The Aid from the Ugandan perspective

In my world (youth work, NGOs, etc.), when you say Africa, there are several associations – the place of origin of migrants coming to Europe, MDGs, development, the need to help. There is this kind of inner feeling of a need to help, starting with the development, and ending with volunteering, where all the candidates for EVS are saying that they want to help poor children. This is how we were thought to think.

In June 2018 I had an amazing opportunity to visit Uganda and investigate a bit what is the perception of the western aid and what is it really, what our partners would like from us. As a result, I got the set of stories that made me think.


When we study development in Europe, one of the main issues is the access of education, and I still remember the story of children having to walk long distances to access school, they are arriving tired and then they cannot do their homework since there is lack of electricity or they have to help their parents. During my stay I have visited 3 schools, and 2 NGOs that offers the education in parallel to the school system. And indeed the first impression from the European perspective is challenging, especially in villages. School being mainly outdoor places, or in small wooden constructions with blackboard and many students. But then talking to teachers you realize that not having the electronic boards and many things in the classroom it is not really considered as a problem. In the schools that we have visited the ration of number of students per teachers was much better then in Europe (in one of the schools it was about 15 students per teacher). The fact that the school is open air at least for me was actually comfortable, you don´t have to waste money for air conditioning, since you have a nice refreshing wind, and you are all the time in the shadow. Asking teachers about the walking distance to get to school, they told us that the furthest was 30 minutes (and for me it was for primary school 30 minutes walking, and for high school 1h with public transportation).

So what is the real challenge with the education? After talking to different people there were always two arguments that were very consistent – high costs of sending children to school, and the school curriculum that is still coming from colonial times and needs to be changed immediately. I have asked some teachers what is in their opinion the most useless thing that they need to tough to students, and the most funny answer was winterJ the teacher said ¨most of the students will never travel abroad, I have never traveled in my life, and it is quite challenging to learn from books the seasons in Europe and especially winter to explain it later to students¨. This is one of plenty examples of the post-colonial education, where in the curriculum you have the details of the geography of Europe and North America, but there is very little about geography of their own country. Moreover the educational system is still done in the way that worship everything that is done by white people, and basically teacher racism, and pass the feeling of being inferior.

After two weeks I still did not understand if the concept of free education exists. In all the places where I have asked there was a fee, I might be wrong, but as I understood there are private and catholic schools that have fee plus there is a second fee for uniforms which are obligatory, lunch for children etc. and there are public schools which should be free of charge, but still they have an obligatory fee for uniforms and lunch, and in case of low income families the fee could be equal to half of the monthly salary (per child). So the education is only for the children from reach families, or for these who gets funding for this purpose, unfortunately most of the donors prefers to fund the school building then pay for children to allow them to go to school.

Water well project

In the northern part of Uganda there was a community where women everyday had to bring water from the well, so women were bringing their big jars and walked kilometers and kilometers to bring water. Depending on the place where they were living the distance was different, but we are talking about the longest distance of 7 kilometers for some of them. European aid came and decided to solve this problem, since it seemed very challenging to walk so much everyday. They decided to create wells every kilometer, so women would not have to walk so much, and it has happened. They came after some time to check how the project is working and they discovered that the women are still walking to the well that is far away, and their project was completely useless. What happened? They discovered that for women walking to the well was kind of therapy, it was the only moment during the day when they were living the children behind, they were getting together with other females that are like them, with the same problems and live situation, and it was the only moment when they could talk, and release all the tensions they have inside.

How the aid is perceived among Ugandan activists

Whenever you ask someone what do they think about aid, the huge list of critics start. I cannot make the generalization, but this is my impression after talking to several people mainly NGO workers working mainly on the grass root level. So what are exactly the things that doesn´t work?

  1. The aid is not accessible for the small organizations

The small grass root organizations who knows how to work on the local level and what are the needs of the people and their realities, they don´t the access to the aid  money. Why? There are plenty of reasons, mainly they don´t have the annual budget big enough to access the money, often the manager of the organizations don´t have the university titles in management, and due to this fact they cannot prove the operational capacity, and in general since many grass root organizations are being run by the people whose life were not easy, often themselves coming from vulnerable groups, and thanks to this having a great motivation and knowing well the reality, but they lack of the competences in for example proposals writing.

  1. Lack of accountability

There are not enough checks how the money is being spent, and seems like that there is a lot of money misused. Most of the checks that are being done refers to the checks in the paper work, and going to the field and checking if the programmes really work happens very rarely. So where is the quality assurance? From the conversations I had, I could sense the general feeling that there is a lot of money misused, meaning a lot of money going to the management costs, money spend on things that are not needed or investments done without knowing the local reality like the story of the water well. I cannot evaluate if it is true or not, but definitely the image of the aid in Uganda is not good.

  1. Sustainability issue

Other thing that I have learnt from talking to people is that there is the tendency among the aid givers to invest money in the short term activities. For example bring a lot of people together for a week to learn about entrepreneurship, where a lot of money is invested. As a result, people are trained, but without any capital to invest in order to create their own business. And we don´t talk about big money, what people need is small piece of land, or to buy some animals or seeds, something to be able to produce and be able to sustain their own needs, or maybe even to sell. What most of the people need are the tools to farm. I am not saying that the training is not important, but why to make the training if you know from the beginning that most of the people will not be able to put the knowledge into practice.

¨The giver has intention and objectives, the receiver has the needs, and if those two does not meet, I don´t think it is aid.¨ (Davis)

  1. Aid disempower people

Other quite important challenge is connected already with harm that the aid can bring to the communities, and there are some cases of the disempowerment that it brings. First of all there are some communities which lost the ability to work for themselves, because they are so used to things to be given. As a result they stopped caring, and they are expecting all the things to come, without any effort, and we all know that on the long run it is not sustainable and can be very harmful.  We can go still one step forward, and since the communities are already so used to getting money and other goods, they ask for money directly if some organization want to start collaboration with an interesting programmes. It happened to our colleagues, that they contacted schools to offer them programmes that empowers young people, work on women empowerment and are being done by the people who knows the local reality! They were asked how much the school will be paid for this, and after the answer nothing they were rejected. And believe me after the experience in working in schools in Uganda, those programmes are very important.

  1. Aid creates job for Europeans and Americans

And finally we come to the most challenging argument I have learnt from people with whom I talked – some of the conflicts in Uganda were created by Europeans and Americans, to be able to have jobs for the people who studied development, African studies or conflict resolution, and because of their profession they cannot work in Europe, and the market for those people need to be created. Like for example the conflicts in the north of Uganda, which offered the market for about 50 NGOs to be spread around this area, led by Americans and Europeans, who were getting their huge salaries and driving big cars.

The above mentioned argument is what I have learnt from people, I was trying to investigate it online, and I was not able to find anything to confirm this argument. What is easier to confirm is that most of the aid NGOs are led by Europeans and Americans, and yes they have a big salary, although most of the work is being done by local people who receives the salaries which are much smaller, and usually their bosses get credits for all the work done.

So what can be done?

This already has a very simple answer – collaboration, learning from each other, respect, lack of imposing and superiority of Europeans. Simply collaboration!

Our partners said that the best example of the European money spend are the ERASMUS+ projects where the organizations get together to exchange experiences, learn from each other, where all the partners are truly equal. As well they consider EVS as a very good opportunity for young people to get empowered, see the world and come back to Uganda with new ideas and skills to work on the local level.

The article was written after the participation of the project GLOBALAB goes Global, co-financed in the framework of the ERASMUS+ project by European Commission.

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