Ugandan breakdancer featured in Oxfam video

You may remember Abramz. He’s the rapping, breakdancing activist I’ve written about here and here. Also here. And this time. Here too. And that one. And here. Clearly, I think he’s terrific.

Apparently, so does Oxfam.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference currently taking place in Indonesia, Oxfam released a video of testimonies from around the developing world. The people featured are primarily subsistence farmers. Climate change, in the form of floods, droughts, heat and pollution, has devastated their livelihoods. Driving their message home at the end of the film is Abramz:

If you want to help, check out Oxfam’s pledge to fight climate poverty.

reality TV comes to Kabale

What do you get when you mix eight British multi-millionaires, three weeks in Uganda and a mission to improve the living standards of an African village?

Disaster, mostly. And also a new reality television show sponsored by World Vision, a non-profit known mostly for its child sponsorship program.

Ugandan bloggers have reacted strongly to the show, calling it “preposterous” and “another na├»ve thing from the West.” World Vision’s official line is that the show “explor[es] the complexities of development work and the causes of poverty,” which sounds very noble, but I’m going to side with the blogren.

Let’s recap: eight millionaires with no real knowledge of Uganda. $240,000. Three weeks. Granted, they have a “mentor” and a handy-dandy World Vision quick guide to sustainable development, but I have a hard time believing they’re going to accomplish something in three weeks that countless other professional aid agencies have failed to do in decades.

Even more than that, Millionaires’ Mission seems to trivialize the problems in Uganda, turning an entire village into an experiment. What role do the Ugandans have in this? So far, they’ve been filmed waving machetes at their supposed benefactors. Way to propagate Conrad-era stereotypes.

Tumwijuke argues that Millionaires’ Mission showcases the “humiliation of Ugandans” and criticizes the show for being just another excuse to watch rich westerners run around Africa. I think she’s absolutely right.

I couldn’t resist: World Vision tells viewers to “Forget the jargon and get a quick guide to some of the key development themes…. sustainability, aid, trade, participation….” In other words, “jargon, jargon, jargon, jargon….”

GYPA Immersion Program: Youth, Development and Peace-building

I gushed a little bit earlier about the Global Kimeeza II, a program of the Global Youth Partnership for Africa, an organization I’ve been involved with for a little over a year and a half. GYPA leads regular conferences for American and Ugandan youth leaders that focus on how young people can actively participate in finding solutions to the variety of challenges Africa faces.

I credit GYPA with cementing my interest in development issues as a whole and in Uganda in particular. For this reason, I am crazy excited to announce the first of our two summer immersion programs: Youth, Development & Peace-building.

These immersions are open to Ugandans ages 18-30 who are already involved in community development projects and/or youth leadership initiatives. The programs will take place in Kampala and Gulu, so applicants are encouraged to apply for the location that best suits them. Spots will fill up quickly, so apply soon — applications for the July trip are due no later than Saturday, June 16, 2007.

July Applications


Please feel free to spread the applications around to your friends, colleagues, and anyone else you think may be interested. More information is in the application, but please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have at

July: Youth, Development & Peace-Building

Today Uganda lies at a crossroads. Last fall, peace talks brought about a cessation of hostilities in the 20-year civil war in northern Uganda; now is a critical time to examine the political situation and engage in the processes of reconstruction and reintegration. The end of the conflict brings with it dramatic challenges as well as opportunities. It is clear that youth will continue to be the driving forces behind development and peace-building in this fragile post-conflict environment. The goal of the Immersion is to provide a platform for Americans and Ugandans to explore the important role that youth play in post-conflict Uganda by sharing experiences, ideas, approaches, and strategies.

July’s program will provide opportunities for young global leaders to explore topics such as peace-building, poverty alleviation, post-conflict rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS, and gender issues, among others. Participants will meet with political, academic, and cultural experts and engage with local communities in dialogue, cultural exchange, and direct service.

August: Youth, Development & Health

I encourage those who are interested in Public Health issues to consider applying for the August Immersion. Applications will be available next month. Feel free to contact me with any questions in the meantime.

Uganda was one of the first countries in the world to come face-to-face with the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic; it was also one of the first to respond successfully to control its spread. As a result, Uganda has been heralded as a model across Sub-Saharan Africa. The August Immersion will focus on the following questions: What role did the Government’s strategy play in combating HIV/AIDS? How has the international community assisted in Uganda’s fight against other dramatic health challenges such as malaria and tuberculosis? What effect does the 20-year civil war in North Uganda have on the various health problems facing the country? What tools do grassroots and civil-society organizations utilize to improve access to health care and treatment? How are women and children affected differently by health crises? What can you do to help?

Participants will also examine many other interrelated issues facing Uganda, such as post-conflict development, poverty alleviation, and democracy-building and will have a unique opportunity to interact with a wide variety of people. The program will include direct service with community-based organizations, international non-governmental organizations, and young leaders from the United States.

Global Youth Partnership for Africa

The Global Youth Partnership for Africa (GYPA), a non-profit organization based in Washington DC and Kampala, Uganda, seeks to fundamentally change the way Americans and Africans engage with and understand each other. GYPA fosters relationships between accomplished and emerging youth leaders in Africa and the United States. The partnerships forged this July and August will promote fresh, pragmatic perspectives on Africa’s challenges and encourage participants to work together for innovative, practical solutions.

decoding NGO-speak

As I was putting together my Hiphop for a Cause review on Monday, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was, despite my best efforts and enthusiastic use of words like “brilliant” and “cool,” a bit…dreary. Limp. Uninspiring, even.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to my complete lack of meaningful knowledge concerning hiphop, breakdancing and the art of writing about such things, but I don’t think it’s all my fault. Take, for example, this paragraph:

Breakdance Project Uganda was founded by Ugandan hiphop artist Abramz several years ago to empower street kids, formerly abducted child soldiers and other disadvantaged children throughout Uganda using hiphop and breakdance. BPU offers free breakdancing classes to these children, giving them a positive means of expressing themselves and encouraging them to become future BPU teachers.

I’d wager a fistful of shillings that 98% of all developing-nation NGO mission statements sound vaguely similar. Replace “disadvantaged children” with “widows” or “the unemployed” and “hiphop” with “well-digging” or “brownie-baking,” and you have what is meant to be a rousing, passionate declaration of How To Change Lives. But what does it mean? Empower them to do what? Express what, exactly? For a statement that’s supposed to save the world, it’s pretty bland.

I propose we get rid of the vapid euphemisms and talk about what these NGOs really do. Striving to give people “something constructive” to do means attempting to distract them from destructive alternatives — violence, drugs, prostitution, lethargy. Providing “outlets for expression” means letting them blow off anger, frustration, sadness or sheer boredom without robbing, assaulting or seducing the next person they see.

Bowing to a politically correct notion of what they Can and Cannot say neutralizes the immense value of these organizations. I understand that labeling their clients as potential bullies, welfare cases or criminals may come off as patronizing and imperialistic, which isn’t great for business. At the same time, they wouldn’t exist in a perfect world, and shrowding their goals in drab, dispassionate NGO-speak makes them seem like nothing more than part of the nonprofit bandwagon, with a clip-art logo and a cookie-cutter mission statement. There has to be a better way.

I’m not talking about late-night television appeals to lift child mothers out of poverty with only 10 cents a day or histrionic threats that a teenage gang will take over the inner city unless someone donates a new arts center. I’m talking about stripping off a little of the sugarcoating, employing a little more precision in their vocabulary, revealing a little of the rawness that exists in their spheres of influence without giving in to a showy, maudlin kind of despair.

Breakdance Project Uganda teaches street kids how to breakdance so they have a way to prove their social superiority that doesn’t include beating the shit out of each other. To their credit, this is basically how they introduced the first breakdance battle on Sunday: “these kids used to fight, but now they dance.”

I should have just said that.

whine, iraq, whine, whine, stupid government, hiphop

I’m going to pull a Whitman (do I contradict myself? Very well, then…) and take the wonderful opportunity afforded me by Sunday’s New York Times to bash a little on American foreign policy. 27th Comrade, if you’re reading, this still doesn’t mean I think the VA Tech killings were justified.

James Glanz wrote a fun little exposé about the spectacular failure of American-sponsored reconstruction projects in Iraq.

Like every other American who’s ever traveled with aid and development in mind, I find myself questioning my purpose here so frequently that it’s easy to fall into despair. Dante asked why I don’t write a more personal blog — it’s because no one wants to read my self-inquisition:

What am I doing here? Am I helping anyone? Am I even capable of helping anyone? Why did I think I could do that? What skills or magic knowledge did I think I had? I’m 22 and have a Russian degree, of all things. Idiot.
Break out a few racks, some rusty chains and a vat of boiling oil, and you have a close approximation of the inner workings of, I’d venture, most development workers’ minds.

I read a book last month that threw in red-hot pincers and a guillotine: Michael Maren’s The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. It’s mostly about (surprise) America’s blunderings in Somalia, but the broader message is that the vast majority of aid and charity is nothing more than a self-serving industry that ends up harming more than it helps.

A real upper.

Maren writes exclusively about Africa, but Glanz points out that this trend isn’t unique to the continent: seven out of eight “successful” projects designed to rebuild Iraq are non-operative due to technical problems, lack of maintenance, looting, misuse and local distrust. Millions of dollars worth of generators at the Baghdad International Airport aren’t running because of missing batteries or broken fuel lines. A medical waste incinerator at a maternity hospital isn’t being used (and the waste contaminating the water supply) because no one can find the key. Meanwhile, the U.S. is proudly touting these “successes” to the public.

I try to stay optimistic, and every once in a while I hear about a project that reminds me of the wonderful things that a little concerted, locally-initiated and externally-sponsored effort can do. Glanz quotes Rick Barton, co-director of the postconflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as saying that “What ultimately makes any project sustainable is local ownership from the beginning in designing the project, establishing the priorities.” How are we still not getting this?

Um, hello? Government? Elected officials? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

I’m not saying that I could do this any better, but an 87.5% failure rate isn’t exactly screaming “Great job, Team USA!” to me.

May Day resolution: stop reading depressing books and spend more time around people like Abramz, starting with this weekend’s Hiphop For a Cause festival.