by Julie Carney
Photo by Glenna GordonA few years ago, the head of UN Humanitarian Affairs declared the protracted conflict in northern Uganda one of the world’s most neglected humanitarian crises. There’s tenuous peace today, but two decades of displacement and insecurity have left instability, poverty, psychological turmoil, and destroyed infrastructure in their wake. Admittedly, much has changed in the region over the past few years because of greater global attention and advocacy efforts: in Gulu the sheer number of signs for NGOs and groups of well-intentioned ‘muzungus’ (or ‘munos’ in Acholi)—researchers, humanitarian workers, missionaries—suggest anything but neglect. White SUVS smattered with the logos of NGOs or UN Agencies roar through the streets, and women selling roasted corn wear t-shirts that shout “I am poverty alleviation” or “Stop the conflict” (t-shirts which probably outlast the programs and projects they advertise.) If only NGOs could bring as many sustainable developments as boxes of t-shirts.
With more security, most families in the 120 IDP camps are going back to their land, but many are staying, are still relying on food-aid handouts, are still sans reliable incomes. The increasing international presence has perhaps exacerbated this dependency syndrome—on food aid, on paid school fees. Begging in Gulu town is institutionalized, a Ugandan friend told me, explaining that, on Tuesdays and Fridays, beggars take to the streets. “There is no begging in the history of the Acholi people, but the war made us beggars. And the NGOs help us continue to be beggars.”
Everyone whom I meet in town and in my homestay community - a congested group of Acholi huts just outside town, inhabited by a curious mix of displaced families and young Ugandan NGO workers - asked me what charity I am working for. They are surprised when I reply: a business. No foreigners, besides some Indian ex-pats, come to Gulu to do business. To do business, you go to Kampala. Profit in Gulu is to be found in “humanitarian non-profits”: the most highly sought jobs for locals are international NGO jobs, and the most popular course of study in Gulu University is “Development Studies.”
But there is arguably nothing more “humanitarian” than bringing business to northern Uganda. The women in Bobi and Unyama camps don’t need another NGO to bring them second-hand clothes and they don’t want another NGO to come and speak to them about ending domestic violence: they need jobs and their own income for meaningful change. Some organizations have already brought training in tailoring to IDP camps. Indeed, the idea of tailoring training is nothing new, and there are vocational programs already established in the area. But many graduates leave such training unable to survive as tailors, without sewing machines, without fabric, and without a market connection. The market connection is where One Mango Tree comes in.