Thursday, November 12, 2009

Unsung Heroes

The road to Paicho IDP camp leads out of Gulu to the Northeast through rural farmland and neighboring camps, a dynamic pair of symbols: the first of hope for a future that allows people to return to their peaceful pastoral lifestyles, and the second, living legacies of the war.

Paicho, the site of one of our two pilot schools, has become somewhat of a hybrid between the two. During the armed conflict, mud huts stood crammed together, tens of thousands of people living 9 or 10 to a room. Food was delivered once or twice monthly to long crowded lines of families waiting to receive bags of rice. Camps were set up for people who lived in remote areas to provide protection from rebel attacks and abductions. But often the camps increased the efficiency of rebel activity, condensing large populations into one relatively small, miserable space with a disturbingly disproportionate guard-to-civilian ratio.

Many Paicho residents have lived in the camp their whole lives. Women have raised children there, young adults have spent their formative years there, and communities have organized into support groups and nonprofit organizations. Many people have left to return to their original villages in order to reclaim their land and resume farming and relinquish the crutch of the UN. Others, though, have made Paicho their home, building more permanent structures, investing in the school and participating in local leadership structures. One such resident is Richard Onen, a man who's commitment to peace and development is only matched by his humble kindness and true optimism for his community. Along with his childhood friend, Victor Ochen, Richard founded the Ugandan branch of the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET). It is a small organization whose accomplishments put mega international organizations with ten times the resources to shame. With a staff of 11 and a small office based in the town of Lira, they aid vulnerable populations in over a dozen sub-regions of Northern Uganda.

This year alone, they are pursuing eight projects, including reconstructive surgery for youth who were mutilated by LRA rebels, micro-finance projects for young widows struggling to support their families and the resettlement of 4,000 internally displaced persons returning to their homes after 20 years of war. As they carry out their work, AYINET is audited by veteran institutions like United Nations and USAID, and consistently found to be working at over 80% efficiency, blowing their bigger richer counterparts out of the water. What explains the discrepancy? These are two individuals whose hearts and souls are tied up in their work. Their experiences during the war manifest in aggressive commitment to ensuring that mass atrocity does not reoccur in their communities. Their intimate knowledge of Northern Uganda - politics, tradition, religion, money, water, land - mean that they are better equipped than the most well-funded, PhD-ridden international aid staff out there.

Victor and Richard are a dynamic team who work harder than anyone I've known - I often ask Victor when he sleeps, to which he replies, "It's good to be exhausted. If I'm sleeping, I can't be moving around to all the ones that need support." On top of their insane work ethic, their charisma and humor makes spending time with them a total joy. They pay attention to the human side of suffering, and avoid the jaded attitude of development workers who have little personal long-term investment in Northern Uganda's future.

Politicians, celebrities and international humanitarian advocates puzzle endlessly over the best ways to carry out development work, dumping funding into large-scale cut-and-paste programs. Many of them are missing the local component. We would go a long way in supporting transitional democracies simply by spending the time to find the individuals who make magic happen in their communities. These are the people we need to support.


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