When people ask me about Uganda, the first image that comes to my mind is always the pre-dawn drive along the road between Entebbe Airport and the capital city of Kampala. The smell of tropical Africa drifts through the open window, damp and warm, heavy with wood smoke, diesel exhaust, and the lingering scent of the night-blooming Datura. By the roadside, cooking fires and oil lamps illuminate families getting ready for the new day. Children are lit by the headlights, endless lines of children, walking along the verge. In a rainbow of uniforms, often barefoot, carrying books and lunch, they are on their way to school before it gets light.

This scenario is repeated every school day all across Uganda. Dustier and longer in rural areas, more polluted and congested in towns, these walks span up to 8 km in each direction. It is an enchanting sight. Pink and green and blue shirts and dresses move in and out of the shadows but as the sun rises, it shines not only on the children but also on the biggest problem facing education in Uganda. Twelve year olds outnumber 16 year olds and there are twice as many 6 year olds as 10 year olds. As the children get taller, there are fewer and fewer girls.

Actual figures are contested, but everyone agrees that the school dropout rates in Uganda are enormous and that they disproportionally impact girls. In November 2012, Ugandan national newspaper, The New Vision, claimed that 70 percent of the primary school graduating class of 2012 had dropped out in the years since they began kindergarten.

There is some argument over whether “ghost” enrollments, children claimed by schools that were never enrolled, inflated this figure, but whatever the truth, for a government committed to the Millennium Goal of providing education for all by 2015, this is an enormous problem.

A Struggling Education System

Uganda is the youngest country in the world, with a population of almost 35 million, and 52 percent of its citizens under 15. For any nation, this is a huge proportion of its population to educate, and with the third highest birthrate in the world, the challenges for the Ugandan government are going to get more acute.

When Yoweri Museveni became president of Uganda in 1986, he took over a country wracked by two decades of war and civil strife. Every sector of the country was suffering. Fuel was rationed, the roads were appalling, and schools, underfunded, understaffed, and in terrible structural disrepair, had to wait their turn. It was almost a decade before the government was able to make major commitments to primary education.

My arrival in Uganda in 1987 coincided with that of the new Museveni government, and 10 years later, we both became involved in the schools around Kibale National Park. My initial focus was conservation and it was the introduction of Universal Primary Education in 1997 that brought me face to face with conditions in local schools.

Primary education was now free for the first time since independence in 1962. The resultant doubling in enrollment brought already-struggling schools almost to the breaking point. Parents fought to get an education for their children despite absent teachers, enormous classes, and infrastructure that was frankly terrifying.

Staggering under a tidal wave of new students, disintegrating classrooms, and unpaid staff, Kasiisi Primary School principal, Lydia Kasenene, asked for help and a partnership was born. The Kasiisi Project was forged, like many small NGOs in developing countries, from overwhelming need on one side, and an urgent imperative to do something on the other. We soon realized that our other concern, conservation, was powerfully linked to the state of education in local schools. Children with no education, lacking options, are more likely to turn to forest resources to make ends meet.

A Project Takes Off

The Mission of the Kasiisi Project, to “conserve Kibale National Park through programs that promote scholastic achievement, good health, and care for the environment,” reflects our dual objectives. We target government primary schools within 5 kilometers of the park boundary because they most impact the forest and are most impacted by it. In the past 16 years, the project has grown to provide programs for 10,000 children in 14 schools and our annual budget has increased from less than US$1000 in 1997 to over US$200,000.

We began with infrastructure, but we soon understood that the only way we could effect real improvement was to take a comprehensive approach. We, like the Ugandan government, had two important and interconnected goals to make our schools better. The first was to tackle the huge dropout rates and the dreadful attendance records. We could not educate children who did not come to school. The second challenge was figuring out how could we provide a quality education if they did attend and how we would know if we were having an impact. We were data-oriented scientists and it came naturally to collect information and analyze everything. We recorded enrollment, absenteeism, and exam results and we tried to rigorously evaluate the effect of all our programs. It has stood us in good stead. Understanding our impact helps guide our way forward giving confidence that we are making the best choices.

Data from The National Bureau of Economic Research show that “[h]olding constant a student’s own ability and achievement, a student is much more likely to drop out of a poor quality school than a good one.” So one way we could hope to effectively tackle absenteeism and drop out rates would be to work on improving the quality of our schools.

And we had terrible schools, so no wonder our drop-out rates of 67 percent mimicked the national averages. They were terrible for many reasons: dangerous buildings, no books, poor sanitation, and no pencils or paper. But nothing impacts the standards of schools more than the performance and quality of the teachers, and the teachers did not come to work. On average teachers were absent one day in three—one school had 60 percent of its staff absent on any given day. Teachers signed in and then left, and with principals some of the worst offenders, discipline in most schools was extremely lax. Not surprisingly, we find a significant correlation between staff attendance and student attendance, and teacher absenteeism consistently predicted poor exam results.

The work conditions were and still are appalling in many schools. Class sizes are huge; for instance, it is not unusual to have one teacher teaching up to 200 children. Additionally, the pay is miserable. It is hard to blame staff for spending more time attending to small businesses and domestic issues than in the classroom. So our first and most important task was to find ways to support teachers and make them keen to come to work.

Our second objective was to raise academic standards. Children miss school for a host of reasons: menstruation, hunger, long walks from home, feeling lost in huge classes, domestic responsibilities, family economics, harassment on the road, and so on. But if we can get them to come to school and the teacher turns up, then it is vital that they are engaged and successful. Otherwise the challenges they face will eat away at their motivation to attend and they will play truant or drop out altogether. Rural parents also often have to be convinced about the importance of education.

Parents of girls fear that their daughters will be sexually targeted on the walk to school; parents of both sexes, worried about HIV/AIDS, prefer to keep their children safely at home. They are justified in their concern. HIV infection rates are particularly high in Ugandan teachers and sexual relationships between teachers and students, although illegal, are not uncommon. Many families also need their children’s contribution to the family budget to make ends meet. So unless they feel that their children have a chance of the kind of academic success that will bring them employment, they may not insist that their children go to school.

The Kasiisi Project addresses the twin challenges of attendance and quality with a range of interventions which include building classrooms, latrines and libraries, funding teacher training, computers, teaching supplies, post primary scholarships for students, and further training scholarships for teachers. We build boarding school facilities, kitchens and preschools, support literacy and school feeding programs, and health and conservation education initiatives. We have a school farm and agricultural education programs. We support athletics, sports, art, music, and boy and girl scouts, and we have programs addressing renewable energy and the special needs of girls.

In short, if it belongs in a primary school we will try to find a way to do it. And the results? In the last six years, Kasiisi Project schools have improved by a statistically significant 29 percent in exam scores, 25 percent higher than peer schools. The girls now do as well as the boys, and sometimes even better.

Attendance has improved and teachers are more likely to be in the classroom during surprise visits. Our scholarship program alumni include teachers, plumbers, medical technicians, electricians, and nurses. We have three university graduates, three medical students and three undergraduates, one a freshman at Harvard College. Alumni have become electricians, mechanics, agricultural technicians, beauticians, caterers, and for the first time we have a scholar in graduate school. Almost 90 percent have jobs. We have done well.

Challenges Faced

It is important to note that it has not been easy. Donors and recipients face different and sometimes competing personal and political pressures. Conflicting priorities and loyalties cause friction and misunderstanding. The major responsibility for our Ugandan board is making what they consider to be the best decisions for their schools and communities, whereas the primary consideration of the US charity is ensuring that the money donated is legally and appropriately spent in Uganda. Sometimes these two goals do not mesh. A key challenge has been ensuring that our Ugandan colleagues accept the distinction between restricted and unrestricted donations. If there is money in the bank, they want to spend it on whatever they consider is most important that day. That this money has been donated for an entirely different project is not relevant for them nor does it make sense. But if they spend money donated for scholarships on the pre-school, we have a problem.

In our experience, the major challenges we face can be divided roughly into two main categories, stemming from differences in attitudes to the use of resources and to the sharing of information. In his excellent book African Friends and Money Matters, David Marantz sympathetically addresses these issues and discusses the implication they have for donors and recipients trying to navigate cultural differences. The most immediate challenge for us, as is true for most aid organizations, regardless of size, is to ensure as much as possible that all funds are spent appropriately.

Transparency International ranked Uganda amongst the top 25 percent most corrupt countries in the world in 2012, and late last year it was reported that GBP 10 million of European aid money had apparently ended up in the bank accounts of staff in the office of the Ugandan Prime Minister. So it is not surprising that even small NGOs operating at a local level encounter corruption and graft with a frequency that would be unthinkable in the West. Several years ago, our then-accountant conspired with the head teacher of one of our schools to steal US$500, a huge sum by local standards.

The district Director of Education was brought in to adjudicate, everyone agreed the principal was guilty, but we never got the money back and she still has her job. We deal with backhanders, unapproved “loans,” nepotism, and theft. Our employees have a huge culturally imposed responsibility to share resources with family members, and for the very poor our pockets must seem bottomless. It is not so very different from “borrowing” pencils from the office, using work phones for personal calls, or even legacy admissions at Harvard, but the scale of the corruption requires constant vigilance.

The second challenge, getting our Ugandan colleagues to share information with us, is almost harder to deal with. As David Marantz says, information in many African societies is like currency, not to be spent without careful consideration. In addition, there is always the fear that if you are too truthful, the donor might take flight. For donors, aid is an option and they always go home in the end. For the recipients, there is grim necessity and the need to benefit as much as possible from a donor before they leave. This can inhibit honest evaluations of programs and give donors the feeling that they are sometimes fighting against the people they are trying to help, or at the least that they are engaged in a very complicated game. The US need to “get everything out on the table,” and to solve problems by “frank discussion” seems rude and crass to Ugandans who are much more comfortable with an indirect approach. If sharing information means passing on unpalatable information about a neighbor or friend, they will rarely do so. Problems do mostly get attended to, but we are seldom told about them, and over time this erodes the sense of partnership. Coming from a patriarchal society, Ugandan men particularly dislike having forceful interactions with Western women used to a more equal seat at the table.

So in Uganda, we are dealing with a more relaxed and courteous culture than ours, one that likes to approach problems in a roundabout way and where, in a crunch, family needs trump adherence to rules. The result can sometimes lead to an uncomfortable bumping of heads with the fast Western world, with its strict rules governing charitable donation, its need for rapid information and forthright conversations, and its reliance on timely and accurate financial accounting. Even after 16 years working together and strong bonds of familiarity and friendship, these differences cause clashes. Cultural sensitivity is required of both sides of the partnership. It is important for us to remember that, as donors, we are financially in the driving seat. The restraint this puts on our Ugandan partners must be galling at times, especially when they would like to share their views of our behavior more frankly.

The Future of Small NGOs

All aid organizations, large and small, will have many of the same challenges. For the larger institutions, the problems are particularly hard because layers of bureaucracy restrict personal connections. Smaller projects, such as ours, often appear to provide better value for money not just because they have low overheads, but also because they are usually based on personal relationships. Thus, when the inevitable problems arise, there is a foundation of trust that can foster solutions.

Of course, not all small NGOs are successful or effective. Charismatic personalities coupled with obvious need and charming photos should be viewed with some cynicism. I know a church, which over several years sent US$30,000 to a delightful clergyman in Kampala to build dental surgeries. When they finally asked for accounting, the recipient immediately refused and then broke off the connection, the money lost. A neighbor in Uganda solicited and obtained money from multiple different donors for the same tuition fees. Such examples are legion, and Western donors, individuals, small NGOs, and governments alike, are often handicapped by a political correctness that prevents them asking critical searching questions.

Even in rich countries, small charities support public education. It is the sheer number and relative impact of NGOs working with education in developing countries that is different. And this can bring duplication, a lack of standardization, and, all too often, competitiveness. These problems are much less likely to occur alongside a strong national education program, but for countries whose governments lack the resources to provide fully for their schools, small NGOs regularly fill many critical gaps. Often small NGOs support private schools. We have taken a different route. We know from 30 years in Africa that very often circumstances intervene that end connections between donors and recipients. Private schools, bereft of support, then collapse. In government schools teachers will still be paid, some financing will still be provided and the schools will survive.

So do small educational NGOs have an important place in improving education in developing counties? We think so. We cannot of course reach huge numbers of children the way that national programs funded by aid from governments can, but for the schools and students we do impact we can make a substantial difference. And we are a perfect venue for piloting interventions that can then be scaled without risking huge sums of money.

From watching the successes and failures of many small NGOs over the past 25 years, we think the key to a really positive outcome is time and a slow approach. Experience-based awareness of the differences in management style and goals between cultures, and strong personal relationships between donors and recipients, are the keys to building the understanding and tolerance needed to survive the inevitable problems.

These are not created overnight. Construction NGOs that build a school and move on are able to do their work without many years of personal investment, although the more superficial nature of their relationships makes them potentially more vulnerable. The Kasiisi Project was founded on a long-term research project and we repeatedly returned to the same community, forcing us along a different path, but the outcome has been beyond our wildest expectations. As for the future, we will continue to shift more financial control and independence to our Ugandan colleagues, look for a greater percentage of our budget to come from Ugandan donors and our new income generating projects, and hope that the Ugandan economy will grow to support a government with the resources to provide a good education for all its children. Then we will, as is the case in the West, have the luxury of providing the frills and not just the basic necessities of education.