Life has been getting tougher for NGOs in Uganda in recent years, according to Beatrice Nabajja-Mugambe, executive director at Development Research Training (DRT), which combines research and advocacy on poverty.
“The civil society space in Uganda has been narrowing,” she said between chairing sessions at a recent NGO forum on aid effectiveness. “Surveillance has been stepped, phones are being tapped, there has been a wave of robberies and break-ins supported and instigated by the Internal Security Organisation [Uganda's counterintelligence agency] and the police.”
Even as she spoke, the police had surrounded a couple of newspapers after they reported on a supposed assassination plot against opponents to plans by President Yoweri Museveni to have his son succeed him. For Nabajja-Mugambe, this was yet another sign of the government’s growing authoritarian streak, and it sent a chilling message to civil society.
“The Daily Monitor [which has since reopened] is owned by Aga Khan, if the government is prepared to take on someone as powerful, then small organisations have to be cautious,” she said.
Nabajja-Mugambe has been a social activist since 1998, when she finished her master’s degree in gender studies and worked as a volunteer for Action for Development, training women for leadership.
“I was passionate about improving the lives of women,” she said. “I wanted to work for an NGO as I thought it would mean more freedom.”
She then moved to the Uganda Joint Christian Council, where she ensured that civil society had a voice in the legislative process. Finding that too routine and in need of a fresh challenge she went to work for DRT, for the first time, doing research and analysis on social protection. There followed a four-year stint in Zimbabwe before she returned to Uganda in 2010 to rejoin DRT.
A major area of work for DRT is transparency, so DRT is pushing Uganda to join the open government partnership, an initiative started in September 2011, seeking to increase openness in government practices or operations. It calls for open, transparent, accountable, participatory and inclusive governance. Uganda, which has been ruled by Museveni for the past 27 years, is notoriously corrupt. Last year, Transparency International ranked it first for corruption among the five countries comprising the East African Community.
“What has happened under [Museveni] is that graft has become normalised,” said one Ugandan. “If someone in power does not enrich themselves, people think he is stupid.”
One DRT project involves transparency efforts at the grassroots level. It is working with citizens in five poor districts – Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Katakwi and Kotido – in north and eastern Uganda (the country is divided into 111 districts) to train “community facilitators” to track money that comes into their area and see whether it is being spent as it should be.
“We are calling on governments, civil society and the private sector to open up,” said Nabajja-Mugambe, “to show us what they are doing and to focus on extreme poverty.”
What does transparency mean to you?
Transparency means a value and practice of doing business (as a government, organisation – both private and civic, individual) in an open, participatory and consultative way – this calls for sharing of information and allowing feedback.
Why is access to information important in development?
At a personal, individual level, access to information enables me to be informed about what is going on around me and my family, and also to take certain decisions on what to do or not do – information about the food we should eat to stay healthy, the schools and universities where I should take my children, what my local authorities are doing to maintain drainange, roads, etc.
At a community level, access to information is important both for the same reasons and also for the community to use the information and take collective actions. For example, as some parts of Kampala usually experience floods, the community can decide to call a meeting of local leaders to explain why this happens. But they probably do not know that the city authority has a responsibility to prevent floods and manage them so that they do not affect people.
Likewise, the government and policymakers should grant access to information on what is happening with its citizens and public – politically, socially, economically – so that they plan accordingly. Planning should be based on evidence and information.
What is the one piece of information you most want released?
By government: all information about oil, gas and natural resources. By the private sector: all information about their returns and tax obligations. By aid agencies – information about the amount actually spent in receiving countries and on technical assistance in receiving countries.