Sunday, October 12, 2008

Final notes from the field

10 days, 3 hotels, no hot water. My days in the field have come to an end, and I am now enjoying the (relative) luxury of the Gulu Bomah hotel. Internet has been difficult, but I hope tomorrow to finally get some photos up.

In general things went well, though some challenges did arise.

After Nebbi, I went north to Arua town. Arua is even cooler and more hilly than Nebbi, and Sunday morning the entire town was covered in dense clouds, which stayed most of the day. The town though is packed with people; many are traders from the Congo, the rest ride their bicycles in the middle of the road.

I took the opportunity to visit some more former youth groups around the town on Sunday to pre-test the instruments we are using. The game dynamics questionnaire looks to be doing well, though it has helped that most of the people we have met are pretty well educated. On average, NUSAF participants have more education than the general population, most likely because joining the program is a lot of paper work and requires focus.

I am impressed though that most people seem to guess pretty closely to the objectives of the simulations. When I ask them what they thought of the games, comments included that the games were like investments in other people or group development, that trust was important for believing if the other players cooperate, not giving some money is like keeping something for yourself in case you get nothing back, and giving money is like a donation for the needy/less fortunate.

My last two days in Arua, Monday and Tuesday, though did not go so well though. On Monday I visited two projects and found no members. I can’t even confirm that most of them ever existed. In NUSAF, a project without members that was created by someone in the district for their own personal gain is called a “ghost project”. I’m not sure if that’s what I’ve found, but it looks suspicious.

On Tuesday morning, I again visited two projects, this time finding only one member from each. The first project I visited, a metal fabrication, had fallen apart because the leader of the group had taken the machine. When we questioned the person why the police and NUSAF hadn’t been contacted, he said he was going to, but hadn’t had the chance. It’s been 10 months since they had gotten the money.

The district office said it was his fault for not taking the initiative to complain, but I’m not convinced. To begin with, the group is composed of disabled people, and this specific man is mentally disabled. He is clearly part of a vulnerable group, and if NUSAF really wants to target these people, the districts need to better understand the difficulties they face. The group should have been followed up. After almost a year, NUSAF should know this problem already. The Arua office is responsible for one of the largest districts in Uganda, yet the head officer spends weekends in Kampala, and often doesn’t get back to the office until Tuesday.

I then ended my trip in Apac, though I stayed in Lira as my visit coincided with the national independence day holiday, and there is clearly nothing to do in Apac. I visited a motorcycle repair, vehicle repair and tailoring project in town, all of which look to be doing well.

I was very struck by one of the tailors, Margaret. Her husband has left her with 2 children, and her total profit in September from tailoring was only 30,000 USH (about $18). With this she somehow covers school fees, food and rent. She seemed to me to be very good with numbers, and is the only NUSAF recipient to correctly answer what 10% of 100 is.

(As a side note, percentage is something that must not be stressed in school here. I have found no one in Acholiland that can answer the question, and the only ones that have so far gotten it right are my research assistants from West Nile and Lira, both former teachers, and a high level district officer. Given that loans are readily encouraged to small businesses, I am very concerned if people know what they’re getting in to when most charge 12% + per month in interest.)

NUSAF paid for her training, and bought her machine, but there was not enough money to cover cloth or other raw material stocks, so she relies on her customers to bring cloth, and she sows it. This really limits her profit margin.

Before leaving Apac, I gave Margaret a ledger book to record all of her expenses (she knows how to write well it seems) and 60,000 USH. I made it clear the money is for her to expand her business. She plans to buy some cloth in the market, pre-make some clothes, and sell to traders. From what I hear, this is a pretty lucrative business.

My plan is to return in 3 to 6 months and look at the log book in detail. I want to know if an income shock will really work, given that she has family responsibilities. For women here, it’s hard to invest money into business when the kids get sick or school fees come. So, this is a little experiment to see if a smart woman can succeed with a little extra cash.

Plus, I really want to see her do well.

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