This post was written by Laura Richards during her time as an AidData Fellow for Summer of 2016 in Uganda.
Riding a ferry, that was essentially a plank of wood, across the Nile, I was filled with anticipation for our trip to Northern Uganda. The Women of Uganda Network, the organization I work with, has partners, constituents, and influence throughout Uganda. This trip to Apac in Northern Uganda was intended to build our network by supporting the groups that we helped establish, as well as train and create a new network of women entrepreneurs.
The Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) has developed about 465 teams throughout Uganda that monitor the delivery of government services in their districts. These teams are 70% women and are known as VSACs, Voluntary Social Accountability Committees. Becoming members of these accountability committees put volunteers’ jobs and livelihoods at risk, especially when they first began. Yet, these brave souls endured for the betterment of their communities and their hard work has been a great success.
WOUGNET helps these groups organize and provides continued training in using ICTs (Information, Communication, and Technology) to hold the government accountable for its commitments and responsibilities in their communities. VSACs attend budget and planning meetings with local government officials at the sub-county and district level to remain aware of how money is allocated in their district. Members of the VSAC committees monitor the progress of infrastructure and other projects and report that progress to WOUGNET, as well as following up with the officials and project managers in charge of delivering those services. When services are not delivered properly or at all, VSAC members find out who is responsible for the hold up, whether it be a contractor or a government official, and demand they complete the project, else be “named and shamed” on the radio, in the newspaper, online, and in engagement meetings. Naming and shaming has proven to be a successful means of increasing accountability and service delivery in Apac, as the community is small enough that people know each other by name. Since the inception of VSACs in Apac, the community has seen major improvements in the delivery of services, including road construction, increased teacher attendance, and access to safe drinking water.
We sat in a large circle outside under a massive tree. It was a gorgeous day to sit on such a lush piece of land. Members of this VSAC committee, who are primarily farmers, took half the day off to discuss current projects and challenges with us. The WOUGNET team discussed our plan for the way forward: increasing the use of technology to speed up communication, and thus reporting service delivery failures, and ultimately, improving service delivery. VSAC members pointed out a major road block, which is the unreliability of power in Apac. When there is no power, they cannot charge the smartphone that WOUGNET donated to them for reporting. No power = no charge = no reporting. To solve this, the WOUGNET team is working on a proposal for funding for a solar charger. Still many more challenges arose and members from WOUGNET and the VSAC discussed solutions. People agreed and disagreed and made a lot of jokes. It was a dialogue and everyone’s opinion was heard, respected and considered. After, they warmly embraced us and one woman said to call her “mama”. They discussed their individual hardships and successes, as women and as farmers. The dedication these people had to their community could not be overstated. They are empowered, resilient, organized and improving the state of Apac.
Day two on our trip to the north, we met with a group of 35 women entrepreneurs in Red Cross Hall, a large teal and red room in a village just outside Apac. They all had started their own businesses, on their own. There were tailors and bakers, retail sellers and barbers, restaurant owners and many more. My boss, Goretti got the women fired up about the opportunities afforded to groups, rather than individuals: funding grants, trainings applications, conference invitations, and perhaps most importantly, a voice that will be heard. That day the women voted in a Chair Person, a Vice Chair, a Secretary and a Treasurer. They discussed the major challenges of being female entrepreneurs in Apac and, together, we came up with solutions. Capital was the first obstacle listed. Banks have high interest rates and often won’t loan to these women. Hence, the women decided to start a bank amongst themselves. Each member of their new association would put 1,000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX) a week and after one year, members could take out loans at a very low interest rate. 1,000 UGX is about 30 cents in USD and is an affordable, yet significant amount in Apac. The money would be managed by their treasurer, an older woman who most refer to as their mother and is highly respected in the village. By the end of one year they will have collectively saved 1,820,000 UGX. We discussed marketing techniques, customer care, and the language barrier among other things. The space was collaborative and I contributed a suggestion: create signage that is both visually appealing and written in at least three languages, as that would ameliorate the language barrier, as well as improving the issues with marketing. My recommendation was heartily accepted.
At the completion of the meeting, the women clapped at us, the WOUGNET team, as a form of appreciation for our attendance and support. It was as if they were tossing the sound and motion of the clap in our direction. Then they embraced us, shook our hands and we exchanged genuine and sincere smiles filled with deep respect and gratitude.
These women raise each other up and in that meeting they lifted us too. They are empowered and its contagious. I felt profoundly grateful to have been involved in their formation and hope that I am able to fully embody their spirit in my work, both with WOUGNET and as I start my career.