The sudden withdrawal of a grant worth billions of shillings by an American agency has paralysed operations at the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU).
The multi-denominational organization was this month forced to lay off all staff after USAID abruptly ended its financial support worth $34.5m (Shs 89.7bn). This funding accounted for about 90 per cent of IRCU's resource envelope.
The local organization says it is a victim of its anti-gay stance, which the donor finds unacceptable, although some sources claim IRCU failed to meet some of USAID's rigorous accountability procedures.
Suspension of funding was communicated to IRCU in a June 26 letter by USAID Country Director Lislie Reed. She told the religious body that their partnership was being terminated effective July 31.
According to IRCU General Secretary Joshua Kitakule, the funding was supposed to end in December 2014, but USAID had agreed to fund another follow-on project.
"We had started on a follow-on programme which would commence in January 2015, but they have decided to take away their money, we can't stop them. We are an organization and we are going to re-strategise and move on," Kitakule told The Observer on August 15.
The money was part of USAID's five-year HIV/Aids support project. The major components of the project included care and treatment of people living positively with Aids, prevention, psycho-social support, support for orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs), coordination and advocacy. At least 70,000 patients were supported under palliative care, 40,000 on anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment and 45,000 children under OVC support.
A senior member of staff who has been laid off told The Observer that USAID was maintaining support for all the beneficiaries of the projects previously executed by IRCU but now under a different framework. The IRCU brings together Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Seventh Day Adventist churches to address issues of common interest.
Based on its philosophy of serving God through service to humanity, IRCU is implementing a range of cross-cutting projects that touch issues of governance, peace, and health, among others.
Disagreement between the Americans and IRCU started when the religious leaders came out publicly to support the December 20, 2013 passing of the now-annulled Anti-Homosexuality Act. Religious leaders were vocal in their support for the law that criminalises homosexuality, and even organized an event at Kololo to celebrate after President Museveni endorsed it.
At the time, the NGO's budget had a balance of $7m (Shs 18.2bn), which was to cover the one year remaining on the funding calendar. This was cut to $2.35m (Shs 6.1bn), forcing IRCU to lay off at least 30 of its 55-member workforce. That number has further been reduced to just five after USAID terminated the partnership.
The remaining employees are now not salaried. They are volunteers who are paid a weekly allowance of Shs 125,000. The Americans, Kitakule said in an interview, were angered by the religious leaders' support for the anti-homosexuality law.
"The Americans misunderstood the role of faith leaders in society. They thought that because they are religious leaders, they couldn't stand against the law because it infringed on human rights issues", Kitakule said.
"This is a law that deals with morality and religious leaders will always condemn sin but can't discriminate against anyone because when we go to mosques or churches, they never ask who we are but preach against the sins that we commit," Kitakule added.
Relations soured further when religious leaders questioned American's support to pro-gay activists within Uganda.
In her letter, Reed also directed that the nine double-cabin pickup trucks that USAID had given IRCU be withdrawn and re-distributed. Three trucks have since been taken back to the US mission. Another three trucks were given to a trio of health facilities, namely Mengo hospital, Kisiizi hospital in Kanungu and Ishaka SDA hospital in Bushenyi.
The remaining three trucks are still being used by IRCU but only after the Americans removed all inscriptions that connected USAID to the religious organization. USAID's communications director, Roberta Rossi, declined to comment on the developments when contacted on Saturday. Instead, in reply to queries emailed to her by The Observer, she said: "It would be good if you can wait. We have answered similar questions on the subject."
Moments after USAID withdrew its funding, another donor agency, the Democratic Governance Facility (DFC) of European Union, withdrew its Shs 1.9bn funding for a three-year project on governance and accountability. IRCU suspects DFG's withdrawal was influenced by USAID.
"They have contacted mainly our European funders. They want to isolate us because they think by withdrawing funding, we will be hit hard and we succumb to their pressures," Kitakule said.