to simultaneously love and hate this country.

On the one hand, the incredibly creative Ugandans, the beautiful national parks, the adventure tourism and the many friends here I have made here, have made sure that Uganda is dear to my heart. On the other hand, I have often gotten frustrated by futilities such as some Ugandans’ tardiness and by more serious issues such as corruption in the Ugandan political system and legislation that in my view contradicts certain principles of human rights. It is an ambiguity that leaves me obsessed and repulsed at the same time.

My friends, my family and I decided to set up a foundation that aims to cooperate with a Ugandan family, the Byakika-family, which established a private nursery and primary school in Buyende district. In the past seven years, we have been able to provide the school with classrooms, decent books and other materials that improve the quality of education.

Every year in July or August, we try to come to Uganda and we discuss with our local partners what could be done to improve the workings of the school. In this, we rely heavily on the knowledge and insight of our Ugandan friends. However, in setting up this foundation, we encountered various ethical dilemmas that, I suspect, many non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) tend to struggle with.

From the start, we were clear that we were not setting up our foundation to ‘help the poor Ugandans’, who seem stuck in an eternal state of passiveness, as I’m afraid a lot of Western development workers may like to think when they come to Uganda. Instead, we did it because we saw our friends in Buyende district doing amazing work and we wanted to contribute to the incredible efforts they had already made.

I know that in a relationship where we provide the financial support, many people would say this would result in an inequality between partners. However, I believe that in all these years, we have not pushed decisions down the throats of our local partners. I have to admit that most of the times, because of their expertise concerning the local context; they know a lot more about what would be best to tackle first.

We also try to avoid presenting to our contributors in Belgium stereotyped images about Uganda and aim to cooperate with our Ugandan friends on an equal basis. In our fundraising events, we try to represent Uganda not as a country in dire need of help, but as a vibrant place with many talented, creative and strong young men and women that we can give a boost.

But, as I pursued my studies at the University in Belgium, I started doubting whether the work we were doing, was actually a positive contribution to Uganda’s development. As I studied for an Advanced Master’s degree in Conflict and Development-Studies, I came to question our foundation and the work we were doing.

On the one hand, I was told that by taking over public services such as healthcare and education en masse, the actions of NGOs actually can lead to the state avoiding its responsibilities in these matters and eventually to deligitimising the state. In this way, the government can just rest on its laurels and focus its funds on, for instance, security. Such an NGO-isation of Ugandan society means that we as development workers have to be aware that we are political actors as well. We may not like it, but we are actually helping to build a very neo-liberal society, even if we do it because of a humanitarian ideology. We are far from neutral and this is something we may not forget.

On the other hand, the quality of government schools is often lacking and insufficient while the quality of the private school of our local partners is improving rapidly. The impression that corruption is endemic in the government education system is also widespread among many people I spoke with. Even if the system is not actually corrupt, it still appears to have a huge Public Relations problem and people seem to distrust it. The free of charge system of Universal Primary Education (UPE) is a noble idea, but it appears that a lot of people are not convinced of its merits. And that by itself is a major problem.

Finally, trying to determine whether or not we are at least having a positive impact on the local community in which our school is based is of course another issue. The few reports we have seen of inspections by state authorities acknowledged the progress that the school has made, but it is not really clear what is expected to happen in the future. Moreover, it is also difficult to establish what the local community actually thinks of the school since there is a barrier of language. This means we are almost completely dependent on our local partners as they provide translation in interactions with the community. It requires a great deal of trust, and I am confident that our local partners are sincere.

In making all these considerations, however, we decided to continue with our foundation. We are convinced that our withdrawal of support for this school is not an option. But we think a longer-term solution lies within a fundamental rethinking of Uganda’s education system, with parents and students regaining their trust in government schools, and NGOs no longer being necessary to provide the alternative. The government has the responsibility to make UPE work. This means making sure that first, UPE is more than an empty shell, and second, that people believe it to be so.  In the meantime however, in cooperation with our foundation, our local partners continue to improve their school and try to prepare their pupils for a bright future. We will critically try to reflect on our impact and I genuinely hope that one day, we can look back and say we have had a positive effect.


Jos Van Steelandt is a historian and student of Conflict and Development and intern at The Independent.

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