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”

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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”

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”

“I cannot be heard”

At schoolWatching the ‘Amplify Dandora‘ video, below – they used some of my footage from the slum in Eastern Nairobi – brings back memories of a great group of people. The Amplify team are hoping to do more of the video work I started on a very small scale last November (more on that project here) – and improve education opportunities for young people in Dandora.

The link between teaching video skills to unemployed youth and improving a (primary) school is perhaps not obvious. Continue reading ““I cannot be heard””

Dear reader

Nairobi 2013 - let's not overstate the transformation
Nairobi 2013 – let’s not overstate the transformation

Whatever you might think of Bill and Melinda’s pro-aid stance (and there are many who disagree), the Gates annual letter is a well-crafted communications piece (mostly).  Here’s what it does right:

It creates a buzz.
Not easy for a publication these days. Of course, the authors are pretty well-known and have lots of money (they’ve handed out over USD 28 billion to date); they don’t exactly have to fight to be heard. Continue reading “Dear reader”

A hell of a to-do list: 2014 in development

We may need it all
We may need it all

What’s in store this year for international development?

Here’s a bit of a preview, drawing from various publications (not very scientifically selected – mostly, those daring enough to make predictions). It’s also somewhat weighted to areas of my own interest – hence the Europe/Africa focus. (The great danger of the Internet: instead of widening your knowledge, you simply find evidence to back up your own theories.) Continue reading “A hell of a to-do list: 2014 in development”

Common goals

EU brochure on MDGsFreelancing on different projects all the time has one big downside: you’re pulled in only for a certain phase of the project’s life cycle, and once you’ve done your bit you’re often unaware of where your work has ended up, and what impact it might have had.

So it’s good to see the European Commission’s publication on the Millennium Development Goals out – just in time for the UN Summit last week. I had also edited their 2010 version (available, for now, here). This year, we struggled again to keep our clients down to the word limit – crowded pages with not enough white space just don’t work for a product aimed at a wider public – and ended up adding more pages. But it worked out ok, and the final editorial quality is better this time, probably due to fewer Commission folk making changes, and thankfully, a certain amount of trust in my suggestions. It also helped, no doubt, to have a first version to start from, with a format that could easily be updated. Continue reading “Common goals”

The next China

Nigeria is set to surpass the US as the as the third-most populous country by 2050. By 2100, it could have more people than China. The populations of Burundi, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia are all projected to increase at least five-fold by 2100; overall the population of Africa is set to quadruple by the end of this century.

Revised UN figures published last month show that Asia’s population is set to continue to rise to a peak within about 50 years, and then decline, while developed countries, especially in Europe, will stagnate or shrink. (The Washington Post has some useful visuals here.)

Meanwhile, the population of the least developed countries is projected to double (from 902 million today, to 1.8 billion in 2050). This would mean that by 2050, 86.4 % of the world’s population would live in less developed regions, including 19.0 per cent in the least developed countries. Continue reading “The next China”