Nancy’s story; and a question of size

On New Year’s Eve we were approached by a young woman, Nancy. Her husband, Shafiq, had died on Christmas Day while they were travelling by ambulance to Kampala. He had been the victim of a hit-and-run accident a week earlier and suffered severe head injuries; he had been admitted to St Mary’s Hospital, Lacor, here in Gulu, but they had run out of treatment options and referred him to Mulago, Uganda’s flagship government hospital in Kampala. He died about three hours into the journey and the ambulance turned around and came back.

Shafiq, who had worked as a loader at the lorry park, was a Muslim, and the local mosque where he had prayed had borne the costs of his funeral and indicated that they might be able to help in the future with the education costs of the couple’s three young children. Nancy was left with a debt of 700,000 Uganda shillings – about £150 – which she had borrowed from a local savings and loan association to cover the costs of Shafiq’s hospital bill and the ambulance. The debt was now due and the loan association was threatening to seize Nancy’s household goods if she defaulted. This may sound very harsh, but the association’s members are also very poor people, who they cannot afford to subsidise other members’ troubles without risking their own survival. If we do not help Nancy she will be reduced to absolute poverty. The only one of her children in school, a girl of ten, will be forced to drop out and find work; if Nancy or one of the children get malaria – very prevalent at the moment – they will not be able to afford treatment, seriously increasing the risk of death. Their diet will deteriorate and they will often go hungry, perhaps causing stunting and associated vulnerabilities in the youngest child, four years old.

The Trust has covered Nancy’s debt and we are discussing with her whether we can help her start a small business. This is what most of our work looks like, but thanks to a big increase in our support we have been able to do more of it. Since we launched the website we have had a fantastic response and are now in a much more stable place than a year ago. We are hugely grateful to all our donors, new and old.  

However, in one instance we were told that it is a waste of money giving to small charities working in Africa and I felt this was a point worthy of a response. It is always worth finding as much as possible about charities asking for your money before you give. There are many good reasons for not donating to particular organisations or causes (though I would argue that size is not one of them). Perhaps their mission is not one you see as a priority. Perhaps – though this can be difficult to discover unless you have worked in the sector or live in their areas of operation – you know an organisation to be wasteful or corrupt or problematically colonial in their style of operation. Occasionally they are actively harmful. My own research suggests that mainstream programmes promoting legal titles for land holdings in northern Uganda, funded by the World Bank and carried out by highly respected international NGOs, are doing great damage by increasing landlessness and in consequence numbers of people living in absolute poverty; though realistically I am unlikely to find a way to shift this long established policy- (rather than evidence-) driven programming.

For a short while after the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict, mainly between 2006 and 2010, there was a lot of development activity in northern Uganda, as money poured in from foreign governments. This was given to UN agencies or large international NGOs, many of which – OXFAM, Save the Children, World Vision – also raised funds from the Western public. Very often the actual work on the ground was outsourced to small local NGOs, though projects were usually designed in Washington or Geneva, Brussels or London. Today there is still aid money coming into northern Uganda, but it is humanitarian funding specifically for the camps that house the million or so South Sudanese refugees who have fled the civil war at home.

The local people of northern Uganda are not unusually deprived by Sub-Saharan African standards – they are not in a ‘humanitarian crisis’ viewed at a population level. The region is, however, significantly poorer than most other parts of  a country usually counted among the world’s 20 poorest, and there are many thousands of people either balanced on the boundary of severe poverty, one accident or dispute away from absolute poverty; or who have already fallen over it. Unless they are part of a major portion of a population hit by a sudden and dramatic catastrophe, natural or man-made, such people are generally not assisted by humanitarian agencies, while development agencies often struggle to engage with the poorest of the poor – who tend to be invisible as well as hard to help through formulaic interventions.

Small organisations don’t change the world. However nor, sadly, do much larger international NGOs. One of the reasons direct giving, the Trust’s approach, is gaining ground is that so much development work over so many years has had such limited impact. The ‘teach a man to fish’ adage underpins most development work – but to extend the metaphor, it often it turns out that people are already highly skilled at fishing but are struggling because there are not enough fish, or because they cannot afford the necessary equipment to catch enough. There are only so many relevant farming skills if one’s only tools are a hand hoe and a machete, and people tend to have possessed them since they were children. One is unlikely to more than subsist on the area of land one can cultivate with a hoe, even if you are fit, young and well-fed to start with. If you don’t have enough to eat it diminishes your ability to work. Slowly more organisations are turning to the idea of giving poor people money to use as they think best, rather than trainings and workshops in topics dreamed up in the Global North and all too often locally irrelevant. Giving the man or woman or child a fish may turn out to be the more effective intervention.

It is true that the Trust’s contribution is very small – last year we distributed £12,000 to around 300 people in a country with at least ten million people living in extreme poverty on less than US$1.90 – the World Bank’s benchmark. We do not address the root causes of poverty, namely the global economic system and the legacies and continuities of colonialism; nor the deep structural inequalities of contemporary Uganda; though we do try to share a picture of the lived reality of the extreme or absolute poverty of our beneficiaries to our supporters. This is a kind of advocacy, albeit on a very small scale and to an already highly sympathetic and well informed audience.

The Trust, like many international organisations working in Africa, has both a humanitarian and developmental focus – we try to help people in crisis stay alive, and we try to support people to move out of absolute or extreme poverty. I would argue that – measured pound for pound – the Trust does these things better and more efficiently than most other organisations – certainly than larger ones. This is because we can target our interventions very effectively due to our deep local knowledge and personal involvement with beneficiaries; and because we have almost no operating costs, being currently entirely operated by volunteers. If it is so good, you might ask, should we not be scaling it up? We don’t see how – our strengths lie in that local knowledge and in our volunteers’ motivation, not in replicable systems, and we cannot grow much larger than we are now and remain fully volunteer-run. However we do think that finding a positive path forward for all international development is going to depend on a more respectful approach than has been the norm to date, and which acknowledges that very poor people in Africa may have clearer, more useful ideas about what will help them ‘develop’ – itself a very value-laden term – than foreigners from hugely different cultural and economic backgrounds.