Category Archives: Writing

Facilitating transformation – making money stick

British library trivia for this week; people here seem to be comfortably eccentric… rubbing on moisturising lotion as if they were magicians. Clumpy shoed passers-by. I think BL cultivates a feeling of silent isolation where we yearn for acknowledgement, any form of attention that will break us out from our silence.

I’ve been reading about female empowerment – a hot topic – through microcredit – another hot topic. The report says that microcredit is failing to advance social empowerment through economic microcredit schemes. If microcredit is going to address social empowerment and sustained, accumulated economic empowerment, you have to train the recipients in business skills, facilitate peer groups and generally tailor loans to individual needs. This seems obvious and good. I am all about the social empowerment and building capacity of people not just throwing money at a problem. But it also seems to be functioning in a slightly different reality where kinder interest repayment deals are to be encouraged – I’m no expert but it seems you are then subsidising businesses that will then not be very competitive… Or have I been brainwashed by US-capitalism? And surely there are already protectionism and subsidies going on all over the world?

The report defines empowerment as:  ‘Empowerment happens when individuals and organised groups are able to imagine their world differently and to realise that vision by changing the relations and structures that have been keeping them in poverty. Empowerment is a non-linear, multi- dimensional process, which evolves along different pathways – material, perceptual, cognitive and relational.’ 

Economic Empowerment of Women Through Microcredit

I love this definition. I think it overcomes the often condescending attitude and thinking donors often take, and we take as people thinking about assistance. It’s about enabling transformation. Edward Said speaks to this underlying misconception in Orientalism:

“What are striking in these discourses are the rhetorical figures one keeps encountering in their descriptions of ‘the mysterious East’, as well as the stereotypes about ‘the African (or Indian or Irish or Jamaican or Chinese) mind’, the notions of bringing civilisation to primitive or barbaric peoples.”

I realise I am touching on a big can of worms. Looking at assistance, at the ‘Wests’ relationship with ‘developing’ countries. About our attitude and whether assistance helps… I think this is a key issue, or assumption, that needs to be addressed.

And so back to book stacks and magicians applying moisturiser…

The gollum-syndrome: humanitarian assistance in the networked age…

Articles I’ve been reading roughly on the topic of  humanitarianism in the networked age include:

Humanitarianism in the Network Age

The scramble for Africa’s data

Africa’s big brother lives in Beijing

Launching: SMS code of conduct for Disaster Response

Why social network surveys don’t necessarily reflect the views of the SA youth

Here’s what I’ve got so far… Increasing amounts of information can be sent and collected by anyone. Technologies are becoming more accessible, more people are plugged in and the potential for demanding and supplying live-data is increasing exponentially. A UN OCHA report states there are 735 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa in 2012, about 70% of the total population. Granted the top slice probably have the lions share, information is becoming democratised. Communication information technology is only going to increase exponentially, hardware is increasingly affordable, the infrastructure is being put in by companies eager to reach untapped markets. I am looking at Africa because that is my interest but the same can be held for every other continent (except maybe Antarctica?).. Where fibre-optic networks cannot reach inland, communications providers are launching low-orbiting satellites to bring broadband access to the other three billion customers who have yet to have access. The potential of this in providing humanitarian aid is revolutionary, both in terms of input and output.

Democratising communication technologies is changing the demand and supply of emergency assistance because it can increasingly respond directly to demand rather than hypothesised scenarios made by international non-governmental organisations. Voluntary and private actors are getting in on the scene and improving service delivery. In the case of the Tsunami in the Philippines mobile phones and social networking sites such as Twitter supplied information directly to emergency responders, and tech companies, such as Tweetup Manila, were organising and channeling this information. This is a great example of where information communication technologies work well. But there are also going to be big downsides to voluntary and private entities getting in on emergency relief (not everybody is competent and altruistically motivated). Not to be a nay-sayer but seems like some rules of engagement are going to be needed to avoid this democratised (socialist?) information revolution creating havoc. Development assistance on the other-hand seems to be somewhat reticent to engage in this new networked world and is failing to engage with information communication technologies. I cannot figure out if it is intentional or just incompetency, probably a bit of both… Emergency assistance seems to benefit from having fixed parameters and it draws on focused responses which are dependent on short-term, live information. Development suffers from a medium to long-term time frames.

Why has humanitarian assistance so far not harnessed real-time information like private companies? Or why has it not allowed private and voluntary actors to bring in new blood? This seems to be a good example of public goods suffering from inertia (I am putting development assistance into the barrel with public goods). Just as the National Health Service in the UK is a quagmire of failed IT projects. Having said that, health development projects seem to be one of the few areas that effectively uses communication technologies.

The same UN OCHA report that details the successes of harnessing real-time information in emergency relief also says humanitarian assistance is not effectively harnessing real-time data because it operates under different motives and rules.

What are these motives and rules and is it justifiable? The benefits of live-data linking beneficiaries directly to assistance providers, both in terms of demand and supply is undeniable, but sure, I see there are pitfalls. My question is how can these motives and rules be adapted so that humanitarian assistance can benefit from the network age and overcome the pitfalls.

Possible reasons for the failure to engage….

Verification – it is difficult, almost impossible to verify the veracity of increased levels of information.

Datafication – How do you datafy responses – not everything comes in easy to quantify, especially when handling massive influxes of data. Overwhelming, undermining response time? 

Privacy – An article written by Linnet Taylor, ‘Scramble for Africa’s data.’ Talks about routes for Afrcian countries in handling this new flow of private information – either in it being a public good or it becoming a resource grab… Any which way there is the question around handling this data,

“There are three main questions: what can incentivise African countries’ citizens and policymakers to address privacy in parallel with the collection of massive amounts of personal data, rather than after abuses occur? What are the models that might be useful in devising privacy frameworks for groups with restricted technological access and sophistication? And finally, how can such a system be participatory enough to be relevant to the needs of particular countries or populations?”

Arguably, unlike corporations, development agencies have a responsibility to protect… ‘Personally identifiable information’ what information are we collecting about people and are we protecting it? One of the primary rules is the responsibility to protect and all the regulations around personal information. The potential of not using this data to improve people’s lives, or of collecting individual data and it not being completely protected is working to stop any effort to engage.

Which beneficiaries? – A big issue is equal access to information – both in inputting and provision… Communication technologies are leaping forward, people are increasingly able to access the internet and all that it offers. But who’s information is being collected and who is accessing the information?

Decision-making – A trait of this increased information communication technology is decentralised decision-making and I don’t think the ‘decision-makers’ in many humanitarian assistance programmes are willing to do just that. In their defence, multiple actors, public and private, professional and home-grown, making decisions is a recipe for disaster (sorry, couldn’t help myself). There would be wrong-decisions, repetition and general havoc i.e. not saving people in an emergency. However there is also the argument that this new democratised information networking would relegate international aid providers to the side-lines. With private and home-grown initiatives more effective collecting data, the international aid organisations would be useful in providing resources… in responding to the need rather than deciding it. The international emergency assistance industry is just that and people have a tendency to want to hold onto both their jobs and their power.

Transparency, the key word in so many lessons learned papers is a double-edged sword in this world of rampant information. With increased access, the majority of people can demand and supply information, it’s shown that information is there for the exploiting. Intelligence services are using it to spy and collect personal information for nefarious affairs. I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that google, facebook among others are implicated in providing intelligence to the US government and run massive disaster relief initiatives collecting people’s personal data. People in general seem to be surprisingly calm about the fact that their governments no longer entitle them privacy. Personal information to provide targeted assistance can be used by anyone who has access to it (anybody with a ounce of technical know-how).

The voices have always been there, it is a question of whether they are being listened to. There are more voices and they are getting louder and easier to hear, but what are those with the power and money doing with them? Are they being listened to? Are they being manipulated for greed and profit? Do we trust that people can make decisions for themselves? As discussed, I think the key reason why we haven’t seen more engagement with information communication technology by the development assistance world is that people do not want to loose power, they are quite happy to continue making hypothetical scenarios and responding to them. The UN OCHA report comes to the conclusion that the lack of effective interaction with communities remains a key problem, “Governments recognise the need to take advantage of new data sources, there is still a tendency for people removed from a crisis to decide what is best for the people living through the crisis.”

The question in this age is ‘how’ to harness technology. Who’s harnessing it, who’s feeding into it, what information is being collected and how is it being treated? At the moment it is a hodgepodge of efforts run by international and national actors. Ideally the information would be owned by the people. Would it be stored nationally? Internationally?  Obstacles to a collective response includes; different cultures, a lack of shared standards, the absence of operational protocols and competition for resources (and refusal to share ‘power’).

A conscious and collective look at how this information is handled might benefit both service providers and people they are trying to help. The idea of a knowledge-bank of evidence-based practice underwriting live-data, detailing specific needs seems utopian but increasingly we have the tools to achieve this. Initiatives like Nethope are the nest steps in this process.

No-one To Stand By Us

Here’s a shortened version of my report on the reintegration challenges of formerly abducted child mothers:

No-one To Stand by Us

I’ve removed recommendations… Tell me what you think of it – I want your candor.

The project started in affiliation with the Refugee Law Project and Christian Counseling Fellowship (CCF). CCF asked for the work of Pader Girls Academy, in educating vulnerable girls and formerly abducted child-mothers in Pader, northern Uganda to be documented to commemorate the five year anniversary of the school and ten year anniversary of CCF. RLP has been responsible for producing a video documentary. I undertook the written report.

I based myself in Pader, where Pader Girls Academy is situated, for approximately three months. An initial focus group was organized with a group of formerly abducted child-mothers who consented to talk to external researchers about their experiences. Subsequently seven formerly abducted child-mothers agreed to take part in in-depth iterative one-to-one interviews. Supporting actors were identified in the initial interviews, and follow-up interviews included peers at the school, staff at the school, other formerly abducted child-mothers in the community, their families, community leaders, local government officials, NGO actors, and state actors; those actors who had had a part in the reintegration of these girls and young women.

Three primary pieces have come from my research; a report on the school itself, a collection of six formerly abducted child-mothers’ stories, and this report on the challenges facing the formerly abducted child-mothers in their attempts to reintegrate into communities in northern Uganda. The report aims to take a comprehensive look at the key issues currently facing formerly abducted child mothers, many of whom have been returned back to civilian communities for a number of years. This research aims to build on the body of research that has been undertaken around the experiences of formerly abducted child-mothers, in a bid to inform social protection and social development assistance for formerly abducted child-mothers in northern Uganda. Moving beyond immediate reintegration needs to the medium and long term challenges and looking at a range of perspectives including the community and service providers.

The interviews and the report are the author’s own work. CCF provided logistical and translation support. RLP has provided insightful research advice.

Patricia’s Story – A Formerly Abducted Child-Mother in Northern Uganda

Mother and child

‘My wishes when I was in captivity was to come back and stay with my parents and family. Leaving the burden of always fighting where the UPDF and other soldiers could run after us all the time.’

Patricia is twenty years old and a mother of two. Patricia’s mother says that when she first returned from the captivity, she had a tendency to hide inside the house, retreating from the people around her. She is becoming more comfortable in public now but still does not respond to raised voices. Patricia is however determined to be heard, waiting for two hours to tell me of her problems and show me her amnesty certificate. She spoke quietly but determinedly about the lack of support, lack of family and lack of money she faces. About the struggle she has to feed and clothe her children.

Abduction & Return

Patricia was abducted in 2002 when she was about nine years old and returned to her home aged eighteen, last year after nine years in the bush. She was a baby sitter for her LRA unit before she got married off to one of the commanders. She does not remember how old she was when she first gave birth in the bush, but thinks she was around fourteen years old.

She had to fight for her release from captivity, insisting to the commander of her unit and father of her children. She has the panga (machete) scars that were delivered as a result of her insistence. Those in charge did not want to release her, but in the end the commander relented. She would have preferred to escape from the bush with him as her bush husband, but he stayed behind, Patricia does not know whether he is alive or dead.

After three days of walking along the border of Congo and the Central African Republic, she arrived with her two children at a camp in the Congo. Soldiers took them to their headquarters in the Congo [this is unknown] where they were treated well and given food, soap and clothes. From there they were taken to the Demobilisation Disarmament Repatriation Rehabilitation Reintegration (DDRRR) unit in the Congo for a week.


Patricia was flown into Uganda by the Ugandan military (UPDF), where she arrived with nothing except the clothes on her back and her children. She spent a week at the reception centre, Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO). From GUSCO Patricia was referred to Christian Counseling Fellowship (CCF) who reunited her with her family. No counselling was given to this formerly abducted child-mother despite just returning from nine years in captivity.

Patricia’s family has changed in the nine years she has been away, her father is absent, having divorced from her mother, her mother is disabled as a result of a motorbike accident. Her sister also returned home recently as a child-mother herself, having previously run away from home because her mother could not afford her school fees. Their mother cannot dig, the primary income-generating activity in this part of the world, and is helpless; there is no money-earner in the family. Patricia has been accepted home but feels that she has only brought burden to her struggling family.

The family is living on borrowed land with a house that was built by an NGO. Their neighbours are in similar positions; this land has been given to destitute families with nothing and can be taken back at any time. The little money her father left has been spent on food, and her family has started selling their possessions in order to survive. Patricia has nothing except for the hand-outs she received from the reception centers; three bars of soap, one plastic basin, two skirts, and two blouses. Since her return from captivity, Patricia is most grateful to these people.

When she is home, Patricia makes some money from digging in other people’s gardens, and now it is mango season, she and her family can live off of mangoes. Staying at school at least provides regular meals. But she is unable to meet all of the school requirements and does not have a school uniform or the correct shoes. She is not alone in not having these items but it marks her out as lacking.

The School

Patricia says that she is happy to be at a school which caters especially for vulnerable girls and child-mothers, providing full board and child-care so that the child-mothers can attend class. She is happy to learn so that she can make money. Having returned from the bush five months ago, she finds fitting into her new surroundings difficult. ‘Wherever you go, when you first reach you will not find an easy life because you do not know the people.’

When asked what her troubles were, she identifies basic necessities and the ill-health of her children. Her youngest child has been sick with repeated bouts of diarrhoea and the school nurse has been unable to provide medication to help him. When asked, the nurse says that diarrhoea is rampant because of the close living conditions and poor sanitation due to dysfunctional flush latrines. The school nurse referred the child to health services outside of the school but they did not stock the medication and in turn told her to buy medication from a shop, but she does not have the money to buy it. Her child was referred to Kalong hospital but she did not go there because she does not have the money to travel there or pay the medical expenses.

Patricia has the remnants of bullet splinters in her thigh and ankle, which can cause swelling and stop her from walking. She reported it to GUSCO who told her to report it to the NGO which runs the school she attends. But when she called no action was taken. NGOs are reliant on donor funding, and currently there is no budget for paying individual ad hoc costs, such as healthcare. If she has problems, she keeps them to herself.

Patricia does not find school easy. Lessons, particularly theory, are taught in English; she cannot speak or write English. This is a serious obstacle to understanding classes and performing in exams, as exam questions are written in English. She got 40% in her practical catering examination and did not take the theory exams. Patricia is unsure of what course she is on, she does not know how long the catering course will last for, whether it is six months or a year. If it is six months, she worries it will be too little time to learn any useful skills.

When asked to give a message to the person in charge, Patricia asked for three things; soap, a stock of medication or money for medication for her children, and extending support to her children.

‘I would ask for soap, also I would ask for enough stock of drugs or for some money just in case of medical problems. When my child is sick, I would use it to go to the hospital. Finally I would ask if the Director [of the NGO which supports the school] could extend her support to me, to help my children who I have come back with. Support for many things including dressing, feeding, and building a house to keep my children in.’


Patricia has been given little information about her course at the school; she is unsure if she will get a start-up in terms of money or tools for her trade including cooking utensils and plastic chairs and tables. Patricia has modest ambitions, she wishes to set up a small restaurant but she is aware that there are already many hotels (restaurants) that she will have to contend with, and she is unsure if a start-up will be enough to set-up a small restaurant.

Patricia is happy to work as an apprentice in an existing hotel, or to work with a group of graduates to start a new hotel. If she does not get a job, she will return to her village living on the uncertainty of a loaned plot of land with her disabled mother and sister, where she will dig on other people’s land for 2,500 shillings a day, barely enough to feed her family on.

When asked what the most difficult thing she has ever had to do, Patricia pauses before responding, ‘I have to do only what I can to see that life goes on.’