When I think back to this time last year, when nearly everyday I would run for the fast Metropolitan line train from Pinner to Farringdon, squeeze in next to sweaty businessmen playing games on their iPhones and try not to fall over every time the train stopped for the next hour, my morning commute in Uganda is positively paradise. A relaxing 20 minute walk (everyone walks slowly here… what’s the rush?!) through a maze of dirt roads, small streams and swampy grasses that takes me past little shops, street vendors, small business and NGO offices… actually, a very large number of NGO offices!
There are over 10,000 registered NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) in Uganda, many of which have their headquarters in Kampala, so they are about as ubiquitous as the rolex stands. I’m not saying this is a bad thing; on the contrary, NGOs play a huge role in supporting people at all levels of society, especially at the “grassroots”.
But what does “working at the grassroots” actually mean?
“Grassroots” is one of the most commonly used buzzwords in international development speak, meaning simply to work at an individual- or community-level with a “bottom-up” perspective. Whoops, it’s almost impossible to describe it without using more buzzwords! I guess in practice it means putting initiatives into the hands of individuals and communities so that they can grow their own solutions and drive their own development, in all areas of their lives: farming, health, education etc.
Environmental Alert is one of these NGOs that has been working at the “grassroots” level since its founding in 1988, focusing on improving people’s livelihoods through agricultural assistance and natural resource management. When I found out what my project would be – making an ecotourism plan for a protected wetland that’s currently managed by a small community association – I was eager to get started and see what we could achieve.
Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems and what I wasn’t anticipating was the number of difficulties I would come across, from very obvious ones like the language barrier between myself and most of the community members, to much more complex issues of decision-making and underlying conflicts within their association. Without going into huge amounts of detail, here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt about working “at the grassroots”…
- Be realistic and manage expectations – To people living in small rural communities, depending on the land for everything from food to shelter to medicines and even clothing, the image of NGOs is generally one of wealth, education and most of all, ‘development’. Therefore their expectations for what NGOs can provide are often much higher than the budget or staff capacity can offer. For me, being a ‘mzungu’ automatically added another level of expectation that I was careful to address from the beginning.
- Communicate – With so many NGOs in the country, there are times when programmes overlap and two or three organisations have funding for the same area. But without frequent communication, the vision for future development can become confused, especially for community members themselves, who may be told different things by different NGOs. This has certainly been the case at Mabamba, where the community have been drawing up budgets and proposals for various projects, guided by staff from NGOs with different interests and priorities.
- Look at the bigger picture – It is not enough to concentrate on the community-level alone, without identifying and considering Government departments and policies, private sector developments and other institutions such as the church, who might all have connections in some way to the community or area concerned. For example, the land at Mabamba is owned by the Catholic church, but the community are allowed to live there, provided they follow the rules of the Government’s Wetlands Management Department. Politics is a tricky subject, but one which NGOs must engage with if they want to create long-lasting change within communities. NGOs have the power to lobby and advocate for fair policies and decisions which benefit communities and set the conditions for their programmes to succeed. At Mabamba, sand mining is the biggest political issue, as the Government has recently started to give out licences for private companies and individuals to extract sand from the wetland to sell to the construction industry. Everyday, huge trucks come and go, removing the sand at such a rate that accidents happen as children and animals fall into the holes left behind, which can be as deep as 20-30m. The community have no influence and can only watch as they lose more and more of their precious wetland. But at least with the help of NGOs such as Environmental Alert, the community are not alone in their struggle and can put some hope in their joint efforts.
So despite all the complexities and challenges of “working at the grassroots level”, I’ve seen that NGOs have a significant role to play in community development, not just in providing critical services but, even more importantly, in providing a connection between community members and those with the power to influence their future.