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.

Tying the Knot, Ugandan Style

July 19th 2015

Yesterday Shelby, Jeremy and I had the good fortune of going to a traditional Ugandan wedding. Or actually a kwanjula as it’s called, which means introduction. We went with our bosses, and on the drive out to the bride’s village they explained how Ugandan weddings are long, drawn-out affairs. The kwanjula is one of the last steps in the process, and it’s when the groom is introduced to the bride’s family. Later, after several weeks or months have passed, the couple will have another ceremony in a church. Our bosses explained that both ceremonies are legally binding, however the former constitutes a polygamous marriage, while the latter makes it monogamous. Many Ugandans – especially those who live in rural areas – will only have the first ceremony, since the practice of taking many wives is very common here. For this couple however the church ceremony is planned for next weekend, which will bind them exclusively to each other.

The man getting married works at another NGO, so we’d met him on several occasions at workshops and conferences. However, we really don’t know him too well, but because we’d never been to a kwanjula he graciously allowed us to take three of the coveted seats. Just another example of Ugandan generosity. Needless to say we were extremely grateful, since it turned out to be a pretty wild experience.

From the beginning we instinctively compared the kwanjula to the weddings we are used to. But the similarities ran out very quickly as we were thrown into a world of colourful dresses, foreign tongues, and chickens. So instead of trying to find similarities, here are some of the key differences between a traditional Ugandan wedding and a typical North American one (from my limited experience):

1. It’s not really about the bride and groom. In North America, the wedding is all about the two people being joined in marriage. This is true to some extent here, but it seems to be just as much about the families. In Uganda the wedding symbolizes two families coming together as one. Yesterday this was reflected in the fact that the groom was given almost no preferential treatment, and instead sat at the back on the gathering. In fact, the bride didn’t even appear until halfway through the ceremony! And even when the bride and groom were finally introduced, the host listed each of their lineages in great detail.

The purpose of sharing the lineages was to emphasize the importance of family, as well as showing that the bride and groom come from completely separate clans. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s taboo to marry within your clan or your mother’s clan. Luckily, in this case the bride and groom even came not only from different clans, but from completely different kingdoms. The groom was from Acholi, while the bride was from the neighboring kingdom of Busoga. This meant that the wedding took place in two different languages, with a mixture of different customs. But more on that later.

2. Ugandan weddings have much more dancing. True, at receptions for North American weddings people bust out their most embarrassing moves. But that all happens after the official wedding has taken place. In Uganda however most of the kwanjula involves music, dancing and clapping. In fact we were even criticized when we weren’t clapping enough! A DJ played throughout the ceremony, and there was even a bubble machine. The masters of ceremony also spent most of the time making jokes, even during the more official parts of the proceedings. All in all it was a much livelier affair than our typical serious North American ceremonies.

3. Ugandan weddings aren’t very private affairs. North Americans generally have relatively small families, so weddings can be pretty intimate. Here however that’s out of the question, since people usually have upwards of five or six siblings, meaning that they have even more aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. This means that even a wedding with just family would probably have double or even triple the amount of people a North American wedding would have. Moreover, by the end of this wedding the whole village had gathered around to watch. Hundreds of children and teenagers formed a circle around the perimeter of the tents, wanting to witness the exciting event taking place in their village.

4. PDA is a no no.
Even though it’s their big day, the bride and groom never kiss in a Ugandan wedding. I’ve noticed that here in Uganda women and men rarely exclusively show attention to each other – it is rare to see a couple holding hands for instance. However, this doesn’t mean that affection is frowned upon. On the contrary, Ugandan’s are all about physical contact – it’s normal to hug someone you are meeting for the first time, and handshakes often last whole conversations. Moreover, men holding hands is a regular sight here (somehow it isn’t associated with being gay, which is interesting given Uganda’s strict anti-homosexuality laws). But when it comes to weddings, the bride and groom can only hug each other. Anything more intimate is not fit for public.

5. There are way more chickens. More on that later.

Finally, unlike short and sweet Canadian ceremonies, traditional Ugandan weddings last for upwards of seven hours (or at least this one did). Add on the eight hours we spent in the car driving to the bride’s village, and you’ve got a pretty full day! I’ll give you a summarized account of the events, just in case anyone plans on doing their own wedding Ugandan-style:

Before the wedding started the groom’s side convened at the headquarters of his NGO to get dressed. A few weeks beforehand Shelby and I had gotten traditional dresses made for the occasion (called gomesi), while Jeremy had purchased the customary long dress worn by men on formal occasions. A the NGO the women lined up to get help with their dresses, since the pleats and sashes made it a two person job. They accented their outfits with expensive looking earrings, necklaces, and towering heels.

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Once everyone was clothed, one man introduced himself as a teacher from the region. He explained that he spoke the local language and knew the customs, and therefore he would be leading us all through the ceremony. The bride’s side had a man playing a similar role, so they did most of the talking during the wedding.

After getting our directions we drove to the bride’s family home. Here weddings start with the groom’s side – us included – lining up outside where the introduction will take place and asking to be let in. At this point women dressed as nurses came up to us and pinned little bows to our clothing, while a woman dressed as a doctor pretended to take our pulse. Since none of this happened in English, it was only later that we found out they had been ‘checking’ us all for diseases before we could come in, since we were infected with the disease of love. Ugandan humor I guess.

After we were seated and declared disease-free, everyone stood to sing the Ugandan national anthem, and the anthem from the bride’s kingdom. A prayer was said, and then the bride’s family members were introduced. This process took about two hours: between commentary from the ambassadors, lines of women in matching dresses would dance in, kneel and introduce themselves, and then be given ‘appreciations’ from the groom’s side (i.e. envelopes with money). At one point Jeremy was even picked to help distribute these.

After the introductions, the bride herself finally appeared. After dancing in in an elaborated sequined traditional dress, she was seated on a small platform in the middle of the three large tents. The bride’s paternal aunt then danced her way in and started searching for the groom. After finding him seated at the back of our tent, she pulled him out and brought him to his bride. At this point there was a lot of commentary in Luganda, pictures were taken, and a basket of fruit and flowers was presented to the couple. The groom’s sister’s also knelt before the bride and welcomed her into their family, telling her how much their brother loved her and how excited they were to have her as a sister.

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Once the sisters were done the bride danced out, and it was time for the groom’s side to pay the bride price. Ugandan society is very patriarchal, and as such there is a practice of the groom paying the bride’s family in gifts (like a reverse dowry). Apparently it varies from kingdom to kingdom, but it’s acceptable to give anything from Bibles to cows. In this case the groom’s family had brought a truck load of bags and baskets filled with various types of food and drink. There was also a cow, a goat, an armchair for the bride’s father, several live chickens, and a suitcase the groom had packed specially for his bride, filled with keepsakes from his childhood.

The gifts are traditionally presented by the women from the groom’s side, who carry the baskets in of their heads. This was something Shelby and I had been dreading, since we’d never carried anything on our heads in our lives. Luckily, the women made sure we were given light baskets, and we made it through without dropping anything. It’ll still be a while before I can carry a basket on my head without holding on, and while wearing four inch heels like the other women were, but I think I did well for my first try.

Once the gifts were presented, the bride’s father sat in his new chair and blessed the couple. At this point Shelby’s boss leaned over to me and whispered how she despises this patriarchal custom. She explained that since men often have many wives and even more children, it is the mothers who raise the kids. As such, she said it should be the mothers who bless the marriage, not the often absent fathers. But instead, the bride’s mother spent the whole ceremony in the kitchen preparing dinner. Hmmm.

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Shelby’s boss also frowned on what followed: the groom gave one of the bride’s brothers a chicken. She explained that the chicken was in exchange for the bride – not a very fair trade if you ask me. But as unfair as it is, this is apparently one of the most important parts of the marriage. She explained that in the church ceremony – when the brother gives the bride away – the priest will ask whether the exchanging of the chicken took place. If not, the marriage is not legitimate. No chicken, no wife. At this point I felt like someone should have been whispering into a walkie talkie: “The chicken is secure. Repeat, the chicken is secure”.

After the chicken successfully changed hands it was time for food. Traditionally the groom eats in private with a few members of his party. As the token foreigners, Shelby, Jeremy and I were ushered into a dark room with mats on the ground to join the groom’s private dinner (more undeserved special treatment). There the bride’s aunts served everyone heaping plates of matooke, rice, potatoes, cabbage and beef. The groom was presented with a full chicken – see, told you there were lots of chickens! – and told to eat it all. He laughed and did his best, but the chicken was soon passed around the room.

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After eating, everyone went back to their seats to witness the couple’s official engagement. Since this couple is having a church wedding as well, the engagement was a promise that that would come (like a proposal in North America). The groom gave the bride a ring, and a priest made a speech about living life in the image of Jesus Christ (I zoned out a bit for that part). Then the cake was cut, confetti popped, and music began to play.

At this point it was close to 7pm, so we were glad to discover that all that was left was to greet the newlyweds. A congo line formed under the stars as the guests danced their way to the bride and groom. In typical welcoming Ugandan fashion, when we reached the couple they gave us huge hugs and thanked us for coming. Even though I’d never met the bride before that moment, she beamed at me and pressed a favor into my hand (it was a box containing an apple, a keychain and a candy). I smiled back, awed by her hospitality on her big day.

Finally we stumbled past the tents, quickly changed out of our sweaty dresses in the middle of the parking area – no shame – and were bundled into the car in no time. Four hours and one very close bet later we were back in Kampala, the excitement of the day having drained us of all our energy. Needless to say it was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.

A Day at the Center of the Earth

July 11th 2015

When I say the center of the earth of course I don’t mean the scorching hot, inaccessible, molten core of the planet. Rather I mean the topographic center – the halfway point between the North and the South Poles. In other words, the equator.

Kampala sits about one degree above the equator, which explains its tropical weather and the lack of seasons. There are actually only ten countries that the equator runs through, as 79% of the others places at zero degrees latitude are in the ocean. So the fact that the division between the Northern and Southern hemispheres is only an hour’s drive from Kampala is pretty cool. Obviously we had to experience it for ourselves, so today we took a field trip to the center of the earth.

In Uganda the equator is marked by a giant white spherical sculpture off the side of the highway. A line runs across the road showing where one hemisphere ends and the other begins. A few feet on either side of the line there are wide basins set up, with one also straddling the line. The purpose of these basins are to show how water spins clockwise on one side of the line, and counterclockwise on the other. To demonstrate this, a local man filled the basins with water and then placed a flower in the center. As the water drained through the hole in the bottom of the basin the flower twirled accordingly. After demonstrating this phenomenon in the basins on either side of the line, he filled the one directly on the equator. Unlike with the other two basins, when he placed the flower in it the water drained out, but the flower remained still. Yup, definitely on the equator. There was only the different of a few meters between the basins, but gravity worked differently in each one. Science!

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After hemisphere hopping and snapping the above pictures, our co-worker took us to his village a few kilometers away. After several minutes on a bumpy dirt road, we arrived at a lovely brick house which we soon learned was where he grew up. His mother – a school teacher and mother of ten – came out to greet us. After introductions were made our co-worker and his mother proceeded to show us around the complex, which turned out to be far more inspiring than your average house tour.

First, our co-worker and his mother showed us the livestock. Behind the house and the various adjoining mud buildings there were pens full of pigs, ducks, chickens, and a dog. They explained that the latter was for security purposes. There was also a stall for cows, but they were out grazing in the fields. After that they took us through their extensive gardens. In the space of about fifty meters they were growing sweet potatoes, corn, chili peppers, coffee, cassava, beans, five different species of bananas, and avocado, orange, passion fruit and mango trees. There was even a neem tree that they explained was used to cure colds, and a tree with leaves whose sandpaper-like texture made them ideal for scrubbing pots.

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It didn’t take us long to realize that we’d stumbled into every sustainability or IDS students’ dream. We couldn’t help but be awed. Not only was there an incredible variety of plants, but the small farm was clearly being masterfully managed. Different types of crops were planted side by side to enrich the soil, and all the fruits had been collected so there were barely any rotting on the ground. Even more impressively, our co-worker’s mother told us that the household rarely has to buy food, since they grow enough and enough varieties to sustain themselves. She explained how they would save enough to eat, and then sell the rest. Since her children are all grown up and she is the head of the local school, she had hired a few workers to help with the weeding and harvesting.

Not only was the small household completely self-sufficient, but they let nothing go to waste. For example, behind the house there were two huge metal drums used to collect water during the rainy season. Moreover, the long grass that was growing sporadically is dried and used to make brooms. There was even a biogas system, where cow dung was processed to produce gas. Afterwards the manure was used to fertilize the gardens, or even to enforce the walls of the older houses. That’s a pretty impressive list of uses for cow poop if you ask me.

After our brief tour I found it hard to imagine a more sustainable, self-sufficient, or well managed plot of land.* To top it all off, after the tour we were ushered inside to eat a huge lunch made of food grown right outside the door. The only things purchased were the rice and the pineapple for dessert. It was all delicious of course, and we were left with full bellies and food for thought (sorry, I had to).

But our lessons of the day didn’t end with agriculture. As we waited for lunch we learned that our co-worker and our boss are actually cousins. Moreover, the other intern who had come with us on the trip is said co-worker’s nephew, making our co-worker’s mom his grandmother. This discovery started us off down a whole line of questioning into the nature of Ugandan families. Through about an hour of listening, we learned that they are complicated. Here’s why:**

Firstly, being an extremely patriarchal society, it’s common for men in Uganda to have multiple wives. This means that most people have many half-siblings, multiple grandmothers, etc. Furthermore, women seem to have anywhere from four to twelve children each. So one man can have upwards of thirty or forty children. There are several reasons for such large families: partly for security in case children die young, partly to have many hands to help out, and partly because contraceptives aren’t always widely available. Furthermore, even when contraceptives are available many Ugandans are very Catholic and therefore choose not to use them. Also, men often discourage women from taking them, or women will have had a bad experience with one type and therefore swear off all of them. Either way, the result is many children.

But I’m getting off topic. The point is, the large nature of Ugandan families means that people are raised with a strong sense of community (going back to the idea of Ubuntu discussed briefly in my last post). And as if a typical Ugandan’s family tree isn’t complicated enough, there is then the matter of clans. During our pre-lunch conversation I learned that Uganda has 52 clans which have existed for centuries. Each clan has a totem – for example our co-worker’s clan is represented by the mud fish. You may never eat the animal that is your totem (so you better hope it’s not a chicken or cow). You also can’t marry someone from your clan since they are probably related to you by blood. Even though these rules aren’t written down, they are common knowledge and seem to carry the weight of any law.

The clans also make up kingdoms. I’m pretty sure Uganda has five kingdoms, the largest of which is called Buganda. In fact, Uganda was named after the Buganda kingdom. Buganda has eighteen counties, one of which includes Kampala. Bugandans speak Luganda, which is the most common language in Kampala. However, different regions have different languages, making traveling within the country very confusing.

Naturally, each kingdom also has a king. The king of Buganda lives in Kampala, and his palace is near the city center.*** The king is not a political figure – rather he represents the epitome of Buganda culture. However, he arguably has more sway over the people here than the president does, and therefore his power is not insignificant. This is despite the fact that the kingdoms were only recently reinstated, after being abolished by the president who preceded Idi Amin. Yet despite its 30+ year hiatus, Buganda seems to have stayed incredibly strong. This is in part due to its rigorous structure, whereby there is a representative of the king in every community. Even when the British arrived to colonize the area, they were impressed by the incredibly structured ruling system. In fact, they were so impressed that they didn’t even attempt to dismantle it, and rather sought to manipulate it from the inside.

Finally, one of the most interesting things I learned about Buganda is the way they choose the heir to the throne. Our co-worker explained that the heir can be any of the king’s children, and the eldest child is not allowed to take the throne. Furthermore, the heir is chosen in secret. In fact, the heir’s birth is never even announced. This is because once he is chosen he is sent to be raised by a family who the king trusts. He us raised as an average Ugandan, and isn’t told that he is heir to the throne until the king dies. Pretty exciting right? The purpose of this secrecy and false identity is for the king to be raised like a commoner, so he can understand his people. That way when he has to rule them he’ll know firsthand about their problems. Sounds like a pretty good system to me!

Alright. I’ll stop there with the history lesson (partly because it’s getting late here, but mostly because I’ve run out of facts). I hope you’ve enjoyed my summary of what I learned today as much as I enjoyed learning it. Thanks to today’s lessons in history and agriculture I’ll be going to bed saturated and exhausted – and not only because I spent the day in two hemispheres!
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*In my limited experience, the only thing that wasn’t amazingly managed was the building where the cooking was done. Smoke billowed out from charcoal fires, which is known to be a key source of respiratory diseases in the so called Global South.

**As usual, please note that my knowledge is limited so the following account might not be entirely accurate. This is just my understanding of Ugandan culture from what I learned today.

***One of his daughters is actually on Jeremy’s swim team – small world.

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.

Strange Encounters

June 10th 2015

As you may have already read on Jeremy’s blog, yesterday we went rafting at the source of the Nile! I have my own version of the events typed and ready to go, but I’ll wait to post it until I have the pictures to go with it.* For now though, I want to talk about a strange encounter that I had before we got in the rafts: an encounter with my former self.

Let me back up a bit. Yesterday I woke up at 6:30am in order to be ready for the rafting bus to pick us up at 7:10. When we boarded the bus, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we were struck by a funny sight: the bus was full of a dozen white girls. Jeremy and a few Ugandans were the only outliers, since everyone else was an average height, average weight, dirty blonde, sports bra-wearing, slightly sunburnt white girl, with her unwashed hair thrown into a messy bun. Essentially, they looked just like me and Shelby.

A few minutes after we’d plunked ourselves in our seats, we discovered that the girls not only looked like us, but the majority of them were 20-22 year old Canadians. Go figure. But even more coincidentally, they soon told us that they were in East Africa on an Operation Groundswell trip. Now those of you who know me well know that this is the same company that I traveled with to Peru the summer after my second year. And, even more coincidentally, I only chose Peru after the trip to East Africa I was meant to be on was cancelled due to a lack of enrollment. Crazy! What are the odds that I’d run into members of a trip that I was supposed to be on three years ago, with an organization that only has five staff and does two East Africa trips per year?! Not very high, I’ll tell you that much.

So for the purpose of this post, I’m going to say running into them was fate. Hearing them talk about their experience so far, I was transported back to my Operation Groundswell trip. Except in hindsight vision is 20/20, so I saw it in a completely different – and much less flattering – light.

It was the summer after my second year of university that I decided to go to Peru. At that point I’d taken one full year International Development Studies course and had decided that it would be my second major. I liked it because it dealt with global issues, with the purpose of creating positive change in the world. So when I decided to go to Peru it was because 1) I wanted to travel for an extended period, and 2) I wanted to get some real experience in the field of development to know firsthand what the challenges are. I knew a little bit about the pitfalls of voluntourism** so I was determined to do it right. Unfortunately, due to limited time – I had a job starting in June – I was unable to go on a more extended trip, which might have been the more ethical thing to do. I also chose to go with a group instead of going alone, which was good for the sake of my comfort, but maybe not as beneficial from a development perspective. Still, I was confident that I could find a way to still do some good.

When I found the Operation Groundswell website, I liked it for several reasons. Firstly, it was a small, Canadian-based organization started by students with the mindset that development trips shouldn’t break your bank account. They gave a detailed explanation of where my money would be going to, and they had a fundraising component which would go towards buying the materials and making a donation to all the projects we’d be working on. Secondly, all the organizations we would visit were created and run by locals, and our role would simply be providing manual labour. Thirdly, they made no big claims about changing the world – the idea was that we would be backpacking for our own personal gain, but we would be doing so as ethically and sustainably as possible.

Luckily for me, everyone on my trip was a development student. My trip leaders were also well versed in the issues with development – they made sure we read books like Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America before our departure, we took a week of intensive Spanish classes upon our arrival, our leaders had regular de-brief sessions with us during projects, and they were incredibly respectful and mindful of everyone we encountered. For the last few days of the trip we had a ‘disorientation’ session, and when I returned to Canada I took an experiential learning course to reflect on my experience (it was actually from a student in that class that I learned about this internship – funny how things work out).

In Peru I had no illusions about saving the world, but I was also fairly certain that because of my careful choices and my trip leaders’ diligence I hadn’t caused any harm, and had maybe even had some mutually beneficial encounters. But talking to the girls on the rafting trip yesterday, I was forced to once again look back at my experience with a critical eye. I still maintain that my time in Peru wasn’t necessarily BAD – I certainly gained a lot, and at the very least our donations went straight to the local organizations – but I know the practice of voluntourism isn’t something I’m proud to say I’ve participated in. Especially after hearing those girls say things like how they saw the “real Africa” because they visited a slum. Even a five minute conversation with them made me uncomfortable.

Now one reaction would be to sneer condescendingly at these twelve girls, disgusted by their ignorance to the glaring flaws of voluntourism. But then I realized that these flaws were only glaringly obvious to me and my fellow scholars, as students of International Development Studies. I’ve spent the last four years studying the ins and outs of development – learning about the problems with voluntourism and the detrimental mindset that the Global South needs “saving”. But when I was nineteen and signed up for Operation Groundswell, I wasn’t too far off from where they are now. True, I’ve never owned a piece of Lulu Lemon clothing in my life, or gotten an inaccurate tattoo of a world map on my feet, and I’ve never said something about getting to stay with “real Africans”. But I may have been similarly smug about seeing a different side of Peru because we spent some time with a family in the Patchecutek slum outside of Lima.

So am I somehow better than those twelve girls? No, most definitely not. More educated on development issues maybe, but not better. I think they probably think they’re doing really great work. They genuinely want to help. Little do they know that the well they built probably needed to be redone by locals after they left. Or that the mindset of “saving Africa” is robbing the agency from a whole continent of intelligent, creative people. But that’s not their fault – like any of us they’ve most likely grown up with the rhetoric that Africa needs saving, and that the problems on this continent somehow happened in a vacuum, instead of being created and perpetuated by people in the Global North.

Mohammed Ali once said, “service to others is the rent we pay for our life here on earth”. Those girls are simply trying to do service, but are maybe approaching it from the wrong angle. But on that note, what is the right angle? In her article entitled ‘The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism’, Pippa Biddle explains how as a 19 year old she realized how silly it was that she had flown to a developing country to build a house – despite having no expertize in the field – when there were many highly trained carpenters and stonemasons in the village who could have done a much better job. Similarly, in Peru I struggled to strip bark from a log, and then watched a local Peruvian man do it in a fraction of a second. Pippa Biddle makes the point that often, the best way for the white, middle class development worker to do development is to not be there. In her case that meant working with a camp in the Dominican from behind the scenes. She says she would much rather have the children there look up to a local counselor who they look like and can relate to, rather than a foreigner who will leave in a matter of months. This is a hard pill to swallow for those of us who like to travel and be engaged on the ground, but this probably just shows the level of selfishness associated with development work – at least in my case.

Finally, the sense I get is that often people doing ‘good’ development work look down on those doing ‘bad’ voluntourism. This is true in many situations in life – people judge others for being ignorant, but then often don’t do anything to reach out to that person or meet them where they’re at. It’s not fair to those girls to judge them for their actions but then not give them the chance to learn more. If people had scorned me for having been a voluntourist I would never have learned about all its flaws, or what to do better. Not that anyone really knows how to do better. But I think a start would be counteracting the stereotypes that Africa needs saving, or that the West is somehow better than the rest. To watch some awesome clips from people who are already doing this, check out the links below:

http://endhumanitariandouchery.co.nf/

http://www.africafornorway.no/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8GZjZTZrWA

To conclude, I hope this post doesn’t sound too holier-than-thou. These are just my musings from yesterday’s encounter with twelve slightly exaggerated versions of my 19 year old self. I’m definitely much different than I was then, but I’m sure I still have many blindspots.
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*The pictures were being sold for an outrageous price, so as poor but resourceful students we haggled with the camera guy and decided to split the diminished sum between the six of us in our boat – one girl took the pictures, so we’re waiting until she can find an internet café to send them to us.

**Voluntourism is the act of going overseas for a volunteer placement and to travel. Usually the placements are short term, sometimes over a March break or a Christmas holiday. Trips like Habitat for Humanity, Me to We, etc. are perfect examples. The issue with voluntourism is that such short term projects are likely to do more harm than good, since unqualified young tourists just swoop in, get an ‘authentic’ experience that makes them feel validated and then leave. It also might perpetuate the negative stereotypes that the visitors have about the country because they aren’t there long enough to understand the local dynamics. Although the trip members undoubtedly learn a lot, the communities rarely benefit. Furthermore, people pay ridiculous amounts of money for these trips, most of which goes to the organization that’s sending them and not to the people in the place they’re going. Very few of the organizations are actually locally based, which reeks a bit of neo-colonialism. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Highlight Reel

As of this Wednesday we’ll have been in Uganda for a whole month! Or 29 days to be exact.* So I figure it’s about time to take off my social justice hat for a minute and fill you all in on what we’ve actually been up to. I’ve already mentioned a few things like meetings and trips to the market, but here’s what I’ve left out:

TEDx Nakasero Women
Two weekends ago we were invited to TEDx Nakasero Women. A few days beforehand I’d been talking to one of the facilitators at the conference we were at, and he mentioned that he was one of the organizers. Excited that I had some TEDx organizing experience myself, he eagerly invited us to the event.

The event was held in the Uganda National Cultural Centre, in a cool space on the second floor full of pillars and staircases. The theme of the conference was ‘momentum’, so all of the talks were loosely connected to that topic. The speakers ranged from the Editor in Chief of a local newspaper, to a South Sudanese refugee, to a former Director of the UN-FAO in China, Mongolia, and South Korea. And all but one speaker were women. Of course as is always the case some talks were better than others, but the overall message was inspiring, and we left satiated.

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The Airtel Africa Mashariki Half Marathon
Before you ask, no, we did not run the half marathon. Not a chance in hell. What we did do was the 10k. At 5am last Sunday Shelby, Jeremy, and I were lacing up our running shoes and rubbing our eyes as we stumbled outside to wait for our friend to pick us up. When the gun to start the race went off – over an hour late – the sun was just peaking over the horizon, and the three of us and about a hundred Ugandan, Kenyan, and Rwandan runners took off.

Now, before last Sunday I’d never run 10k consecutively in my life. My running career ended after winning a few first place medals for 400 and 800 meter races in sixth grade (might as well stop while you’re ahead right?). But recently, anytime I’ve tried to run for even twenty minutes I’ve gotten bored well before the allocated time is up. So the thought of doing 10km was daunting to say the least. Especially with no training, and in the Kampala heat.

Luckily for me, I had my own personal motivator/coach/cross country runner there to spur me along. For the first half every time I got a stitch or wanted to walk after a hill Shelby would jog beside me and make sure I started running again before a minute had passed. Even when she saw someone she didn’t know walking she would cheer them on until they started running again. With her help, by about 3km in I had found my stride. Aside from the last kilometer (which all seemed to be uphill) the rest of the race was kind of enjoyable! At least now I can say I’ve done it.

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A day at the beach
This past Wednesday was a public holiday called Ugandan Martyr’s Day. As we’d been warned against going to the Martyr’s shrine just outside the city, we opted instead to take a trip to the beach! Such a Canadian thing to do right? But as it turns out, Ugandan’s love the beach too (although their beaches are on the lake, not the ocean). In fact I think they do beach days better than we do at home: as we lay on the sand, respectfully keeping to ourselves, all the other beach goers were in the water dancing and playing together. There was even a makeshift game of tug of war at one point! It was amazing to see people who didn’t know each other from a hole in the ground happily hanging out as if they were one big family. It was like all the social conventions broke down: couples were cuddling, people were drinking beer, and women were even wearing bikinis (although not the string ones we’re used to in Canada). It was like a spontaneous, all ages beach party. It just goes to show that sometimes all you need is snacks, sand, and sunshine.

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Because the beach was right next to the airport, there was even an old abandoned airplane! Apparently it had been there since Idi Amin’s time.

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A trip to the nail salon
Some of the women here have the most amazing nails. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but you’d notice it too if the lady giving you change at the grocery store had bright blue talons, or the woman sitting across from you at a meeting had gold toes. So when Shelby’s co-worker told us about a local salon, we eagerly decided to give it a go. And as usual, something as simple as getting our nails done become a full day Kampala experience. To try to paint you the best picture I can, given the thousands of miles between you and Kampala, I’ll start from the beginning.

Step one: getting there. We waited for our boda driver to come for over an hour. True, we should have given him more notice, but by the time he arrived we were cranky – I guess we’re still getting used to Africa time. When we saw his huge smile though we quickly got over our frustrations and hopped on.

The best example I can think of to describe being on a boda is to compare it the a ride at an amusement park. For most of it it’s fun – the wind whipping through your hair, the world flashing by – but there are also those moments when you’re hanging on for dear life and trying to calculate the odds of you making it to your destination in one piece. Throw in several hundred other bodas and imagine yourself in the busiest part of town and you’ve pretty much got our ride to the nail salon. At one point I even had to get off in the middle of a traffic jam and hop on another boda, since two riders on one boda is frowned upon.

Eventually we arrived at the mall with the nail salon which is located in the heart of Kampala. Our boda driver gave us a lecture about keeping our valuables close and calling him before we left the mall so he could pick us up. In most places a lecture like this would seem overbearing, but in this case it was comforting. He waited until the man from the nail salon came to find us before he drove off, which we were very grateful for.

The man took us into the depths of the ramshackle mall and into his cramped little salon. When we arrived there must have been ten people in the space of a large bathroom, including two babies, several staff members, and a bride and her bridesmaids. We plunked ourselves down and began what turned out to be another hour long wait before someone was free to start on our nails. We didn’t mind though; we were transfixed by the amazing hairstyles being fashioned into the women’s hair, and the effortless combination of Luganda and English being spoken by the staff. Every now and then vendors would come into the salon peddling peanuts, hair accessories, or shoes. At one point one of the other customers even had lunch delivered from a nearby restaurant. It was pretty wild – by the time our nails were dry we’d had a fully immersive cultural experience.

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A night out in Kampala
I know when you read the words ‘night out’ you instantly think of clubs, short skirts and bad decisions. But don’t worry, Saturday’s night out included none of those things:** just a few beers, some new friends, and Indian food. Our co-workers took us to a beautiful outdoor restaurant where we were soon joined by their friends from other Kampala-based NGOs. After a delicious meal and good conversation we headed to a second bar, aptly named Fuego after the fire pits scattered amongst the tables. We stayed there chatting and sipping beers until about 1:30am, when we crammed a few too many people into the vehicles and the designated drivers drove us home. By the time we got home I was exhausted, but it was a well needed night to rewind and chat after a long week at work.

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A visit to Gadaffi Mosque
On Sunday afternoon, after a chill morning catching up on work at home, we decided to check out Gadaffi Mosque. It’s a huge structure about a thirty minute walk from our apartment, and the view from the top of the tower is supposed to be one of the best in Kampala. And it definitely was. After being draped in veils and climbing a few hundred stairs, we could see the whole city laid out below us, going for miles in each direction. What a view!

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Next the guide took us into the main prayer room of the mosque itself. It was a huge room with arched ceilings and an elaborate carpet covering the floor. We sat in there for about half an hour listening to him recount the history of the mosque. When he sang the prayers inscribed on the walls of the room the acoustics carried his voice into every corner. It was a pretty surreal experience.

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**Except maybe the bad decision to sit too close to the singer at the restaurant. He was horrible.
*I only know that because I’ve been taking malaria pills every day since two days before I left. They come in packs of 12, and right now I’ve finished two packs, plus 5 pills. So (12×2) +5+2-2 = 29. I like simple math.

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.
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*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?