A Day Without Dignity – Hand Outs and Dependency

April 5, 2011

Though I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to get into the whole TOMS One Day Without Shoes debate, I couldn’t resist after I saw the genius counter-campaign, A Day Without Dignity. So in honor of speaking out against a bad aid idea, here is my contribution to ADWD.

I’m not a fan of TOMS in general or this campaign in particular. Let me just highlight various reasons why.

1. There is no shoe shortage in the developing world.
2. If you really wanted to help someone without shoes, you could empower them in a skill so they could afford to purchase their own.
3. Massive amounts of donated goods decimate local vendors, who are selling affordable shoes.
4. It makes impoverished children into subjects for sympathy rather than creative and intelligent young people (Thanks Wanderlust for that one).
5. It’s pretty insulting to have 18 pairs of shoes and choose not to wear them for one day and pretend you know the “plight” of those living without shoes.
6. Okay so you’re raising awareness for people who don’t have shoes. Who DOESN’T know that there are people in the world who don’t have shoes? How is the fact that you aren’t wearing yours going to do anything about it?
7. Hand outs are almost always a bad idea, except in emergency situations.

So now that you have an idea of why I don’t like TOMS or ODWS, let’s talk a little more about #7 and why handouts suck. Now I want to make it clear that I am not against emergency relief, but most of the time hand outs just make a bad situation worse and have more long term bad effects than the actual crisis situation.

It’s really kind of humiliating and disempowering for the recipient. It feels horrible to be unable to provide for yourself or your family. Additionally, campaigns focused on hand outs often neglect to do any kind of capacity-building, creating a dependency on the free stuff rather than enabling an individual to acquire goods on his or her own. Rather than spending time and money giving goods to poor people, why not invest more money and time into helping them not be poor in the first place?

This leads us to the case of Uganda. As you may know, northern Uganda recently emerged from a two-decade civil war that devastated the region. People were forced into displacement camps and were made unable to provide for themselves. During most of this time, the World Food Programme donated food to camp residents. It was necessary, but it had detrimental effects. When people began moving home and were expected to obtain their own food and supplies, they still expected the WFP to bring them monthly supplements. Some people didn’t even know how to farm anymore. A long-term reliance on hand-outs created a culture of dependency. In essence, TOMS is doing the same thing – making people dependent on hand outs. I might also mention that even in this highly impoverished war-affected area, there are at least a dozen vendors in the market with crates of unused, affordable shoes. They cost around 5,000 UGX (about $2.50), which is a reasonably affordable price, but yes there are some people that could not afford even that. If TOMS must distribute shoes, the least they could do is buy from these vendors and stimulate the local economy. Their current campaign takes money away from these local salesmen.

If you really want to help, find an organization that works on capacity-building or entrepeneurship and donate to them instead. I implore you to just wear your shoes tomorrow and not to buy a pair of TOMS just because you think you’re helping.

Uganda’s Elections and Parallels with Egypt

February 15, 2011

As you may know, I am no fan of current Ugandan President Museveni. Elections are being held this upcoming Friday, February 18th, and no one will be surprised when Museveni is elected for another 5-year term, making his grand total of years in office a whopping 30 – right up there with some of the best like Mugabe of Zimbabwe (currently 24 yrs.) and Mubarak, formerly of Egypt (30 yrs.) That is, if nothing happens during what is speculated to be his last 5-year term. After all, he is IS 67 years old.

There are a multitude of reasons he will be elected President again, whether the election is rigged or not, each of which could encompass several days’ worth of discussion, but I’ll just mention a few here. Despite the fact that he did allow a 20-year war to ravage the northern part of his country, he calmed some of the rebellious groups in other parts of the country. He has a large support base both among the Buganda, whom have benefited the most from economic advancements and the Banyankole, his own ethnic group. Both comprise some of the most populous groups in the country. He is expected to win much of the northern vote, which seems surprising since there are so many other candidates from the north who are also running, but it seems that the recent peace has restored some of the voters’ faith, which he had lost. Then, if we look at the other candidates, none of them really exude the confidence that the people need to feel in order to elect a government that can successfully transition through a switch of power in tough economic and political times. I mean let’s face it, Besigye and Otunnu seem to have gone off the deep end, and Mao just never came out strong enough. Of course, we can’t forget Museveni’s new rap single.

We can look at the horrible infrastructure – water and power can go out at any moment in even the swankiest of Kampala’s suburbs, and there are very few roads without potholes that can swallow a whole vehicle. We can look at his marginalization of the north and the devastating poverty and disease that are still rampant. We can look at his faulty democracy where no other political parties were allowed until 2005, and how he removed term limits on the Presidential office. With all of these strikes against his name, I can’t help paralleling Museveni and the NRM government with recently deposed Egyptian President Mubarak. With so many people rioting across the world, I can’t help but wonder if Uganda will be next in line. Here are a few similarities that I noticed:

Propped up by the U.S. Government

One of the most controversial topics in the Egyptian riots has been the role of the United States in Mubarak’s dictatorship. The whole thing exposed how our government props up a dictator in order to have an ally that we paid and signed for in the Middle-East. Not to mention, he could do our dirty work with the terrorists. When the police did use force against Egyptians, their supplies had been given to them by the U.S. government, and the U.S. could never come out and show their support for the people because they wanted to maintain some alliances with Mubarak, should the riots be ineffective.

Museveni’s Presidency has been similar, though perhaps not as extreme. Uganda receives military aid from the U.S., and they do our work by going into Somalia as peacekeepers because Americans are hardly supportive of sending U.S. soldiers on peacekeeping missions in Somalia after the whole Black Hawk down incident. He’s one of many other leaders around the world, whom has questionably democratic practices but is strategically useful to the U.S., regardless of what he may or may not do for his own people.

Unconventional rise to power

Mubarak became President of Egypt after President Anwar el Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Then he held onto that title for another 30 years. Museveni became the President after he led the rebel National Resistance Army in a military coup, helping to depose President Obote and then the Okellos. And he has held onto that title ever since, holding “democratic” elections that can be heavily criticized for their skeptical legitimacy.

Educated Youth and High Unemployment

One of the major points of contention in the Egyptian riots has been the lack of jobs and career opportunities for university-educated youth. People with Bachelor’s Degrees found themselves selling fruit in the market, and they felt the government should do more to provide higher level jobs for them. Uganda’s level of higher education is not the same as Egypt’s, but the number of college graduates is growing, and there are already quite a few boda-boda drivers who hold University Degrees. Not to mention, Uganda has one of the largest youth populations in the world.

Underpaid Government Workers

Even though Mubarak is gone, we all know Egypt has a long way to go in political reforms and in creating a truly inclusive democratic government. So the police and other government workers, who have been underpaid under Mubarak and made a living through taking bribes, have taken up riots in Tahrir Square to be sure their concerns are heard and addressed. They fear that under a new government, bribes will be impossible and they will not be able to make a living wage. Similarly, in Uganda police are paid as little, or less than, $100 a month. I’ve heard about and witnessed countless incidents where it was necessary to bribe a police man or woman to get out of serious trouble. The government will need to raise their pay to ensure their loyalty, or they could go into similar riots.

Fairly loyal military

The Egyptian military fell more or less on the side of indifferent in the riots, though they mostly erred on the side of the people. They were loyal to Mubarak, but also felt the sympathies of the Egyptians. Museveni’s military is a little different. Since he came to power via military coup, much of his military shares his ideals and is very loyal to him. If the people were to riot, the military would definitely err on the side of the government. In fact, they have proven this to be true in the September 2009 riots in Kampala. The military unleashed a shocking amount of force on the small group of rioters in the market, killing around ten civilians. If the Ugandan population erupted into mass rioting, it would likely be much more violent and deadly than Egypt. However, now that the world is watching, Museveni will need to be careful what he orders his soldiers to do. Many Egyptians said they were inspired to carry on because of the sympathy from the rest of the world, and Ugandan rioters would likely receive much the same sentiment.

Both of their names start with “Mu-“

Seems strange that some of the men who have held onto power the longest have names that start with “Mu-“ – Mu-seveni, Mu-barak, Mu-gabe. An area for further research for sure…


None of this is to say that Uganda will erupt in riots (especially that last one), and we’ll see what happens on Friday, though no one is really anticipating too much action outside the usual vote rigging and intimidation. I just found it interesting that so many of the factors that led to the success of the Egyptian riots match up with the situation in Uganda.

Ugandan voters, I’ll be thinking of you on Friday and how it must feel to vote in this election. I hope that one day soon, the leader the country needs will emerge out of the woodwork, but until then try to push for peaceful reform and demand the services you need from your government. Please vote for who you think will best lead the country for the next 5 years, whether it be Mao, Besigye, Otunnu, or Museveni, and do not allow yourself to be intimidated into a choice that is not yours.

Uganda’s Homophobia – How to Cross the Line

January 27, 2011

I need to say before you read this that I love Uganda. The cultures, the people, and the beauty. But sometimes, I really dislike certain parts of the population, whom you will read about below. All of my comments are directed towards the ones that insist on carrying on with extreme homophobia that results in disgusting violence.

I haven’t thought about this topic in a while… mainly because it really infuriates me and it challenges my anthropological instincts to stay neutral.

But this is ridiculous. CNN just reported that a Ugandan gay rights activist was bludgeoned to death in his own home. Watching this video fills me with sorrow and anger to know that this man is dead because of ignorance and intolerance. With such a close connection to Uganda and such a belief in the tolerance and appreciation for diversity, I have to say that this story is the last straw. I am truly embarrassed and ashamed for the people that committed this atrocious act and for their supporters.

While it may not seem like much, I am shocked at the courage of this man to speak to a Western news outlet about his sexuality and his fears for his safety. The Ugandan gay rights community has truly lost someone very special. If you’ve never read anything about gay rights in Uganda, there basically are none. Gayness is viewed as an abomination in what is a predominantly born-again Christian nation. Recently, laws inspired by right wing American groups have been tabled in the Ugandan Parliament. These laws call for the execution of “repeat” offenders, meaning anyone who has been accused of being homosexual on more than one occasion or even someone who fails to tattle on their possibly homosexual neighbor or friend. I should mention that a homosexual could face imprisonment for up to 14 years under the current anti-homosexuality law.

Here‘s a link to an article from Human Rights Watch in 2009 when the bill was making the news quite frequently.

From my experience in Uganda, I know that even those who feel that executing homosexuals is extreme have little tolerance for what they deem to be unnecessary differentiation from other Ugandans. If you read the comments below the article I linked to above, you’ll see that some people said it was his fault because he managed to land himself on the “top homosexuals” list, which obviously means he wasn’t being discrete enough about his sexuality. Why should he have to be? I’ve been able to observe that, for the most part, Uganda can be a place of conformity and keeping your opinions to yourself, especially where politics are concerned. But when it comes to homosexuality, there is no holding back when it comes to spewing pure hatred.

Some Ugandans stand by this policy as an assertion of their cultural rights and as a middle finger to Western intervention, which is ironic because Uganda has long been in the back pocket of the United States. What really baffles me, is that this man was killed in the name of Christianity and the belief that homosexuality is an offense to to God. Is cold-blooded murder not offensive? Do these people think God will reward them for so violently killing a man who did them no harm? Also ironic is that the Uganda Christian identity formed from colonization by the British. Additionally, the British established the original anti-homosexuality law in Uganda a long time ago, presumably because homosexuality was already present. This history tells us that homosexuality has always been in Uganda, and that the law against it came with Western intervention. This is the exact opposite of everything that the bill’s supporters currently claim. They say that homosexuality was introduced (and is still being introduced) by Westerners and that the law needs to be tougher in order to rid the nation of this “embarrassing” portion of the population.

All I can say is that to the rest of the world, this plays out like ignorance, misguided education, and dangerous Christian fundamentalism that takes us back to Old Testament times.

If these people are attempting to assert their “Ugandanness”, I think it is a hugely misplaced topic with which to establish an identity, not to mention a false identity. For my Ugandan friends who might read this, I implore you to open your heart and your mind and allow people to live as they wish to live. Whether you agree with it or not, homosexuality has absolutely no affect on how you conduct your life unless you want it to, and this can be positive or negative. Please choose to accept your homosexual friends with kindness and openness because they will need the support if popular opinion in Uganda continues in this direction.

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about erin

I graduated from the University of Tennessee in May 2011 with a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. I am currently taking the year off to enjoy a less stressful life while applying for graduate schools in Anthropology. Without sounding too cliche, it's true that we are all life-long learners, but I still miss the challenge and excitement of the classroom. This website is a combination of personal and professional so that anyone who wants to can get to know me better. I will also be keeping up with my blog, where you will be able to read about the life of an undergraduate student about to embark on the real world. Feel free to contact me; I’d love to hear from you!