NGO part 3 – Corruption

Last year Israel kicked World Vision out of their country for alleged corruption. They claimed a World Vision staff had syphoned off millions of US dollars to a terrorist organisation. Whether this was true or not, the naivety (or dishonesty) of World Vision’s response was staggering. Their leaders seemed to claim that their organisation was free of corruption. Their Australian CEO Tim Costello even said “We have nothing to do with fraud”. You’re joking!

How could an NGO work in an unstable, corrupt country like Palestine without some of their money being stolen? Its impossible. It comes with the territory, part of the business. In parts of the world where corruption is a way of life, its also a way of life within NGOs. A better response from World Vision would have been “There’s bound to be some corruption within our organisation, especially in an unstable area like Palestine, but we do everything we can to minimise that”. Internal and external audits need to be done, but achieve little. The books can be perfect, yet huge amounts of money can still be stolen.

I work for ‘GuluHealth’, the Dicoese of Northern Uganda Health department. We are an amazingly effective (no bias of course), Christian organisation who manage 12 permanent Health Centers in villages. In the 2 years I’ve worked here, I’ve discovered all kinds of corruption. Nurses steal drugs. Staff overcharge patients and pocket the balance. Once a staff member forged a signature to try and steal 10,000 US dollars, but luckily the bank called us before they gave him the money! Nearly everyone I’ve talked to who works for an NGO here has multiple stories of corruption in their organisation. Its part of life. It happens.

Despite all this, I believe our organisation is far less corrupt then big NGOs operating in our area. For a start due to a sharp nose, I think we discover corruption much earlier than NGOs and we provide few opportunities for money to be stolen.

So how does NGO corruption work in ‘real life’? How do you steal money given generously by donors, intended to help the poorest people in the world? Let me take you on a journey into our world! Your auditor won’t pick any of this up I’m afraid.

1) Bribes “If you help me with something small, I will get your Health Centers onto our project”. Simple as that. I was only surprised it was that blatent. Thankfully this NGO responded well when I contacted their British Management, and eventually included some of our facilities on merit rather then on bribes. Unfortunately that corrupt guy is still working for the NGO and still on his merry way raking in bribes. The opportunities for bribes are endless. A substandard building company pays an NGO worker to win a big building contract. An underskilled job applicant bribes the interviewer. Apparently already discredited NGO staff even try to bribe government officials to keep operating in the area! makes NGOs much less effective, as shoddy work or no work gets done when decisions are based on the highest bidder rather than merit.

2) Fake Reports. A good friend working for a large, reputable NGO shared their heartache at having to write a shiny report for work that never even started. Their boss told him to quickly churn out a report for a farming project which the NGO “hadn’t got around” to doing. That’s right, they received the money, did nothing and wrote a wonderful report (with pictures). The donor will never know. Their accounts still showed that staff got paid, vehicles went to ‘the field’ and the report was written, but they did nothing. Just because you hear a wonderful story about Josephine’s life being transformed through a new Ox-plow, doesn’t mean it actually happened.

3)  Fake Receipts. When I ask for a receipt, people often ask if I want it blank, or how much money they should write on it. Receipts are meaningless pieces of paper in this part of the world, and should be treated as such. A white NGO pickup (what else) is “bought for 15,000 US dollars according to the receipt, but only 10,000 was actually paid – the other 5000 is kept by the NGO worker. A fuel receipt is written for 50 litres, but only 30 litres was put into the car.

4) “Legitimised” Corruption (as I like to call it). Bloated accommodation and travel allowances are paid, well in excess of actual costs. Massive budgets are written for trainings, well in excess of what is necessary. Everything possible is written into the budget which benefits the NGO staff, not the people who the money should be helping.

5) Skimming money off the top. Our friend worked for a NGO for 500US dollars a month. A visitor came from England, and asked how much he earned. When he told her, she looked surprised. A week later, he was told he would be backpaid 2500US dollars in unpaid salary for the previous year. He was supposed to be paid 750US dollars a month the whole time, 50% more than the salary he’d been told. Someone stole that money, syphoned into another account. Not many visitors would ask these kind of probing questions. She did well.

We can’t solve the problem 100%, but we can do much better


1) Open the can of worms. Be honest that there is corruption in your NGO. Corruption is embedded in the working culture of Northern Uganda, Palestine and much of the developing world. There’s no organisation free of corruption. ‘Danish Church Aid’ has a public record of all corruption investigations, and it hasn’t hurt their donations at all.

2) Stop using receipts as accountability. Find out the actual cost of an good or service, then give work that much money to buy it. Forget about the receipt, keep it for your auditors only! If it’s a big ticket item like a car, involve multiple people in the purchase, which makes stealing money that much harder.

3) Put money through in-country foreign workers. This is an unfortunate, but pragmatic solution. They don’t have to be American or British, they could be Kenyan or Indian or whatever – just people from another context, with no family or cultural ties to the area. As a local manager in big NGO projects, the pressure is enormous to help your family with jobs and money, and dish up as much money as possible money to staff down the chain. Its not fair to expect local people to manage huge amounts of money without stealing some of it to fulfil these cultural expectations. Help both local staff and your beneficiaries by putting the money through a foreign worker.

Patronage is one of the strongest cultural norms in Uganda and elsewhere in the developing world. The President dishes out lucrative government jobs and money to consolidate power. Rich people are expected to pay school fees for poorer relatives, and in return expect unfailing loyalty. It staggers me that USAID runs 100 million dollar projects in Uganda with no Americans on the in-country management team. I believe this was a major reason why two recent USAID Health projects collapsed under the weight of corruption. Lacor hospital is a perfect example of this approach done well. Local Staff run the hospital and make all the decisions. The hospital employs 400 local full time staff, and only one foreigner. What is their job? All the money goes through them. They check money goes to the right places, and clamp down on small scale stealing as it happens to ensure things don’t get out of hand. Brilliant.

4) Value Character above Qualification when you hire workers. Even if other candidated are more qualified or even potentially better at the job, good character will help your NGO more in the end.

5) Look Harder…

Don’t rely on audits and ‘good processes’. Talk to the actual people who are supposed to benefit to see if they actually received any help. Check the rates of cheap local hotels. Count the drugs you have left and check it against the drugs you gave out. Ask people if they actually received their allowances.

6) Zero Tolerance
for thieves when (not if) you find them. I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t get fired when they steal from NGOs. Staff have to know they will at the very least fired, and hopefully arrested when they are caught stealing. In my organisation, I’m not allowed to take thieves to the police, which is frustrating. Firing people you loved and trusted is hard. I’ve broken my own rule and not fired thieves because I didn’t want to fire my friends. At the end of the day though it only ended up hurting the poor, sick people we serve.

7) Open communication channels between in-country staff where the money is being used, and donors and other staff in other countries. Be open about it rather than hush-hush and ashamed. If you find corruption in your organisation it means you’ve done well, not that your project has failed, or your NGO is going down.

If you found this third installment useful, check out my first and second blogs on my keyboard warrior’s mission to make the NGO world a better place 😀

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New Clinic #4 – ‘God is not selfish’, or ‘Flatulence’

She reminded us of why we are here. In a horrible way. She’d come to the new clinic the night before for an emergency delivery. Tragically, the baby was stillborn. The poor women was sick, weak, and crying. She had malaria at the time the baby was still born, and she’d had it a month earlier too, not treated properly. Malaria killed that baby. She’d been to a government clinic while she was pregnant, but they were out of stock of Fansidar, the drug that all pregnant women should get to prevent malaria. An easily preventable death. Bold, in italics and underlined. Preventable.  Ambrose treated her for malaria, and prayed with her. We won’t make those kind of mistakes. She reminded me why we’re here. Starting clinics, where there are none.

Ambrose in the clinic.jpg

One of the first patients with Nurse Ambrose – Not the mourning mother

The fourth and final new clinic. For now at least. I breathed a sigh of relief as the last cupboard was carried off the pickup into the health center. Not only because we had been stuck in the mud (I thought for a while permanently) 20 minutes earlier, but because starting these wee clinics has been a big, satisfying effort.

Fiona Ambrose Obanga Pe Wany.jpg


According to the locals, the village is called Okwoto (Flatulence). But if you ask the Bishop, it’s Obanga Pe Wany (God is not selfish). You’ll find neither name on google maps, but you can find the clinic its right here. The two room rectangle building to the left of the road in the middle of the map, next to a big tree. Note the long grass thatched building 40 meters to the north. That’s the local Anglican church. It’s a small, busy center, next to a swampy river. I find it hard to talk to people here, not because my Acholi has gone downhill, but because they speak a different language, Lango. Its pretty close to Acholi, but some words are completely different, including annoyingly the words for medicine and health center!


Pastor Awele, Ambrose and some of the community in front of the clinic.

Its worth noting all the steps Ambrose has to take with every patient. Its not easy running a high quality clinic all on your own! Its more work for each patient than being a Family Doctor in the western world.

  • Talk to the patient, examine the patient, make the diagnoses based on our guidelines book, while you are writing the patient notes.
  • Do a finger prick test for malaria
  • Collect money from the patient, write a receipt and give it to the patient.
  • Write the patient details in our record book (Name, Age, Sex, Village, Diagnosis, Drugs to be given etc.)
  • Take drugs out of the box, cut the right amount, package them in a drug envelope and then label the drug envelope with instructions.
  • Explain the medication the patient has to take, and advice about the illness.
    “Don’t go in a cooking hut if you have pneumonia”
    “Come back for IV treatment if your child gets seizures”
    “Wipe your bum from front to back” – Very important to stop urine infections.
  • Pray with the patient

Church in the foreground, clinic in the background. Ambrose stands with the Reverend.

P.S. The first week was promising, on Labour day (ironically) Ambrose saw 19 patients. That’s a big effort when you consider the list of tasks for each patient. I’ll give a report soon on how the first 3 clinics are going. Its still early days but there’s a mixture of success and slow starts!

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NGO part 2 – Why all the trainings?

Three of our staff came into our office after a week long Malaria training. After they raved about how wonderful the training was, I asked them a question. “What is one thing you are going to change, or improve at your Health Center after the training?” Even after prompting and trying to give them ideas, we couldn’t come up with anything. Not one thing. Eight of our staff were there for a week. 320 working hours. Our staff already treat malaria really well. They didn’t need a training on malaria.

The problem

Of all the issues I’ve had with NGOs, meetings and ‘trainings’ is the issue which which has driven me the most crazy, and provided the most hilarity. Don’t get me wrong – trainings can be a core part of NGO work, I run them myself! Just last week Marie Stopes needed to teach our staff how to insert family planning methods, and it worked really well. Often though trainings are a colossal waste of money and time, and more importantly devalue learning by putting barriers, or distractions in the way. I think this is so important, I’ve created my own ridiculous jargon phrase ‘learning distraction’ to emphasise the point. Maybe it can be new NGO speak!

I have so many problems with trainings and meetings, but I’ll limit myself to 7, no… 8.

1) Allowances for participants. Allowances for transport, accommodation, day allowances. ‘Big men’ turn up for 30 minutes to get a wad of cash, reinforcing harmful cultural stereotypes. As well as wasted money, it’s a learning distraction. How can you concentrate on learning when you are waiting for more money than you have seen in weeks? Friends have told me that they sit there all day planning how to spend their 50,000. At one meeting there was nearly a riot when allowances were less than expected. 30 minutes was spent discussing the situation. It was telling when a participant said “this training will be useless if we are not facilitated properly.” In the minds of the participants, I think he was right. At another one day meeting, I was handed 150,000 in allowances, plus a 8 gig pen drive “from the American People.” All 40 of us were. You do the math.

2) Lack of important and practical material taught in effective ways. Material should be evidenced based, with experts, or at least people knowledgeable in their field teaching new information or skills. Models and frameworks are tossed into the ether, never to be used again. Material is often not taught in effective ways that will be practically useful. Much time is also wasted on inefficient group work, which is often a mix of sharing good ideas which most people already know, and reinforcement of bad ones. I’m all for participation, but it needs to be well thought through.

3) General Opulence. Meetings are held in the fanciest hotels. Food is fancier than local wedding food. Everyone is given wee books and pens (and sometimes pen drives!). Bottled water is given on demand. This makes trainings and meetings into a status symbol and I think contributes to a space where people are trying to impress each other, rather than learn together. A huge learning distraction.

4) Meaninglessness of resolutions and action points made. Of the 10 or so meetings/trainings I’ve been to, almost none of the resolutions made have been carried out. So far I’ve been elected onto 3 follow up ‘committees’ that have never met, and never will.


Hard to know exactly what comes next…

5) Paying the people organising the meeting extra money on top of their salary. Why do you pay staff extra to do something that should be part of their regular job? This just encourages NGO staff to hold unnecessary trainings to fill out their wallets as well as their time.

6) Wasted person hours. Half a days material covered in 2 days. Two days material covered in a week. For our malaria meeting 320 hours of quality patient care were taken from us, for next to nothing gained.

7) Unnecessary attendees. People who only speak Acholi at English meetings (happens at most meetings I’ve been to). Random local government officials who have nothing to do with what’s being discussed. ‘Big Men/Women’ who hijack the meeting with speeches and other agendas.  Having unnecessary attendees present causes random off-topic discussions bringing yet another learning distraction.

8) Use of unhelpful NGO jargon, which muddy the waters and provide yet another learning distraction. Much NGO speak has become a quagmire. People all know vaguely what the word means without being able to pin it down. There is also straight confusion, where the speaker means one thing, and the listener hears another. ‘Volunteer’ for example to the western ear means working for no pay out of the goodness of you heart, while to a local listener can mean quite a well paid job! Here’s my NGO-Speak Bingo game I use at meetings to entertain myself. I’ll generally win within the first 30 minutes of the meeting.  I’m not the only one who thinks this is ridiculous.

Facilitation Mobilisation Implementation Empowerment
/ Empowering
Sensitisation Capacity Building Stakeholders Governance
Girl Child Scaling
Or Scale up
‘Volunteer’ Accountability
‘The field’ Gender Balance Resilience High-Impact
or Impact

What does it really mean?


Lacor Hospital (the biggest mission hospital in Uganda) has a great solution. They don’t let any staff go to trainings and meetings unless they absolutely have to. And it works really well. When I asked a hospital boss why they don’t allow their staff to go, he said. “Trainings are usually 100% useless and they waste time. Why should our staff go?”

When we do hold trainings, here’s 8 ways to make them better

  • Don’t give allowances. The exception perhaps, is an actual refund of public transport costs for people who don’t live in town. If you’re doing a training in the village, people already live there. If you are training educated people, most of them live in town so no transport is needed
  • Hold a lot less trainings. Many don’t need to happen. A classic category which are often unnecessary are “stakeholder” meetings, where the NGO invites government officials, religious leaders, community members etc. to tell them about the project in their neighbourhood. They achieve very little and can even add barriers when officials inevitably suggest more meetings, or use the opportunity to add unnecessary bureaucracy to the project. I was really impressed that a hundred-million dollar maternity project we’re working with had zero stakeholder meetings. They talked with us, trained our nurses and then started.
  • Invite only people that are going to benefit directly. Target carefully. Don’t invite people who only speak Acholi if you are going to hold the training in English. Don’t invite big people just for the sake of it. Invite people who will be keen to learn, and have a lot to gain.
  • Get Experts and top quality presenters to take sessions where you don’t have the expertise. Spend your money here, rather than on other areas of the training. Don’t just get your NGO staff to cover topics that they are not experts in. If you’re going to do it, do it properly.
  • Hold meetings and trainings in more austere locations. The District Council hall in Gulu costs only 10,000 to hire. Many trainings and meetings could be squeezed into NGO offices.
  • Hold shorter trainings. Can you do this in one day rather than two? What material is less important that you can cut? Can you remove the morning or afternoon tea break?
  • Serve Beans and Greens with Posho and Rice for lunch. Why should every meeting have 2 kinds of meat? Make the thing less about the lunch and more about the learning. People will still appreciate a free lunch (eventually, after they get over the meatless disappointment J).
  • Ban the Jargon words (start with the bingo table) which can’t be used by trainers or participants. Be specific, use real life examples. Give people a list of words at the start of the training that they aren’t allowed to use. Make it fun by rewarding people who notice when the banned words are used.

Maybe capacity building is required to provide sensitisation to the stakeholders on this issue. I should organise a one week training who will provide facilitation? (Oh dear…) Anyway let me know what you think. Maybe you can add number 9 and 10!



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More than the worst thing we have ever done

You have to wash! Look at you! I’ll tell the school matron to beat you if you don’t wash!” Kenneth’s mum scolds him, inspecting his uniform and behind his ears. Its visiting day at Gulu Primary Boarding school.

Its true, Kenneth is looking a bit grubby. But he isn’t roaming the streets stealing and setting fire to grass-thatched huts. And in front of us sits a little report card full of top marks, indicating he is currently placed 4th out of over a hundred students in his class.

While his Mum is over-fixated on his messy appearance, she brought him a soda and his favorite meal: fish and rice. I brought a big box of biscuits and bananas. In the shade of a red flowering tree, he reads to us from an English story book, perfectly. As always, he is quiet. But he is smiling a lot. It’s a beautiful day, in lots of ways.

Kenneth and mum


For those who haven’t heard this story, about a year ago, we woke up to find our grass-thatched hut roof ablaze with fire. When I screamed, neighbors came sprinting with basins and jerrycans of water (no taps, no hoses!). Miraculously, Lacor fire truck arrived quickly to further douse the flames. Within an hour, it was all over and we were left amongst our sodden, ashy but intact home feeling shocked but grateful. Our initial suspicion turned out to be correct: this was the work of an 11-year-old neighborhood kid, Kenneth.

Why? Kenneth’s mother and our close neighbor Lucy were caught up in a complicated family feud to which we were completely oblivious. Two weeks prior, we found smoke billowing out of Lucy’s window, and discovered her bed, piled with her possessions, blazing. At the time Lucy (who has sickle cell disease) was on oxygen in hospital. So it was us who confusedly marched the culprit, wee Kenneth, to the police. After this we were added to his enemy list. Two weeks later again, our roof was burning

(above: Lucy and Nick, Lucy’s bed after the first fire).

By the day of his hearing in court, we’d made up our minds. Drop the charges, bring him back home. My friend Christo a councilor, agreed I could bring Kenneth once a week for sessions. He joined our afterschool phonics class for neighboring kids. Nick’s parents generously offered to sponsor Kenneth to go to boarding school, which served the double purpose of removing him from a chaotic, harmful home environment and getting him back in school. Kenneth slowly started to unfurl, the depth of his eyes slowly started to wake up.

We are not heroes.

The risk in this story is that we make ourselves the heroes. The white saviours who found the black miscreant child a sponsor to school and become his patrons.

Please allow me to dissolve the hero narrative for you:

  1. Mercy and reconciliation was not our first response… remember, we were the ones who marched Kenneth to a police cell after burning Lucy’s bed, where he spent two nights alone in a cell.
  2. It wasn’t even our second response. Post-igniting our hut, we took him straight back to police and followed up to ensure he was held in the youth remand home until his charges could be heard, which is a horrible place.
  3. Mercy is easier when you have resources. Spending time together and including him in our class reconciled us with Kenneth. But we also had the social capital to find him a sponsor for school. This guaranteed goodwill and a new start with Kenneth’s mum, who I believe was the embittered brains behind the arsons all along. Most people here can’t summon this kind of help.
  4. Long term, the forgiveness approach has a higher probability of turning out better for us as well as Kenneth. Our action was very pragmatic! Kenneth was clearly capable of revenge. Leaving him to Uganda’s criminal justice system for a year or so could keep us safe temporarily, but what could he do upon release?

Now that we’ve cleared that up, this story has two major points.

Point 1: Non-complementary behaviour (aka, ‘love your enemies’) actually works

A group of friends sat around on a lazy summer night, drinking wine and eating cheese. Out of the blue, a guy with a gun appears, highly agitated, demanding cash and threatening to shoot. Except no on had any money. What do you do?  In that moment, one of the cheese-eaters offers the guy a glass of wine. And the script gets flipped. They humanize him, he takes the wine. They all drink, talk, eventually he leaves.

It’s a true story, check it out on Invisibilia podcast. Offering wine to your gun wielding assailant is an example of non-complementary behavior, which is essentially responding to hatred/violence with an opposite approach, such as kindness. Again and again, life shows us that non-complementary behavior can ‘flip the script,’ and transform relationships. I believe this concept was first coined by Jesus… ‘love your enemies.’

The most awesome story in this episode is about a small Danish town’s approach to terrorism prevention. Police noticed a pattern of missing young men- 34 guys who left for Syria, responding to a call by ISIS to come build the Islamic State. They didn’t close their borders, declare those who left ‘enemies of the state,’ or make arrests upon their return. Instead, when they came back they invited them to have tea. They help them to enroll in courses, find jobs, find accommodation, even get medical treatment for bullet wounds. Most importantly, they offered them a mentor, and made sure they felt like they belonged in Denmark. It worked. Incredibly, the returnees they invited came, as did over 300 other ‘potential radicals.’

Whether it’s in the realm of personal interactions or national policy, the Jesus-logic ‘love your enemies’ actually works on a deep-principle-of-the-universe level. Surprisingly often, the guy with the gun picks up the wine glass and the kid who lit your roof on fire becomes a regular visitor, and wannabe-terrorists decide they would rather be proud Danish citizens. Obviously it doesn’t always go that way. But respond with love and it becomes a possibility, and you will expose hatred for what it is and at least contain its spread. Match the antagonism and you step into the cycle of escalation, retaliation and alienation. The last couple of decades of American foreign policy makes that pretty clear.

Point 2: “Each of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done”

– Bryan Stevenson, death-row lawyer, author of ‘Just Mercy’

Stevenson describes a man in his last few hours before execution who came to him and said, ‘this has been such as strange day. All day, guards asked me how they could help me, what meals I would like, whether I needed stamps to send last letters.’ The man continued, “more people have said, ‘What can I do to help you?’ in the last 14 hours of my life than ever did in the first 19 years.” Bryan wrote, “All I could think was…Where were they when you were 3 years old being abused? … Where were they when you were a teenager and you were homeless and struggling with drug addiction?”

When I first met Kenneth, people told me he was bad news, a hopeless criminal. When I visited him in the remand home, I started to piece together his story. He was born in a time of war. After his father died, he was expelled from home whenever his mother’s mental health tipped over the edge. His brothers taught him to steal to survive. Slowly, the real Kenneth is emerging. He is super intelligent, inquisitive, shy, but warm.

Each of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done.

Jesus specialized in this. When a corrupt official, a tax collector for the romans climbed a tree to get a better view of Jesus passing, he visited the man at his home. The man turned his life upside down to join Jesus’s movement and paid back all the people he had cheated double. When Jesus saw a group about to stone a woman for cheating on her husband, he challenged them, ‘let the one who has never done anything wrong throw the first stone.’ They left, and he stayed to talk to her. Jesus engaged with the people everyone else despised or ignored, he understood their full story, and reclaimed their humanity. Prostitutes, self-righteous religious leaders, the poorest of the poor, the sick, prisoners.

To sign off…

I’d like to share that Kenneth just finished reading his very first chapter book. It was Fantastic Mr. Fox. He devoured it in one day, and actually understood it. Here in Uganda, that’s a miracle. We are going to watch the movie together when school breaks for holidays next week. Imagine if he was still in Gulu’s youth prison and we all missed out on all this life.

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NGOs part 1 – Pay your workers less

I don’t usually preface, but in this case it may help people dislike me less :p. I believe that NGOs go about much of their work the wrong way in Northern Uganda, to the point where some of them may do more harm than good. I’m writing a series of blogs on where I think NGOs are going wrong, and how they could fix it. These here are opinions. Informed opinions after 4 years operating amongst NGOs in Northern Uganda, but opinions only.

Abandon Ship

Last year, one of our best nurses left one of our rural health centers. With no warning and without telling anyone. It was the 3rd nurse that year who left for an NGO job. We rushed to replace him, but it put the only remaining nurse there under a lot of stress, and I’m sure patients weren’t cared for as well in the meantime. Our replacement wasn’t as good. I didn’t hear the nurse who left again until 6 months later, last week. He came to apologise for leaving abruptly. He said he felt really bad about it, that he had let his fellow staff and the patients down. He’s a great guy and it was good to catch up and reconcile everything. When I asked him why he left for the NGO job, he looked at me as if it was a stupid question.

“The money was too much, of course”

Too Much Money?

So why is it bad to pay Ugandans a lot of money in NGO jobs? Surely you pay them as much as you can afford to help them and their families get by in a poor country. Unfortunately, its not that simple. There are at least 3 enormous negative effects of high NGO salaries.

1) High quality workers get lured out of sustainable, productive service provision jobs (health work, business, teaching etc.) and into the NGO sector. It’s a local brain drain of epic proportions. In one case this became so extreme that the run-down government hospital wrote to anNGO asking them to stop stealing their nurses! Most of the best minds should be innovating and leading the society from institutions and businesses that will continue serving people indefinitely. Instead the NGO sector is overloaded with the best educated and most capable, while the cogs which drive sustainable progress creak and come to a halt.

2) The distraction of huge NGO salaries means that workers don’t concentrate and get stuck into their current jobs. Many workers have a legitimate ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. People are ever on the look out for that ‘Golden Goose’ job which pays 2 or 3 times as much, even if the NGO job only lasts 6 months. You wouldn’t believe how much time and effort local people spend thinking about and applying for NGO jobs rather than getting on with their current work.

3) High NGO salaries wreck the aspirations of young people and skew the entire education system. When you have a deep, honest conversation with people at university about what they want to do, very few have serious aspirations to help their country, or bring people out of poverty. What they really want is a cushy, high paying NGO job. People should have a heart to start productive businesses, teach at schools, be nurses at hospitals. To work within the system to create lasting change. When we advertised for a job managing our Anglican church health centers, I was expecting degrees in public health, or at least administration. But no, over half of the 80 applicants had a degree in “development studies”. What even is that degree? A ticket in the lottery for a bloated NGO job. Another phenomenon is that many people want to be ‘drivers’ so they  earn more than teachers or nurses by driving NGO workers around. Bizarre.

So why do NGOs pay too much? From talking to a bunch of people about it, these are some of the reasons (again add your own!)

1) The donors back home just don’t understand local salaries
2) NGOs have a budget which they need to spend, and salaries is a way of spending it.
3) NGOs rely on local NGO workers to suggest/decide on salaries – perpetuating the cycle
4) Wanting the best worker possible for their job (not OK, see below)
5) Wanting pay equity between local and Ex-pats (White guilt plus healthy instinct)

The Solution

The good news is that we can solve this problem almost overnight! Here’s how.

  • Pay the market rate for your staff. Find out what the local market rate is for teachers, nurses, lawyers or whoever else you hire. Ask for the salaries for similar positions among business people, government and private not for profit enterprises (Church Run) and add no more than 10% to that.
  • Not pay Ex-pats much more than you pay locals. Wanting equity between local and expat workers is fantastic, but the solution is not to increase the local salary, but lower the Ex-pat’s! This reduces the tension to have to pay locals ludicrous salaries to match. If Expat NGO workers can’t handle being here on close to local salaries, then I don’t believe they should be here. It should be a sacrifice to work a place like Norther Uganda, a big one. Awesome hard working, caring Ex-pats will still come work for your NGO, even if they are paid less.
  • Be prepared to not hire the ‘best of the best’ with a reduced salary. Why should NGOs get to hire better workers than the government, buisnesses, or mission hospitals? Realise that your work is not usually more important than what everyone else is doing. Be comfortable with hiring good workers, even if they aren’t the best. You’ll still get good workers, don’t worry!

Then spend the money you save on salaries on…. whatever you think is best! Hire an extra worker, sponsor more kids to school, drill more boreholes. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Feel free to disagree, comment, agree, ask questions, disagree or whatever you please.

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Clinic No. 3 – Borderline

Elegu is a “post-apocalyptic shanty town”, explained my wise anthropologist friend. If you only had four words and a hyphen, I don’t think anyone could do better. Arabic music floats out of Shisha bars. Rainbows of money flap in the wind held by flimsy rubber bands. A different language every 10 meters. Refugee intake point with a broken swing. And despite all this hustle and bustle there’s no health clinic – only drug shops. Until now. New clinic number 3. Elegu.


The Setup Crew. Clinic on the left. Nurse Walter is standing next to me

Just 3 years ago the Border Post between South Sudan was moved 10km to sit on the actual border, and within those 3 years a bustling ‘gold rush’ town sprung up. Gold, Oil and high quality rice is smuggled in from South Sudan. Food is sold at exorbitant prices across the border. NGOs buy up large to look after those the evil war has displaced both in South Sudan itself and the refugee camps nearby in Uganda.


Clinic in the Background

Elegu is a racial melting pot, although as a white person you wouldn’t guess it immediately. We’ll be serving refugees from South Sudan who are making their way outside the camps. The local Maadi tribe. Traders from the East, West, North and South who are trying to escape poverty through the trading gold rush. We asked our waiter Prossy

Me: “Where do you come from”
Prossy “Mbale, Eastern Uganda”
Me: “Why did you come to Elegu”
Prossy: (Shrugs) “Work, money”
Me: “Did you know anyone here before you came?”
Prossy: “Not even one person”


‘Toplife’ restaurant opposite the Health Center

The abode we’re renting would not quite meet New Zealand building regulations, but it will do the job. You wouldn’t want to be there in an earthquake that’s for sure! Our nurse Walter is humble, cheerful chap who has moved in with his wife and small child. If anyone can make it work in a weird place like this, he can. He’ll be in Church today, welcoming resurrection and new life. That’s what we’re looking for in Elegu.


Photo Credits – Innes Johnstone

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Museveni pair of buttocks?

Stella Nyanzi, a women’s rights activist has been arrested and taken to court for calling the president a “pair of buttocks”. The guardian has written a great article on it. Never be fooled that Uganda is anything more than an oppressive, corrupt, dictatorship.

“The Facebook post over which Nyanzi was charged read: “That is what buttocks do. They shake, jiggle, shit and fart. Museveni is just another pair of buttocks … Ugandans should be shocked that we allowed these buttocks to continue leading our country.”

Don’t worry, they’re not going to arrest a mzungu for re-posting something like this :p

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