When you were born, raised, and married in a camp where you weren’t allowed to work and all of the resources you needed were dropped off by aid organizations, when the war ends and you’re on your own, how do you rebuild your life and your community?
For the residents of Gulu, Uganda, this issue is one they’ve been grappling with since 2006.
War, and the decades spent living in protected camps, devastated the mental landscape—more so even than the physical landscape—of Northern Uganda. And now, with years and hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid poured into the region since the camps closed—with little large-scale improvement to show for it—many, including Geneva Global, are saying that there must be a better way.
How do you solve the problem of simultaneously providing a community with health care, education, and jobs for those who want them? And how do you enable humans to flourish in a post-war recovery setting? I went to see how Geneva Global’s Integrated Fund was designed to answer these questions in Gulu, a district in Northern Uganda’s Acholi sub-region.
Young men slung over their motorbikes eager to give you a ride are the public transportation system—a visible sign of motivation for employment as one drives into town. Look a little harder though and the burden of mental illness and coping mechanisms can be seen through crowded bars and betting parlors.
The root of the issue in Gulu is less about the vocational training and financing in its many forms, which are both in steady supply, and more about repairing the social fabric so humans have the hope, trust, and resilience to flourish again.
Two programs I saw provide illustrations of how integrated development can be more effective. In this case, both organizations are integrating mental health care so that their vocational investments take root and are sustained.
The Recreation Project
“I was doing vocational workshops and people’s eyes were glazed over,” described Ben Porter, a neuroscientist. “It was then that I realized a more visceral experience was needed to match and confront the issues of fear, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder around Gulu.”
His organization, The Recreation Project (TRP), works to heal the latent fear many have, and then reprogram their associations through competition and exhilaration through a wilderness obstacle course.
By taking the youth through activities such as the “Impossible Wall,” they begin to deal with their depression, lack of a support network, and they overcome the idea that they must rely on decades of handouts. “They begin to believe that they can do it,” Ben adds.
TRP transitions participants from lessons on the ropes course to an adjacent farm where agriculture and livestock principles are taught. This gives young adults a chance to have a rehabilitated sense of self and learn essential vocational skills. The most promising individuals receive a loan to launch a business to provide local markets and restaurants with produce and pork.
This blend of soft and vocational skills development in a fun, experiential setting is very attractive—so much so that in addition to the youth groups who attend for free, TRP caters to a growing number of paid groups, thus generating an earned income revenue stream for the organization.
New Foundation Community Ministry
“I saw a young man playing football, and as he raced down the field about to score a goal, he fell to the ground in a panic attack over a flashback from the war,” said Pastor Aloyisious. He came to Gulu ten years ago with his wife to counsel youth who had been through trauma by using sports as a mechanism for healing.
While interacting with the community Aloyisious repeatedly heard about a desire for jobs and inclusion in the banking system. The days when Gulu was hailed as the “Food Basket of Uganda” for its production of maize, nuts, milk, and coffee, among other lucrative crops, were a long gone casualty of war.
People had become so reliant on decades of supplies from aid organizations that they didn’t even know how to plant seeds.
New Foundation Community Ministry (NFCM) was formed to create groups of smallholder farmers, teach them how to farm again, microfinance the necessary inputs like seed and fertilizer at a reasonable rate, and bring people back into the banking system. NFCM also organizes groups of farmers to engage produce markets with more leverage, with the potential for small impact investments as the enterprises grow.
Importantly, as the farmers learn the craft and inevitably make mistakes, such as planting too late or harvesting at the same time as others which results in lower prices, the team provides coaching. They even restructure loans for another season instead of demanding repayment and shutting down the farmers, as other banks would.
“We’re not just running workshops. We’re on the ground experimenting to determine what works in the field. And at the same time we’re helping to rebuild trust and accountability for people, not just in the markets and banking system, but among each other,” added Aloyisious.
TRP and NFCM are two examples of the kinds of programs that the Integrated Fund invests in because of their unique, holistic approach. These organizations work at the grassroots level to address the root issue of their community.
The programs simultaneously work across sectors and use financial tools beyond just grants. The organizations have a strong commitment to support local leadership both through program activities and within their staff development.
In so doing they’re a break from the traditional development programs.
A Breakdown of Integration: How both organizations work across sectors, and apply blended capital and a revenue-generating component to make them more sustainable.