The United Nations for Dummies

August 17th 2015

Today is our last Monday at work. Looking back, I realize I’ve written very little about the actual work we’ve been doing here over the last few months. So it seems appropriate to write a post about the most recent project we were working on. Namely, a shadow report that Jeremy and I wrote on behalf of a coalition of over twenty non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We submitted it on Friday, and the report will soon be distributed to these and other NGOs, including the Uganda Human Rights Commission. Most importantly, it will (hopefully) be incorporated into Uganda’s National Action Plan (NAP), as well as being sent to the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva to be used in the second Universal Periodic Review process. Pretty exciting stuff. Especially given that I wasn’t expecting to be writing shadow reports until years down the road. So no pressure or anything.

But what is a shadow report you ask? And what is the Universal Periodic Review? Good questions. Answering these will be the focus of this post, which will require a bit of an explanation of the United Nations system. Hence the title ‘The United Nations for Dummies’. I’ve never actually read one of the For Dummies books, so they may even have one about the UN, but here’s my version anyways (disclaimer – I’m writing this without access to internet, so the details could be a bit fuzzy):

As you probably know, the UN was established in 1945. It was meant to be a sort of new and improved League of Nations. It currently has 193 member states, and as such it is one of the first examples of global governance. What is it governing? Essentially, it is monitoring human rights and promoting peace and security. Its main purpose is to set, monitor and enforce international human rights standards. To do so, the UN came up with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which outlines the fundamental rights that all people have simply by nature of being human. From there, the UN created nine covenants that go into more detail on these rights. These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, etc. You get the idea.

Once these covenants were created, member states have the option to ratify them. By ratifying a covenant the state in question basically says that they commit to ensuring that every citizen of that state has these rights.* And they commit to dealing with violations of these rights accordingly. So, for example, a country that ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child would be completely free of child abuse, child labour, etc. In an ideal world.

Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world. Many states have ratified covenants but still have widespread human rights violations. Uganda for example has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, yet many of these rights aren’t even included in their Constitution.

So, what makes a state’s ratification more than just words on paper? What mechanisms are in place to enforce the rights laid out in the nine covenants? When a state ratifies a covenant, they also agree to complete a system of reporting. Essentially, each signatory state is supposed to submit a report every four to five years on the situation of each particular human right. The report should outline what mechanisms the state has put in place to enforce the human right, and what challenges they still face. So, for example, a state that ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination would probably talk about the different ethnic groups within the state, studies that have been done examining what types of discrimination they face, and maybe initiatives like equal opportunity employment. Each reporting cycle, the UN reads these reports and from them evaluates the state’s progress. If there are problems, they may assign a Special Rapporteur to go investigate the human rights issues in the given country. Alternatively, the UN may utilize the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court. Sounds great right?

Wrong. Believe it or not, this system isn’t actually very effective. In fact, the biggest critique of the UN system is that it lacks teeth. Countries regularly fail to submit their reports, and they don’t get penalized for it. Further, when states do submit reports they often overstate the good and leave out the bad. States want to look better than they are, so they don’t own up to everything. Moreover, Special rapporteurs are only allowed to investigate a country with the country’s permission. So it’s all well and good to agree to these lofty rights, but if the UN is unable to enforce them then it loses all its power. And if states can’t be held accountable, then the conventions become laughable.

One way to combat the inaccuracy of state reports is through shadow reports. Like state reports, shadow reports outline the situation of a particular human right in the state in question. The difference is that shadow reports are written by NGOs and concerned citizens. Because they are not from the government they don’t have a vested interest in making the state look good. As such, shadow reports often offer a much more accurate depiction of where a country is at. For example, I once read China’s state report to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. I was writing a paper on forced sterilizations of women in Tibet by the Chinese military, which is a wide-spread issue. But in the state report there was no mention of this attempted reproductive genocide, or even sterilizations more generally. The only thing mentioned was the One Child Policy, and it was framed in terms of its effectiveness with population control. On the other hand, the shadow reports I read gave detailed explanations of the illegal sterilization, and contained quotes from Tibetan women who had been forcibly sterilized. A much more holistic and reliable source if you ask me.

Unfortunately, even with shadow reports it is still hard to hold states accountable. Recognizing this, the UN came up with an additional system. In 2006 they implemented the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The purpose of the UPR is to do a holistic assessment of human rights in each member state. To do so, each state submits a report, and NGOs and citizens are welcome to submit shadow reports. It is a peer review process, so for each session three states are assigned to review the human rights situation of other states (based on the aforementioned reports). Based on these they give recommendations. Each state should consider and adopt these recommendations, and their progress will be reviewed in the next UPR.

The first UPR process was recently completed, and the UN is now beginning the second. Uganda will be reviewed for the second time in the Spring of 2016, during the UPR’s 26th Session. Further, Uganda is currently in the process of developing a National Action Plan. This was one of the recommendations given to Uganda during the last UPR. The NAP will give a holistic overview of the steps needed to improve human rights in Uganda.

This is where we come in. Food Rights Alliance (FRA) – along with two other organizations and their partners – was recently asked to submit a shadow report for the UPR and for the development of the NAP. As FRA and its partners are particularly concerned with Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs), these are the focus of the report. More specifically, the report focuses on the right to food, women’s rights, the rights of children’s and youth, and the right to information.

To gather information on the above topics, FRA and the other organizations held a civil society consultative meeting on Friday August 7th. In the meeting attendees voiced their opinions, while consultants for the NAP process listened attentively (at least I hope they did). Meanwhile, Jeremy and I frantically transcribed everything that was said. Later, we would use these comments to craft the shadow report.

Unfortunately I was sick in bed for most of last week, so I was working on the shadow report between naps (and no, I don’t mean the National Action Plan). Luckily, Jeremy was super understanding and more than equipped to plow ahead without me (thanks Jeremy, I owe you one!). As a result, we were able to submit the report on Friday evening, and are hoping to see it distributed in the next few days. Fingers crossed that we didn’t completely screw it up!

So there you go: a description of some of our work here in Uganda, and a detailed explanation of the UN system to boot. Wasn’t that fun?

Sorry if I put you to sleep. I promise the next post will be more interesting.
*States can also have reservations to a covenant. Basically if they agree with everything in a covenant EXCEPT one article, they can choose to ratify the covenant, excluding that article. For instance, several Middle Eastern states have reservations to the Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, because certain articles go against their cultural and religious beliefs. But states are only allowed a certain number of reservations per covenant before it jeopardizes their ratification.


My Two Cents on Poverty – Part 2

August 15th 2015

In my last post I talked about the philosophical justifications for how to respond to poverty, as well as my actual response when faced with begging children. In many instances they don’t add up, and I’m still trying to muddle through where I stand.

So, looking forward, what should I do next time and the time after that? Let’s go back to theory for a minute. The concentric circles model would say that I only have a weak obligation to help those suffering from severe poverty in Uganda. Instead, their compatriots should help lift them up. Or rather, their wealthy compatriots should. Although Uganda is a poor country, there is also a growing upper class. Wealthy Ugandans have more than enough means to help their poor neighbors. But ironically – just as Canadians often ignore people begging – wealthy Ugandans are the most desensitized. As such, they are probably far less likely to help a begging child than a foreigner who has been exposed to the ‘porn of poverty’.

So, assuming I can’t rely on wealthy Ugandans to help, what should I do? Gillian Brock would say I have just as much responsibility to that school girl here as I have to children back in Canada. Elizabeth Ashford would tell me that my socio-economic background obligates me to help. My friend in Rwanda would tell me that it’s not sustainable to feed every street child I see. And I would agree with all three. But do these three pieces of advice converge, or are they mutually exclusive?

Recently, I seem to have found my own happy medium. There are little boys outside Acacia Mall who carry scales and quietly ask if you would like to get weighed for 1000 shillings. They are trying to raise money for school fees. Every few weeks I’ll oblige one of them, and after having been weighed I’ll pay them 2000 shillings.

Similarly, there are little girls selling bananas by the bank. Instead of buying them at the supermarket I’ll make a point to buy bananas from one of these little girls. I know that the middle men will take most of their earnings, but I hope that my weekly banana purchase helps a little.

Finally, last week Jeremy, Shelby and I got pizza to go from a restaurant near the bank. As we passed the banana girls with our boxes they ran up and asked for a slice. It was almost 9pm, and we assumed these ten year old girls had not eaten in hours. We had plenty of pizza to spare, so we happily offered them each a slice. I gave them my half empty water bottle as well, since on other occasions they had mentioned being thirsty.

I would like to think that that piece of pizza saved those girls the time they would have spent begging for dinner. That time saved might mean they went home early, and therefore did not fall asleep in class the next day. Their alertness may have saved them from being caned, which in turn may have made their lives that smallest bit easily. But this is just me projecting. It’s me stroking my ego by imagining my small benevolent action had huge ripple effects. Doesn’t everyone want to be the hero? In reality, the girls probably ate the pizza and went on trying to sell their bananas. Even though they now wave at us every time we pass by I shouldn’t see this as a victory. The fact that they now feel indebted to the pizza-bearing foreigners is not to either of our advantages. And there are power dynamics embedded in our pizza exchange that make me uncomfortable.

So, my solution isn’t perfect. And the fact that it gives me warm and fuzzy feelings inside doesn’t make it right. But I’ve decided that I’ll help when I can and when I feel comfortable doing so. When I cannot or do not feel ethically ok with it, I will not beat myself up. I will seek out opportunities to help in my community, where I can have a more permanent impact. This is not a surrender to the concentric circles model, but rather a realistic assessment of the context in which I can do the most good. And when I find myself faced with poverty, my actions will no longer come from a place of confusion. Rather my actions will be based on calculated decisions that are in line with my own moral code.

My Two Cents on Poverty – Part 1

August 14th 2015

After a week of battling with Bilharzia, I’m back! (If you don’t know what Bilharzia is you should look it up, it’s gross).

Just a warning, since I only have two weeks left in East Africa the blog posts are going to be coming in fast and furious. I have a whole folder full of half written, un-posted entries to upload, and only 16 days to do it. So prepare yourselves.

Secondly, this post needs a disclaimer: I wrote a version of it a month or so ago, and then revamped it this week to submit as part of the course I’m taking while I’m here. Given that it’s for a course, it’s a little bit dry and has a lot of academic references. So I won’t be offended if you fall asleep. Also, it’s completely based on my subjective opinion as I muddle through these issues. And even though it’s referring to the Ugandan context, these same questions could be asked about anywhere in the world.

So without further ado:

Approximately half of all human beings alive today are living in severe poverty. According to the World Bank, severe poverty is defined as living on USD 2 or less per day. And on each of these days there are approximately 50,000 deaths due to poverty related causes. Therefore, poverty is arguable the greatest killer in the world.

Uganda as a country is no stranger to severe poverty. In fact, it is the third poorest country in the world. Jeremy, Shelby and I regularly see young children begging for money on the streets, or women selling mangos, hoping to make ends meet. On our visit to a school a few weeks ago – which is located in Kampala’s biggest slum – we learned that the children used to leave school at noon to go beg for their lunch. It was only after the school was given money for a lunch program that the students would stay the whole day. Such is the reality of life for many Ugandans.

Many believe that severe poverty is a violation of human rights. At the organization I work for here for example, access to affordable food in adequate quantities is seen as a fundamental right. The staff there work tirelessly to ensure that Uganda moves towards food security for all. If a person is too poor to buy food, then that poverty also falls under the category of a human rights violation. According to scholar Elizabeth Ashford, the prevalence of people who lack basic necessities is the largest scale deprivation of human rights the world has ever seen. And almost anyone would agree that depriving a child of food, water, housing, or education because she lacks funds is wrong. So, although this argument could be elaborated upon, in the interest of time and space I will hold that severe poverty is a human rights violation.

Having made the above claim, the issue then becomes how to enforce this right. Thomas Pogge succinctly explains that rights have corresponding duties. These rights are only plausible if the duties attached are plausible as well. Unfortunately, it is clear that “it is not plausible to hold everyone responsible for supplying basic necessities to all other human beings who need them”. Therefore, does the human right to be free from severe poverty become void? Or do we give it our best shot, knowing that one life saved is better than none?

More importantly, in the above instance who is ‘we’? Who is responsible for making sure all human beings do not live in severe poverty? As Pogge puts it, it is not clear what human rights bind other agents to do or not to do. Ashford would take a different stance, saying that the responsibility to implement these rights lies largely with the citizens of affluent countries. She says there are two concepts of human rights: institutional and interactional. Institutions can create laws protecting human rights, but people must be the ones to implement these laws.

The problem is that in this globalized world it is hard to distinguish who has done what. How do I know whether my actions as a consumer have led to the death of a person, or people? The diversity of causes makes it hard to assign responsibility. Moreover, the causal chains do not fit our conceptions of human rights violations. For example, we have no language to penalize omissions. What punishment befits a company who pays its employees too little? If an employee dies due to poverty related causes, is that the fault of the company? Similarly, can the affluent be called violators of human rights for not helping someone living in severe poverty, through no fault of their own? There are no clear answers.

One set of guidelines for taking responsibility would be the ‘concentric circles model’ of obligations to others. Essentially, this model states that we have stronger responsibilities to people closer to others, and weaker ones to those further away. In the innermost circle is our family, followed by our friends, then a circle with our compatriots, and finally the rest of the human race falls into the outermost circle. Although W.E.H Lecky’s theory of the Expanding Circle holds that throughout history our circle of responsibility has expanded to include the entire human race, the concentric circles model claims that this responsibility is not evenly distributed. We have more obligations to those closer to us – our compatriots – than to people in other parts of the world.

I could argue for both sides of this theory. On the one hand, it is too easy to run to the developing world in order to ‘help’, and as a result you ignore the problems at home. The problems at home are harder, because as a local you understand the complexity of them. Which is the very reason why locals should be the ones to address them. No one understands the problems of a place like the people who are from there. Which is exactly why foreigners proposing shallow solutions to problems in the Global South can be problematic.

On the other hand, I agree with all of scholar Gillian Brock’s arguments for why the concentric circles model is not valid. For example, she questions the idea that we have more responsibility to our compatriots because we owe them a debt of gratitude for shaping who we are. If this is true, she says that we only owe gratitude to the small group of people who impacted our lives – teachers, friends, etc. She goes on to argue that owing responsibility to our compatriots due to our shared history is no longer valid. In an increasingly globalized world, people can share a history with cultural or religious groups that are spread across national borders. Therefore responsibility to others should be spread out as well. Through these arguments, Brock convincingly entices the reader to adopt a more cosmopolitan view.

Although Brock outlines many valid counterarguments to this theory in her article, she fails to discuss what happens when we are not surrounded by our compatriots. According to the concentric circles model, what rules apply when our compatriots are far away and our non-compatriots are close? Here in Uganda we experience this every day. We are close to the usually distant ‘other’, which according to the concentric circles model – and our morality – puts us in a good position to help. People have the right to be free from severe poverty, and we have a responsibility to others, so does that mean we have a responsibility to help alleviate their poverty? In theory, it would seem so.

But enough theory. I could spout philosophy all day and I would still feel unprepared to face the poverty I see on the streets every day, both here in Uganda and in Canada. So let me move away from the philosophizing and give some practical examples from our time here in Uganda:

The first time I was faced with severe poverty here was when a young mother approached me on the street. She came up to me, holding her baby, and started speaking to me in broken English. I smiled at her and tried to understand what she was saying. Eventually, I figured out that she was asking me to sponsor her baby. Having only been in Uganda for a week I had very little idea of what sponsorship meant. But I politely told her that I am a student who does not have the means or the connections to provide sponsorship. She did not seem to understand however, and eventually I was pulled away to go find a boda boda.

The second time I was directly approached was outside Acacia Mall. The mall is one of the nicest in Kampala. It is a hub for foreigners, and as such we always feel a bit weird going there. On this occasion we were waiting for our boda after a trip to the gym. A crowd had gathered to watch a traditional dance performance going on on the steps, and we contentedly watched from a few meters away. As we were chatting, a group of school girls were walking past. When they got close, one broke off from her friends and stopped in front of us. She asked if we had any food to eat, and when we said no she asked if we could buy her something. In our confusion we told her we were sorry but we were waiting for our boda. She walked on, and we were left to muddle through what just happened.

I was a bit stunned by the layered interaction that had just occurred in a matter of seconds. My immediate feeling was guilt. Here I was, working at an NGO that promotes the right to food, and I had just denied a sixteen year old girl a meal. I felt like such a hypocrite. How can I claim to want to do good and help others, when I had just turned down a direct request to do so? True, we were waiting for our boda, but I had used that as an excuse to avoid navigating the difficult ethical pathway that would have followed. I had taken the easy way out, and I felt ashamed.

On my way home I unpacked the complex dynamics of that brief interaction. My IDS background immediately kicked in: first, I thought about the impact buying that girl food would have had. For example, it might have reinforced the stereotype that all foreigners are wealthy. Stereotypes go both ways – just as people from North America tend to think the whole African continent is starving, people here think everyone in the West is rich. For instance, people have been shocked when we tell them that there are homeless people in big cities in Canada and the United States. So what this girl asking for food probably didn’t realize was that Shelby and I are students with debt who worry about money every day. The cost of living is much higher in Canada, so even though we are relatively rich here, back home we technically live below the poverty line.

That being said, even I, a poor student, have enough disposable income to go to a spinning class or buy a gelato. I have never gone hungry because I couldn’t afford to eat, so I can’t understand what it would feel like. So even though I do not think of myself as having much money, I can afford luxuries that many people here would not even dream of. So I do not blame the girl for approaching two foreigners as her best bet for a free meal.

Next, say I had bought the girl food (as I had been tempted to do). Then the question of dependency would have been another thing to think about. If I had gotten that girl something to eat, it would have reinforced the belief that every time she is hungry she can find a white person who will feed her. While that may not be a problem in such a small example, on a larger scale there are huge negative repercussions of countries relying on foreign aid. Recognizing this, Rwanda for example has stopped accepting foreign aid. Instead, it has imposed a small tax on its citizens that goes towards development initiatives. This example is empowering, but there are many instances where countries are overly dependent on foreign aid from the West. Therefore, even in a small scale example, dependency is something to consider.

Further, would buying food for one girl then morally obligate me to buy food for every child who asks? That solution is not sustainable for me or them. For me because I would quickly run out of money, and for them because each child would get one meal and then go hungry the next day. I have a good friend who lives in Rwanda, and her response to children begging is to tell that that she “is not a bank”. This may seem cold, especially coming from someone who has committed her life to development work. However, she explained that she does many good things for her community. For her, that is a better way to help than to give money to kids of the street. It is more sustainable and she knows it has an impact. Therefore her decision to not give money to street children is justified.

Still, I would have liked to make sure that the girl did not go to bed hungry. The fact of the matter is that I can argue the theoretical pros and cons of helping that girl all day, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the moment I stood there paralyzed. I can write about what I should have done, but the fact remains that I didn’t do it. My university education has taught me to think critically about the issues in the world – so much so that I cannot look at a scenario without seeing the potential negatives. As such, no solution looks perfect. But unfortunately, this results in not doing anything. I know that when you give to charity often your money goes to the wrong place, but that does not necessarily mean that you should not give. IDS students are often paralyzed by their fear of doing something wrong. Of doing ‘bad development’. But then the problem is that we end up doing nothing.

I said no to the girl asking for food because I didn’t know what damage I would do by saying yes. But even though I am reflecting now, it doesn’t change the fact that that girl went to bed hungry. If I could have prevented that, wouldn’t it be worth the risk that she now might think of Westerners as being rich? I can hear philosopher Peter Singer’s voice in my head saying “if you can prevent something bad from happening at the cost of something less bad, you should do it”. For once I completely agree with him.

To be continued

A Week in Rwanda

August 5th 2015

Until recently, I knew Rwanda only as a country that had suffered a brutal genocide. During my degree I learned about the Belgian occupation of Rwanda, the practically indistinguishable Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and the hundred days of conflict in 1994. In International Development Studies classes the Rwandan genocide is used as a prime example of the harm caused by colonialism. Meanwhile, in Political Science classes professors describe the genocide as a failure on the part of the international community. They talk about the limited definition of genocide under the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. With all this emphasis throughout my degree, I felt like I knew a lot about Rwanda. But after visiting the country I realized that my education had taught me about Rwanda as if it was frozen in time.

Our trip to Rwanda was a bit like a tour we went on on our third day there. The tour was of the home of President Habyarimana. For those of you who haven’t taken a social science degree, President Habyarimana ran the country in the time leading up to the genocide. He was responsible for creating Hutu youth militias. While he was in power Tutsis were routinely killed, although not on a grand enough scale to be termed a genocide. Instead, “genocide was being rehearsed” (to quote a haunting panel at the genocide memorial in Kigali). On top of that, President Habyarimana condoned the making of a ‘Death List’ naming all the Tutsi’s he and his followers wanted to kill. This was later used to target people during the genocide.

Needless to say, President Habyarimana was a pretty horrible guy. Interestingly though his house was presented completely devoid of his history. There was no mention of his crimes. Other than a few photos from the genocide, during the tour we were given only facts about each room and what it was used for. For example, we saw President Haryarimana’s staircase with the built-in alarm system, the shelf for guns hidden in his sons’ bedroom, the secret escape route, the safe full of money in his bathroom, and the room he kept for his witch doctor. Outside his house, we saw the pool reserved for President Habyarimana`s 19 meter long, albino python. Clearly President Habyarimana was a paranoid, superstitious dude.

Most interestingly, in the president`s complex there were the remains of an airplane. This was the plane that he died in after it was shot down by a still unknown person. Chunks of the plane’s broken carcass are scattered in the president’s yard, where it landed after being shot. The whole thing was eerie in its entire decomposing splendor.

As usual I’ve gotten carried away telling a story and have lost the main point. What I`m trying to say is that Rwanda is much like the president`s house (minus the albino snake). Like the tour of his house, many things in Rwanda aren`t talked about. If you didn’t know its history, modern day Rwanda would seem like any other up and coming middle income country. Our experience was full of clean streets, cute cafes, and sunshine.

Kigame is Rwanda`s current president, and at the time of the genocide he was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). He has officially been president of the country since 2000, and is currently in the process of amending the constitution so he can remain in office. Many outside of the country refer to him as a ‘benevolent dictator’, although few inside would dare. It is under his rule that the word `genocide` is not used, and mourning is restricted to April through June each year.

I’ve heard many opinions on whether Kigame’s strategy of sweeping everything under the rug is good for the country or not. On the one hand, it won’t do to dwell on events of the past. Rwanda has to look forward and focus on where it is going rather than where it has been. And under Kigame, the country has become a model for the rest of East Africa. The streets are clean, people obey the laws, and Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament in the world. Corruption is none existent. Kigame successfully took a country that was crippled by colonialism, torn apart by ethnic divides, with 2/3 of the population displaced, and turned it into a peaceful, functioning society. Obviously he didn’t do this single handedly, but still, kudos to him.

On the other hand, Rwandan society seems repressed. Like a pot about to boil over, the events of 1994 can’t be forgotten – and nor should they be. Kigame’s strategy of keeping the genocide quiet may have helped the country move forward, but it also may have prevented the citizens from grieving properly. In his rush to build a better country, did Kigame fail to respect the needs of the population? One of Erica and William’s friends put it well: he said that Kigame was the right person at the right time. Rwanda needed leadership like his in the post-genocide period to help get through it. But now, 20 years later, his style isn’t what the country needs. Kind of like how some leaders are only good in times of war, Kigame was only good in a time of crisis. Now however it seems as if new leadership is needed.

At President Habyarimana’s house his history almost became more obvious by its absence. Similarly, while we were in Rwanda the genocide felt like the elephant in the room (I say that quite literally, since in President Habyarimana`s bedroom there was a coffee table made of elephant skin, held up by stuffed elephant feet). Although the genocide isn’t discussed in Rwanda, evidence of it can`t fully be hidden. For example, there are still visible bullet holes in the sides of the Rwandan parliament buildings. They eerily stare at you as you whiz by on a moto. There are also interesting laws, clearly meant to combat any residual divisions between people.

The best example of these laws is something called Umuganda. Umuganda is essentially a 1984 style community work day that happens on the last Saturday of every month. Each community comes together to work on a project to better their area – be it picking up trash or paving a road. Sometimes the work day is concluded with a community meeting, where information is disseminated, community issues are addressed, etc. During Umuganda people are not allowed to use cars or motos, and if they are not participating in the work day they must stay inside.

In theory I’m all for community work days. The community gets a face lift, important issues are discussed, and you get to know your neighbors. So I’m not totally against Umuganda. But I don’t like the idea of it being enforced by law – in an ideal world, people would show up for a community work day because they want to, not because they have to. Also, apparently only one member of each household has to attend, so often people will send their guards or housekeepers. It seems to defeat the purpose of community building if the whole community doesn’t attend.

But before I go off on a tangent let me wrap this post up: I was comparing our trip to Rwanda with our visit to President Habyarimana’s house. What I remember from his house is all the interesting things in it, set against the backdrop of his notorious life. Similarly, our trip to Rwanda will be remembered not for the country’s turbulent history, but as a holiday from our normal lives. For me, the word ‘Rwanda’ no longer conjures images of machetes, mass graves, and Romeo Dallaire, but rather memories of clean streets, friendly people, and delicious pancakes (thanks Erica and William!).

Musings on Time

August 2nd 2015

Over the past three months I’ve developed a whole new understanding of time. In North America ‘African Time’ is a common term used to refer to the way time is understood in this part of the world. I don’t love this term, but for the purpose of this post it holds some value. I can’t speak for other African countries, but in Uganda being on time is a foreign concept. Meetings often start two hours late and no one blinks an eye. The phrase “I’ll be there soon” means nothing, since people can arrive anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours later. Time is inconsequential.

When we first arrived, this way of operating drove Shelby, Jeremy and I crazy. In North America being late is frowned upon. For casual hang outs with friends, there is an unwritten rule that a person can be up to 10 minutes late without being considered rude. But when it comes to a formal appointment like a meeting, if a person arrives late it is seen as a sign of disrespect. The person would be labeled as flakey, unreliable, and flippant. As a result, people make it a habit of arriving early.

These two opposite understandings of time boil down to different cultural values. In North America, we value punctuality. We are slaves to time – constantly trying to keep up, saying there isn’t enough. Productivity is highly valued. Here however, productivity is valued in a different way. There is an understanding that the meeting will start when people get there. What would be the point of starting beforehand? It is a people-centered approach – time doesn’t drive people; people drive time.

As a kid, my mom put her own spin on ‘African Time’. That is to say that she always approached time as fluid – something to be shaped and molded according to our will. As someone who hates to be rushed, I would freak out when I felt I didn’t have enough time to get everything done. Similarly, my sister couldn’t handle the pressure of the clock’s constant ticking. In response, my mom would tell us to take a breath and slow it all down. “We have all the time in the world”, she would say. “If you don’t think you have enough, make more. You are the master of time.” She meant this in an abstract way of course, but as imaginative kids we believed that we could literally slow down time. And in a way we could. By adjusting our relationship with it, time expanded and contracted according to our will.

Now, back to the Ugandan context: as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Amartya Sen has a Nobel Prizing winning theory of development as freedom. In a much less scholarly addition – and in light of my musings above – I would argue that development is also about having access to free time. Let me explain:

For many East Africans, their days are spent taking care of their basic needs: earning enough money, using that money to get food, seeking out water, etc. For example, when we were in Rwanda we drove past many women and children carrying buckets of water on their heads, taking it back to their village. This is a popular image shown in North America. Stories are told with horror of people in Africa walking many kilometers to get water, often without shoes. It is meant to inspire sympathy, and paternalistic pity. But being here, this image is one we see almost every day. It isn’t seen as a hardship, it’s just a necessary part of a person’s day.

After driving past several women carrying buckets of water I vocalized my thoughts and we got into a discussion about it. I explained how something seemed off about pitying people who are taking care of their basic needs. Walking 5 to 10 kilometers isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. In response to this, Erica and William helped me flesh out my half-formed thoughts. Erica pointed out that while walking that far to get water isn’t a huge problem in itself, the opportunity cost of it is. That is to say that the time spent gathering water could have been used for other purposes. In other words, by spending their time taking care of their basic needs, these people are losing to opportunity to develop in other ways. This fits with Maslow’s theory of a Hierarchy of Needs: people can only focus on higher level needs – like intellectual endeavors – once their basic needs are taken care of. Because rural Ugandans and Rwandans often have to use their time to farm enough food for their families, they are unable to pursue other endeavors. And this curtails their potential.

Many Ugandans provide for all their basic needs, which is both empowering and limiting. In North America we would generally see it as the former, while here people would probably see it as the latter. For example, many North Americans – myself included – idolize the ability to provide for yourself. Words are used like ‘sustainable’ and ‘self-sufficient’. But many Ugandans may see this same situation as being limiting and taxing.

This of course leads to a discussion of division of labour. Because of the division of labour in a globalized world, people and countries produce based on their comparative advantage (thanks Adam Smith). For example, one person may contribute to society by being a lawyer or a doctor, and in return their basic needs are provided for. I have never had to grow my own food because there are farmers who take on that role. I don’t know how to cut my own hair, because there are hairdressers who do that. The dentist knows everything there is to know about teeth, so I don’t have to worry about that either. Everyone is taught to specialize, and in that way the collective burden of ‘life upkeep’ is lightened. We are not individually self-sufficient, but our lives are also easier. We have time to pursue other interests.

In this way, access to free time creates a hierarchy. Even though I’m a relatively poor student without many qualifications, I am high up on this hierarchy because I have the luxury of time. Although our regular boda driver is equally as smart as me – which is obvious just from the way he talks and conducts himself – a combination of factors means that his time has to be used to attain lower level needs. Because the combination of factors I was born into means these needs are taken care of for me, I have the time to focus on self-improvement through intellectual endeavors (like spending hours sitting in a café and writing this blog post).

What I’m trying to say is that time is powerful. Access or lack of access to it can define a person. I hire the boda driver because I have the time and the means to pursue an education and travel to foreign places, while he drives the boda because his time has to be spent providing for his family. Time is a tool, and it dictates what people can do.

But as they say, power corrupts. Time is powerful, and in my experience most North Americans have corrupted their use of time. We have the luxury of free time, and we are at a loss for what to do with it. For me at least, before coming to Uganda I spent my time carelessly – I binge watched Netflix, I browsed Pinterest, I napped daily, and I regularly thought I deserved a day off. Although I had a job and five courses, I still had copious amounts of free time. My basic needs were – and are – delivered on a silver platter, so I am left with blank space. Space that I fritter away. Time is a luxury, which is something I didn’t appreciate or even recognize until I came here and saw that not all people have it.

I’m being hypocritical. I’m talking about the value of time, but meanwhile I’m wishing it would speed up. With only a month left in Uganda, I want to use my time well. But like Jeremy talks about in his recent blog post, we’re all a bit burnt out. I’m saturated with experiences, and like a heavy sponge I don’t know how much more my brain can hold. I don’t want to leave Uganda, but I want to be home. Every morning I wake up and take my malaria pill, and I see how many there are left. Right now the two and a half packs seem to be taunting me, representing a barrier between me and my friends and family back home. The time is crawling by, and I’m not appreciating it even though I’ve just spent the last 1000 words ranting about how important it is. My mom taught me how to slow time down, but how do I speed it up? And then I feel guilty for wanting to. I know that when my time here runs out I’ll be incredibly sad to leave. Time is funny that way: when you have a lot you want less, but when you have less you wish you had more.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I want to apologize for this choppy, incoherent, stream-of-consciousness post. As usual, thoughts that make sense in my head become scrambled when I vomit them onto paper. But what I’m trying to say is that being here, I’ve discovered the value of time. Having time is rare, and therefore it must be coveted, and used well. Bertrand Russell said that “time you enjoy wasting is never wasted time”. While I agree with this statement, I feel a responsibility to appreciate the fact that I have time to waste. I have the freedom to do what I choose with my time, and this is powerful. Even the fact that I can call time my own shows how incredibly lucky I am. Time drives people, and people drive time.

Does that make sense?