Just back from Venice (significant birthday gift, many thanks to family). and the Architectural Biennale: ‘Reporting from the Front’. A huge exhibition with much about poverty, refugees, rapid urbanisation and the developing world, all relevant to our time in Uganda and our time back in the UK.
For example Solano Benitez from Paraguay: “Working with two of the most easily available materials – brick and unqualified labour – as a way to transform scarcity into abundance”. All those mud bricks and blue skies took me back to being VSO volunteers on a DFID sponsored vocational training programme in Northern Uganda.
There has been a lot in the press recently about foreign aid, the Guardian ran a very good editorial recently showing the benefits of foreign aid. But it is the Daily Mail and their petition for a debate in the Houses of Parliament on 13 June that is more worrying. The debate itself was surprisingly measured and supportive, despite those trying to demonize Palestinians our MPs were, mostly, a long way from the distortion and untruth that characterises what we read every day.
Brickmaking was everywhere in Northern Uganda, it is a relatively unskilled process. Bricklaying and Concrete Practice was a standard course in our vocational colleges and heavily subscribed. The resultant buildings were simple and quick to put up but often unsuitable for the climate or their occupants and never innovative.
Many exhibits at the Biennale concerned these traditional methods of construction and what could be done with them, along with mud bricks, rammed earth or ‘pisé de terre’ was en vogue throughout, eg the Renzo Piano Paediatric Centre in Entebbe).
Benitez uses simple formers to pour mortar and place the bricks in sections. Low skilled workers use these modules to make high quality buildings relevant to them, the possibilities seemed endless, that high roof would keep the heat down for example and keep down the need for timber. A flexible building method that can be ‘owned’ and developed by its users, no need for imposed solutions that collapse once the Westerners have gone.
The sustainable simplicity I saw in some (but definitely not all) of the exhibits at the Architecture Biennale, made me think of some of the people we worked with in Gulu, and wonder how they are getting on and what they might have been doing had our programme had not existed.
Perhaps the most impressive was Margaret Atoke from Koch Goma. I made a film with her, showing the impact of our programme. Margaret had not been to school, she was a girl and no one would pay for her. But after our training she was able to set up her own business and employ others, training them herself.
I remember her saying that the day she put on her college T shirt was the proudest of her life, the thought that she Margaret could actually go to school was what inspired her to make her a subsequent life a success.
This is why UK aid matters. UK aid was leading the way in Uganda, and East Africa, developing aid programmes that delivered tangible results. Previous programmes by others made little substantial change. By contrast, the DFID programme was carefully planned, monitored and evaluated. It not only trained 15,400 students in employable and relevant market relevant skills, but the accompanying psycho-social and life skills programme, the in-depth entrepreneurship, literacy and numeracy training and six month post training support, meant that the training would last; a first for the area.
It is not only the 15,400 students directly trained that benefited from the DFID programme, (50% female by the way, unusual for this sector). Their families, their dependents, the local and national economies will all benefit, this was a graphic I saw in Venice pointing that out.
Apart from the great goodwill towards Britain, we benefit too, making people healthy, financially independent and responsible for their own lives will help prevent the sort of violent collapse of order that caused such problems in the first place. Ebola for example was first identified amongst Ugandan soldiers in Gulu, the programme’s centre. Virulent disease, violent systemic disorder, destructive ideologies, mass migration, all these problems can now be quickly exported across the world. But carefully managed, well designed and monitored programmes such as the one delivered by DFID and VSO volunteers in Northern Uganda over the last three years, can make Britain safer and happier too, safe also in the knowledge that we have helped humanity and ourselves.
Please believe me that British aid works, I have seen it doing so and have many films, stories and pictures to prove it. Please support the British Government’s successful, and much envied by the way, aid programme. Try contacting your MP, it’s much easier than you might think. Remember Margaret and many like her, it’s your money (in a way) that helped her, be proud of that. And start shovelling that mud in the garden to make some bricks, who knows what you might build yourself?