Friday, 31 August 2007

The scale of the task

Here's some statistics re Uganda, just to put into context the work VSO, Oxfam, Save the Children and other UK NGOs are doing here. Average life expectancy is 49 years; 320 people (mostly children) die every day from malaria; 48% of the population do not have access to clean water; there's 1 doctor per 10,000 people; 80% of the population living on less than $1 a day, and 96% living on less than $2 a day. There have been success stories: for example, HIV and AIDS prevalence in Uganda was reduced from around 30% in 1986 down to 6% by 2004, which shows what can be achieved with targeted resources and education. But there is so much more to do.

Peace and reconciliation in Uganda

One of the most interesting items up for discussion in the peace talks currently taking place in Jura between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan Government, is the extent to which traditional forms of justice and reconciliation followed by the Acholi people could be incorporated within Ugandan’s official justice system.

This came up at a conference I attended yesterday, where a deputy chairman of a district in Northern Uganda (i.e. an elected politician) criticized NGOs – particularly ”American women” - for interfering in the way the local people handled domestic violence, ‘forcing’ women to report crimes whereas the traditional way of doing things is for the victim to take such problems to her in-laws, and ask them to speak to her errant husband. He was adamant that this approach worked in the interests of all concerned, although it’s fairly easy to spot the flaws in such a system, particularly given the overwhelmingly patriarchal attitudes in Ugandan society. I’ve since been told that this is not one of the areas up for discussion at Jura. It will be fascinating to see what issues do emerge, what new laws are created, and how they handle in effect having two forms of justice operating in one country. When I was in Uganda last year I was told about traditional reconciliation ceremonies which take place when former LRA rebels – and child soldiers - return to their villages. Here’s the BBC’s account of it, (which says there’s already a legal framework in place for incorporating traditional justice – the Jura talks presumably must be building on this).

Goodbye to Uganda

My placement at VSO in Uganda is now coming to an end. What I’ve found most notable about my time here is the fact I’ve had the opportunity to devote myself to one project for two weeks, pretty much without interruption (although I’ve been keeping in touch with Westminster and the constituency by email, and have been signing off remotely on some important correspondence which can’t wait for my return).

As an MP there are so many different demands on your time: one moment you’re in committee, trying to scrutinize the intricacies of some piece of legislation; then you might pop into the Chamber, to speak on a completely different topic; then you might have a series of different, unrelated meetings; and then there’s all the letters and emails, from casework issues to constituents expressing their views on an incredibly diverse range of policy areas. (I think that’s partly a Bristol thing, or maybe a city thing, as I know some other MPs who don’t get anywhere near as much correspondence).

But here I’ve had the chance to spend 10 days thinking about international development issues, talking to people involved in development work, and learning a little bit about what it’s like to live and work in one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s been interesting, but, more importantly, been useful, in putting some of the work we’ve been doing as a governing party into context. Some Government ministers will be heading out to Uganda for CHOGM in November. I hope I get the opportunity to talk to them before they go, and that they get the opportunity to see some of the development work that’s being done in Uganda while they’re here.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

DfID's work in Uganda

Tomorrow I'll be visting the Department for International Development's office in Kampala - i.e. the UK Government's outpost here - and the British High Commission. Here's an update on what support DfID has been giving Uganda over recent years:

Monday, 27 August 2007

Children and the conflict in Northern Uganda

One of the meetings I had last week was with a children's rights organisation. We ended up talking about the situation in Northern Uganda, and the difficulties in re-settling children who had been abducted from their villages at a very young age by the Lord’s Resistance Army. To many, the LRA way of life would have become the norm.

I was told the story of a five year old being inoculated for the first time at one of the resettlement centres. When the doctor injected him, he screamed out to his mother: ‘Tell Daddy to shoot him!”

Young girls in particular may have had a dual role within the LRA camps, as fighters and as sex slaves/ young mothers. Boys had grown used to being treated as men within the LRA, and were not happy with being treated like children again. Both boys and girls may have been forced to commit atrocities against their own people, which binds them into the LRA ‘community’ and increases the likelihood of them being rejected by their own people.

There are around 1.8 million internally displaced people as a result of the conflict in Northern Uganda – some say 2 million, which puts it on a par with Darfur, which commands much more media attention - and the majority of them are children. Not all of them would have become part of the LRA, but all of them would have been its victims, either abducted from their villagers by rebel soldiers or forced to leave for the safety of the camps because of fear of violence or abduction.

Most recently, child-trafficking has become a real issue in the North, with some traffickers posing as charitable concerns. One step which is being taken to try to combat this is a campaign for birth registration, which would make children’s identities easier to ascertain. Although by law all births in Uganda must be registered, only 4% currently are. Only 1% of the population has a birth certificate. So now there is a campaign to ensure that all new babies are registered at birth, and that other children are registered when, for example, they are inoculated. It won’t stop all trafficking, but it might help.

And what we don't...

I passed a placard yesterday advertising the highlights in that day's newspaper: English Premiership results. And then, just to jolt me out of feeling too cosy about things, another one, a few yards down the road, asking "Should the homos have rights?"

Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda. When I asked someone about the press report, they said that a gay lobby had started a campaign recently but had met with a furious backlash, particularly from the churches. There's a long, long way to go before they're likely to make any headway.

Friday, 24 August 2007

What we have in common...

Still no power this morning at the bungalow where I’m staying so I braved the freezing cold water and then headed into work. I was offered a VSO driver when I started but prefer to walk, as it’s the only way to really feel part of ordinary life here. My journey is about a mile or so, walking along the roadside up a short steep hill and then down a long steep hill. It’s reversed on the way back, but it’s cooler in the evening so I can handle the long climb. I get stopped every now and then by motorcyclists on what are known as “boda-bodas”, offering a taxi service, but haven’t taken them up on it yet.

What’s striking about life and politics here in Kampala is that in some respects it’s so similar to the UK, yet in others, so different. They introduced a ban on smoking in public places in 2005, beating England to it by two years, which somewhat surprised me when I heard. And they introduced a freedom of information law recently too. But one of the biggest public awareness campaigns being run here is about what they call “cross-generational sex”, which warns young girls of the dangers of being seduced by “sugar daddies”, and older men of the public humiliation they will face if they’re caught. There are also posters warning against child marriages, and others urging men to be faithful, so as to protect themselves and their partners against being infected with the HIV virus. The issues are linked, in that when HIV and AIDS became more prevalent here, men increasingly turned to young girls for sex because they thought it was safer; this led to the age of consent being raised from 14 to 18 in 1993 and, until recently, sex with a girl who was under 18 carried the death penalty. I met the other day with an organization which successfully campaigned for changes to this law, as in effect this stopped many young girls from coming forward with stories of abuse, particularly where a relative was involved.

Something which is an issue in both countries, however, is the question of MPs’ expenses! MPs here get to vote on their own remuneration packages, as we do – unfortunately – in the UK, and this causes a great deal of controversy. I have a little sympathy with them in that it seems that here, as in the UK, MPs salaries are frequently conflated with their expenses when it comes to reporting their incomes in the press, so it looks as if they’re pocketing a lot more than they are. But in Uganda MPs are paid a lot – considerably more than doctors and lawyers. Most recently they awarded themselves a Constituency Development Fund of 10 million shillings a year each, to be spent on good causes in their constituencies. (Which I think is between £2500-3000 but it goes a lot further here). I met yesterday with a campaign group which has successfully highlighted the way this Fund has been abused. They found that many MPs were letting constituents think they were funding projects through their own generosity, rather than revealing it was taxpayers’ money; 80% of constituents had no idea where the money had come from. The money was paid straight into MPs’ bank accounts, and there was no obligation on them to account for how it had been spent: leading to headlines declaring: “MPs spend Constituency Development Fund money on booze!” (Echoes of the UK again?!) I think there was once some talk of introducing something similar in the UK; I think we’d probably better steer well clear.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Rio Ferdinand - ready for CHOGM!

We met with an NGO over lunch today at a place in northern Kampala called the Pavement Tandoori. The menu included "Chicken vindaloo - Goan speciality: chicken in a tangy tomato, onion and vinegar gravy. An inspiration for the British football team!"

Football is huge here, and the English premier league in particular. Fights have been known to break out on match days in the town centre between rival Arsenal and Manchester United fans. A few years ago a satellite TV company got the rights to show some premiership games, and loads of football fans signed up for dishes in preparation for the start of the new season. When it came, they realised that the company had only got the rights to some games - and Arsenal and Manchester United weren't included. The fans stormed the company's headquarters and an emergency press conference had to be called. Now another company has got the rights to show some of the bigger games, so fans have had to buy two satellite dishes to make sure they get to see their team play.

All around Kampala there are giant posters proclaiming that various politicians and national celebrities are "Ready for CHOGM". CHOGM is the bi-annual Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which is being held in Uganda later this year. One of them even features Rio Ferdinand, who visited a while ago, declaring "I'm Ready for CHOGM!" There's a huge amount of hotel building and tidying-up going on in Kampala in preparation. NGOs are asking whether this will be all that the Commonwealth heads see of Uganda, or whether it will be an opportunity to highlight the continuing plight of the 1.8 million internally displaced people in the north too.

Disabilities work in Uganda

One of the key VSO programmes in Uganda is about raising awareness of disabilities issues amongst teachers and staff working in the education departments in local government, and also amongst parents too.

Uganda has what has been described as the best disabilities legislation in Africa. At every level of local government - from LC5, which are areas of around 50-60,000 people down to LC1, which are village communities of maybe 100 households or so - a person with disabilities has to be elected.

Disabled persons organisations are active in ensuring that candidates are put forward. But there is more work to be done to ensure that they can carry out their roles effectively. Again, funding is an issue; the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda aims to have district unions in every LC5 area, but they need staffing and resourcing. Danida - the Danish equivalent of DfID - is funding this work in some areas.

Despite the difficulties, it's still a really positive step forward in helping change attitudes to disabilities. I'm not sure you could - or would want to - go down the quota route in the UK, but it is interesting to see how it's working here.

More news from Kampala

Well, it's raining and there's a power cut - and now the back-up generator at VSO has gone off too, but at least there's some life in the laptop battery. Have had a series of interesting meetings with Ugandan NGOs so far, and have also met a couple of volunteers from the UK. What's been most interesting has been the picture I've been getting of how difficult it can be to co-ordinate NGO programmes, to ensure that there aren't missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle.
For example, someone told me that a new hospital had been built in a rural area, but was severely under-resourced: with few staff and no money for drugs, all they could do was "watch people die" - so is it better to build one fully-funded hospital, rather than several that can't be properly resourced?

Another small, but telling example: public toilets. Uganda has a Poverty Eradication Action Plan, which is regularly reviewed. One action was to install public toilets in slums, which on paper looks like an achievement. However, the review team discovered that people were charged between 100 to 200 Ugandan Shillings to use them. For a family of 8, which is not uncommon, that would be around 150,000 a month. A teacher working in the state primary education sector earns around 60,000 to 80,000 shillings a month. Unsurprisingly, the toilets aren't being used!

The Education for All initiative also throws up similar problems. Uganda introduced Universal Primary Education (UPE) a while ago, and has now brought in Universal Secondary Education in principle, although they don't have the funding, the teachers or the buildings to deliver on it yet. UPE means that the school population has increased massively, and there has been a particular emphasis on ensuring that girls and children with disabilities get school places. But there are sometimes more than 100 pupils per class, and the teachers are not always well-qualified; in particular, their understanding of pupils with special needs can be very limited.

I met a volunteer yesterday who worked at a state sector teacher training college, teaching English and special needs courses. She reckoned that in an average class - which could range from between 65 to 125 trainee teachers - there might be about 5 who could put together a full sentence in written English. And yet from the age of about 6 or 7 all primary school lessons have to be taught in English (though this varies, it's not so strictly enforced in rural areas). Obviously the ambition to get all primary school pupils into school is a laudable one - but it can't just be a case of getting them into the buildings each day.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

News from Kampala

I'm in Uganda at the moment, spending two weeks working in VSO's office in Kampala, helping them develop their advocacy programme. I'll also be meeting up with various aid agencies while I'm out here, including Oxfam, who took me to Uganda for a few days in 2006. When I first started talking to VSO about doing some work with them, I jumped at the chance of returning to Uganda, as I thought I'd be able to make much more of a contribution somewhere where I already knew a bit about the politics and the work of NGOs.

While I'm here, I'll also be getting to know some of the volunteers on VSO programmes, mainly of whom hail from the UK. I do think there's a missed opportunity at the moment, in that we have so many people who've spent time in developing countries with VSO, who must have so much to share by way of experience and knowledge gained, but we don't really tap into that source.

VSO now offers people the opportunity to do short-term placements - i.e. 3 to 6 months - as well as the more usual 2 year contracts. In Uganda the focus is on health (including HIV/ AIDS prevention), disabilities, and participation & governance. I'm sure there are lots of people who are interested in, or involved in, politics in the UK who'd be able to make a real contribution to the latter programme. So if there are any disillusioned lobbyists out there - get in touch!

Interesting piece by Blur's drummer in the Guardian

He's writing about the effectivness - or lack of - of drugs awareness and treatment programmes. Typically, the heading and sub-heading somewhat sensationalise his real message, which is calling for a drugs strategy based on research, education and harm reduction. There's already a lot of good work being done along these lines in Bristol, but we remain chronically under-funded. Any strategy, whatever its focus, has to be backed by adequate resources. When the Government publishes its new drugs strategy next year, that will be my message.
See the full article here:,,2153053,00.html

Funding problems

There was also an interesting piece in, I think, the Observer, by Camila Batmanghelidjh, who runs the Kids Company, and a follow-up comment piece in The Times, by Libby Purves. The point being made was that too many organisations in the not-for-profit sector spend too much of their time fundraising and applying for grants, and never quite knowing where the next cheque is coming from.

Camila Batmanghelidjh was - slightly disingenuously, it has to be said - saying that the Kids Company would have to close at the end of March 2008, when its current funding runs out, if more funding isn't found. In truth, a lot of organisations - including quite a few in my constituency - are in the same situation, as we're approaching the end of a three year funding cycle. Most of them will have their funding renewed once the Comprehensive Spending Review, which allocates funding for the next three years, is out of the way.

I appreciate that the uncertainty is a problem and that there are too many different funding streams, requiring too many bids. I'm not sure, however, what the answer is. If we allocated funding for, say 10 year stretches, that would then rule out supporting new priorities and new organisations which come up mid-point during that cycle. And requiring organisations to re-bid at reasonable intervals (in many cases, it used to be annually, so three years is an improvement) means that they can be judged as to whether they've fulfilled their objectives, or whether someone else could carry out the job better.

I think that simplifying the funding streams is a step forward, which is, I believe what Ed Miliband has been tasked with doing at the Cabinet Office. Another area which needs examining is the plethora of new initiatives, which often means that an organisation must show it is doing 'innovative' work if it is to attract funding. This sometimes penalises those who have been doing excellent, but fairly mainstream work for a long time. Of course the counter-argument to this is that if it's mainstream, it ought to receive mainstream funding, and not be subject to the bidding process - which is what Camila Batmanghelidjh is arguing.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Guardian blog

Some of the comments are pretty similar to what I've said on here before. Haven't heard the Ian Brown record yet, but he's certainly taken his time getting round to it.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Recycling plastics and other stuff

Good news that North Somerset council is introducing recycling facilities for Tetrapak cartons. Let's hope that Bristol City Council can follow suit - somewhere to put the soya milk cartons at last! One of my constituents has until now been packaging her Tetrapak cartons up and sending them by post to somewhere in Scotland, and I always feel very guilty putting them in the bin.

Bristol is slowly getting better at recycling - two new plastics banks have just opened in my constituency - but they only take plastic bottles. (I've never been quite sure why plastic bottles of different colours, shapes and thickness are acceptable, but plastic pots and trays bearing the recycling symbol aren't - although the new recycling bank at Kingsway clarifies this a bit by saying that bottles marked 1 or 2, HDCE or PET are acceptable). Of course the ideal is to avoid plastic packaging in the first place, but that's sometimes easier said than done. Glad to see that the Kingsway bank is already full, which shows the huge demand for such facilities.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Anthony H. Wilson R.I.P.

As readers of last year's blogs from Labour Party Conference in Manchester might have guessed, I was a huge fan of the Manchester music scene in the early 80s. It's why I went to university in the North West, although I ended up in Liverpool rather than Manchester because Manchester wouldn't let me study Russian from scratch. (I became set on studying Russian after reading Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment' - and I only ended up reading that because Paul Morley mentioned it in an NME review of Joy Division's 'Still'.)

It's impossible to put into words just how important Tony Wilson was to Manchester: not just to the independent music scene, as founder of Factory records and the man who insisted 'the Hacienda must be built', but to the cultural, architectural and economic regeneration of the city. He took his music seriously, and his politics seriously, and applied the same, slightly anarchic but fundamentally socialist, principles to both. Peter Saville summed it up on Newsnight just now, saying that Tony 'saw the importance in things and he talked up the importance of things'. Above all, he was enthusiastic and passionate and excited about what could be achieved, which, in an age of cynics, made him a very special person.

Bristol's Balloon Fiesta

There's something highly surreal about seeing hundreds of hot air balloons in the sky over Bristol. Bristol does summer festivals incredibly well, and thankfully the sun is now shining too. I'll be heading to the fiesta for the Night Glow and fireworks tomorrow night. See for more info.