Sunday, November 19, 2006

The 'C' word

The VSO training session I found most interesting, and most demoralising, was given by a representative from Anticorruption Uganda. We’ve already mentioned our frustrations at the hospital in Mbarara where drugs are stolen from the pharmacy and reagents from the lab such that neither department is able to provide a service. Petra, working for the women’s cooperative manufacturing candles soaps and other products from lemon grass in Ntungamo, arrived to find that the chairwoman of the committee had stolen the lion’s share of their £3000 grant. Amber’s employing NGO gets paid for running fictitious workshops, as does Fabiens.

Foreign aid constitutes the largest sector in the Ugandan economy, with more than 50% of government income coming from donors. This is big business. Ambitious and greedy people go into politics and use their connections to set up or get involved in NGOs. They have access to salaries, cars and, via various scams, a criminal income. There are now 6000 NGOs working on HIV alone in Uganda. They compete, sometimes aggressively, for scarce resources. Because they are in direct competition with each other there is a disincentive to work collaboratively. There is no effective control over their policies and practices, so they rarely work with the same aims, and it seems even more rarely in line with overall government strategy. Result; ineffectiveness, chaos and duplication. This is just one area. The country is full of NGOs. There’s a part of me that thinks all the money should be directed through central government so that they can work effectively to a sensible strategy, and part of me that knows that would be even more hopeless as the money would simply disappear.
This form of entrepreneurialism is effectively modelled by president Museveni, his family, friends and political colleagues. Museveni and his family have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from the Ugandan people. This is corrosive stuff. When his health minister Jim Muhwezi was found after a commission of enquiry to have stolen millions of dollars from the global fund (destined to help Uganda fight HIV, TB and malaria), Museveni protected him, refusing to sack him. Largely, it was suspected, because Muheza knew too much about Museveni’s dodgy dealings. His own corrupt and some say murderous habits mean Museveni has a strong incentive to stay in power for life to evade investigation and accountability for his record - what democracy there is here may be no more than a sham. The Global Fund (worth $100m to Uganda) has been suspended since July 2005, and has just been suspended again until next year at the earliest.
Nearly everybody steals or expects things to be stolen. Corrupt practices hamper sensible business development and investment because the playing field is biased and unpredictable. Funds don’t reach their targets so infrastructure is poorly developed; the roads are bad, electricity unreliable (the national electricity company is run by Museveni’s daughter).
On Thursday we met Paddy and Mike Martin from Marazion. They’ve been coming to Uganda for 5 years and have invested heavily in the construction and supplying of a primary school north of Kampala. They are now switching their energies elsewhere after a catalogue of abuses, with building supplies stolen, school equipment stolen, and teachers barely turning up for work.
Our dilemma then, is, do you engage with or disengage from corrupt organisations? VSO’s view seems to be one of constructive engagement. The ‘muzungu’ sticks the course, models a European work ethic, insists on transparent practices, is appalled by any hint of corruption and thereby educates people about good governance. Our experience is that this is a fairly ineffective approach. The corruption becomes more covert or the muzungu is unwelcome. Judith, who was posted to the corrupt pharmacy department at Mbarara hospital, was ignored and not spoken to for her first 3 months here until she decided she should get a job elsewhere. I favour a process which sets high standards for the partner organisations, maybe even aiding them with short term placements at start up to regularise issues of accounting and governance. VSO’s ‘bums on seats’ approach to maximising placement numbers seems to us to be counterproductive in this situation.
Ugandans love to talk politics and most are fed up with Museveni. However, alongside that discontent many still have vivid memories of 20 years of mayhem, brutality and bloodshed from a few years after independence in 1962 to Museveni’s overthrow of Obote in 1986. During those years most administrators and civil servants were murdered, expelled from or fled the country. Museveni has brought relative stability though little in the way of economic development or the regeneration of civil society. Uganda is a fertile country with plentiful food and some valuable natural resources, equatorial sunshine, plenty of rain, the Nile for energy and now apparently some oil reserves but there seems to be no way out of the present predicament short of another bloody revolution at some point down the line.
We enjoyed the thought advertised in the press recently of a prize for the African president who voluntarily stands down after no longer than 2 terms, having left the country in a better state than when he arrived. The prize was a pension of $5m pa for life. Local people quipped that that’s probably as much as Museveni steals in an average day!!!...........

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