Under pressure

4545
In Nakivale settlement, southwest Uganda

The Guardian published my story on refugee policy in Uganda last week, just as grim news emerged of UN forces’ alleged failure to prevent violence in neighbouring South Sudan. More and more civilians are fleeing: 85,000 have entered Uganda since early July.

There’s a sense of solidarity here: communities agree in many cases to give up land to host newcomers. But the scale of need is hard to grasp.  Continue reading “Under pressure”

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Making things

Bottles
Sand-filled bottles are stronger than bricks – and supposedly bullet-proof

After an intense few days inside one of Uganda’s largest refugee settlements, I’ve stumbled upon two slightly different (and a bit more uplifting) movements.

On the way back to Kampala, I stopped for a night at the Social Innovation Academy, created about two years ago to address the desperate lack of job prospects in the country.

60+ young people aged from 18 to late 20s live in dorms and traditional African huts and new constructions made from sand-filled plastic bottles; several more buildings are in various stages of completion, including new housing for volunteers and a huge hall. Hand-painted signs are dotted around: “Do something every day that scares you”, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those already doing it”.

Scholars get free rent and board, and training for as long as they need it to develop business ideas that will benefit themselves, the community, the environment, or all three. Continue reading “Making things”

Businesspeople

10350466776_23b2e3e368_zI’m back in Uganda, this time with funding from One World Media, researching a story about refugee businesses.

Here’s the premise: 86% of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. Uganda, a relatively stable nation in a rocky region is now home to over half a million people seeking refuge from South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It now hosts the third largest refugee population in Africa.

But what makes Uganda intriguing is its unusually open door policy: all refugees are granted freedom of movement and the right to work; in rural areas they get allocated their own plot of land. So while most countries try to contain refugees in designated zones set apart from cities and towns, and to stop them from competing with locals for jobs, in Uganda refugees can (and do) become traders, workers, employers, entrepreneurs.

Indeed, an Oxford University research project in the country in 2014 found that 60% of refugees were self-employed, 39% employed – and only 1% not working at all.  Continue reading “Businesspeople”

How the other half live

mumbai
Mumbai, India

One of the exciting things about the current sustainable development goals (SDGs), agreed last year by governments, UN and citizens, is that they really are global – they apply to the rich world as well.

It seems obvious now. But the SDGs’ predecessors (agreed in 2000) were focused on the developing world, aiming to push them towards certain benchmarks of progress: primary education enrolment, maternal health, daily income, and so on.

It was us and them, and responsibilities were divided according to which half of the world you inhabited. Rich country governments: cough up the cash and make sure your taxpayers see that their aid is working. Poor country governments: introduce policies, enforce laws, make wise investments.

The SDGs, however, recognise that rich countries fall far short on many standards of sustainability — meaning they have to do some of the ‘doing’ as well. Continue reading “How the other half live”

More clean teeth, not more toothbrushes

Popeye
We don’t need another hero

Do social entrepreneurs think they’re better than ‘normal’ businesspeople?

Speaking at last month’s Big Social, a London gathering of those working in or supporting social businesses, Dr Margaret Mountford suggested at least some of them do. Watch out for a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, warned the former sidekick from The Apprentice.

At the same conference, a session on branding for social enterprises touched on personal brand. How you come across to others can be particularly important, the facilitators said, because social enterprises are often associated with the small teams that run them, and are often founded by individuals whose personal story is wrapped up in how the business came about.

In an age that encourages (or even demands) all of us to develop a personal brand, the social entrepreneur is surely no more to blame than the rest of us for feeling that their profile, their story, really matters. Meanwhile, those of us writing about social enterprise (including me) find an easy way in to complex problems and business models by talking, instead, about the personal journey behind it all. How they struggled, how they failed, what they learned, how they triumphed.

But has it got just a bit too personal? Continue reading “More clean teeth, not more toothbrushes”

Something to write about

It’s been a busy few months, but I’m excited by the variety of stuff I get to learn (and write) about. Recently I’ve spoken to economists in Washington and Nairobi about grain storage and irrigation; to community leaders from Cameroon and India about child marriage and female genital mutilation; and to researchers about the growing intrusion of business onto the territory of humanitarian aid groups. (The latter also involved a demonstration of ‘Peepoo‘, a single-use ‘personal toilet’ – a sort of bucket liner that can be sealed and then rapidly sanitises excrement. Incredible, but true: more people in Africa have access to the internet than to decent sanitation.)

As the first regular contributor to Devex based in the UK, I’ve also been doing a lot of explaining to people here about who we are – and who we write for. Continue reading “Something to write about”

The Swahiliwood sceptics

A class with the Ghetto Film Project, Uganda
A class with the Ghetto Film Project, Uganda

Seeing a TV set when boarding a long-distance bus in Tanzania usually made my heart sink. The music videos or the homegrown melodramas – the ones that take 10 minutes to tell you that our main character is upset, or one minute to show someone pulling into a driveway – never seemed to make those twelve-hour journeys pass more quickly.

So I understood Nes’s point, when I sat in on one of his classes in the slums of Uganda (I’ve written about that, here): be more subtle. To illustrate, the Ugandan filmmaker showed two shorts: powerful films with almost no dialogue that told a whole story without spelling it out. Western-made films, of course.

But I wonder now what he’d make of the critique, on Africa is a Country, of how the Western film industry is muscling in on (in this case) Tanzanian culture. Continue reading “The Swahiliwood sceptics”

Heartsinking headlines

Last week’s Uganda story – the President’s signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act – is heart-sinking stuff.

Not just for what it means for people trying to live a normal life – but also because it’s such a slap in the face of any attempt to talk of shared values.

And because it looks to be driving a wedge between the West, who are rushing to take the moral high ground, and the Ugandan political class, who have jumped on this chance to demonstrate their ability to resist imperialism while avoiding dealing with Uganda’s actual problems. And so, as Think Africa Press write, sexuality becomes part of (an inconsistent) foreign policy.

Maybe we shouldn’t give up on the shared values thing just yet, though. Continue reading “Heartsinking headlines”

A poor perspective

Seeing it from their side
Shifting the viewpoint

‘Very happy, very sad, or super determined’ –  the usual spectrum of emotions we assign to poor people, says sociologist Michael Woolcock.

His recent lecture at the Institute of Development Studies – watch it online, below – sets out to change that.

Woolcock begs for a more, well, human way of looking at what it’s like to be poor. How? Through the lens we’ve been using to look at other people’s lives since time began – storytelling, including in its more modern forms. Continue reading “A poor perspective”