How to make a friend in Uganda. business consultant, NGO worker, former Peace Corps volunteer, activist: searching for sustainable solutions to eradicate extreme poverty

August 17, 2011

why I left

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 1:28 am

First off, I want to send out a big “Thank you!” to all the staff and community members who made me feel like a welcome part of both Sheema District and Kigarama Farmers Financial Savings and Credit Cooperative Society. Your support and encouragement made my work in a foreign place quite possible.

I haven’t updated this blog in some time because I have been going through quite a bit of transition here in Uganda. In the time since I last posted I went to many parties, attended some great and not-so-great local concerts, and took a holiday on the sesse islands. Yet I could’t write about all of that. It would have felt somehow fake. Behind the joy, the fun, the new friendships a dark cloud loomed.

Corruption and mismanagement of resources at my host organization made my continued stay untenable. My program manager and I decided a couple of months ago that I would need to move out of my village as confronting the situation could be a risk to my personal safety. So, about a week ago, I said goodbye to all the people that I was beginning to think of as friends as well as those who cared for me like family. It was difficult. Several people were angry. Others sad. We went through the motions of making future plans that we knew will not be fulfilled. I wasn’t sure what to feel. Relief? I packed all my things into suitcases and rice sacks, loaded them into a land cruiser, and rode away.

Why? Instances of major fraud date back several years and continue to this day. Its actually kind of hard to tell this story in this forum because much of what I want to say involves illegal actions by my org’s board of directors. Consider this the PG-rated version or the story. I’ll keep the R-rated version for dinner party conversation.

Just weeks before I arrived at my site, the bank manager was fired and put in jail. Only after many months was I to begin to understand the extent of the fraud that took place during his tenure with the organization. According to court documents, he is accused of stealing 28 million UGX that can be directly traced to forged documents. Additionally, auditors have discovered that another 47 million of cash is simply missing from the safe.

I was willing to help Kigarama Farmers move past this unfortunate experience until I saw corruption continue.

In the months that led up to our annual general meeting, I noticed unusual requests for allowances from board members. These allowances are now at rates twice that at other SACCOS. Some volunteer board members take more in allowances than employees make in salary. In addition, analysis of our loan portfolio shows that board members continue to take out large loans without paying them back on schedule. Portions of these loans merely roll into new loans at the end of the term without any interest penalty or payment.

At our annual general meeting, I yearned for change. Yet, business is not as usual. It is becoming worse. Shortly after the meeting, the new [retracted] of the board of directors walked into the bank with a known moneylender. A deposit slip was written for 11 million but only 10 million in cash was handed over. This was a clear attempt to retain a one million shilling interest payment off the books. The staff refused to process the transaction. I was proud of the actions of my staff but disillusioned by the continued illegal actions of the board to which I reported.

Weeks later, the board decided to settle with the former bank manager for [much less than that which was stolen] and pretend that all had been recovered. As with accepting money from a moneylender, it was explained that a lie like this is just how business is conducted. How can we build trust through deceit? I felt that the work I was doing is not helping the people of Uganda but instead corrupting it for the benefit of a few individuals. This is the problem with SACCOS. The motivation is all wrong. If the institutions are really about delivering financial services to the poor and creating wealth for the members, why do only a few individuals profit?

I am now situated in a village just a couple of hours north. The former bank manager is free of jail and at home. No money has been repaid. Forty percent of our staff left this summer. A new bank manager was hired. The same men sit on the board. I have high hopes that the institution will fail before I complete my service.

I’ll be updating again soon with all kinds of info about the new place. Next week I join the new trainees to teach them about business skills. Then its off for some training of my own. When I return, I’ll only have about one year left. Hmm. Its a good thing that my new org is ready to make change happen.

2 month later . . .

Remember when I wrote about all that corruption at the community bank? Well I’ve left and am loving the opportunity to work with a new organization. However, I a friend shared an update (confirmed) that I just have to share.

Shortly before I left, the new xxxx xxxxxxxx disappeared while several employees were at lunch. He had been acting as cashier. As is customary during breaks, he locked the cash drawer and left one million shillings with the account assistant to conduct transactions. However, he never came back that day.

At the end of the day, unable to reach the xxxx xxxxxxx, employees broke open the cash drawer and found x million shillings missing. Later, the xxxx xxxxxxx boasted that he had taken the money to a counterfeiter in hopes of doubling his money.

Six weeks passed and then the board of directors met to discuss the issue. Was he fired? Nope. I guess he is their kind of guy. The culture of corruption continues.

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