Behold, behold: the NGO spectacle

I met an American undergraduate a few weeks ago who was writing his senior thesis on the “NGO circus” in Uganda.

His point (I think — it was hard to get past his carefully cultivated skepticism and the unlit cigar he carried around in his mouth like an über-cool oral security blanket) was that the proliferation of NGOs in Uganda in the last 20 years has made it more, not less, difficult for the country to develop. He focused on international organizations, but I see the same thing happening at the local level.

I spent last week in Gulu talking to several Ugandan non-profit and community-based groups about their projects. I hoped to learn about national reconciliation from the grassroots level and to come home more informed about what needs to happen in the north for peace to become a reality. Instead, I found myself wading through a swamp of catchy development terminology that didn’t seem to make any more sense to the people I met with than it did to me.

The project leaders talked animatedly to me about microfinance and community mobilization and adult literacy programs. They all wanted to address every single problem in northern Uganda, from HIV to education to arts and sports to cultural renewal to child soldiers to agriculture. One group had a total of three volunteers but was working on eight separate multi-year, multi-district proposals, each covering a multiple aspects of rebuilding. The proposals were full of attractive phrases and energetic language, but after spending an hour with the director, I could tell he had no understanding of the economic theory, organizational principles or sheer manpower required to turn his projects into realities.

Those I spoke with clung to their CBOs and PRSPs and QUIPs as if the very letters would save them. Some seemed to think that creating a successful income-generating activity was as easy as saying “IGA.” It truly was a circus — the directors spouting acronyms like desperate ringmasters while their projects flopped around like mistreated, malnourished performance animals.

Uganda doesn’t need another project proposal from another would-be community leader with an over-inflated vocabulary and no training to back it up. These people are well-meaning, but as influenced as they are by the development industry talk in Uganda, their Big Ideas are just as much top-down (as opposed to local-level) as international initiatives. A thousand times better would be an organization that actually consulted the people around it to find out what they need and how best to achieve it, rather than succumbing to the Ringling-Bros.-esque attraction of development novelty acts.

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