World Refugee Day 2019 – Community Ownership in Rwamwanja, Uganda

At Xavier Project we are fully committed to promoting community ownership in the delivery of services and activities that lead to positive social change. This has become the accepted modus operandi in the development context, but it is still a way of working that is all too rare to see in an emergency or humanitarian context.

Our plan is to prove through our partnerships with Community Based Organisations in refugee hosting areas that building the capacity of community leaders in forming their own vision for a better future is the most effective, the most sustainable and the most appropriate work that NGOs should be doing, even in an emergency context.

Community ownership to us does not just mean tokenistic community participation in decision making, or recruitment of refugees and host community members to salaried positions. To give an example of what I mean I would like to provide a case study of Tomorrow Vijana, a CBO we helped launch in 2015.

Tomorrow Vijana is made up of a group of Congolese refugees, whom we met teaching each other English under a tree in a remote corner of Rwamwanja Settlement in South West Uganda several years ago. Despite the challenging environment, the Tomorrow Vijana team had a clear vision as to how they wanted to play a role in delivering services. We were struck by their motivation and their resilience and we began a partnership that still remains strong. In 2016, we helped them raise £18,000 to construct a three classroom learning hub, complete with computers and solar power. This was only possible because the community contributed their own resources and people-power to the construction. It represents a bill that is far less than 50% of what it would have cost Xavier Project to build the hub ourselves using local companies. We have worked with Tomorrow Vijana consulting on their strategy, providing learning course content, assessment tools and access to funding. Now in 2019, Tomorrow Vijana are the main organisation providing services in their part of Rwamwanja, ranging from adult literacy, to English, basic computers, tailoring, savings and loans, and agriculture courses. Over 500 people per year, including numerous local Ugandans, complete courses in their hub and all data is disbursed to Xavier Project staff who support with analysis. 188 participants have graduated from adult literacy, 212 from basic computers. 66% of all participants have stated that the course helped them increase their income.

Tomorrow Vijana cover their own running costs with centrally run enterprises, such as a tomato growing co-operative and a catering company. They still turn to Xavier Project for investment in strategic guidance and new ideas. Currently, these include the launch of the first minibus service in the refugee settlement, and a solar powered chicken egg incubator. In partnership with Tomorrow Vijana, Xavier Project have also launched a 23 acre farm on the periphery of Rwamwanja settlement. The farm will create local employment and training for 300 people per year, with trickle down effects on the productivity on all farmers in Rwamwanja. By experimenting in new crops and better post-harvest crop management the farm will open up new markets to all farmers and exploit opportunities all along the value chain. The tangible social changes in these examples are entirely owned by the community members themselves. In Rwamwanja you will not see any Xavier Project branding or sign of our presence aside from what we offer behind the scenes.

What excites me about watching Tomorrow Vijana grow their impact is that I know it will survive Xavier Project’s presence in Rwamwanja. Their work is far more effective than anything we could have done directly because they fully understand the problems faced by their communities, and with the right support they are best placed to settle on solutions. They can tap into existing community resources that none of us can know exist, let alone access.

Aside from being effective and sustainable, this approach is also urgently needed. Since 2017 international budgets for supporting displaced people has gone down in real terms, while the number of people of concern has increased from 65 million to 68 million. Sadly, I believe this trend is going to continue. The implications of this are already being seen in drastically reduced scope of services to refugees, from education to healthcare to food handouts, leading inevitably to worsened living conditions. Only increased community ownership can tackle this trend in a way that enables refugee well-being to improve, and relations with the local host community to grow positively. In Uganda, where 1.2 million refugees are being hosted, this is a particularly fragile balance that must be found.

And this approach is the most appropriate, not just because it is effective and urgently needed, but because it enables refugees and the populations hosting them to envisage and realise a better future together. This achieves a sense of dignity for a population whose dignity and rights have been suppressed through the experience of forced displacement. Today, World Refugee Day, is the day to collectively reflect on what dignity for refugees really means, even if it means drastically changing the way a lot of us work.

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