Monday, July 23, 2007

Tension, Confrontation and Resolution

We've made progress in the last few weeks, but not in ways we expected. There won't be any artwork, music or photography in this post but the reflections of a group struggling to understand where we are and where we've come from. Working and living in a foreign country has brought excitement into the smallest activity but has also presented us with difficult challenges and fundamental tensions.

This past week our entire group, recently joined by a social worker (Aura) and two art therapists (Sunny and Meg), traveled to Lyantonde to meet with the staff of PARDI, a community-based organization (CBO) established in 2001 to address the economic and social impact of HIV/AIDS on rural communities. PARDI (Participatory Action for Rural Development Initiative) supports a variety of community initiatives in Lyantonde, Rakai and Sembabule districts. Their activities range from providing school uniforms for children orphaned by AIDS to guidance and counseling for HIV positive parents. Similar to Project FOCUS, PARDI is composed of volunteers who offer their time, their professional skills and a sizable chunk of their salaries to support the organization and the communities it serves.

Our reasons for working with PARDI are two-fold. First, PARDI represents the community's response to a crisis that no one else seemed to care about, or knew how to address. Second, we have no desire to undermine the existing effort of community members who are committed and passionate to creating change in their their environment. We believe a collaboration with a CBO such as PARDI is our best option. Such a partnership will allow us to implement our programs with the guidance of community members who are best equipped to understand the needs and identify the assets of their community.


Every relationship faces challenges and undergoes tension. Unfortunately, our challenges over the last week have been extremely difficult and confusing to understand. Tension resulting from misunderstanding and mistrust have almost led our organization to cut ties with PARDI and move on. Not all relationships work, no matter how perfect they seem upon first impression. Some of these issues are difficult to write about, but we hope that others can learn from our mistakes and experiences. As an organization we have nothing to hide but much to learn. We welcome your comments and questions.

1) Misunderstanding

There was a lot of misunderstanding between Project FOCUS and PARDI concerning art therapy and it's role in the community. We prematurely assumed that the community would understand and embrace the concept of self-expression as a form of therapy without explanation or proof. Should they believe us just because we come from the United States? And what about language? How does their understanding of 'art', 'self-expression' and 'therapy' differ from our definitions informed by western culture and history? And how can we reasonably and ethically address psycho-social needs when survival is constantly challenged by absolute poverty and a lack of material support? What should we offer children orphaned by AIDS -- blankets and clothes or an opportunity to grieve the loss of their parents?

2) Mistrust

Misunderstanding often breeds mistrust. In our case, stereotypical assumptions and a lack of transparency resulted in problems. Foreigners from the United States and other developed countries are often perceived as wealthy donors when they're in Uganda. It's not uncommon for a child to walk up to you, to pull your shirt and ask you to sponsor her school fees. Though it's difficult to say, it's easy to see that in many way Uganda is a country suffering from financial dependency on international NGOs and development agencies. As a non-profit organization coming to work in Uganda, Project FOCUS was immediately targeted for its money. In dealing with an individual that represents PARDI, there's been a lot of confusion and dispute over finances, from 50 cents to $500. We were concerned that we had been taken advantage of and repeatedly lied to. It's important not to assume trust, but to build it. And in working with a community-based organization, it's also important to understand the accountability and decision-making structure of the organization. We've heard too many stories of well-intentioned organizations and victimized communities being robbed by individuals that participate in a culture of corruption. Who's responsible for the system that condones, even encourages, corruption? It may not be who you think it is. Over the last few decades developed countries have given lots of money to Africa, perhaps out of guilt, without following where it's gone. Support meant for millions has too often created millionaires.


In order to address the causes of these growing tensions, we organized a meeting between all of the members of Project FOCUS and the entire staff of PARDI. A total of 10 of us and 10 PARDI staff members met in the courtyard of a small hotel, seated in a large circle after dark. The meeting had two objectives -- to address our previous concerns and misunderstandings and to define the future partnership between PARDI and Project FOCUS.

The meeting was an open dialogue and both groups were encouraged to ask difficult questions and respond honestly. We wanted our relationship to be built on a stable foundation of transparency and accountability. Some moments of the meeting were extremely uncomfortable but afterwards provided us with a sense of relief and deeper understanding of each other's mistakes and intentions.


The process of building trust takes time. Not all of the tensions were resolved in the staff meeting. There are some challenges that may never be resolved, like the issue of finding a balance between meeting psycho-social needs and material needs. The past few week has been a struggle, but it's brought our group closer together. It's challenged us to rethink our philosophy and question our intentions and project ideas. We'll follow-up this post with a more complete discussion of the resolution as it evolves between our organizations. But we're hopeful for a supportive and successful collaboration between Project FOCUS and PARDI.


Jackie said...

nice blog, guys! awesome that you found the time to put it together.

this issue of dependence on foreign ngos, which often are not well overseen, is a very REAL problem in much of Africa.

it's tough, though, cause on the other hand people want to say- oh! it's all corrupt, so we can't give money to anything, so therefore we don't have to DO anything.

and then on the other hand you have people giving money, expecting that something will be done, and then the issue of lack of oversight on the ground leading to the squandering of it.

SO frustrating.

of course, there are also the gem ngo's that are responsible and ethical and working hard and partnering with or springing from the people, and generally not getting half the attention and support they deserve.

well, i'm glad you guys were able to resolve some of the tensions out there (it's tough to mediate the assumption that all americans are rolling in money- which hollywood, rap culture, and mainstream media intentionally propogates), and look forward to reading more about what you're up to, Insha'allah.

keep the beautiful pictures and stories flowing~ xoxoxo,

Roy said...

I really appreciate this post guys.
I recently was able to speak to over a hundred h.s. students and I wanted to tell you that the stories i told them of you guys and our work really inspired them and got them asking some great questions!

Danichi, Betsy and I were able to get together with Rhea last night and we all heard about the past 6 weeks from her, good and bad. I personally think it would be a great idea to 1.) emphasize the use of art to improve these youth's lives like we are doing with FOCUS through the funds we have raised and gave back to the organization. 2.) start thinking of how we could do something similar with the local resources we have in the city, meaning, collaborating with one of those 250 NGO's Harishi has mentioned that do need-based work.
Maybe there is a possibility we can share these youth's stories through art with NGO's in Gulu or Kampala and create an outlet for these youth and in return gain the aid needed by these youth from the organization's who's mission are to provide for thier needs.

This could be our chance to give attention to this region of the country and still provide a means of dealing with the emotional needs of the youth.

I just wanted to say that I can't wait to join back up with you guys again, and that I encourage you all to keep building up trust with eachother, and not to forget who were working for. I know you wont, but I wanted to send some encouragement your way. Keep up the good work, and I can't wait to see you!

Cristina Deptula said...

Thanks for this post and for sharing it with those in LiveJournal's Uganda's Calling community! I appreciate the honest, realistic assessment of the opportunities and the challenges of international nonprofit facilitation. Unchallenged assumptions on both sides can cause tensions and I am glad you addressed those via open dialogue. I've recently read Mark Juergensmeyer's Gandhi's Way, which is a guide to Gandhi's method of resolving disputes by grasping the truths inherent in each position and then creating a solution incorporating those truths.

Is there a way the children or the community could earn money through artwork or mural design or photography? Maybe they could create artistic products with some practical use (blankets, bags, dishes, etc) so that they can both heal through art and sustainably address their physical needs?

I think the work you and PARDI are doing and the discussions you are holding are awesome and I am glad you are making progress.

Tonight I looked through some old papers from my college days and found something I'd written, inspired by novels about African countries during Western imperialism/colonialism, that argued that the best way to make a positive change in a society was by working together with the local society and culture, emphasizing positive ideas within a framework with which the people will already be familiar. Perhaps you could look into how art and grief/therapy/storytelling already manifests itself within the communities where you work? Maybe it's happening already but in different formats or contexts or conceptualizations.

Anyway, great post and I wish you all the best!

Harish said...

First of all , i want to say thank you to all that responded to the posts.
In my opinion, i am very glad that there is a constant post that requires honesty and also accountability. As jackie said, it is very difficult in the midst of cultural differences, and all to keep each other accountable and create a system that is culture sensitive, but at the same time it is much needed.
Too much money has gone in the wrong hands because of the lack of transparency and accountability and it is our responsibility, as donors and "activists" to keep each other and our partners accountable.

All in all, Uganda is been wonderful, i am leaving tomorrow and can assure you that the team of artists that are staying back are going to kick-ass.
roy - you better bring a camera, because there is a lot to document, brother,