Why Not To Start an NGO in Uganda

July 20, 2011

child mother pic of me2

Many times when people come to visit Zion Project in Uganda, they often ask me, how did you manage to get this thing started?

Well, the short answer is, Non-Profits for Dummies and lots of late nights and frappuccino’s.

But nothing, nothing prepared me for the challenge of doing the whole process all over again in Uganda.

Recently I was inspired and prompted to outbreaks of laughter, by the words of Becky Straw on Why you shouldn’t start a non-profit. So I decided to write my own version, specific to Uganda.

For all of you who are absolutely committed to helping people, you may want to consider other methods before you traverse down the perilous path of trying to register your non-profit in Uganda. Like a CBO for example. (Community Based Organization) or a Socially Conscious Business. And most definitely read books like The Trouble with Africa, and When Helping Hurts, so you don’t just contribute more to the problem you are trying to solve. Dependency is not the same thing as dignity.

And if you come to my town and start handing out money, I might have to cause you physical harm.

But like me, if you are fabulously determined (ie- stupid) and have lots of time to kill, then here are a few things you should know:

Prepare to not know what you are doing and not have any clear instructions

I was pretty much looking for some kind of simple, manageable A, B, C, list. Like, step 1. Build a Board of Directors, etc. Or maybe an example. Yeah, that doesn’t exist. Pretty much every Ugandan will tell you a different way of starting your NGO. My recommendation: listen to none of them and hire a lawyer. Believe me, its worth it. And it will save you many hours in the internet cafe trying to get your Ugandan friend to write a logical constitution. It will also save your computer’s life. As you will want to throw it out the window when the power goes out and you lose all your information. On a document you had no idea how to write any way.

Prepare to lose a lot of sleep and gain 10 pounds

If you like to wake up after 7am, do your hair, eat a well balanced meal, and then do yoga. This is probably not for you. Most days you will fall asleep with your clothes still on, sweaty, stressed, hair afrizz in the middle of typing an important document which strangely enough is required to be in a certain specific format, (we are in Uganda after all–let’s be professional) after stuffing your face with pizza. And forget exercise. The only running you will do, will be after someone whose title begins with “LC or RDC.” Or funny enough. CAO (pronounced “cow.”) I am not making this stuff up.

 

Prepare to watch your life slip away in front of you

Yeah, you know those documents you spent hours writing? Yeah, you have to get those signed. By people who like to take long lunches and never seem to be in their office. By people you actually had an appointment with, but for some inexplicable reason have not turned up due to excuses like “the rain.” By lots of people who have absolutely no involvement in the work you will be doing whatsoever. But we do have due process here, people. Get a butt pad, bring a book, and cozy up on a bench because you’ll be doing lots of waiting. I like to daydream. Because that’s where I’m a pirate.

Prepare to be asked for things you didn’t know existed

Lots of names will be thrown at you. Work Plan. MOU. Constitution. By laws. Certificate of Incorporation. Organizational chart. Did you have your name saved with the Companies name database? Really, we have one of those? And of course, your criminal background check which is about as easy to get as unicorn tears. And getting a bank account? Whew! That’s fun. Is this the only place in the world where you need a Bank Resolution to give people your money?

Prepare to want to throw yourself off the Golden Gate Bridge

You will do all these things. And you will feel really good about it. Until you step into an office and they ask you for some “official” stamp which you don’t have. Or someone will slyly ask for some “facilitation” or “appreciation,” which is code word for– money, fool. Or maybe you don’t have enough copies for everyone. Or, my favorite–“you must first make a copy of this form and bring it back because we don’t have any.” If you like efficiency. My friend, please brace yourself, or you will become suicidal.

Prepare to cry a lot and then have people tell you its going to be alright but then do nothing to help you

Oh you’re gonna cry like a baby. Especially when you realize that while it took 6-9 months to get your NGO approved, at year 1 you have to go and renew it, which is like doing the process all over again. Not the sweet, one tear roll cry. But the ugly, snotty kind. People in Uganda have an unusual habit of saying, “Sorry,” like when you trip on a rock when you’re walking and almost bite it. It’s endearing most of the time. But when you’re knee deep in paperwork “sorry,” just won’t cut it. And while your friends might love you, they are going to be conveniently unavaible when it comes to putting in the time to see this thing through. Just think, “All by myself….” soundtrack.

Prepare to have people try and crush your dreams

So you made it! The paper work is filed. You have this great idea and this Mother Teresa glow. Nothing can stop you. Except for those academic types working on their PHD’s who wonderfully package cut-downs disguised as compliments that people love to give. “Oh you’re doing that? Isn’t that great…Well, you know you really should do this…” Know it all’s. Steer clear. And I know it might sound like I’m being one of those right now with this list. But trust me, I’m just trying to prepare you for the worst. But I still believe in miracles.

Prepare to attend long and boring meetings which have no point

This is a real drawback of becoming an NGO. There are all sorts of district meetings you are supposed to attend which never start on time, and go on and on, without any decisions or resolution. It’s basically one big gripe fest. And there are no donuts. Seriously people, where are the donuts?

Prepare to be harassed (And by that I mean lots of random people showing up asking you for money)

Oh yes. It’s not good enough that you left the comforts of your country to genuinely try to help people. Nope. What you really need to do is give money to all the “quasi-officials” who bribe you every day so that you can actually do the job of assisting their country men. It’s “Restore the Hope of Youth,” day, It’s sensitize your neighbor on safe sex practices to fight against AIDS radio announcement day. Don’t you want to give your hard-raised money which has already been budgeted for something else?

Once you do make a friend in this system, someone who is good and true. Know they are probably part of a different political party (even though you have no clue about political parties) and you’ll be punished for it. Yeah, politics. No good. I am not political, by the way.

Prepare to be accused of being a spy

This is one of my favorites. Didn’t you know that all Americans are deep under cover James Bond agents who carry guns and try to topple down governments? Yeah, I wasn’t aware either. I mean, I know I look like a spy, but I think if I were–I’d do a better job of hiding it. Someone’s been watching a little too much late night TV.

 

Prepare to have incredibly outdated systems like “macros” to deal with

I love Uganda. But I would have to say technology might not be their strong point. It’s a stretch, I know. But when you ask me to file for taxes in a country in which I’m not even paid. And then ask me to do it “online,” in a country where the power goes out like every other day and the internet cables from Kenya get “knocked,” and go out and then on top of that ask me to figure out how to “enable macros,” on my Mac so I can then “upload,” my files onto your incredibly slow and inefficent website so you can take more of my money. I’m going to have to say it’s not on the top of my priority list. Especially because most people will die here without ever receiving their “retirement” fund. Not a big seller.

Prepare to be humiliated

I threw my pride away and sense of “injustice,” a long time ago. Oh, I’ve begged. I’ve graveled. I’ve gone to pointless meetings and humored plenty of “big men” to keep this thing alive. Don’t judge me. You don’t know. So I showed a little cleavage. So what? Just wait and see.

Then finally prepare to have it all be taken away from you

Ah, the absolute gut-wrenching truth of the fact that we are playing their game. And we have no control at all. So chin up, buttercup. Start doing meditation exercises and join an Ashram or a gym (you fatty–ps–good luck finding that!) where you learn to actually breathe and let go. And maybe start trying to shimmie up to God because you might just need a Plan B.

And after all of this, if you are really a glutton for punishment.

(And God likes you.)

A not so understandable list of instructions.
If you get stuck, I’ll try and help you out–

There are actually good reasons to get your NGO, like getting a work permit.

ps-In the end, it all works out! :) 5 years and still going.

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  • too funny, you are a great writer. I am in the middle of starting an NGO and you captured my frustrations perfectly. My lack of cleavage may account for the slowness of their part however, still looking for that push up bra for a 40 year old man.

  • Anonymous

    Hello,
    I just love you so much for this!
    We are just getting started to start an NGO in Gulu and we really need this kind of information on what goes down in reallity.
    A million thanx to you.

  • Ronald Ssebbaale

    What you have said is true Hartz. A few things need updated however. Anyway Uganda is a third world country and you cannot expect any thing less. Most Government officials have spent much time trying to accumulate wealth for themselves in ways that illegitimate and totally unacceptable among humans. It is that sad. But also Hartz please stop being sarcastic.

  • Kathy Vaughan

    Been there, done that – twice! Yes, after going through the whole crazy, seemingly endless process (which ultimately took two lawyers), I did it again 4 years later, on my own. And now I am due for my one year renewal! O, Happy Day! I think my favorite part was when one official, who somehow failed to read the part that mentioned that the items listed were my PROJECTED future projects, wrote a letter of recommendation saying how he had worked with me on those yet-to-be launched projects. I don’t think anyone who has never actually DONE it can appreciate the craziness, but it was fun to read an account from a fellow survivor.

    • Sarita Hartz

      Thanks for sharing Kathy!

  • Sseguya Raymond

    How about registering your non-profit in Uganda as a COMPANY LIMITED BY GUARANTEE?

  • Ronnie B. Daniels

    Sarita, Thank you for having this site. I’m currently an advocate for Autism/disability, but as my name has gotten out there-slowly, but surely, I have had many asking for help. It’s hard to say no. I don’t want to put a band-aid over a wound gushing blood. I’ve come up with a solution for one that has a “constitution” etc. and one that has not. My problem deals with having resources in another country. Since my disabled son is young and daughter is just beginning school, I cannot travel to a place in which I wish to help. Since I’m a writer- I’m going to do what I know best. Please point me in the right direction as to resources that I might be able to connect with to communicate better than phone calls, FB, and emails. Thank you so much.