Development in poverty-stricken Uganda begins at local level

June 23, 2003

Uganda, called by Winston Churchill the 'pearl of Africa,' is more often regarded as a blood-soaked pearl these days. A brutal civil war in the north has displaced hundreds of thousands, deepened the grinding poverty and the HIV/AIDS crisis, creating a whole new generation of orphans. In the midst of the turmoil the Church of Uganda is doing its best to address the desperate needs of those struggling to survive.

The fighting in the north has created a very unpredictable situation, and 'directly affected our program,' according to Frank Rwakabwohe, deputy coordinator of department of Planning, Development and Rehabilitation (PDR) for the Church of Uganda. 'And we don't see any end to the fighting in the near future.'

Sam Sakwa, PDR's director of planning and program, estimates that about 75 percent of the people in the northern dioceses have been displaced during 17 years of fighting. 'And there are 271,000 refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and the Congo--with a new influx of about 200,000,' he said. 'The church provides some immediate assistance, counseling services, scholarships for students, but it is difficult to attract international help because partners are often distracted by other issues,' he added. A recent appeal for $200,000 in emergency help drew a 'very disappointing' response of only $10,000.

'Now children are reaching adolescence without ever having known a normal life,' Sakwa said. 'There is a breakdown in family life and morality and HIV/AIDS has become an increasingly serious problem.'

'Poverty is our deepest enemy,' said the Rev. Tom Tuma, coordinator of PDR. 'But Anglicanism is a people church so ordinary people hold the key.'

Beginning at local level

PDR's strategy, according to Tuma, is one of 'participatory rural appraisal. We go into the villages and talk with the people for a week or so, making a list of their most important needs. After that original assessment we look at local resources that can be used to support the work and move them towards sustainability and self-support. If they need help, we formulate a plan to provide that help,' he said in an interview during the week-long visit of Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold and his wife Phoebe at the end of May.

'When the local resources are not sufficient, the village may seek government help or the church may offer assistance,' added Sakwa. 'The leaders are already there because of the clan system but they need to be empowered. The church offers credible leadership to help mobilize people and implement strategies--and they are often the key because they have had skill training. The local village councils provide political leadership--and there is always a high degree of accountability,' he said.

'We are one of four provincial offices with a staff of 32 people and eight field offices with links to all 29 dioceses,' Rwakabwohe added. He said that the priorities identified by the local villages include improved agricultural production; livestock improvement; micro finance; school enhancement; health support services (including HIV/AIDS); rural water and sanitation; and land resource management.

Peace and human rights

'When the community is living in conflict, the people can't work together, as a team, so that conflict undermines all the work,' said Joshua Kitkula, who runs PDR's peace and human rights program. 'We can't build peace, we need partners and stakeholders at all levels. So we begin by creating an awareness of the conflict and its causes. We define the issues.'

Originally the government looked at the war as a northern problem, he said, 'so we had to show them that it is a national problem--even an international problem with the Sudan's involvement and easy access to arms from Somalia through Kenya.' He said that they also lobbied the Ugandan government to abandon its support for rebels in the Congo.

'There is also plenty of conflict within the church so the program tries to focus on those conflicts as well,' Kitkula said.

The war has made work in the north very difficult but 'we should not run away from the immense obstacles,' said Tuma. 'The greater the obstacles the greater the determination to overcome them.' He admits that some disagreements with bishops on the role of PDR are on that list of obstacles.

'There is some disagreement and discussion about how we should operate because dioceses have wanted to control their own resources,' he said. To address those issues, PDR convenes a colloquium of bishops where they report on what they have been doing in each diocese--and what they are planning for the coming year. 'We depend on patience and understanding in our work and they began to see the effectiveness of the program,' Tuma said.

Changing patterns of support

When asked about sources of support, Tuma said that 'almost all the initial support was from churches in Germany and Scandinavia' and even today about 90 percent of the $1.5 million of annual support comes from the same international sources. Yet now that source is more often the government, rather than the churches, and that has changed the dialogue and the partnership. 'Now other non-governmental agencies have introduced new levels of competition for aid and less money comes directly from the churches,' he said. 'So those seeking funds end up fighting over less and less money as governments supply funds with new conditions and restrictions.'

The result, Tuma said, is that 'we have learned a new language while still conversing with traditional sources of funds. But that complicates and even threatens our work. We have moved from a climate of trust to one of more and more accountability, with reports for each and every project.'

PDR has also tried 'to be sensitive to what is happening in our own working environment in the province.' For example, with the province facing financial difficulties, the PDR board decided to share some of its own resources, balancing salaries on the provincial staff, for example.

PDR meets with its ecumenical partners every two years in a Round Table where the program is reviewed and additional pledges of support are sought. Tuma said that Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) joined that meeting in 2000 'with substantial support, enthusiasm and a lot of energy--qualities which are indispensable to any development program,' he told Griswold during a conversation at the PDR offices in Kampala.

ERD supporting major initiative

Janette O'Neill, project manager for ERD, attended that meeting and said that she was impressed not only with the programs and projects, but PDR's abilities to monitor its work and learn from mistakes. She is also impressed with the PDR process of going to the village elders and asking about the needs of the community, 'giving voice to the entire community by creatively helping them identify and prioritize their needs--and then look for solutions that they can achieve together.' She said, 'It is well accepted that the success of development work is closely correlated with 'ownership' of the goals and the methods used to implement the project by the benefiting community.'

In 2000 ERD broke its pattern of small grants and decided to grant $200,000 a year for five years--a total of $1 million--as its part in a $15 million project to aid five of the poorest parishes in each of the 29 dioceses. 'PDR is a mature organization with a 20-year track record,' she said. 'And this is our only partnership with a provincial development office so it's a sign of our respect and trust.'

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