“John Eric came to us crying one day,” explained Elysia, “his neighbors had stolen his turkey to eat for dinner! It hurt me, because he’d worked so hard on this project.” John Eric is an inspiration to his peers, and was an illuminating case study for Yale’s Uganda Hope Network, who visited his community this spring break, 2014. He had developed a creative plan to earn money to cover his school  fees: the cultivation of a flock of turkeys in his very own backyard. Quick failure, however, was a call back to reality; in the Rakai District of rural Uganda, not much is achieved without struggle.

Elysia Kiyija, co-director of Hope for African Children (HAC), a rural Ugandan youth development non-governmental organization (NGO), described John Eric’s business plan [AM4] as quite distinctive, and expressed her deep sadness to hear of his failure; she hoped it would not discourage him from continuing with his requisite entrepreneurship project. In an effort to promote the self-sufficiency of the youth with whom they collaborate, HAC established a program to empower young people to use their preexisting assets to develop a business in which they can earn their own income. Receiving no seed money or capital from HAC, the youth involved evaluate their resources – time, labor, land, rotten tomatoes, or anything else you might find in rural Uganda  – and develop business plans to begin a small income generation project.

This program description is just one example of how HAC strives to break away from official literature regarding the methods in which NGOs should engage in developing nations. Hope for African Children is an NGO which takes a bold, multi-dimensional approach in mentoring at-risk Ugandan youth through services such as sports coaching, dance and choral instruction, collaboration with teachers and family members, tutoring, and healthcare insurance. The organization engages vulnerable children ages five through eighteen, may of whom are orphaned due to the ravages of HIV/AIDS in the Rakai district. HAC explains that their mission is to, “strive to increase the capacity of local communities to provide support services to orphans and vulnerable children in Uganda […] We believe that African communities have been plagued with unrelenting poverty and disease for far too long and that the only way to change this pattern is to reach children.”

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The various community members who partner with HAC work together as a holistic mosaic of advisors for HAC’s pupils. At the Yale student welcome reception, [AM5] individuals from all facets of community life were present, from the children’s mothers who cooked for the guests to the elderly grandfather who permanently donated his land for HAC’s use[AM6] . Moreover, Elysia explained that the organization is often criticized for its multifarious approach. “Why can’t you just focus on one program and do it right?” many ask. Yet, Keneth Kiyija, the other co-director of HAC, pointed out that HAC’s dexterous nature is actually a strength. Alone, one soccer coach is unlikely to deeply impact an individual’s life, but when working in collaboration with a tutor, counselor, teacher, and grandmother, these caring adults can support youth from multiple angles, acknowledging them for their intrinsic value, and guiding them through life’s challenges.

Also multifaceted is the town-gown partnership between co-directors Keneth and Elysia. [AM9] Keneth, a native Ugandan, connects with village members intimately and understands the idiosyncrasies of Kabowoko Village, as well as Ugandan culture. He started HAC in 2007 after realizing he had the capacity to help the children with whom he had grown familiar, and was confident he knew specifically what the youth needed. Keneth’s expertise doesn’t come from a textbook or online lecture about development principles, he doesn’t need to verify his actions with a bureaucratic board or donors; Keneth has the autonomy to act in ways he is confident will benefit the youth of Kabowoko. While some ideas have ultimately been unsuccessful, Keneth has developed HAC over time through trial and error, and a constant acknowledgement of his own fallibility and deep-seated desire to adapt and improve his organization’s practices.

Keneth’s success is predicted by the prominent development theory that promotes participant engagement as a method for sustainable development. As the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Research Institute explains,“the goal of economic and social development in developing countries is to set in motion a process of self-reliant and sustainable development through which social justice will be realized…Toward this end, the focus in development should be not only on increasing the material production but also on fostering and improving the social capabilities of people involved in development. For this to be done, people involved in development should take an active part in the process of planning and implementing development activities as well as enjoy their benefits.”

The Uganda Hope Network unknowingly embodied this widely promoted practice of participant development.  Keneth Kiyija took ownership of the development of his community, acted decisively, and promoted positive change. His long-term commitment to the village’s prosperity, on-the-ground, practical knowledge of what specific initiatives would be effective, and pre-existing connection to the community was vital during the organization’s early stages. This last asset was especially important because, as Elysia Kiyija explained, many Africans are skeptical of the intentions of Western development efforts, as the legacy of centuries of oppression remains strong in their minds.

Furthermore, Hope for African Children exemplifies an additional feature that expands upon Keneth’s participatory development model and generally is not discussed or promoted in development literature. Partnership with Elysia, an Oregon-born, Western educated woman with a degree in public policy and administration, deepens HAC’s ability to promote sustainable development, due to her more technical training in non-profit management. HAC serves as a testimony to the strength of multi-cultural partnerships and the fusion of Western well-intentioned textbook development theories and practical, realistic and applicable local knowledge regarding the actual situation on the ground.

One example of a program that was born from such integrated, collaborative, knowledge is the high school student entrepreneurship initiative. Keneth knew he wanted the youth to develop ways to be self-sufficient and rely less on HAC for their school fees, but was not sure how to proceed. Elysia, considering her background in administration, was able to envision the students completing mini-projects and then instructed them how to realize these goals, by creating business plans, networking with community leaders, and so on.

Through this analysis of Hope for African Children, one can glean a few insights: First, collaboration between individuals with local and Western knowledge is an effective model for development and improves upon the traditional practice of empowering local people who often lack the tangible understanding of development principles and long-term vision to effectively run a program such as HAC.  Second, a variegated approach to youth programming serves to support students in all aspects of their lives, especially via collaboration between the three areas where they will spend their time: the school, home, and HAC programs. And finally, the organization strives to prevent dependency, by way of programs such as entrepreneurship support, capacity building, English language instruction, and mentorship. Future visions for the organization include a school, increased capacity to engage more children, and the expansion of the organization’s farm. This NGO has exceptional potential and as is likely to continue to make a positive impact for years to come. By boldly going where no official development policy literature has gone before, HAC is effectively a pioneer.

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