Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Xavier Ejoyi is the new Country Director of ActionAid Uganda. He talked to The Independent’s Ronald Musoke about his expectations for the new role.
How has the settling in gone so far?
It’s gone on very well. I am still learning different things but the people here have been very supportive.This is a 36-year old organisation and my induction into it over the last few weeks is just a scratch on the surface.
You have come in at a time when government scrutiny of civil society agencies like ActionAid Uganda has increased. Why did you join an organisation that is constantly confronting the government on its accountability and democratic governance credentials?
I don’t know what you mean by “confrontation” but I joined this organisation principally on account of the work and values it stands for. ActionAid stands for defeating poverty, injustice and inequality. These are values I identify with. But professionally also, I know that as a development actor, that is something that is endearing to me. I want to speak for the poor, the marginalized and those at the receiving end of injustice.
With your 17 years’ experience working with both local and international civil society, what exactly do you bring to ActionAid Uganda?
First, I have worked with fairly diverse organizations. I started my career as a bare-foot classroom teacher, if you like, in war-ravaged Bundibugyo District. I know what conflict and poverty do to people. I also worked with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in India for two years. I, therefore, understand what it means to advocate for human rights issues at an international level. Before I came to ActionAid, I worked with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Its systems are different so, I also come with the experience of working in the international development field. However, I also come here with the humility of knowing that this organisation stands for certain values. I am, therefore, here to learn how we can address issues of inequality, injustice and poverty.
ActionAid describes itself as a non-political, non-religious organisation but it also says it takes keen interest in government accountability to the public. How do you go about this mandate without being misinterpreted by the government?
I don’t think it is proper to describe us as “non-political” because the work we do is political in nature. What is clear is that ActionAid is a non-partisan organisation but the issues that we deal with are political in nature. Inequality and accountability are political in nature. We are working with and standing with the poor, the marginalized or those who are at the receiving end of injustice and ours is just a process of facilitating these people.They should not be passive recipients of development assistance. They are actors as citizens and they have a role to play in changing their destiny and that is what we facilitate. Our work is clear; we engage in dialogue; we engage in public advocacy, we engage in anti-corruption campaigns, and we do so unapologetically because we believe that corruption does not pull people out of poverty, instead it sinks them deeper into poverty. So our advocacy against corruption is important and I don’t think ActionAid or any other person should apologise for that.
So why do you think your role is misunderstood by some state actors?
I guess that should be answered by those who misunderstand us. However, there are people who think that citizen-focused organisations such as ActionAid and citizens by extension should not be asking questions about those who allocate resources, or misappropriate resources meant for the welfare and services to citizens—that is a misunderstanding. So, if ActionAid comes up and says Shs 400 million was allocated to this primary school and it is not here; what happened to this money? And who is behind this misappropriation? These hard questions inconvenience some people who by the way have inconvenienced the citizens. That is when they say ActionAid is now political. But I say, this is a misconception.
How are you going to ensure that you are accountable to Ugandans, to the government and to your other partners you work with?
Throughout our work, ActionAid believes in transparency. We believe that we need to be accountable to Ugandan citizens who are at the receiving end of poverty and injustice. People who work here are deliberately and carefully drawn from different parts of this country and so is our governing board. Secondly, we are also accountable to our donors and many other partners in Uganda. These organisations are championing issues of education, issues of gender equality and anti-corruption. We are accountable to these organizations because we have signed memoranda of understanding and we implement activities with them. Three, as ActionAid, we also recognise that the government is an important actor as a regulator in this country and we are accountable to them. We file annual returns to the NGO Bureau and we are audited annually. Our books are open and we share our returns and reports. But most importantly, we are very keen to be accountable to the poor and marginalized whom we speak for because it is on this basis that we get our mandate.
You say that everything you do is on behalf of the marginalized Ugandans but, when do you ever consult them?
We do so in many ways. We have a national board drawn from a distinct membership from the Ugandan public. Every year, there is an Annual General Assembly, and the board reports to the AGM. That is not the end. In every community we work, that community has a voice. That is what gives us the voice of the people.
ActionAid has over the last six years rallied Ugandans to engage in the anti-corruption campaign known as Black Monday. What have you achieved so far?
It’s interesting that even before I came here, I was already part of the Black Monday Movement. It is a call for Ugandans to say that we are tired of corruption and we need to do something—even if it is symbolic. So you do not need to be in ActionAid to identify with Black Monday. But I must quickly add that Black Monday is just one approach among many that ActionAid is engaging Ugandans in the fight against corruption. The achievement out of this is that many Ugandans are now able to say, “By the way, what is going to happen to our taxes?” “This school does not have a roof, what happened?” We now hear many Ugandans asking those questions, instead of just keeping quiet and thinking it is the politicians who have to talk about these things when they themselves are at the receiving end. So broadly, Black Monday Movement was just one of the approaches that ActionAid Uganda used to address an issue that is so dear to the organisation.
In September last year, police raided your offices and confiscated electronic equipment and also froze your bank accounts, an act that ground your programmes around the country. What do you make of these allegations?
You should know that the allegations that were brought against ActionAid were criminal in nature; meaning that the unfreezing of our accounts by the different state organs shows that there was no criminal intent found. It is more than a year since the security operatives raided this place. Those authorities that were involved owe Ugandans an explanation of how far they have gone with their investigations. You can imagine the staff who worked here back then, how distressful those allegations were—that they were promoting this and that—yet these people wake up every day driven by only one professional commitment: Changing lives of Ugandans.
How do you intend to avoid such a scenario from happening again?
ActionAid is not driven by scrutiny from anybody. We are driven by the development challenges that Ugandans face. So what can only change the way ActionAid does its work is the aspiration of Ugandan citizens. But as long as poverty, injustice, issues of accountability are at the centre of it, ActionAid will continue doing its work. Your question presupposes that ActionAid did something terribly wrong for the raid to happen. But that is not how we read it. So we will not change any approach to our work.
What do you say to some of your detractors who keep saying that some of your activities are supported by foreign interests who don’t wish Uganda well?
As I said, our values are very clear and we, among others, are transparent. Yes, ActionAid gets support from different organizations (abroad) but even Ugandans contribute to our work financially. We actually have an ongoing solidarity appeal and anyone can enroll for it and contribute whatever amount to the work of ActionAid, especially if you think that the issues that we champion are the ideas you believe in. So you can contribute as little as Shs5000. Our work is defined by Ugandan citizens—the desire to ensure that our citizens get a just and equal Uganda that is free from oppression. This is the country that Ugandans believe in and that is what defines us.
Looking ahead, what do you reckon will be your biggest challenge working with ActionAid Uganda?
The biggest challenge in Uganda today, not just for ActionAid but for many other civil society organisations that stand for citizen voices, is the continued shrinking of political and civic space for citizens to engage. This is a challenge. It means that the challenges that we are trying to facilitate by working with Ugandans to address are going to continue. Gender based violence is on the increase in Uganda. Corruption is going to blow in our faces. We appeal to the government to ensure that citizens are able to express themselves relating to how they are governed.