Phil Does Development Studies

For the last four months I have been waking up everyday in a developing country. As someone born and raised in the West who has previously had little experience of countries like Uganda this has been a bit of an eye opener. Before I arrived I’d seen all sorts of horrific things about Africa on TV shows usually presented by celebrities holding back the tears telling us that ‘through all the misery the thing that shines through is the incredible strength human spirit in the face of adversity’ etc etc. So I was prepared for hunger and poverty, but so far it has not been the poverty that has struck me, or the strength of human spirit for that matter. What has struck me is the bits of society that are missing in Kampala that I had previously taken for granted at home.

For example in the UK we have electricity that stays on all the time; that an electrical grid is permanently maintained over such a vast area now seems remarkable, were as before it was just normal. You can accuse me of ignorance but have you ever stopped and thought what the world would be like without MOTs? I hadn’t until I started getting enveloped in thick black exhaust smoke with death-defying regularity.

I now appreciate better the meaning of developing country. Developing because the institutions that provide much of what is taken for granted in the developed world have yet to develop. There is an entire academic discipline, Development Studies, that attempts to describe how to create an environment that will cultivate these institutions. I’ve only been here four months. I have no idea how to put the development puzzle together, but living in Uganda you can’t help but learn what some of the pieces of the development puzzle are. I wrote the following slightly embellished description of getting up and walking to work to try and illustrate a few of them:

I am woken by the sound of stray dogs barking due to the total absence of any organisation private, public or charity willing to tackle the problem of packs of stray dogs roaming the streets. I go back to sleep, it’s only 12.30. I am once again awoken, this time by the sound of the neighbour’s cockerel, admittedly quaint, but also very annoying especially on Saturdays. I now understand those by-laws against keeping farm yard animals in urban settings. Another day dawns; due to this country’s 13% p.a. rate of inflation [1] every 10,000 Ugandan Shillings I own is only worth 9,996 schillings in yesterday’s money. I get up and flick the light switch, but there is no light, power cuts are common; maybe one of the unplanned unregulated construction projects that are noisily going on in the neighbourhood has hit a cable. I hope not too many of the casual labourers were badly hurt due to the absence of anything like health and safety legislation. I use my asthma inhaler for the first time that day (thank you NHS). They were burning rubbish again in the night, three quarters of the city’s waste goes uncollected [2]. (Most of what is collected is burned in poorly managed incinerators anyway). I take a piss in the dark then flush. 90% of Kampala’s sewage goes straight into Lake Victoria, untreated [3] (Lake Victoria is freshwater so the bugs will get on just fine in there). I jump in the shower, the water is from Lake Victoria and I’m told it has some treatment. I do my best not to swallow any. I eat my delicious breakfast of locally grown fresh fruit, no complaints there. I put on my walking boots. The roads are poorly designed and badly constructed, they are not maintained by any agency whatsoever except the occasional public spirited fly tipper who takes the opportunity to dump debris into the gigantic holes between the patches of tarmac. It rained overnight; the roads have turned into treacherous rivers of mud. I set off. Before I leave I hand the key to my apartment to the 26 year old man that cleans it. He tells us that one day he hopes to be able to afford to finish school. There is no state funded education beyond primary level. He’s grateful for the job (there are no up to date unemployment statistics because there is no unemployment benefit, but the 2002 census had unemployment in Kampala at 49%). On my walk to work I’m overtaken by worn minibuses and motorbike riders without helmets carrying multiple passengers (public transport). All the vehicles trail clouds of acrid black smoke. It appears there is no such thing as a certificate of road worthiness; also there is no effective control over fuel quality. I’m told many of the petrol stations mix their fuel with cheaper Kerosene; another pump on the asthma inhaler. I pass numerous houses guarded by armed men. For better or worse the government has liberal attitudes towards gun control. The wealthy live in guarded compounds surrounded by walls topped by broken glass and razor wire, a product of ineffective policing, judiciary or  inequality? I take a short cut through the slum making sure to hold my breath as I pass the pit latrine and avert my eyes  from the lady showering outside behind a low wall under a bucket. I arrive at work and settle down to deal with my post. It doesn’t take long; there is no functional postal system.

I’d hate for anyone to interpret the above as whinging. I am very fortunate to have running water, a flushing toilet, security, someone that cleans my house, an asthma inhaler, breakfast and a job to walk to. A great many people do not have such luxuries. This is just an attempt to illustrate the remarkable number of civil functions that I no longer take for granted.

1. Ugandan Inflation Rate CIA World Fact Book

2. The New Vision, Kampala: A Mountain of Garbage

3. The New Vision: Multi-billion project to clean up polluted Nakivubo channel underway

    • Simon
    • June 9th, 2010

    One questions: What good stuff does Kampala have that the western world is lacking? Are they in danger of loosing these things as they become more “developed”?
    I do wonder how its possible for so much change to happen in such as short space of time. For example the road the runs past the industrial estate on which I work has been there (in varying states of maintenance!) for nearly 2000 years. I wonder if the problems you describe are symptoms of a rapidly changing society rather than an undeveloped one? Are people in “developing” societies worse of than people in “undeveloped” ones?

    • Good is a very subjective term. There are a great many more species of bird here than in the UK, I’d say that is good and these are being lost as their habitat gets encroached upon. Environmental degradation is certainly an often quoted victim of development. The other oft quoted losers would probably be indigenous cultures and family values. Despite these drawbacks I think people in developing societies are indeed worse off – a great many of them are trying to immigrate to developing countries for this very reason. As you know, I’m not an expert, but I’d say the main benefits of development are increased life expectancy, education and social mobility. The world’s poorest live short unenlightened lives with no prospect whatsoever of an alternative for them or their children.

    • louiseonlife
    • June 21st, 2010

    This post has touched me almost as deeply as Geri’s World Walkabout. Starring Geri Halliwell.


  1. And to think you actually chose to live in this craziness.

    I love Uganda!

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