7 August 2012

Africa: Should We Entertain Those Who Want to 'Save Africa'?


Policies are being made by the Uganda government which may see foreign workers in the NGO sector being assessed by local authorities prior to taking up employment in the country, and there may be a limit on how long they can work for one organisation in Uganda. NGOs may even be required to provide evidence that the skills they require for particular roles cannot be filled by Ugandans. As a British-based lover of Uganda these new immigration guidelines of course leave me at a disadvantage as a prospective expatriate in the not-for-profit field.

However, I see this as a very positive move due to the crippling rate of unemployment (particularly among university graduates) in the country. As a foreigner who has lived and worked in Africa, I for one am rather tired of this belief that foreigners need to come and 'help' or 'save' Africa.

Surely the best way to empower communities or assist with "development" (a phrase that I still struggle with) would be to create jobs and incomes. If the aim of an NGO is to come to Uganda or any other country and work to assist communities, then surely recruiting staff locally is a good place to start.

The mandate of most NGOs is to improve circumstances of those they are serving, therefore training qualified people within the country or community they are working in to lead projects should be the aim.

However, many of these organisations come into the country, set up offices, start projects and operate with a staff made up of mostly foreigners, this despite the fact that some of their Ugandan counterparts hold better qualifications.

Despite this move by the Uganda government, there is a school of thought that finds the entire existence of foreign NGOs uncomfortable and suggests that these organisations are responsible for keeping Africa in a cycle of underdevelopment.

Much has been discussed recently around the presence of NGOs in Northern Uganda where the war is over. "The real nodding disease up there is the one given to International NGOs to remain in the country by our government" someone once said.

Some have argued that as the region is now at peace it should be left to the communities, local NGOs and government to continue rebuilding society and ensure stability remains; that there is no longer any need for an International NGO presence.

Rather than throwing money at governments why do 'Western governments' not open up their markets in order to make trade easier? Aid was once described as being similar to prostitution; money being offered in return for favours with no love in between.

In order for things to change it is important to encourage NGOs and community empowerment organisations to recruit local staff unless the role requires particular skills and qualifications that they haven't found in the country.

Secondly, the government must take responsibility and create opportunities for people to start up their own businesses. Uganda's success lies in the private sector. Thirdly, there is a severe lack of publicity for Uganda overseas.

For a country with such a wide range of attractions not to be promoted through a strong tourism campaign, is an injustice. The continued coverage of African countries as 'starving children, malnourishment and asking for help' is rather absurd.

It must be recognised that foreign aid may provide corrupt governments with funds to misappropriate or even dissuade them from carrying out appropriate investment. However it is not always aid that creates problems; it is what recipient governments do with it.

Countries such as Rwanda have used aid effectively and this has contributed to the country becoming one of the Africa's success stories. Some suggest that the government's policy to limit expatriate workers in the not-for-profit sector is merely a way of diverting attention from the real problems facing the country.

That these expatriates are being used as scapegoats in order to explain the high levels of unemployment. Others claim that the old arguments around colonisation and foreign aid being blamed for the troubles of Uganda and much of sub-Saharan Africa are also a get-out clause for governments that are failing to live up to the basic expectations of the electorate.

There are also those that call attention to the fact that many of the NGOs in Uganda work in the medical field, and due to the shortage of doctors in the country (brain drain and low levels of pay for medical professionals explains this) foreign medical staff are a necessity and should be welcomed with open arms.

Finally, there is the view that if the government focused on creating more jobs, aided the starting up of businesses and channelled funds transparently, then the number of expatriate workers in the NGO sector would be an insignificant issue.

The author is a UK citizen who has lived and worked in Uganda.

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