Reality Check: Uganda

12 March 2012 | marijnlizzy

12 March, 2012

Since Kony 2012, the eyes of millions of people are on Uganda. What do people in Uganda think about all this? Not much… yet.

The whole world is talking about Joseph Kony and the film that sparked all the attention, ‘Kony 2012’. Right? No, not quite. In Uganda, the main focus of the film* and subsequent debate, most people are oblivious to the sudden explosion of interest in their country. We’ve been talking to friends in the North to let them know that now is a good time to raise the issues that top their priorities currently. While some have been following recent events on the internet, others have merely heard a ‘rumour’ that there’s a film that talks about Kony, and others have heard nothing at all; life is going on as normal. Until it catches up with them at least.

In Uganda, which has not been under threat from the LRA since 2006, people in the North are focusing on rebuilding their lives, working to provide for themselves and their families and hoping for their region to receive the attention it needs from the government to strengthen the economy and infrastructure. They are trying to overcome past pain and look to a brighter future. Little do they know that they are in the eye of a storm that risks raising not only a painful past, but the kind of “help” that may do more harm than good.

We urge everyone who is voicing their opinion online, through the media and offline to remember that what you say has direct implications for the only people who really matter in all of this – those at risk of attack and those trying to move on. The Western world now knows Kony’s name and his crimes – that objective has been achieved whether you agree with the methods or not. The key now is what to do with that awareness, a decision that cannot be made by a knee-jerk reaction to a mini-documentary. For now, we want to focus on one of these impulsive reactions.

We’ve seen many people online moved to the point of wanting to go to Uganda to ‘help the children’ through volunteer programmes. We understand the motivation to do more than update your facebook status, and it is truly wonderful to see so many looking for a way to improve the lives of children who have been through incredibly tough times. But we have to urge caution. Your presence will have an impact beyond what you hoped for – and not in a good way. Quite simply, sometimes the most effective action you can take is to hold back. Let us explain.

An influx of international volunteers, curious to meet survivors of conflict, will inevitably open up old wounds that are finally beginning to heal. Even professionals trained in international assistance are hesitant in bringing up these subjects, knowing the psychological impact a simple sentence can have. There is no doubt, in a country as friendly as Uganda, that people would understand the kindness intended. But the sad truth is that a single careless comment or question can have very powerful ramifications for someone affected by violence.

People have known war for two decades, and they deserve a chance to let the past go.

Furthermore, the economic impact of foreign volunteers, particularly in a region recovering from the devastation of war, can produce exactly the opposite of what is needed. Many of our friends in northern Uganda have set up their own small business initiatives; making bricks, raising livestock, creating bags and jewellery, growing and selling farm produce. Gulu Town, the hub of the North, is going through rapid redevelopment after the war, and can be a great climate for people looking to establish a livelihood. These local entrepreneurs are looking for a market they can compete in and the means to establish themselves in it.

Unfortunately, the kind of tasks volunteers regularly take part in, such as building or teaching, are jobs that represent a livelihood to someone else. This is particularly problematic if an inexperienced international volunteer finds themselves replacing a more knowledgeable local; an all too frequent story in the volunteer tourism industry.

Finally, when an international market establishes itself in a developing country, prices inevitably rise. Not to the point that is problematic for a volunteer – but to the local population who have to live with this effect, it can be a devastating blow. Add this to the current problems Ugandans are already facing with their economy, and people’s lives start to get that much more unmanageable.

We are not telling you to stay away from Uganda, it’s not for us to say anyway. You might have valuable skills that, when carefully and correctly applied, could make a genuine, lasting difference. But ‘jump first, fear later’ – the motto you may have heard from Invisible Children – is not applicable in the development context. When what you do directly impacts other people’s lives and futures, you have to respect the necessity to think deeply about it first. So, before submitting to the impulse to hop on the next plane over, we urge you to research thoroughly the channels you go through to set up a placement – especially with a surge of interest that may see illegitimate or even bogus outfits popping up.

Of course, if you would like to visit Uganda as a tourist then definitely do so – you will have a fantastic time and will contribute to local economies in the short term – but go there understanding the reality of Uganda today, not what it was six, or nine, or twenty years ago.

Finally, remember that you can make a positive impact without putting yourself on the ground. The best thing you can probably do is to support work that is already being done effectively, at the more local level the better. Sorry if this is boring but we can’t say it enough – research, take advice and be comfortable that your donations are going where you think they are. We hope you do want to do more than update your Facebook status – just take every measure you can to make sure your decision to help is the best one possible.

Thank you for reading – and if you liked it, please share it.



* We acknowledge that ‘Kony 2012’ does show that the LRA is now only operating in the DRC, CAR and South Sudan. This fact was missed by many who watched it, causing widespread misunderstanding of the current context in Uganda.



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