Ubuntu: A simple recipe for overcoming dependency

Written by Hannah McCandless @hjmccandless

At Village Enterprise, we pride ourselves on reaching the very “bottom of the pyramid”. We are known for going where other organizations don’t go to reach a population that others can’t reach. However, our partnership with Geneva Global in Northern Uganda is presenting a new opportunity for Village Enterprise: to work with extreme poor in communities suffering from dependency and ‘NGO fatigue.’ This new context presents a set of unique challenges. While these challenges may be new, our approach is not. We meet communities where they are, and work with them to transform lives by fostering ownership and self-efficacy. In Nwoya District in Northern Uganda, this is of particular importance. It is for this reason that our team headed to Nwoya this past week to provide additional encouragement to our program participants. We went seeking only conversation — an opportunity to coach and inspire one another. We met communities with humility. We sat in their homes. We spoke candidly — as partners working toward a common goal.

What were these special circumstances we were working with?

Beginning in the late 1980’s a radical Christian rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terrorized Northern-Uganda for almost three decades. The LRA arose out of historic ethnic tensions exacerbated by colonial intervention and regional struggles for political power. As a result of the decades long conflict, an entire generation of Acholi people in Northern Uganda were born and raised against a backdrop of economic strife, broken communities, and horrendous crimes against humanity. The Ugandan Ministry of Health estimated that during the war nearly 1,000 people were dying everyday. Roughly 1.8 million people were displaced, spread across 251 camps throughout Northern Uganda. The scale and devastation of the crisis spurred an influx of humanitarian aid to the region. At its peak, humanitarian funding reached $238 million per annum in 2008. 2008 also saw the beginning of the end of the conflict. Northern Uganda has spent the years since 2008 recovering from the conflict amidst inhibiting humanitarian aid reliance. Following the exodus of the humanitarian agencies, development organizations entered the region to attempt to create sustainable change. In the aftermath of the civil war, the region suffered from “NGO obesity…an aid-based civil society and an economy almost entirely determined by external funding.” The legacy of humanitarian aid in Northern Uganda is a culture of dependency. It is in this context that Village Enterprise partnered with Geneva Global to harness the power of entrepreneurship to send children to school and transform lives.

Humanitarian aid saves lives — as many lives as possible, as quickly as possible. Development changes lives. Development takes time — it requires critical analysis of the drivers of circumstance, the implications of intervention, and the exit strategy. Humanitarian crises demand humanitarian response. And yet, when the dust clears, when the rebels retreat, when the chaos subsides, and communities attempt to heal and recover, the after effects of humanitarian aid manifest in the form of dependency. Northern Uganda is proof of that. The transition from humanitarian aid to sustainable development following the civil war provides development organizations and communities with an ongoing challenge. We have a responsibility to meet it. As an organization, we refuse to meet it with anything other than compassion, humility, and ubuntu. Fundamentally, our approach is centered on ownership. We work with communities; we partner with business owners. Village Enterprise provides communities and individuals with the tools to lift themselves out of poverty. Our program participants are our partners. Their ownership is an essential input.

Uganda Country Director, Winnie Auma, gives words of encouragement to a savings group in Nwoya District.

Last week, a small team of us, including Uganda Country Director Winnie Auma, headed to the field in Nwoya to meet with a handful of Business Savings Groups. We discussed their challenges and encouraged their progress. Winnie provided the groups with a candid and moving message of self-reliance, group unity, and empowerment. Winnie’s words speak for themselves:

“At the end of the day, Village Enterprise is a facilitator of development.
But, these are your children. This is your family. It is your community. It is your country.
We need to understand human needs. They never end. If I buy you clothes today, tomorrow you will ask for a shoe. I buy you a shoe, you will ask for a bicycle. When you have a bicycle, you say, ‘Eh! the other guy, he has a motorcycle, buy for me a motorcycle!’ Human needs will continue!
Amidst all of you, there is knowledge. This group provides you with an opportunity to learn from each other. The grant that we give is not an end-to-end solution. Even if we provided you right now with 50 million shillings, it would not solve all the problems that you want to solve. Your grant is a seed. And seeds multiply. But it requires a lot of work. You open the garden, you plant the seeds, you weed them, you spray them, you harvest them, you stock them — it takes a process. It takes a process to get out of poverty.
Turn to your neighbor, tell them. Say, ‘It takes a process to get out of poverty!’ Tell them!
The only way you will see a real difference in your household is when you yourselves own the process.”

The words of encouragement that Winnie shared in Nwoya serve as more than inspiration for our savings groups. They are a reminder of who we are as an organization. We value ubuntu — a sense of shared humanity. Violence and strife like that caused by the LRA expose the darkest parts of humanity. The resilience and hope demonstrated by the Acholi people over these past years of recovery highlight the brightest parts of humanity. Dependency is overcome by recognizing and building on these precious qualities. It is overcome by meeting communities where they are, by sitting in their homes, by asking about their challenges, by speaking candidly as partners. Dependency is overcome through ubuntu.

Women turn to each other to tell one another that it takes a process to get out of poverty!

Hannah McCandless is Village Enterprise’s Communications Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter at @hjmccandless

Quoted & Referenced: “The Humanitarian–Development Nexus: Lessons from Northern Uganda” by Jon Harald Sande Lie, published by Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.