Strengthening Civil Society
Transforming passive victims into active citizens
A thriving democracy not only requires democratically elected leaders, but also active citizens who hold their leadership to account.
You have to be in possession of a gun or hold a powerful position to have rights. That is what James Oyaro thought while growing up in war-torn northern Uganda. So it was a revelation when he was taught that every human being has basic human rights and that you are actually born with such rights – whether you carry a gun or not.
James Oyaro is a teacher by profession and former chairman of the Youth Strengthening Strategy (YSS) project in Pader. He is also one of the thousands and thousands of Ugandans who no longer see themselves as passive victims but as active citizens with a right and a responsibility to speak out and take part in shaping a democratic Uganda.
The Pader Youth Group is just one of the numerous active citizens’ groups mushrooming all over Uganda, signalling a still more active civil society, and many of them with indirect or direct support from Danida HUGGO.
James Oyaro was active right from the start of the Youth Strengthening Strategy project in Pader District in 2004, when the whole region still suffered from the LRA conflict and most people had to live in camps away from their homes and their land.
BEYOND DANIDA HUGGO SUPPORT
The Youth Strengthening Strategy project (YSS) was supported by Danida HUGGO from 2002 to 2010. The project operated in the Acholi sub-region, covering the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader.
What has now developed into Pader Youth Forum shall have to survive without external support, and one of the major tasks of the coordinator, John Loktek, is to look for funding and a means of income. John is the only employee; the board members are all volunteers.
“We did not know peace. we never knew when LRA would raid and abduct children, so we always had to carry a blanket or a sweater with us so we could run to the bush without having to go home and collect a blanket to keep warm at night. I have slept in the forest for weeks. That kind of childhood turns youths either passive or violent,” James explains. And he learned it the hard way.
“We were confronted with death and violence much too early. The easy way out was to become part of the conflict by joining one of the parties of the conflict, LRA or the army.”
No to youth brigades
When the Youth Strengthening Strategy project started in Pader in 2004, James and other youths were trained to become youth leaders. It was through this training that James learned that you have rights even if you do not have a gun or a powerful position. They started forming youth groups and now the district boasts several hundred such groups.
In 2008, an entire generation of young people was able to resettle and begin a new life after decades of conflict in the north.
“We prefer broad-based youth groups to party-affiliated youth brigades,” former YSS chairman James Oyaro (left), new chairman James Onenbob, and Pader Youth Project Officer, John Loktek, agree.
“In the past youths were scattered all over and made easy victims for warlords. By bringing youths together in groups it has been possible to change them from being destructive to being constructive, from being tools of conflict to agents of peace and reconstruction,” James explains.
“We have been alerted to troublemakers and have learned how to react to them,” Pader Youth Project officer, John Loktek, adds and gives an example. “The political parties approach youths to make them join their youth brigades. But we say no. Youth brigades have a long history of being misused by their mother parties to instigate conflict and violence and ’deal’ with opponents. We do not want that. We want a peaceful, not a divisive democracy.”
As well as the youth groups, the project has also been instrumental in forming Peace Committees in each of the 27 sub-counties in Pader District.
“Their role is to resolve conflicts – like land disputes – peacefully,” John Loktek says. “Many disputes can be resolved without being taken to court. The committees do not compete with the courts or with local authorities. They cooperate. Often outlying courts and authorities can make use of the local knowledge of the committees. Besides, many people have more trust in the committees than in courts and authorities who often lack the capacity to act fast and efficiently.”
Football for peace
Pader has not only suffered from the LRA conflict. Part of the district borders Karamoja and has suffered from cattle rustling by the Karamojong warriors. This has fuelled traditional animosity against the Karamojong.
“In our tradition we cannot eat from the same source as people from Karamoja. That is just one of so many old traditions to keep us apart and fuel conflicts. But as youths we want peace,” James Oyaro says. “In our culture we are not supposed to object to what the elders say. But we can and we should when appropriate. And we asked what has been achieved through these myths other than conflicts.”
The youths chose a different approach: They made cross-border contacts and now meet regularly with their counterparts in Karamoja.
“We have come to know each other and have exchanged mobile numbers,” says James Onenbob, incoming chairperson of the Pader youths. “When cattle go missing we can call the Karamojong and they will help us recover it.”
The youths have even played football with each other. The match took place after a meeting in Kotido on peaceful co-existence. And the match was peaceful.
“We won, but the Karamojong accepted it and everybody had a great time,” James Onenbob says.
Back to normal
When the Pader NGO Forum was formed in 2002 its role was to coordinate the multitude of fragmented projects implemented by national and international organisations. Now its role is more that of a friendly watchdog over the government.
25 local NGO networks in 51 districts have helped mobilise citizens – here in Koboko– and improved the dialogue between local authorities and civil society.
10 years ago the town of Pader hardly existed. The whole area suffered from the LRA conflict, and Pader hosted a huge camp for internally displaced people and a military camp. The government was not able to roll out basic services like health, education and water supply. This vacuum was filled to some extent by a multitude of national and international organisations, each implementing their own projects in cooperation with local NGOs.
It was out of this fragmentation that the Pader NGO Forum was born in 2002. The present coordinator, George Odong, joined in 2004.
“The local civil society organisations were small and scattered at the time. They could easily be intimidated; they were not really taken seriously by government and lacked the capacity to match the many international organisations that were here. Our role was to coordinate and build capacity and it still is, though much has changed.”
The Pader NGO Forum now has 92 member organisations with a combined membership of around 9,000 people. On top of this come 19,075 people who are members of the 545 youth groups in the district. They each have around 35 members. The population of the area that used to be Pader District – before it was split – is 340,000.
Much has changed after the end of the LRA conflict.
“People have returned home from the camps and are busy starting their new lives, and the government is now able to roll out services, unlike in the camps where NGOs provided most services. This is, of course, positive, but many people expected more and feel let down,” George Odong says.
“Even though life was tough in the camps, people there did have access to water etc. Now many are disappointed because of the time it takes government to deliver basic services to their homes. As NGOs, our role is no longer to deliver services, but to advocate for government to do that. This is the right way to go, but it is also a difficult one. Deliver ing services is more visible than changing attitudes. And the change is not always popular with government. They sometimes claim that we make people militant, but we just advocate for basic rights and for politicians to deliver on their promises.”
’’ Delivering services is more visible than changing attitudes.
George Odong does, though, emphasize that the attitude of the local authorities towards civil society organisations is changing for the better.
“We are much more respected now and in many cases cooperate closely with local government, but we have had to struggle to create this space,” he stresses and confirms an observation made by several: while the space for NGOs has narrowed at the national level it has widened at local level.
Just as important, Odong has also noticed a changing attitude among fellow Ugandans.
“People are becoming much more vigilant and no longer hesitate to question political leaders at rallies and on radio programmes. This is exactly what we have been pushing for. We encourage people to demand their rights, so we very much welcome it when political leaders start to dance to the tune of the voters.”
A Network of NGO Forums
Pader NGO Forum is one of 25 local NGO forums in Uganda. The first one was formed in Gulu in 2002. The local forums have a national umbrella, the Uganda National NGO Forum (UNNGOF), but the local ones came first.
The UNNGOF network is important for Pader NGO Forum:
“Even though we are in a remote area we do not feel isolated because we are part of Uganda’s NGO family through UNNGOF and cooperate closely with others on various issues,” George Odong says.
From International to very local
Before joining Pader NGO Forum in 2004, George Odong worked for world Food Programme in Sudan, so he really changed from big to small, but has never regretted the change.
“With international organisations you carry out orders. I received phone calls from Nairobi on what to do and could not be very flexible or listen to the locals. It was like machine ry. Here, the challenges are much broader: to involve people and design solutions with them, build capacity, promote peace and reconciliation and prevent new conflicts. In short, helping people and empowering them to become active citizens. Ordinary people have the right to speak out on corruption and misuse of power and to demand their rights.”
A Dilemma: Saying no to money offered
Pader NGO Forum depends almost entirely on donor funding.
“It makes us fragile and challenges our credibility,” George Odong readily admits. But it does not make Odong say yes to all the funds he could get, actually quite the opposite.
“There is money that we could apply for and get, but we don’t,” he says and gives an example. “An international NGO offered to support us in advocating against the anti-homosexual bill. But our members did not want that, and we do not want to be seen to be driven more by donors than by our members.”
NGO Coordinator: Support Government!
As the coordinator of Kitgum NGO Forum, there is no doubt that Georges Pele wants support for NGOs. Nevertheless, he calls on international agencies to channel their funding for service delivery through government rather than through NGOs:
“During the insurgence in northern Uganda, international and local NGOs did a lot to fill the vacuum created by the government’s lack of service delivery. But the situation has now changed completely: the government is back and government systems stay while NGOs may not. International agencies should realise that and channel their funding for service delivery via government so as to build capacity. As NGOs we still have an important but different role to play: we are building awareness among the people to hold government accountable.”
Kitgum Youth Group: True outreach
The Uganda National NGO Forum (UNNGOF), via the 25 local NGO forums and their respective affiliated groups, really reaches out to most of Uganda. Ken Richard (28) is an example of that.
He cultivates a small piece of land and occasionally works as a brick layer to support his wife and two children in Kitgum District close to the Sudanese border. But he does more than that. He is also chairman of the 25 member group, Akwang Youth Rights Focus and Innovation. In this very remote place – facing what used to be a camp for internally displaced people – the group has its humble office, some nine kilometres from Ken Richard’s home.
Assisted by Kitgum NGO Forum, the youths meet regularly to – as Ken Richard puts it – mobilize youths to become active citizens and leaders.
“Many government programmes do not reach out here, like awareness-raising about HIV/ AIDS, which is a big problem here, so we step in and do that. And we do see improvements: The use of condoms has increased. We also see the impact of the other activities we are doing: Gender based violence has come down and we have fewer incidents of teachers beating children.”
The national network of local networks
The NGO forums of remote Pader and Kitgum do not feel isolated. They are part of the Uganda NGO family through the Uganda National NGO Forum and a project initiated with Danida HUGGO support.
“Just seven or eight years ago people could rightly claim that NGOs in Uganda, including the Uganda National NGO Forum, were too concentrated in and focused on Kampala, but not anymore,” says Alfred Nuamanya, team leader of the National District Network Support Programme (NDNSP) hosted by UNNGOF.
“People were right to challenge whether UNNGOF spoke on behalf of rural communities. The link between the national and local level was weak, and both sides suffered from that at a time where the role of NGOs was shifting from service delivery to advocacy. While it is possible to deliver services as an individual NGO, advocacy takes cooperation to be seen as representing more than just a small constituency.”
The National District Network Support Programme (NDNSP) was conceived to address exactly that problem.
The idea was not to set up new organisations or structures, but to link and strengthen already existing ones and make use of their experiences and capacity. At the time, several districts like Pader and Kitgum had already formed local NGO forums and in the eastern part of Uganda Danida’s Human Rights Development Programme had initiated eight such local networks.
Some 10 national and international NGOs in Uganda joined forces to create the national network. Danida HUGGO provided most of the funding for what was to become the National District Network Support Programme, and Uganda NGO Forum was chosen to host the programme and still does.
There are still 25 local networks in the programme. Together they cover 51 districts and more than a third of Uganda’s population, and they have grown from young and small into vibrant and credible networks through support to their financial and technical capacity. And not only have the local networks been strengthened. The hundreds of affiliated local NGOs have also benefitted through the training of board members etc. Many member organisations have seen a marked improvement in their performance. Just as important, the networks have generally improved the dialogue between local authorities and civil society.
A woman in Arua District speaks out. Citizens are increasingly raising their voices at dialogue meetings.
Mouthpiece of civil society
“The mere fact that the local networks are now closely linked by email, personal contacts etc., is extremely important. They can share ideas and information directly without having to go via Kampala. It has certainly also strengthened civil society at the national level. Information can now flow quickly to and from Kampala. Incidents in isolated areas can no longer go unnoticed, and the networks have been accepted as the mouthpiece of civil society,” says Alfred Nuamanya.
“Now we can rightly claim that NGOs reach out to all Uganda. we have an ear on the ground and the concerns of the rural communities are now being heard and voiced. You could even say that we are getting more from the local networks than we are bringing them through our training and capacity building. It is from the local communities that change is coming. Uganda has come far when it comes to policies on paper. But it is at the local level that service delivery happens or fails and politicians’ pledges are put to the test. We do a reality check on the ground and make sure that the political debate in Kampala is not delinked from realities on the ground. This will change the national political debate.”
Danida HUGGO took the risk
While Alfred Nuamanya now describes the National District Network Support Programme as a success story, the success was not obvious from the start.
“This was risky business when we started in 2006 and no one could be sure that we would actually be able to make it as far as we have come. It took a partner like Danida HUGGO that was willing to run the risk of granting non-earmarked funding and investing long-term because they believed in the idea.”
This – according to Nuamanya – is in stark contrast to many other donors who tend to be extremely focused on short-term results.
“Many donors should rethink the way they fund NGOs. Rather than looking for quick results and more or less dictating what activities NGOs can be funded to implement, they should respect the autonomy of the NGOs and help them build their capacities. Otherwise the NGOs will collapse when the funding for the activities dries up and they will be perceived as donor-driven.”
NDNSP was designed to be funded under a basket arrangement, but Danida HUGGO remains the only partner funding the programme and while Alfred Nuamanya is happy with the level of funding, he is cautious not to become too dependent on one source of funding.
Currently, the programme supports up to almost half of the total budgets of the local district networks. The networks are able to mobilise other funds themselves because of the capacity they now have as a result of the investment made under NDNSP.
Danida HUGGO’s funding of NDNSP started in 2006 and lasted until 2011. There are more than 75 district networks in Uganda, but only 25 are covered by NDNSP. They each received an annual support of USD 30,000. v
This page forms part of the publication 'Governance for Development' as chapter 4 of 15
Version 1.0. 03-10-2011
Publication may be found at the address http://www.netpublikationer.dk/um/11090/index.htm