NGO Adventures

With the sudden arrival of July, two things have become clear: 1) I am almost halfway through my time in Uganda and 2) I am long overdue for an update on the Charles Center blog.

So far, I have been working on the NGO Scorecarding project.  A quick refresher for those who don’t want to dig back through the archives for my first post, this project involves assessing the effectiveness of NGOs in three different districts in Uganda (Pallisa, Gulu, and Kampala) according to the QuAM, or Quality Assurance Certification Mechanism.  Once the assessments are done, the randomized control trial will begin.  We are going to randomize the publication of the QuAM results for different NGOs to different audiences (Donors, NGOs, or Citizens) in order to determine whether publicizing the scorecards of NGOs induces an improvement in NGOs with poor scores, and which audiences are the most effective at motivating change.

Gulu is a very interesting place to study NGO effectiveness.  Following the end of the civil war with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda in 2006, NGOs have swarmed into Gulu to try to repair the damage caused over the course of the conflict.  For this reason, Gulu Town (where I am living) is often called NGO Town.

This saturation of NGO influence in Gulu Town has led to some amusing situations.  For example, one of the bars in town holds a weekly trivia night, sponsored by Guiness of course, in which many NGO workers and Gulu residents sit down together to play bar trivia, while listening to a dizzying mixture of Ugandan hits, and the likes of Lady Gaga, Linkin Park, and LFO.  A sociological study in the making!

But I digress.  The large NGO presence really highlights the importance of NGO coordination and transparency;  the constant flurry of good intention around town often makes me wonder what sense the NGOs and aid workers in town have of what the other NGOs and aid workers are doing, and how many of them stay around long enough to see the result of their actions.

This past Monday, we held a big conference in Gulu to get NGOs to agree to undergo the evaluation process that we will be using in our RCT. Much of my time so far has involved planning the conference and convincing NGOs to come.
One of the ways I tried to mobilize NGOs to attend the conference was by delivering flyers to their offices and explaining what the conference is.
I was struck by how absolutely tiny some of these NGOs are. To find some of them involved ducking between stalls in a market, and going into these tiny one room offices tucked out of eyesight. Yet, despite the seeming elusiveness of these organizations, they ALL were plastered with stickers from some larger donor: USAID, World Vision, ECHO, the UN, etc. That would be another interesting project, learning how these large donors find these tiny NGOs in the first place.
Another way we mobilized NGOs was by calling them using a contact list given to us by the NGO Forum.  The NGO Forum is an organization that seeks to improve coordination and capacity building among NGOs. When an NGO opens in a district, they are supposed to register with the NGO Forum.
Many NGOs and businesses in Uganda don’t have landline phones, but operate entirely based on the cell phones of their employees. The contact sheet from the NGO Forum was also completely out of date.
So a couple of days before the conference, I went into the NGO Forum to ask for updated info. The following conversation occurred:
Alena: “It seems that most of the contact information you gave me is out of date. Is there a more updated list?”
Receptionist: “Yes”
Alena: “Can I have it?”
Receptionist: “No”
Alena: “Um, what?”
It turns out that the receptionist only had the hard copies of the registration forms of the NGOs, that she was “still working to put into the system.” She pulled out a giant package of forms. I thought I would just be writing down the phone numbers of the couple of NGOs on my list whose contacts I couldn’t get from the wrong numbers I spoke to. However, NONE of the NGOs were on my list. I had just been given 50 new NGOs that were NOWHERE in the system, some of them having registered with the NGO Forum as long ago as 2003.  It is incredibly telling that the organization that is supposed to champion NGO coordination couldn’t even enter NGOs into the system that have existed for eight years.
This whole experience has just increased my already fervent belief in the importance of coordination, transparency, and accountability in aid sector.  Despite the bumps in the road, the conference came together nicely! We had 90 NGOs show up when we were only expecting 75, so I believe I mobilized effectively! Now, we are just giving them time to get their documents together, and we will start evaluating the week after next. Undoubtedly more NGO adventures to come!


  1. Why hello there, Alena Stern,

    I was wondering how you mobilized these NGOs to participate in the conference. Not the methods (i.e. handing out fliers, phone calls), so much as the ‘arguments’ you made to garner their participation. What information was most effective at gaining the support from so many diverse NGOs? Did you find that some NGOs did not want to participate? What were their main concerns/reasons for not attending?

    I hope you found the rest of your research experience to be extremely fulfilling!

    See you soon!

  2. Michael Cammarata says:

    This is very exciting research. I am a member of MANOS, one of W&M’s international service trips. One of our precepts is that “good intentions are dangerous things,” which has instilled a group sense of conscientiousness and has ensured that we are careful and self-critical during our decision making processes. I wish you the best with the research and am glad that you have created an opportunity to discuss and address this issue.

  3. Meredith Dost says:

    I am also a member of a W&M international annual service trip, Students for Belize Education, which is why it was so interesting to read your blog! It sounds like you definitely mobilized effectively, something that I know is very hard to do because being in a different country and culture means that you are completely out of your element, yet you succeeded! It is cool to hear you say that you believe more than ever in the importance of transparency and coordination, because I found similar things on my Belize trip….where there were issues with both. Congratulations on your trip and research!