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The no. 1 ingredient that almost all donor-recipient relationships contain is the need for the recipient to feel a sense of ownership. Ownership of the project or programme. Of the development process or initiative. Of a change process which has only become possible because of a factor from without: the idea, the rationale, the money, the equipment.

The million-dollar question is: it is possible? It is possible to define the (often narrow) parameters of funding, select the recipients, fund the programme – and at the same time transfer ownership of the objectives, activities and entire process to the recipients?

Ownership means that the (local) recipients own the project and determine a range of factors, from recruitment of project employees to budget allocations. It assumes that you take better care of things you own, that you become more dedicated because you own it.

But the donor often needs to satisfy her own donors, whether governments, larger organisations or the general public in the West, and therefore does not feel that she can let everything be determined by the (new) owners. Because, what if the recipients take decisions with which the donor disagrees? Should the latter step in and ‘remind’ the recipients of the ‘right’ path, the objectives of the partnership, or should she stick it out, risking that the project takes on unforeseen or undesirable dimensions, becomes subject to non-liberal local dynamics, or is used for private rather than public gains? If the answer lies somewhere in between these two options, the question remains whether a path between donor control and local ownership exists at all. And, if so, which amount of donor control would disable the sense of ownership?

The jury is still out, I’m afraid.

This morning, the radio read a statement which highlighted Democracy Day, a recent addition to the long list of international days. In 2007 the UN Generally Assembly apparently adopted the day, defining democracy as a

“universal value based on the freely-expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems, and their full participation in all aspects of life.”

The statement was translated into Lwo by the newsreaders, who were apparently struggling with the vernacular terms for some of these words. The influx of new concepts from without seem to have taken place too quickly for leb Lango (the tongue of the Lango) to adopt. So the news piece was about elections, a small part of the wider notion of democracy, rather than about an opening up of the political space and the participation of citizens in local decision-making. These things happen. The word for Treasurer in Lango, for instance, translates into ‘keeper of the money’… a rather misleading term, particularly when one considers the fact that there is so much corruption here.

Across the globe, meanwhile, American keepers of the money either filed for bankruptcy or flagged their warning signs. But the global village was not so global as for this news to travel all the way to Apac where life went on as usual, and people called the radio with comments and lamentation. It shall be interesting to see if the shocks of a global financial crisis are felt here in this seemingly isolated part of the world.

Is it because Uganda has been a donor darling since the early 1990s? Or because the civil society is marked by poverty of ideas? Or perhaps because everybody wants development and nobody wants change (see previous post).

Whatever the reason, the civil society sector in Uganda can be summarised by one word: workshopping. Or ‘workshop hopping’. Civil society activists hop from workshop to workshop, at their regional capitals or, mostly, in Kampala:

To be consulted on a particular issue, such as the new NGO Amendment Bill or the indictment of the LRA leadership by the International Criminal Court. To be sensitised on a value that is deemed important, such as rights-based approaches to development or gender equality. To discuss issues that confront their own sector, such as NGO accountability. To have their capacity built in, say, decentralisation policies or stakeholder analysis methodologies. To be briefed about a new funding opportunity such as an EU development programme. To engage with the local or central government in ‘dialogue meetings’.

This culture of workshopping has generated three challenges:

  • The need to translate workshop knowledge and ideas into real work, at desks and in fields across the country.
  • The need to follow up the resolutions and ways forward generated at the workshops; to see how far things go once the participants leave the hotels, conference centres and community halls.
  • The need to de-monetarise knowledge and skills. At the moment, workshop participants get, expect and rely on transport refunds, per diems, out-of-pocket facilitation, allowances for accommodation and dinner… you name it.

The other day, a Head of Department at the Apac District administration lamented that his department cannot get community members to attend his meetings, sensitisations and workshops because he does not have a budget for the various forms of ‘facilitation’ which they expect. Farmers leave the meeting on, say, new farming technologies or value addition once they hear that there will be ‘no facilitation’ such as a transport refund or an allowance. It is a real problem.

During most workshops, the first session will concern ‘Expectations and Fears’. It is common to hear participants list ‘transport refund’ as an expectation and ‘not enough facilitation’ as a fear, after which the workshop organisers will have to explain which levels of ‘facilitation’ their budget allows.

One day, I gave a lift to Kampala to four workshop participants. We reached the conference centre earlier than planned; the invitation had just told up-country participants to register in the evening, so as to be ready for the morning session on the following day. They complained that the workshop organisers probably only had booked dinner for them, and not lunch. That now they would have to meet the cost of the lunch themselves. Perhaps they forgot that if they had been in Apac, they would have had to buy lunch for themselves; or that my lift had saved them the transport cost, since they would get a transport refund at the end of the workshop.

Their thinking, it seems, indicate that in Uganda there exist a culture of workshopping, a particular set of seemingly self-evident practices and interpretations of life and the world. It is so central to the whole NGO set-up of this Equatorial country, that this blog will explore its many aspects over the coming months.

The Danish philosopher and father of religious existentialism, Soeren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), once wrote that “everybody wants development – nobody wants change”. Somehow this observation fits life in Apac quite well.

People want developments such as tarmacked roads, rural electrification, adequate water sources, higher agricultural yields; but not at the expense of ‘rocking the boat’ – even if this boat is manned by a self-serving crew. Upsetting the status quo is not allowed; even if the status quo is bringing suffering to the ordinary person in the form of hardship and poverty.

But perhaps this observation has a temporal aspect. Perhaps change is indeed accepted, if it takes place over a long time. The status quo of today is different from that of five years ago. During the time in between 2003 and 2008, some things must indeed have changed – even if it seems as if they did not. In 1985, when President Museveni came to power, Apac town only had two permanent buildings. Today it has perhaps 200. So change has happened; the status quo has changed.

Kierkegaard’s ‘change’ entailed transformation. For Apac to develop, a degree of transformation is necessary; and transformation does entail a departure from the status quo. But the nature of this transformation is paramount: it has to be non-confrontational. In Apac, confrontation is seen as the worst thing, and people go to great lengths to avoid such ghastly situation. Instead, they make use of mediators, brokers, counsellors. When a couple weds traditionally, the community assigns a third-party (male) counsellor to them; the husband or wife can then involve him if he or she has a problem with the spouse and he shall try to assist its resolution.

In the context of the modern state which in Uganda is decentralised, who shall be the third-party councillor if the citizens feel aggrieved? If their lack of water, electricity, education and health care makes their life hard and kills their children? In Uganda, the idea is that the district council, which is politically elected, performs the necessary checks on the district administration; but the council is a part of the local government and cannot therefore also be the third-party. Therefore, massive resources (mainly of foreign origin) go into the civil society. The question remains: can the civil society be the counselor that assists the couple in looking for a solution, without being seen to rock the boat, challenge the status quo, or confront the powers that be?

Contributing to development without effecting change is perhaps possible only if one takes a long-term perspective; but the agencies which fund the civil society want to see change and impact in the short term. As with most other aspects of life, this challenge is one which, here, has to be negotiated.

The months in Leb Lango – the tongue of the Langi – are named after their number in the conventional calendar year. January is ‘Acel’ which is also the word for ‘one’, February is called ‘Ario’ which also means ‘two’, March is ‘Adyek’, ‘three’, etc.

But June is also called ‘Odunge’ which means ‘squeezed’ or ‘tied tightly’. June is the month where people are squeezed, tied: they are hungry. The wet season begins, roughly, in March every year; by June the farmers will have finished their stock of previously harvested produce. They will have neither a lot to eat, nor a lot to sell at the local markets. They feel squeezed by the conditions of their life, their subsistence farming.

Odunge’ is a contextual name for June; it makes more sense than the decontextualised ‘Abicel’, ‘six’, which implicitly refers to someone else’s June: the Gregorian calendar year which was adopted by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582 and introduced to Uganda by European missionaries and colonial administrators. The establishment of January as the first month is ultimately an arbitrary idea.

May also has an interesting name, or nick name. It is called ‘Okwang Mak Me Anwong’. In Lwo, these four words constitute a whole sentence: ‘Get Okwang for me so that I can tie him’. Okwang is the name of a person, a Mr Anybody; the month of May therefore is represented by nature or life saying, ‘go and get a person so that I can tie him’ with June being when Okwang is tied.

June this year began promisingly, but for the past one-two weeks there has not been much rainfall. Various crops, particularly the widely planted beans, groundnuts and sesame, are beginning to look thirsty. If another week pass by without rain, these crops may not survive, and June will squeeze the farmers even more.

The organisations within the civil society ‘fraternity’ – as its members are fond of calling this sphere – which are involved in advocacy and anti-corruption work, seem to have taken their activities to a new and higher level. They go from articulation to prosecution, from the radio studios to the court rooms. In Arendt’s universe, they jump from words to deeds. Until recently, the sphere of advocacy work by the CSOs existed in relative isolation from that of law enforcement; perhaps due to structural and personal reasons. But now they are able to file charges against corrupt officials and individuals, and thus to complement their activities with formal prosecution in some of their cases. At least this is how it looks to the informed outsider…

Here follows four cases which hopefully will illustrate the point without inconveniencing anybody:

Transport fares become a common problem: The Coordinators of NGO Link Forum Apac (NLFA), The Apac Anti-Corruption Coalition (TAACC) and a Save the Children representative advocated for lower transport fares between Apac and Lira, sparked by a letter to the mini-bus operations by the TAACC Coordinator. The three activists thereafter participated in and ad hoc dialogue meeting with the taxi operations, called and mediated by the Resident District Commissioner (RDC). The issue was not resolved completely, but had now been catapulted from the private into the public sphere and was hotly debated on Radio Apac FM.

Farmers released on human rights grounds: TAAc and the Coordinator of NLFA have been involved in advocacy for the release of the ‘Tarugali farmers’ who were arrested for attacking a pastoralist and his 75 cattle in October 2007. 27 farmers suffered human rights abuses during their arrest, inviting criticism from Amnesty International. TAACC-sponsored legal aid to the farmers led to the release of a majority of them.

Charges filed against the embodiment of justice in Apac: TAACC filed a case against the Resident State Attorney of Apac, aiming at the tip of an iceberg which signifies widespread corruption and extortion by a ring of individuals in the local council system, the police and the court. Needless to say, the Resident District Commissioner is trying to sort this case out.

In Kampala and Apac, some people are watching these developments, holding their breaths. The public sphere in Apac has proven itself to be one of interest but never charming.

The said District Councillor (see below) is apparently on a mission, and is rumoured to move around town with a pair of scissors..! He attacked another lady wearing trousers last week, this time a mature woman and not a school girl. The incident took place near Apac Hospital, which was not such a strategic venue as there are always many people in and around the only hospital in the district of Apac (population: ca. 490,000).

The lady who suffered the humility of having her trousers torn by a politician, was nevertheless not so easy to intimidate and she reported the incident to Apac police! The Hon. Malakwang was thereafter arrested, but is out on a police bond.

As the first ‘trouser incident’ was only the first of a string of assaults, it has become clear that such leg wear carry a great deal of symbolic weight. Claiming that he is fulfilling the wishes of Won Nyaci, the Langi Supreme Cultural Leader, Hon. Malakwang’s actions – like many revolutionary or reactionary ones before – might be said to represent the negotiation of a certain transition. It does not matter so much how the Won Nyaci actually judges the wearing of trousers by women; what matters is that the Won Nyaci represents the weight of tradition.

Many developments in Africa have been described within the dichotomous paradigm of tradition-modernity, and most of them have been pretty unhelpful, describing all that Africa is not and failing to understand what is. But The Trouser Incidents of Apac are so obviously, to me at least, about a transition from a patriarchal society which defined a ‘Good Langi Woman’ in terms of subservience, modesty, domesticity and motherhood, to a patriarchal society where women are relatively more independent: educated and earning an income while still mothers.

Trousers symbolised also in Europe all the masculine values of strength, intelligence and independence; and were therefore out of bounds for women. Karen Blixen, whose conditions of life on her farm in Kenya had made her a very independent and atypical woman, reflects upon the changing role of women in Europe in a letter to her mother in 1924:

I would like nothing but to become subservient to a Man whom I admire, but for a Pair of Trousers in themselves I do not harbour any holy Awe, and I think that it is good that they, like Geizler’s Hat, have come off their high Ground. They were perhaps once a holy Symbol, and that was perhaps happier and better Times, but now – nobody knows any more what it was they once symbolised.

(Letters from Africa 1914-1931, p. 241)

Trousers – ‘once a holy Symbol’ – had come off the pedestal in Europe, as women became more economically independent. During the First World War, hundreds of thousands of women had to earn a living independently of their husbands, conscripted or dead. In that context, and in the context of the next world war, it was difficult for the men to resist this development. But in Apac, it is being fought: with scissors. And, perhaps, in court.