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 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

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?

Elitism and the Expat Life

July 8th 2015

Being abroad can be hard. Navigating a different culture can make you feel confused, lonely, scared and at times make you homesick for things you never thought you’d miss (like proper garbage bags to keep out fruit flies for example).

Here in Uganda I’ve luckily had minimal bouts of homesickness, but this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with the roller-coaster of emotions that come with being an expat. When I was nine years old I made the bold decision to move to China with my dad – and for weeks I cried every night because I missed my mom. Years later, at age 15, I chose to leave my friends and high school in Canada and transfer to an international school in Singapore. For months I would message my friends regularly to tell them how much I missed them. In both cases I took a leap of faith, and it paid off a hundred fold. I learned that the pros of living abroad far outweighed the cons.

Still though, there were times that I wanted nothing more than to be home. When you go abroad you are thrown into a new reality. In this reality very little is recognizable – the people look different, the landscape is different, the food, clothes, and the way people interact are all different. The simplest tasks become difficult. For example, going to the grocery store is a multiple step process: first you have to figure out how to get there, then decipher what foods they offer and convert the currency to dollars in your head, then navigate the checkout, sometimes in a foreign language, and finally find your way home. In Beijing going out to eat meant learning how to pronounce what was on the menu, ordering it without confusing the waitress, and then learning how to eat with chopsticks. Essentially, when you’re abroad so much energy is expended on basic upkeep that you fall into bed exhausted well before your usual bedtime. Foreign places are draining.

Not to mention that you are the target of stares and comments every time you step outside your house. Because you are equally as foreign to the place as it is to you, you attract a lot of attention. In Beijing my sister, our quasi step brother and I would constantly be approached for our picture. People would touch seven- year-old Lucy’s red hair in awe as she stood stock still, waiting for it to be over. Similarly, here people yell “mzungu!” when we pass, and in Peru they call foreigners “gringos”. Sometimes you just want nothing more than to blend into the crowd.

Surrounded by all this foreignness it is logical to look for something familiar. A person who speaks fluent English for example, or a pirated DVD of a Hollywood movie, or even a block of cheddar cheese in the supermarket. Any small thing to anchor you to the reality you’re used to. This is why I make it a habit of travelling with some small comforts from home: a bag of David’s Tea, my favorite ginger candies, and letters written by my friends and my mom. These objects become lifelines, allowing me to explore and enjoy the unfamiliar while still retaining some measure of comfort.

In this context, it’s no surprise that expats often seek out Westernized hang out spots. In Beijing for example we had a tradition of going to our favorite neighbourhood French restaurant once a week to get steak or creamy carbonara. Once in a while we’d also treat ourselves to a slice of decadent peanut butter pie at the American –run Grandma’s Kitchen. In Singapore, my friends and I would drink beer at the foreigner-dominated Holland Village on Friday evenings, and play pool on the weekends at a Westernized mall. These expat havens complimented trips to the Chinese opera, meals at hawker centers, and rickshaw rides.

Here in Kampala Shelby, Jeremy and I have found our own expat getaways. For example, once in a while we’ll go out for pizza at a nearby hostel or buy ice cream cones after work like we would do in summer in Canada. Moreover, Shelby and I regularly attend a spinning class at a nice gym, and on Saturday the two of us treated ourselves to a day by the pool at an upscale country club.

But at what point does this search for comfort take away from the experience? And is there a point where it becomes unethical?

I’d be lying if I answered no to these questions. I always feel guilty when I ask the boda guy to take me to one of the upscale malls, or a movie theatre. The fact is, even though these places can provide comfort, they can also feel like too much of an escape. It seems to counteract the point of traveling if you spend your time away seeking out the comforts of home. Why not just save yourself time and money stay in your hometown? One of the reasons for traveling is to be exposed to new places and experiences – something that eating burgers every night and living in an air conditioned mall will not accomplish.

A second reason to avoid binging on Westernized locales is that they often seem inauthentic. They’ve usually been built for foreigners, not for locals. Let me give you an example:

When we first arrived our friend/tour guide took us around to spots he thought we’d be interested in. Of these spots, one was the Commonwealth Resort: a luxurious hotel/country club on the shores of Lake Victoria, frequented by diplomats and heads of state. We were wowed by the extravagance of the facilities, but it also felt a bit hollow. It was all too well maintained, posing a sharp contrast to the chaotic streets outside.

In contrast, after the Commonwealth Resort our guide took us to Gaba Beach – a local market and port for fishermen and small passenger boats. Here there was life and noise and haphazard stalls everywhere. People were practically on top of each other as they squeezed their way down the crowded dirt path. Although far less serene than the resort we’d just come from, Gaba Beach felt authentic. We finally felt like we were in Uganda.

But I wonder if we’re also kidding ourselves to seek out an ‘authentic’ experience. Isn’t it a bit of a condescending farce? When we went rafting on the Nile one of the girls from Operation Groundswell said something I’ll never forget: she said that she’d seen “the real Africa” because they visited a slum. That phrase made me cringe because 1) she assumed the slum represented the whole of Africa, and 2) she was commodifying the ‘authentic’ experience. It is now becoming increasingly popular to see the real Global South by volunteering in remote villages and living without running water or electricity. Afterwards people go back to their home countries and smugly talk about the hardships they endured as part of their ‘authentic’ trip. So even if you avoid the expat hubs, will you ever truly get the authentic experience of living in said country? And is it just some new brand of consumerism to seek this out at the expense of local communities?

But that’s a topic for another time. Let me move on.

A final danger/unethical factor of overfrequenting Westernized locales is that it stinks of elitism. Only foreigners and rich Ugandans can afford gelato at Acacia Mall or can regularly attend a spinning class. Shelby and I felt a pang of guilt as we splashed in the pristine blue pool at the country club on Saturday, because we knew that only a small fraction of the Ugandan population could afford to be there. Even if it’s not our intention, by going to Westernized places we automatically surround ourselves with the rich. And that’s an icky feeling (not that there’s anything wrong with rich people, but I’d like to operate in a more varied social milieu. Especially as a very non-rich, Mr. Noodle-eating, recent university graduate).

I keep asking myself: is it fair for us to go to all these upscale places while Ugandan children are selling bananas and corn in the street outside, struggling to survive? Are are we supporting class divisions by frequenting places that are relatively expensive? (Although still far cheaper than in Canada) It’s obvious when you’re entering a foreigners hub because the percentages of Caucasian faces in the crowd shoots way up. It’s like there’s a semi-permeable membrane at the doors to Acacia Mall that lets in everyone who grew up using dollars, but only some who grew up with shillings. This division based on income and country of origin (to some extent) makes these places slightly uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons.

But then I wonder; if accessibility is the root of it than where do you draw the line? Even in Canada there are many people who can’t afford to go to the hot yoga classes I go to, or the coffee shops I frequent. So should I stop going there? Probably not. And to use an even more extreme example, many Ugandans can barely afford to feed themselves, but that doesn’t mean the three of us will stop eating to make it fair. So where’s the line?

I think ultimately it comes down to a matter of degree. Sometimes we treat ourselves to little tastes of home because we need a break from the exhaustion of navigating a foreign place. There are things like spinning classes that may cost a bit more, but that we know are good for both our physical and mental health. And our weekly trips to get steak and carbonara in Beijing didn’t take away from the view of the Great Wall from my window, or my weekly Mandarin classes. But does that mean we should spend our Saturdays here in Uganda lying by the pool at the country club rather than exploring the city? Obviously not. Or at least the time we spend exploring should far out-way those token poolside afternoons. Not only to avoid the threat of elitism, but also to enrich our own experience here.

Before going to the pool on Saturday we went to the big, very well-stocked grocery store in Acacia Mall. There we saw a young blond women picking out peanut butter and red wine. Later we spotted that same woman at the country club eating lunch. My first reaction was to judge her for spending her Saturday in a Westernized bubble. But then I realized that Shelby and I had been to all the same places that day. The realization made me feel uncomfortable.

So maybe it’s time to tone it down a bit. I won’t deny myself the occasional trip to the movie theatre, but I’ll try to keep that and other homey indulgences to a minimum.

Along those lines, if you need me I’ll be drinking Nile Special or haggling over the price of matooke.

Trading in Rhetoric: When David said no to Goliath

June 6th, 2015

Everyone knows the biblical story of David and Goliath. It is the classic example of the underdog rising up to beat the unbeatable opponent. Even though it occurred in Israel thousands of years ago, people still use David and Goliath’s battle as a metaphor for beating the odds. Heck, Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a book with that title. Unfortunately however, stories like that of David and Goliath rarely actually occur (why do you think we’re still using an example from thousands of years ago?). In the real world David often takes a good beating from Goliath and goes home to skulk and lick his wounds. End of story.

The United States of America likes to see itself as a modern day David equivalent. They started off as the underdog: a British colony inhabited by settlers who came to the ‘New World’ in search of a better life. After years of being under Britain’s thumb, they finally gained their independence in 1776, and have since risen to become a superpower. The Little Americans Who Could beat the big bad British Empire. And with independence, the American Dream was born. No longer did your class determine your place in life – if you were a mechanic but wanted to be a lawyer, you could do it! If you were a high school cheerleader, you could one day become President! (Yes I’m talking about you George W. Bush). If however you were a slave – taken from your community in Africa to come be beaten to death in the ‘Free World’ – you pretty much had to stay a slave. Darn. Sorry fellas, better luck next time.

But I’m getting off track: Although America may have started out as a modern day David, it is now most certainly a Goliath. Fast forward past the abolition of slavery, a few World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, and you have the global hegemony that America enjoys today. That’s the funny thing about success: you may start out with your whole image built around being the underdog, but once you’ve worked your way to the top, fighting tooth and nail, you earn the ability to do to others what was done to you when you were at the bottom. The oppressed become the oppressors, and the cycle continues, despite your promises that you would never sink to that level. Power is a funny thing.

Ok, so what does all that have to do with being in Uganda? Quite a bit actually. But let me rewind to what got me thinking about all of this in the first place: on Thursday Shelby, Jeremy and I had the good fortune of being invited to a Regional Stakeholder Consultative Meeting on Promoting Pro-Development Investment Policies and Agreements in the East African Community (EAC).* Quite the mouthful of a title. Essentially, the meeting was to discuss trade between Uganda and other, more developed countries (namely the United States and countries in the EU). Now, my knowledge of trade agreements is fuzzy at best, so for most of the day-long meeting I was frantically typing down things I didn’t understand, hoping that they would formulate themselves into coherent ideas later. But no such luck. So please take the following explanation of international trade with a grain of salt, and if I butcher it I apologize:**

Over the last several years East Africa has had a spike in economic growth. In fact, of the top 20 fastest growing economies in the world, three of them are in East Africa. This region is resource-rich and as such it possesses valuable commodities like minerals that can be used in cellphones and computers (odds are at least a small percentage of your smartphone originated in East Africa). Naturally, countries that don’t have these resources want to get their hands on them. One way to do this is through foreign direct investment, or FDIs. Basically an FDI is exactly what it sounds like: a foreign country invests in a country they are interested in, which in theory gives the former country the resources they want, and the latter country’s economy is boosted and more local jobs are generated.***Because these are desirable outcomes for a country like Uganda, for the past several years the Ugandan Investment Authority has been promoting FDIs.

To take it one step further, now Uganda is looking into signing Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) with the US and countries in the EU to help facilitate FDIs and other types of trade between the nations. The idea is that the US and the EU will have access to the resources they want, and Uganda can grow its economy with the hope of becoming a so called developed country. It’s a win win right?

Wrong. To see why, let’s go back to the story of David and Goliath: Goliath was bigger and stronger than David, and no one could argue that it was a fair fight. But because it’s a story – and maybe Goliath was having an off day, slept on the wrong side of the bed or something – David miraculously won. But that outcome was very, very unlikely. Probably about the same likelihood of an average American winning the lottery, and therefore reinforcing the idea of the American Dream. So let me propose a different course of action: What if instead of choosing to fight Goliath, David had turned it down? What if instead he politely said, “No thank you, you’re much bigger and stronger than I am, so I’d be a fool to think I could beat you. I’m no gambler, so I think I’ll need to hit the gym for a little while longer before I’ll be ready to fight. Maybe throw a few extra protein shakes into my diet, or do some crossfit (even though it seems a bit like a cult).Either way, I’ve clearly got some work to do, so why don’t I give you a call when I’ve bulked up a bit?” This scenario wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting, but it definitely would have increased David’s chances of winning in a fight against Goliath.

What Food Rights Alliance, SEATINI, and the other NGOs were arguing for at the trade meeting on Thursday was essentially a version of this alternative scenario. They saw right through the presentations by the sleazy reps from the Ministry of Trade who advocated for BIT agreements with the US. In 2008 the East African Community (EAC) signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the US where parties undertook to monitor and promote bilateral trade and investment between them, and now they want to move forward with this Investment Model Treaty. The EAC wants to take on Goliath, but SEATINI, FRA and the other organizations want them to wait. They want them to wait because while FDIs are fashionable, there is no evidence that they actually help a country develop. Sure they boost economic growth, but depending on the sector there are often very few jobs created, and those that are created are low level, low wage jobs.

Furthermore, foreign investors have their own agenda. They aren’t interested in helping Uganda develop; they’re here for inputs, markets, and cheap labour. Their interests are governed by the logic of capital accumulation. The reality is, they’re here to purchase Uganda’s raw materials at low prices, take them back home to process, and then sell the products for much higher prices. And what does Uganda get in return? A bit of economic growth, and the hope that by doing business with developed countries they will develop. Sounds to me like the US is getting tangible materials, and all Uganda gets in return is rhetoric and ideology – their very own American Dream. But ideology won’t feed people, and neither will rhetoric.

Back in the day Britain wanted America to sign a Free Trade agreement, but America said no. They recognized the need to protect their agrarian economy, because as a Professor of Political Science said at Thursday’s meeting, “free trade is not for the faint hearted”. Instead of accepting Britain’s offer, America invested in themselves and overtime their economy and their power grew. Then, years later when they were strong enough, they went back and re-tabled the idea of free trade with Britain. In this case David did exactly what Goliath didn’t want him to do: he waited until he was strong enough to fight, and then he won.

Now America is Goliath and the EAC is David. Goliath is asking David to fight, and it looks like David is going to fall for it. Unless the NGOs represented on Thursday can get their voices heard:**** they recognized that despite what it looks like, the EAC is actually holding all the cards. They have the goods, and all America has in exchange is some money and a dying idea that they’ve been peddling for decades.

My mom, a facilitator, says that you always have the most power before you sign a contract. That’s when you still have room to make requests and hammer out your terms. Similarly, the EAC is in a powerful position right now. As one representative at the meeting asked, “is one of the barriers to Uganda’s development not having a trade agreement with the US? Is Uganda losing by not signing the agreement?” The answer is no, they aren’t. Uganda has what America wants, and they can choose to give it to them or not. And as the professor of Political Science pointed out, “if trade and investment treaties are the answer, then what’s the question?” The proposed trade agreement says it will protect investments in both territories – but Uganda doesn’t have any investments in America, so really what it is saying is that Uganda will agree to protect America. Seems a bit counter intuitive given that Uganda is the one that needs protecting.

As the same Professor stated, “salvation never comes from overseas”. Therefore, it sounds like it’s time for Uganda and the EAC to invest in itself. If it develops a strong industrial base then it can process the raw materials found in this country, and therefore be able to provide for themselves and sell the resulting products at higher prices. As Obama said, “markets make good servants but bad masters”. Signing this agreement would put the market in the driver’s seat, and Uganda’s development would become a mere footnote on the agenda, instead of the main focus. Uganda has only been independent for roughly 60 years – if it waits about 140 years more, it just might be ready to beat Goliath.
*Our boss told us she had asked if she could “bring her children along” to the meeting (i.e. me and Jeremy). For a woman without children she is one of the most motherly people I know – especially when it comes to teaching her children lessons. Many a meeting has been punctuated by a teachable moment where she tells us and our co-workers how to chair a meeting, how to secure funding, etc.

** This explanation is essentially trade of dummies. Not because I don’t think you can understand the complexity of trade agreements, but because I don’t. In this case I’m the dummy.

***For a more detailed explanation of FDIs please toodle your way on over to Jeremy’s highly informative blog. He does a great job of explaining it.

****Sitting in Thursday’s meeting and listening to the brilliant people around me defend their country I couldn’t help but feel warm and fuzzy inside. Is it possible to feel patriotic for a country you aren’t from?

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:, 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.



What did he just say?


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.

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 2

May 27th 2015

After a few action packed days at work, I’m back! I have so many updates to share, but first let me continue my lengthy, somewhat dry musings steeped in IDS terminology (apologies in advance).

To summarize where I left off in the last post, I was talking about privilege. Here in Uganda I am acutely aware of the preferential treatment I receive because I am a mzungu*. Even in Canada I am aware that my very comfortable life comes at the expense of the wellbeing of people in far off places, as well as at home. So although I cannot take responsibility for past harms like colonialism, I can acknowledge the consequences of my current actions. In my favorite childhood movie called Ever After – a rendition of Cinderella featuring a young Drew Barrymore – Barrymore’s sassy character tells the prince that he was “born to privilege, and with that comes specific obligations”. Although my life is unfortunately very far from the fairy tale world in the movie, this particular line is very relevant to reality. The privilege I was born into comes with the responsibility to act conscientiously and do what small part I can to improve the condition of the world (queue inspirational music).

Now, time for some development theory that I think is relevant (although I’ll leave that for you to decide, if you can stay awake until the end):

In historian W.E.H Lecky’s 1869 book A History of European Morals he introduced the concept of The Expanding Circle. The Expanding Circle theorizes that “the number of people we consider worthy of our moral consideration has expanded through history, like a circle”. At one time people only cared about their immediate family, but overtime the circle expanded to include a class, then a nation, and finally all of humanity**. Lecky argues that throughout history more and more people have gone from being The Other to being part of a collective Us. This is why we see countries sending humanitarian aid to other nations in far off places. As my co-worker S said, “the world is round”. Overtime humanity’s compassion for each other has expanded to include the whole world.

At least in theory.

Now let me turn to a different but closely connected topic. Australian philosopher Peter Singer has a popular ethical metaphor called The Drowning Child. Although I disagree with many of his arguments about charity and development, this particular metaphor is relevant to the idea that we have a moral responsibility to humankind. So let me walk you through it:

Imagine that on your way to work or school you pass a shallow pond. One day you see that there is a child drowning in that pond. It would be easy for you to save that child and you would incur no harm to yourself. However your clothes would be ruined and you would be late for your daily activities. The question is, do you have an obligation to save that child?

The answer is obviously a resounding yes. The child’s safety far outweighs the cost of ruining your clothes and being late. Even if there are other people walking by who have just as much agency to save the child, this doesn’t lessen the responsibility you have to do so.*** But now let us change the scenario slightly. What if the child who needs saving is far away, say in a different country? It is equally within your means to save them, with negligible cost to yourself. Most people would say that distance and nationality should make little difference, and they would still choose to save the child. I know I would. But now let us add one final layer to Singer’s metaphor. What if we are not only able to save the child drowning in the pond, but what if we actually had a role in how they ended up there in the first place? Wouldn’t that multiply our responsibility to save them by a hundredfold? I think it would, and does.

Andrew Linklater discusses a variation of this phenomenon in one of his articles when he reconceptualises foreign aid as justice. He gives the example of aid given by Britain to Mozambique after they experienced a flood. The world saw Britain as a charitable, caring nation to take such actions. However, what people failed to realize was that Britain had been responsible for some of the deforestation in Mozambique that contributed to the severity of the flooding. So were they being charitable, or were they simply addressing the consequences of their actions? Not to sound like a broken record, but the world is round. Countries should not be meeting their aid targets of 0.7% of their GDP – which by the way most of them aren’t – simply so that they can feel warm and fuzzy inside. They should be doing so because they have a moral responsibility to address the results that their actions have on the world. In his writings, John Rawls uses a thought experiment called the Veil of Ignorance. He imagines that people have to create society from behind a veil where they are unaware of what their position, race, or tastes will be. From this position, he argues that people would choose to maximize the benefit for the least fortunate in society, because they may find themselves in that position. Unfortunately however, in reality we cannot pause and recreate society from behind that veil. In the world’s current state, we must try to maximize the benefit for the least fortunate starting from a situation of gross inequality.

Alright, I’ll stop there.

So far this post has been very theoretical, so let me now ground it in my current experiences here in Uganda. As a visitor in this country, I can’t help but wonder what I can do to better the situation around me. The Canadian International Development Agency, aka CIDA (RIP), used to fund organizations like Canada World Youth that would send Canadian students on experiential learning programs abroad. The costs of these programs were included in the annual budget for foreign aid. Similarly, I am here in Uganda because the government is funding me as part of their development strategy. So both for my own peace of mind and to best utilize the government’s money, I can’t help but want to have the most positive impact here that I possibly can. I am a person who likes to help, no matter where I am or who I’m with.

But now for the hard part: what does that helping look like? For the next three months does it mean paying a higher price for things at the market so that the hardworking vendor’s can pocket an extra few shillings? Does it mean giving the children begging on the street a few bills and hoping it doesn’t get taken from them by the people who they report to? I find it hard to believe that my money is all I can give, despite the common assumption here that all mzungu’s are wealthy. I know that I have many valuable things to contribute, but it is hard to identify what they are and how to utilize them. They say that knowledge is power, but I feel like the more I learn about these complex issues of inequality and poverty the more my hands are tied. I want to do the right thing, but the more I learn the more it seems like every option is wrong.

Moreover, how much should I assume that I can realistically do? I am a twenty two year old student who is here in Uganda for three months working as an intern. Despite the preferential treatment I have been given, my power is very limited. In a work setting, anything I have been included in is more for my benefit than for the organization’s. And to play devil’s advocate to my former discussion of cosmopolitanism, why would I assume that it is my responsibility to do anything? When people think of this continent they picture starving children and people dying of HIV/AIDS. The image is one of helplessness. But in the two weeks that I’ve been here this seems so far from the case. People here are alive. They have normal concerns, like what to do on the weekend and whether they are doing a good job at work. As one MP said in a meeting last week: “we have problems, but we are not dying”. There are hundreds of Ugandans working to solve Uganda’s problems, and doing a good job of it considering what they’re up against. So what gives me the right to swoop in and assume that I can do a better job than them? And furthermore, why would I be trying to change a country I barely know, when there are scores of issues back home? It is a neocolonialist idea to think that foreigners can do a better job of solving a country’s problems than the people who have grown up there.

Now here’s another question: why do so many people from the Global North assume that people in the Global South want to be like them? In the GMO meeting last week that I mentioned, a few MPs referenced the issue of obesity in America. They used it as a cautionary tale of what they do not want for Uganda. Interestingly, they talked about obesity with the same tone of fear that we in North America would talk about HIV/AIDS on this continent. Yes, both are pressing health issues. But the media presents us with one angle – mere snippets of a much larger story, presented out of context and coupled with fear tactics. I hate that more often than not media corporations only show the negative side of the equation, because it assumes a lack of agency and flippantly disempowers a continent of people in the eyes of the Global North. It is actively perpetuating stereotypes that I’ve seen firsthand are not necessarily the case.

So, to conclude.

This post has been long and rambling, so if you’ve made it this far I applaud you. When you boil it down, what I’m trying to say is this: I think Lecky’s idea of the Expanding Circle needs to be challenged, at least to some extent. Yes, in theory we feel responsibility for the state of humanity, but in practice we still put up walls and create divides between each other, both at home and abroad. Sometimes we see the drowning child and dive in to save them, but other times we just continue to walk by – if we don’t break the surface of the water than we won’t have to deal with how deep it is. The pond looks shallow: give money to a country in the Global South and you can make a difference. But in reality the issues run much deeper than that. Wanting to help isn’t enough – you have to know how, which is something I’m still trying to figure out. But as Linklater explains, it’s everyone’s responsibility to do so.

It is true that the world is round. But unfortunately, despite my good intentions more often than not I feel like all I am doing is going in circles.
*A Swahili word that originally meant ‘dazed’ to refer to the confused looks that European settlers had in colonial times. Now however it is used to refer to white people – we hear it at least five times a day. It is not meant in a negative way, but merely as a way to identify us.
**One argument is that we are now expanding to include the whole animal kingdom. Therefore The Expanding Circle argument is often used by animal rights activists.
***However what may occur in this case is a collective action problem when everyone expects someone else to act and therefore no one does. But that’s getting off topic.