15 April, 2008

Northern Uganda: A Circus

The clowns are coming! And I'm not talking about Clowns Without Borders who, "offers laughter to relieve the suffering of all persons, especially children, who live in areas of crisis including refugee camps, conflict zones and territories in situations of emergency." They arrived in Gulu last December, toured some of the IDP camps in the area, spreading laughter and joy to those displaced by 20+ years of civil war.

Chris Blattman - a blogger I thoroughly enjoy, ran a story back in December about how Northern Uganda has become a circus. In it Blattman described the following reality:
...Ever since the violence subsided there has been a huge influx of foreign youth coming to "help the children of the north" in a two week stay. This plus the never-ending stream of white NGO Land Rovers. Property prices and rent are now higher than in the capital.
I am conflicted about how to feel about this. Reality: the LRA exist and Joseph Kony is real. And they don't give a crap that you're a privileged American. I'm glad Invisible Children made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside - but this isn't summer camp. These are real people, and their reality is child soldiers and abuses against women and eeking out a living. It's not your going and feeling better about yourself while in some ways (I argue) making life harder for them.

There is a larger issue behind this for me. And it's the idea of turning development into Disneyland, and turning people's pain into a trend.

Northern Uganda is not a tourist destination. And it should not be the ending place of youth groups across the U.S. "But they want to help!" you say. Fine, help but raising money for Invisible Children. Help but doing a fund raiser. Help by not being materialistic and becoming educated. Help by funding someone who is going over for the long term and asking them to blog back what's going on. Helping does not always equal going. And in an age where we live to touch, and think an experience is only real if we can get a picture of it, sometimes the best way to help is by staying home.

There are real people in Northern Uganda trying to make a difference. And you going (though well intentioned) might do more harm then good. So rent is sky-rocking in Gulu, and that means that local businesses can't get a lease cause they can't afford the rent. Roads are being used by cars more frequently meaning they are deteriorating faster. There are more people in the area meaning more strain on the resources, more waste, and more farming of already dwindling crops. And it means that the American ideal is coming in. Maybe not intentionally, but as we go in the "standard" of an area rises. So a new hotel is build that is so beyond the other hotels in the area none of them can survive. We come in saying that only American coke is best, and we bring our American consumerism to a village. It spreads - and while I cannot fully articulate the change that happens - there is something to be said for quiet development. The idea of going and living "with the people" and working within the developed contexts - not struggling to create our own on a culture that doesn't want it.

It's a growing thesis in my mind that "high school missions" or this "two-week crash course development 'cause it's a trendy" mentality that is sweeping the US is the new form of colonialism. It's a small theory that would take years to hash out and require the participation of people much smarter than myself... But as I read about things like Northern Uganda and see our society trying to spread it's instant solutions over the world - it's becoming clearer and clearer that we need to go back to the old ways - a few go and everyone backs them. You are not as smart as you think you are. And a little more humility needs to enter into this entire idea. The kids in Northern Uganda are not celebrities - they're survivors - and going to Uganda to get your picture taken with them is sick. If you want to make a difference, study hard, become educated, tell your friends about it, and then make a serious commitment after college. (Blattman has another excellent post on this idea.) There is a glory in waiting, something our instant gratification society does not seem to understand.

I only hope Northern Uganda can survive us.