“Mzungu, give me my money”

A colleague and I were recently discussing how those of us working to improve the lives of the local community here in eastern Uganda could properly assist the “Bujagali Boys,” known to some as “the Lost Boys,” or simply the shady youth that hang out in front of the backpacker’s camps in Bujagali touting cheap (and questionable) village tours and canoe rides.

They are the sort of misled youth that NGOs often avoid because they do not seem to be “safe bets” for donor money, so they are left unassisted by the international development industry and instead resort to a life filled with, cheap alcohol, cheap marijuana, and occasional petty theft.

And the ironic part is that their idleness is a byproduct of international development.

In 2011, Bujagali Energy Limited completed construction on a hydroelectric dam that severely dampened the once thriving tourism industry here in Bujagali Falls. The “falls” were a series of rapids cascading down the Nile River from its (disputed) source in Lake Victoria, passing between the Busoga and Buganda regions and, after about 5 km, exploding into a fury of white water that once attracted thousands of the world’s most fearless kayakers each year.

When the dam was complete, thousands were displaced from their homes. These youth, who once were able to pay for their school fees using the profits from their weekend canoe and village tours offered to the scores of tourists that came from all over the world, were forced to resort to begging for enough cash to drink and smoke their problems away.

A hydroelectric power station, constructed in the name of economic development, has brought significant negative impacts to this community, and another dam being built just down river will soon wipe out virtually all of the tourism that once crowned this area as the “adventure capitol of East Africa.”

My colleague, who recently started working for a local NGO in the area, asked me what I thought about the Bujagali Boys, whether they were trustworthy, and how they could best be assisted. When one of these boys asked him for money earlier that day, my colleague responded with a resounding no (as we always do when asked for money in passing here, so as to abate the cycle of dependency too often perpetuated by outsiders coming into these communities). He instead told the young man that he could offer him training in drafting business plans, or generating expense reports or budgets, skills that could ostensibly help him to pull him out of poverty and start a new life for himself.

I agreed that this was far better than simply forking over some cash. But at what point does skills training without necessary startup capital fail to address the true underlying determinants behind unemployment and idle youth?

Successful interventions have taken place in other parts of the country and around the world. In Northern Uganda, the Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) provided relatively unconditional cash transfers to young adults with the aim of encouraging entrepreneurship, innovation and trade-based self-employment. Despite doubts that simply providing a year’s worth of cash would have sustainable impacts on communities, the intervention found that beneficiaries had 41% higher income and were 65% more likely to practice a skilled trade.

Even more, women who participated in the program ended up with incomes 84% higher than women who did not participate.

When provided with this money, the majority of participants did not blow it all on booze and drugs as many critics may predict (and as I, in all honesty, predict may be the case with the Bujagali Boys). Instead, they invested in training and necessary tools needed to start their businesses.

Provision of skills training is important, but without startup capital, youth cannot get very far. While we do not like to just hand out money when asked for it so as to not propagate already rampant dependency, these cash transfer programs have been emerging more and more all over the world and seem to hold promising results.

I believe Chris Blattman, co-author on the study, sums it up nicely in his blog:

I used to think skills and capital were like right and left shoes: one’s not so useful without the other. Now I think of capital like the shoes and skills like the laces: if I have capital, I can jog a good pace, but I can’t really run unless I have the skills. But first I need the shoes. (And cash can buy me both.)

The problem is: too many programs just hand out laces. Old, ratty laces that don’t even fit people’s shoes. I don’t know why we do that. Maybe because we academics and NGO workers and elite government officials all live in a world where we ourselves invest in skills because there are things out there called firms and bureaucracies that have capital, and will pay us to use it.

While I have no idea how such a programmatic intervention would help these boys, I think it is important to consider how unconventional approaches like these cash transfer programs hold remarkable potential for poverty alleviation. We simply need to trust that individuals will invest this money in a way that truly benefits them in the long run.

Therein lies the problem.

All around me in Uganda, I see a recurring problem: Westerners come in to a community wishing to improve the lives of Ugandans. They come in with an idea, they come with funding from a donor or from friends and family, they come with good intentions in their hearts.

And of course, they come with the arrogant assumption that individuals across the developing world have no idea what is best for them, and that it is up to “us” to tell them. To simply hand an individual cash and assume they will spend it wisely is considered lunacy, so the cycle of mistrust and impositions of what is deemed by outsiders to be the “right” approach continues.

And this is what we call neo-colonialism.

Questioning our assumptions about poverty alleviation, and more importantly, questioning the lack of trust that runs rampant through this work, are crucial steps forward that I think far too few of us are taking.

So now I’m going to go apply to a job managing a research study on cash transfers. Hopefully much more on this soon.