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.
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*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.

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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!).

So…What’s the Plan?

June 30th 2015

Four years ago I made a plan. It’s a simple plan really, spanning approximately eight years. It goes like this:

Step 1. Get a B.A. in a subject (or subjects) that I am interested in. Make sure it is broad enough to accumulate general knowledge about the world and give me a sense of what options are out there.

Step 2. Take one or two years off after my degree. Spend those years traveling and being outdoors, while still making enough money to support myself. Don’t worry about pursuing a career, just do things that I won’t be able to do later in life (i.e. becoming a diving instructor or backpacking around South America). Also in this time figure out what I want to do with my life.

Step 3. With my new found wisdom and life experience decide on a subject that I want to pursue my Masters in. Have gotten good enough grades in my undergrad to get into a good school (hopefully somewhere abroad).

Step 4. Work on my next plan based on how this one turns out.

Pretty simple right? As someone who tends to live spontaneously this is as close to a finite plan as I could get while still keeping my options open. It provides comfort, but also flexibility. And as of right now – four years in – I’m right on track. I’ve successfully completed step one: I have a combined honours degree in Political Science and International Development Studies with a 3.6 GPA (not great, but not horrible).

I’ve now moved on to step 2: discovering life outside of school. In my two years off I always imagined myself climbing mountains or bumming around Europe. Never did I imagine having a job in my field, of all places. But as it turns out, the four years I just spent slaving away in the Killam Library have actually qualified me for something (go figure!). This internship presented itself before I’d even finished my exams, and my hunt for fall jobs has already come up with a plethora of options (although applying for them is another matter). I guess as a bright eyed and bushy tailed recent graduate I am a desirable candidate for NGO and non-profit work.

Of course I should be thrilled. Isn’t this what everyone wants, to get a job in the area they studied? Even if it’s only for the summer. But counter intuitively, in my plan the express purpose of my next two years is to NOT work in my field. I want to  try all sorts of things before I have to settle into a ‘career’ or a ‘profession’ (what do those words even mean?). I’ve focused so intensively on political science and international development studies for the last four years that now I want something different. I want to get a certificate in photography, or be trained in Wilderness First Aid. I’m worried that it would be too easy to stick to what I’m qualified for and never get to try anything else.

It would be a different story if I felt that I’d found my calling – if I knew that the NGO world is for me and I never want to work in any other sector. But that’s not the case. True to form, as soon as my options start to narrow I freak out and open them up again. I’m much better at knowing what I don’t want to do than what I do. And the seven weeks I’ve spent working for Food Rights Alliance have been eye-opening to say the least.

Being here I’m getting firsthand experience in the NGO world. Every week our boss sends Jeremy and I to numerous meetings put on by various civil society organizations. There we listen to presentations and frantically take notes on taxation in the budget, seed policy, GMOs, land tenure rights, bilateral trade agreements, foreign direct investment, etc. Seven weeks in it now feels normal to put on nice clothes every day and carry my heavy briefcase to the office where I spend eight hours researching and writing, researching and writing. I’ve learned more about agriculture and food security being here than I knew in my whole life. On top of that, my co-workers are all young and smart and some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. And my boss is an impressive woman who acts as much like our mother as she does our supervisor (last week on the way to a meeting she found out I’m vegetarian and gave me a lecture on getting enough iron). Basically, I scored.

But being here I’m also beginning to understand the reality of working for a non-profit. People don’t march into work every day holding banners and burning with a desire to change the world (don’t worry, I knew that before I came here). Instead it’s a lot of report writing and fundraising. Buzzwords like ‘capacity building’ and ‘behavioral change’ are applied to every situation. Every day is an uphill battle and at the end of it no one knows if progress has been made. And what is meant to be an hour long meeting can stretch out over two days (that might just be a Ugandan thing though. God I hope it’s just a Ugandan thing). I know that the NGO world isn’t perfect, but it’s disheartening to see how bogged down in rhetoric and procedures everyone is.

In contrast, I’m used to taking an experiential learning approach. I was raised by a facilitator who confidently marches into meetings carrying a briefcase full of balloons and gets all the men and women in suits laughing and participating. Most of my job experience is working with kids with chronic illnesses or from disadvantaged backgrounds – preparing programs and games to help them develop self-confidence and leadership skills. I know working for an NGO isn’t the same as working for a camp, but the principle of engaging people is the same, and that’s something I’m good at. I know how to get a group of people working towards a common goal, and I can do it without using projectors and spreadsheets. I guess it just took coming to Kampala to realize the value of skills I already have.

So is working for an NGO everything I dreamed of and more? Yes and no. I like the people, I’m interested in the issues, and it keeps me questioning what’s right and wrong and what I believe. But there is too much rhetoric and not enough of an experiential approach, both within the organization and in the work being done. Often meetings will end and there will be no clear tangible outcomes. You have to wade through the politics to get to the heart of the matter, and even then it isn’t clear what to do. The work being done here is very valuable and definitely has its place, but I’m just trying to figure out where I fit in it, if anywhere.

I’m not trying to say that I have all the answers – most likely I don’t have any of them. I’m just learning, and I only have seven weeks of experience under my belt. Furthermore, I know that not every NGO is the same, so I shouldn’t use this one example to characterize them all. But I am realizing where my strengths lie, and how they can fill the gaps in this type of work. I still have no idea whether the NGO world is where I’ll end up, but if it is at least I now know a bit more about what I’d be getting myself into.

For now, I’m just sticking with my plan and seeing where it takes me.

Fasting for the Constitution

June 1st 2015

On Friday morning all I managed to eat before rushing off to work was two bites of toast with nutella. At the time it seemed insignificant, but I would soon come to regret my flippant disregard of the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. Little did I know that those bites of toast were the only food I would eat for the better part of the day.

For our second week at work Jeremy and I had been tasked with helping our boss facilitate a five day training session for an NGO called the Central Archdiocesan Province Caritas Association (CAPCA). The aim was to help them develop an advocacy results framework, a behavioral change tool, and a monitoring and evaluation framework. This work was punctuated by regular breaks for tea, snacks, and large lunches that kept me full until bedtime. So when I ran out the door on Friday morning leaving my breakfast half finished, I assumed I would be happily full within the hour. Unfortunately for my stomach – but fortunately for my personal development – at about 10am we received a call from Shelby telling us that her boss had asked if we could represent our organization, Food Rights Alliance, at parliament for a meeting with the Parliamentary Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs to propose constitutional amendments.

That was a lot of information in one sentence, so let me slow down a bit. As Jeremy explains in his blog post (link here: https://jeremyryant.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/entry-10-sunday-may-31st-2015-let-them-eat-cake/), constitutional amendments happen very rarely. Even in Uganda where they are somewhat frequent, the chance only comes around every ten years or so. So the fact that they are making amendments now is big. Very, very big . As green, wide-eyed Political Science students, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Luckily, our presence at the meeting would benefit everyone since no one else from the office was able to attend, so within an hour we had hopped on a boda boda and were speeding towards parliament along with Shelby and her boss. Two rounds of semi-thorough security screenings later, we found ourselves mounting a flight of winding stairs lined with faded pictures of the Queen playing croquette, and the leader of the opposition standing in front of a class of uniformed children. After correcting several wrong turns, we arrived outside a crowded conference room, our hearts in our throats. Since the meetings were running over two hours late and there was no waiting area, we were squeezed onto a row of chairs framing the room. There we waited and listened as numerous stakeholder groups presented their proposed amendments to a row of five or so MPs who weren’t holed up in budgetary meetings somewhere else in the building. Since the meetings were running late the chairman of the meeting announced that they would be working through lunch. Jokingly he explained how we would all be “fasting for the constitution”.

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Let me pause here and give you a bit more context. I already mentioned that the purpose of the meetings was to get input from interest groups regarding what constitutional amendments they want to see. These amendments will specifically focus on social, economic, and cultural rights. Without getting into too much detail, on January 3rd 1976 the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights came into force as one of nine similar agreements created by the United Nations to govern the global enforcement of human rights (along with political and civil rights, the rights of the child, the elimination of racial discrimination, etc.). This particular covenant enshrines the right to safe employment, access to adequate healthcare, the right to housing, sanitation, food, etc. Uganda ratified it in 1987, meaning in theory it should be working towards the full realization of these rights. However since 1987 Uganda has not submitted a single report to the United Nations – something which they are required to do every five years. Furthermore, despite having ratified this international covenant, these rights are not protected under the Ugandan constitution. Therefore the fact that they are now taking steps to include these rights in their constitution – again, in theory – is both very exciting and long overdue. And as an NGO that advocates for the right to safe and accessible food, Food Rights Alliance has a vested interest in ensuring this happens (hence our presence at the meeting).

So, back to the story. As we sat in that crowded, sweaty room, our stomachs growled but we were listening raptly to the conversations between the other NGOs and the members of parliament. Each organization made valuable suggestions, often very much in line with the ones we were hoping to propose. The MPs seemed receptive, although how receptive they actually were remains to be seen. At one point however a discussion started around budgetting. One NGO had suggested included the right to food in the constitution, to which the chairman of the meeting replied that Uganda does not have the funds to make such a promise.

Wait.

Rewind.

What did he just say?

WHAT?!

That was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. My blood started to boil.

Ok, calm down. Let’s think this through.

He said Uganda doesn’t have the funds to promise its people the right to food. True, it is the third poorest country in the world. Although culturally and geographically rich, 37.7% of Uganda’s people live in extreme poverty (i.e. less than $1.25 USD/day). With a GDP of 21.49 USD in 2013, it is true that the government here has very little money.

That being said, since arriving in Kampala I’ve seen more police officers and military personnel than I’ve seen in the rest of my lifetime. They flood the streets like a colony of ants. In 2013 Uganda spent 1.9% of it’s GDP on the military – that’s almost double the percentage of what Canada spends. Moreover, in 2005 the World Bank estimated that Uganda is losing $300 million per year through corruption – much of it at the highest levels of government. This is such a problem that countries like the UK, Denmark, Ireland and Norway have all suspended aid to the office of the prime minister.

So in this context, is the issue actually that Uganda doesn’t have enough funds to promise to feed its people, or is it that the funds are being improperly allocated?

It blows my mind that sitting in the Ugandan parliament a well-educated constitutional lawyer would seriously say that Uganda can’t find money to feed its people, and not a single MP would speak up to disagree with him. Isn’t food the most important right of all? Moreover, isn’t Uganda called the food basket of East Africa? Food Rights Alliance lives by the slogan “food first, everything later”. Sitting in that meeting I could barely think because I was so hungry, and I had eaten a mere six hours before. Yet only a few kilometers away there were people who hadn’t eaten in days. In his casual dismissal of the right to food due to budgetary restrictions, the chairman was saying that these people’s needs aren’t even a priority. In Uganda’s Vision 2040 the aim is for the country to go from a low to middle income country by 2040. But how do they expect to meet this goal if they won’t give people the right to food? How can they expect people to survive – let alone contribute to the economy – if they are starving? And moreover, how can a panel of presumably smart, compassionate people seriously refuse to even TRY to feed the country they took responsibility for?

Even though my hunger that day was eventually abated by a few much needed veggie samosas, it seems unlikely that the people of Uganda will have the same luck. At the beginning of the meeting the chairman joked that because we were skipping lunch we were fasting for the constitution. But in the context of his dismissal of the Ugandan people’s right to food, I doubt he understood the irony of his words.

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NOTE: Although what I’ve described in my post is shocking, it is not uncommon for countries to fail to allocate enough of the budget to the direct benefit of its people. So called “developed” countries are often equally at fault for similarly harmful decisions.

“The World is Round” – Part 1

May 24th 2015

Zig Ziglar once said, “Among the things you can give and still keep are your word, a smile, and a grateful heart”. Since arriving in Uganda, everyone I’ve met has given the two former things and much more, while in return I have given the latter. In many cases people here have devoted their time and their energy to ensure that we feel safe, comfortable, and welcomed. This weekend was no exception: on Friday night a co-worker invited us out to a bar to hear some Ugandan music. Over Nile beers (delicious) and a few games of pool (we lost), we talked about music, relationships, gender equality, and Uganda’s laws against homosexuality. This morning the same co-worker picked us up at 6:30am to attend church at his local parish. The church was a large brick structure with narrow wooden benches – a simple space with just the necessities, but our voices quickly filled it with music as we sang the many hymns that Jeremy, Shelby and I struggled to follow. Afterwards our co-worker, S, took us back to his home and fed us tea and sandwiches while his young nephews ran around in the background. There was a constant flow of cousins, brothers and sisters in and out of the house, which added to the atmosphere of warmth and closeness that enveloped the neighborhood. From what I could tell it was the ultimate example of a close knit community. When we left, S gave us each an avocado picked from the tree outside and invited us back next weekend.

The whole experience reminded me of something S had said at the bar on Friday when we’d thanked him for being so welcoming. He told us that his father would always say “the world is round”. It is a sentiment akin to karma, or the phrase “what goes around comes around”: the idea that your actions now will inspire similar actions in the future. To me it also seems to embody the closeness between people that we somehow rarely feel. The world is round meaning that it is contained, and we are all part of the same cycle. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but that quote stuck with me, as will our experiences today.

Now onto a heavier topic: let’s talk about privilege. It’s something that I’ve been acutely aware of since arriving in Uganda. No one in the top economic and social percentiles of the world’s population can ever truly ignore it, but often privilege is merely one small thread in the midst of a tumult of other thoughts and concerns in peoples’ daily lives. For example, when passing by a homeless person on the street you may briefly have the thought “I’m glad that isn’t me” – but that is quickly replaced by lists of errands or other irrelevant to dos. Here though, faced with a constant stream of good wishes from people like S, I can’t help but wonder what we’ve done to deserve this? Not to be cynical, but people here don’t know us, so they have no reason to be so open and helpful.

That said, I do believe that the reason people here are so friendly has very little to do with who we are and instead a lot to do with the quality of their characters’. From our boda driver who always picks us up with a big handshake and an exuberant smile, to the owner of the guesthouse who calls a few times a week to make sure we’re ok; the Ugandans who we have come into contact with are generally just good people. But while this weekend’s events occurred because Ugandans are inclined to be friendly and welcoming, there have also been many times in the past week or so when we’ve received preferential treatment. And yes, to put it bluntly it is because of the perceived privilege that comes with having white skin.

I’d like to stop here and take a minute to say a few things: Race is a sensitive topic, so I apologize if I manhandle it in the next few paragraphs in an effort to sort out what I think. In a world of political correctness there are so many pitfalls that can quickly label you as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. Sometimes the simple misuse of a word can overshadow your good intentions. So please know that these next few paragraphs are well intended and are written in an effort to give an honest account of my experience here so far. There are some tough questions that I’ve been asking myself lately – things that I am mulling over and have not necessarily come to terms with fully yet. What follows is just my attempt to reconcile them internally, and now externally to you.

So to continue: Jeremy, Shelby and I are a visible minority here. As Caucasians, there are associations connected to the colour of our skin. It is because of this that half the congregation came up to shake our hands after church today. It is the same reason why on our third day of work we were privy to a meeting with members of parliament to discuss the proposed GMO bill (more on that later). Now one could argue that this latter example happened because we won a prestigious scholarship that has allowed us to travel here and work for an NGO, and as an intern at said NGO a meeting with MPs is part of the parcel. But I don’t think it’s that simple. For instance, the only reason we won the scholarship was because we (and our parents) had the means to send us to a good university. I was raised in a comfortable, well off setting, and because of that, this scholarship and many other opportunities have made themselves available to me. I recognize that this privilege is something I have that many others don’t.

As someone who wants to fix things, I struggle with this privilege because I don’t think the solution is for me to feel guilty for a position in life that I was born into. I could just as easily have been born to a poor rural Ugandan farmer instead of a middle class Canadian couple (bear with me here). Similarly, there is a long history of colonialism on this continent, all enforced by people who I happen to share a skin colour with. Although some people may disagree with the following statement, I don’t think it would be productive for me to feel personally guilty about what people who share my skin colour have done. However, knowing that I had no say in what men and women with whom I share small amounts of DNA did a few hundred years ago is different than ignoring the fact that it happened. Whether it is fair or not, there is a history that I represent because of the colour of my skin. And whether I feel direct responsibility for that history or not, I must acknowledge the underlying power dynamics that it has created.

Furthermore, while I may have had no control over colonialism, I am responsible for my actions now. One of the things that I’ve learned in my four years at university is that my relative wealth and happiness comes at a cost. Unfortunately, in its current state the world is zero sum – for one to win another must lose. I don’t believe it has to be this way, but right now my lifestyle in Canada exists because there is exploitation elsewhere in the world. Child labour allows me to buy clothing very cheaply, and my old laptop will probably be shipped to a country in the Global South where it will leak toxins into someone’s drinking water. As S said, the world is round. My actions in Canada affect people halfway across the world, and without knowing it I have the power to harm someone I’ve never met. Not to sound preachy, but whether we like it or not we have some measure of responsibility in the inequality that our lifestyles perpetuate. And although that’s a hard pill to swallow, it’s much easier than being on the other end of the equation.
(To be continued)