Interview | Javie Ssozi – Helping Ugandan voices reclaim the legacy of the LRA war

Think Africa Press recently published a very thorough, balanced and well-written analysis of the Kony2012 furore and what it means for humanitarian organisations and their future campaigns – read it in full here. There was one section that really got my attention,

Kony2012 was unrivalled in its spread as a viral campaign and, in the UK, donations to international aid NGOs have been rising. But at the same time, these same strategies are possibly undermining the cultivation of more concerted, long-term commitments. (Kony2012 itself did not even sustain interest long enough to mobilise action for its Cover the Night campaign the next month.)

While I broadly embrace the sentiment that, long-term, the ‘success’ of the campaign will be seen in an entirely different light I think that this point of view misses a very important part of the video’s audience – Ugandans.

The website was set up in the aftermath of Invisible Children’s campaign. As the Think Africa Press article points out, the film had very little Ugandan input, focusing much more on the IC director, Jason Russell. For obvious reasons, many Ugandans were incensed by having their narrative, their issue, taken off their hands and presented to the world as a problem that revolves around the actions of North Americans. The founders of UgandaSpeaks wanted to combat that.

I caught up with Javie Ssozi, one of the co-founders of the site, to get some more information on the project.

Javie Ssozi

UgandaSpeaks was prompted by the KONY2012 phenomenon, a topic which has garnered an unbelievable amount of attention as well as a huge backlash from the development blogosphere and Ugandan journalists and activists. What do you think UgandaSpeaks can add to this discussion?

What UgandaSpeaks adds to the topic is not only valid arguments about the subject but also voices of Ugandans who have more experience in the legacy of the war in the North.  

There seem to be quite a lot of people involved in founding the site: who are they and how did you all come together?

The people who are involved in UgandaSpeaks are:

  1. Javie Ssozi
  2. Rosebell Kagumire
  3. Maureen Agena
  4. Echwalu Edward
  5. Ole Tangen

All of these people have had experience covering news stories or doing social work in Northern Uganda where Joseph Kony and the LRA committed terrible atrocities.

Who is running things, day to day?

We all work as a team even though myself (Javie) does most of the work related to the website. 

How many submissions have you had so far? Are Ugandans excited about this initiative?

Yes, many Ugandan journalists, storytellers and social workers have strong interest in the initiative. In fact, many young people who have just started their careers in storytelling and journalism have asked to join the UgandaSpeaks team. Many other Ugandans have shown support through retweeting and sharing our stories on Facebook and other social networks. 

A lot of the people behind UgandaSpeaks a fairly well known journalists and activists – who will be overseeing the film production aspect of your project?

 Javie Ssozi and Maureen Agena oversaw the production of the film.

Recently, there has been something of a backlash (see here) against the rhetoric of ‘telling positive stories about Africa’ – does a project like UgandaSpeaks go beyond a marketing/advertising push? How?

Actually the approach that UgandaSpeaks takes is more personal story driven. Our narrative takes shape from the experience of the teller. For example we do want to tell positive stories about Africa but also we realize that people have challenges. So, we allow for people to show both sides of their stories. 

Is your aim to place Ugandan authored stories about Kony in the international press or the national press?

I think we have already done this. But our aim is to share the stories of the people who have first hand information about what happened in Northern Uganda. Eventually we shall cover stories about all sorts of people and things around Uganda depending on our budget. 

Who is your audience and why are they your audience?

Our Audience on the KONY2012 topic is mainly people from the west because they know so little about Uganda. We just want to educate them and perhaps in doing so we shall recapture the narrative that KONY2012 video puts across. 

Have you had any approaches by Ugandan political figures? If not, do you think they staying away from this topic because of pressures from international aid/development organisations?

Eventually the Prime Minister of Uganda (Amama Mbabazi) did two YouTube videos on the topic. I  think our government officials are not technically agile as we (UgandaSpeaks/ independent netizens) are but also I think they have to follow some kind of procedure.

How do you feel about aid/development? Does it have it’s place or is it time to replace it with large-scale trade initiatives?

Aid is good because in one way or another it ends up helping someone somewhere. However, aid is NOT sustainable. Promoting entrepreneurship and trade would be a more sustainable way of supporting people in the developing countries. 

Is there a middle ground in the aid vs trade debate?
Since (most of) the aid is always ending up in the hands of people who will either miss use it or embezzle it, I think trade would be the way to go. And there are already a number of initiatives promoting trade between Uganda and the rest of the world. I believe more of these initiative would bring the ultimate change we need – and perhaps one day we shall be like China! This country has the potential to supply 3% or even more than that of the world’s food.

Reason No. 2894 To Love Twitter

On the 20th of December I had a very interesting online discussion with Calestous Juma, Professor at Harvard, who focuses on ‘the role of science, technology, engineering and innovation in sustainable development’.

A couple of days before, Mr Juma had sent a tweet that quoted a news story (below) in which a bullish Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda (sometimes referred to as ‘M7’), dismissed the issue of human rights abuses (in this case, more specifically focused on homosexual rights) in favour of focusing on infrastructure development:

“Before anyone gives me a lecture about homosexuals and their rights, first talk about railways.”

My immediate reaction was that this was a cynical attempt to get people to ignore an unpopular issue that Museveni doesn’t want to have to backdown on because of donor pressure. His apparent focus on the development of infrastructure struck me as particularly false. Being a social media evangelist and relentless self amplifier, I posted a response:

Much to my surprise (and delight), the eminent professor replied. At this point, we started to have a very interesting discussion of which I have built a Storify as I had seen this article in The Guardian that made me think I could embed it into a post. Having attempted to make it work, giving up, and then Googling I discovered that I could not embed this long, arduously constructed page of content. WordPress does not allow such things for security reasons.
Unfortunately I’m going to have to ask you to click on a link to go somewhere else, sorry about that. It also means that this post is rather short. Again, sorry.

See the rest here.

Beat The News Blues: Get Involved In Doing Good

God I hope these guys are an elaborate practical joke. Image from: Rights Cogency

Perhaps it’s seasonal but, particularly at the moment, the news seems to be purpose made to make you blue. Europe is a disaster and America seems to be systematically discrediting democracy by parading a series of gibbering, barely sane lunatics in power suits designed to make people give up and become anarchists. The population boom largely centred in Asia has unleashed a whole new cycle of doomsayers. The Horn of Africa crisis is an ongoing humanitarian disaster of enormous proportions, exacerbated by regional war, while, to the North, the Arab Spring, sadly, threatens to come unsprung. It’s all a bit glum.

Being of a do-gooding bent, these kind of bad-news stories make me want to help in some way but, often,  it can all seem like far too much to do. So, you do something immediate, something relatively small – like sponsoring a child for a couple of quid a month – that will make some difference. But then you’re told all sorts of negative stories about such acts: it isn’t sustainable, it’s paternalistic, it ignores the voices and opinions of the victims and, as a result of all of those things, it’s insignificant. That’s a bummer, man.

In recent weeks I have become more and more interested in what people can do that isn’t just shelling out money before forgetting about the issue. As I’ve written about before, people are terrifically generous with their cash. Culturally, however, that is where that ends: things like time, energy, attention, conversation, these are things that the development industry need to get more of a hold on. At this point in the post, finally, the gloom starts to lift.


  1. Lobby your MP – while giving money directly(ish) to victims of disasters is laudable it’s unlikely to do much to defend against such disasters from recurring: there are international or regional economic and political factors that make the poverty of, say, small-hold farmers in the developing world virtually inevitable. So why not give your MP a kick up the ass to try and get those things changed? MPs want to have good stories about them responding to local complaints – normally to do with proposed McDonald’s sites – which could very easily be yours. You give them a ring, a letter, an email, a tweet and they are more likely to ask their party leader to be interested in the issue. Plus, it isn’t hard to do and it doesn’t cost you anything. If you don’t have a particular issue you’re interested in, try this.
  2. GOOD Maker – a platform for local people who have ideas that can alleviate local problems. You pitch your solution, the community votes and you get a grant to enact it. Failing that, have a look at what people have submitted and support the one you like best. Truly, a wonderful experiment that combines the worlds of crowd-sourcing and sustainable, local development.
  3. Protect those who stand up for you – yesterday was the International Day to End Impunity, a day dedicated to fighting for justice for those murdered journalists and whistleblowers who have been killed for standing up to those who abuse power. Click the link, sign the petition – a sickening amount of journalists have died in the last 10 years (I have posted in more depth on the subject before) and deserve, at the very least, for their deaths to be investigated.
  4. Volunteer locally – this one is much more effort but, equally, much more engaging (you’ll feel pretty amazing). I often get people asking me why I want to work in East Africa rather than closer to home (the weather, silly!). I have done some of this – my University found a good local program for me to get involved with – and it is rather wonderful as well as being a nice little touch for the CV of a struggling unemployed young Brit…

Go on, give one of these a go. You can sit back and bask in the smug self-satisfaction after. If you do two of them, you can switch channels from one of those horribly miserable TV charity ads without feeling guilty.

Giving & Morality – Part 2

Photo from the O Project

Is this how you see things?

Read Part 1

The holiday season is a good time for giving. In my family, Christmas presents between adults (it would be somewhat cruel for little kids) tend to be Send A Cow gifts or other charity based gifts. We don’t really need much extra stuff so we tend to our egos and our sense of first world shame instead, it’s a delightful exchange.

For us, I suspect, we feel that not to give is heartless: how can we sit by and enjoy our standard and living if we can possibly help some less fortunate people? In short, the act of giving is largely wrapped up in guilt and issues of conscience. We also tend to give to young women because, as Christopher Hitchens said: the cure for poverty is “… colloquially called ‘the empowerment of women’. If you allow women control over their cycle of reproduction… then the whole floor – culturally, medically, socially – of that village will rise.” This comes from the broadly feminist politics my family has. So, why do we give to charity? Guilt, conscience, gender.

That Hitchens quote is from his much blogged about debate with Tony Blair on the motion, ‘Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.’ Hitchens, obviously, opposed the motion and was largely seen to have won the debate in most of the world although, notably, not in the USA. The other countries that voted that Blair had won the debate were largely religious, so were likely to vote with the non-secular argument, and, generally, were developing nations. The USA, with its ‘silent majority’ and anti-Communist, Christian pledge of allegiance, fits one of those parameters which seemed enough to overcome the developed/developing divide. Within America, as stated in a 2007 book by Arthur C Brooks,

Religious conservatives donate far more money than secular liberals to all sorts of charitable activities, irrespective of income.

Religion, then, might well be an important reason for many to give to charity. In fact, one of the oldest in-depth examinations of giving and charity comes from Rabbinic scholarship – the ‘eight degrees of charity’ written in 1180. The highest degree is one which eliminates the need for more aid – something remarkably similar to the sustainability movement that has become such an important part of global development over the last twenty years or so. Perhaps, then, the outcomes of giving are an important part of why people continuously give so generously to ‘noble’ causes while columnists endlessly warn us about the moral decline of the nation.

Promising to ‘make poverty history’, then, is the sort of thing people want to commit to: the end of anything bad – smallpox, malaria, AIDS – is something pretty much all sane people would want to be involved with. The danger, of course, is that if you try to appeal to people with such ‘outcomes’  and they don’t get fulfilled you’ve probably made quite a lot of people lose faith in charity – whether or not this loss of faith is significant enough to make people actually stop donating is a study I’d be interested in doing (or reading, if anyone can find one).

For me, this ,again, comes back to sustainability. If the actual reasons why people give are varied and, in all likelihood, very much dependent on personality, then the way in which charities seek to extract funds for their particular cause needs to be broad and largely inoffensive. Unless you happen to know there are a bunch of multi-millionaires who are particularly fuelled by, say, images of badly ploughed fields, it’s pretty unlikely to be a useful campaign, certainly in terms of mass market appeal (enter celebrity activists). The ability for different charities to gain traction with the wider public is down to how charities treat that public – if they all use ‘flies in the eyes’ children when making appeals about Africa, that’s what people are going to expect and, probably, respond to. However,  I suspect that the longer we use those images, the more dominant an image they become, the less things seem to be changing and, ultimately, the more ‘compassion fatigue’ becomes a genuine problem.

At the moment, people are fantastically generous. If they cease to be, charities will most likely have themselves to blame.

So how should we be getting people’s attention? Send me your thoughts.