Where am I?

Today I had my first shower since arriving back in Uganda. It was even hot. I went for breakfast and was faced by an overwhelming buffet; everything from hot waffles to fresh fruit. I’m passed by happy people carrying plates laden with meat, deep fried potatoes and cake. For breakfast!? I sat for hours writing blogs about farming fails, while incoherent jargon washed over my head. When we returned from another coma-inducing lunch, fresh rows of bottled mineral water wait for us on crisp white linen draped tables. A lady in a bow tie already laying out cups, sauces and snacks for the afternoon ‘break tea.’ When I finally get back to my room, I find that my once-used hotel soap has been replaced with a new wrapped bar.

Where I am I?

Where else could I be but a Ugandan NGO training on project management? This was a first (and hopefully a last) for me. Here we are, deep in debate:


Are we strategising how to eradicate corruption in our organizations?  Or how to help farmers focus on collective goals rather than NGO freebies?


We are debating the difference between the output and the outcome of a given activity. In our hypothetical scenario, our ‘activity’ is holding a training for farmers on mulching. Apparently the output is the “tangible deliverables resulting from a project activity,” while an an outcome is “what the project expects to accomplish at the beneficiary level.” Once we have identified the activity, the output and the outcome we need to match each one with an indicator (a quantitative measure to measure the change).

My fellow trainees are earnestly stewing over whether the output in this case was that farmers were trained (measured by attendance list), or whether the output was that they gained knowledge. But if we say that gaining knowledge was the output, argued one, then what on earth is the outcome? And how could we possibly measure gaining of knowledge? I coyly suggested we might give participants a practical/verbal test. This was quickly poo-pooed. Too risky. What if they got low test results? What would the donor make of that?

Most of the 3 days were spent in such a fashion. Implementation. Evaluation. Sensitization. Monitoring. Deliverables. Project tolerance. Transition planning matrix. Project vs. program vs. portfolio. Logical framework indicators. Assumptions vs. risks. This is the lingo of the international development world.

I’m certainly not against careful planning, and I also like tools that help me think clearly and critically. But these cumbersome concepts and categories simply get in the way of applying good old common sense. Such jargon only encourages development workers to think in boxes and focus on using the right words words to access more money.

The conversations I sat in on during our lavish lunches rotated around what organizations and individuals were accessing which projects from which donors. No one was talking about lives they had seen changed, or problems in the community they were rearing to tackle. No one was talking critically about what has worked, what hasn’t, and why.

Activities, outputs and outcomes are not going to change Uganda. Real analysis, persistence and a healthy dose of love for people would be a better start.

Oops, got to go, time for another ‘break tea’ and pinwheel scones.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Where am I?

  1. Reblogged this on Dan and Jodes… in Gulu, Uganda and commented:
    Brilliant, insightful blog from our friends Nick and Tess, also in Gulu, Uganda.

  2. Thanks for writing this guys! You described the event so beautifully Tess, I feel like I was there 🙂

  3. Peter Carrell says:

    You make our morning teas at Theology House seem very poor fare by comparison 😊

  4. Peter Wright says:

    Great blog Tess! Reminded me so much of so many educational conferences… verbiage and treats, zero identifiable outcomes, so much wasted time and resources. But at least you wrote some great blog posts and got a hot shower!

    • ntlaing says:

      🙂 Four hot showers in fact, the thing took all week! I feel a little too cruel though, there were some aspects that were useful to the trainees…but I feel like it could have been done in half a day.

  5. Jakisa Brian says:

    Permission to re-blog this but only as a reference.

  6. Anthony says:

    I hear ya, it’s easy to get tired of meetings that don’t seem to be changing things and that cost a lot of money. I would like to email more about this, you have my email from this comment, can you email me? We met at the college a while back, you might remember me 🙂

  7. Hi Tess, love reading your blog for the ‘madness’ of those sort of discussions. Bit disappointed though to see my love to hate word ‘reflection’ didn’t get a mention.

    • ntlaing says:

      Nice to hear from you Betty! No, reflection didn’t seem to be a current buzz word. I’m sure it will come back though, these things tend to come in circles. Hope you are well 🙂

  8. Lesley Smith says:

    Oh dear – must have been a bit depressing ☹!

    Lesley Smith
    Personnel Director

    78 Peterborough Street, PO Box 25098, Christchurch 8144, New Zealand
    Ph +64 3 377 2222 Ext 6
    skype: lesley.living.life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s