By Abdul Mugalu
I recently travelled to Karamoja with a private company to dig water dams. It was financed by an NGO that specialises in fighting hunger in these and other parts of Africa.
With the level of symbolism and attention to visibility that I witnessed, it got me wondering what exactly the NGOs can do to fight diseases, poverty, chronic malnutrition, etc.
It was quite common to see a sign post proclaiming one project after another without actually seeing anything on the ground.
My hiatus, therefore, got me thinking that with all the best intentions of these NGOs, nothing can be attained without on-the-ground solutions to fighting disease, poverty, etc. My major observation was that there seemed to be a tendency towards a one-size- fits all solution to most of the pressing needs of the communities.
For example, if one NGO builds a latrine or market, the other will do the same in the same vicinity, even if the people for whom they are building have no culture of trading and are nomads who usually don't stay in one place over extended periods of time. The communal problems are as diverse as they are dynamic and the solutions should be reflective of the same.
What these NGOs need to do is first to align their solutions to the existing cultures and way of living in the community. If the people are pastoralists, solutions should revolve around their cows, if farmers, solutions should be towards improving harvests, cheap fertilizers, access to markets, cheap financing etc.
Only then can these communities stop the vicious cycle of poverty, disease, etc in which they find themselves.
In order to extend health care services for example, NGOs should 'invest' in village mobile clinics with locally trained doctors and nurses to provide health education, advise on use of malarial nets, anti retroviral drug use, family planning, post- and ante- natal services, etc.
These communal health care providers can be very mobile and can easily be trained for one or two years, thus eliminating the need for 'town' doctors and brain drain because of their low government pay.
It was also very apparent where I was that there were very few school-going pupils. To improve the situation, investments in education, especially the vocational type will teach them skills in modern farming (improved grazing methods, not burning down tracts of land for new grass, etc.
This should be implemented with the flexibility of the grazing/digging times in the communities where they are set up. Basic engineering courses will also improve knowledge in repairing solar panels, mobile phones, village water pumps, etc.
Further, sustainable energy sources have to be introduced in the area to reduce environmental degradation. There was a lot of bush burning and cutting down of trees for cooking and as building materials.
Solar panels are very popular and are used for charging mobile phones, powering water pumps, etc. They should, however, be cheaply availed through zero taxation and other incentives.
Improvements in road transport will go a long way in opening up these areas. Entire villages are submerged under water during the wet season, thus cutting off any sort of interaction with the outside world.
Roads are totally impassable, during these times, leading to hunger, lack of medical supplies, etc. The NGOs focus should be in improving of transport and communication services to enable access and connection to the outside world.
Lastly, NGOs should focus on providing safe and clean drinking water as well as proper sanitation (what we were doing in the region). This will reduce the amount of time school going children and women spend on water wells freeing them for school and business and also reduce on the migration of people with their households in search of water.
In the end, however, it all comes back to a concerted effort between all the stakeholders; the givers and receivers of aid. Aid assistance should not constitute welfare handouts and the stakeholders should know where the rubber meets the road!
Such convocation should provide the grass roots solutions to localised problems that are unique to individual communities and not county-wide often symbolic imported solutions that do not improve the lives of the communities and only serves to justify the presence of the NGOs in the areas they operate.
The writer is a financial analyst