What a town in Uganda teaches about ending aid dependency

In Iganga, Uganda, the community group Musana has changed its model from dependency on outsiders to local initiative.

Courtesy of the Musana Community Development Organization
The Musana Community Development Organization runs several enterprises, including a nursery and primary boarding school. A bakery, proposed and started by the head of child care, is the newest project and has quickly become profitable. The children often come in and help bake.

Iganga, a town conveniently located along the central highway from Kampala to Nairobi, is much more than a popular truck stop. It's where Musana, a community organization breaking Uganda’s reliance on foreign aid, has made its home.

Trading dependency for sustainability is an attractive model for a growing number of nonprofits today. However ingrained in the work of international development, it can also be one of the most difficult shifts to make. 

With 67 percent of the population living in poverty, Uganda is no stranger to dependency. Despite being a popular region for development ventures, organizations often lack an approach that prioritizes what locals want and need while leaving the savior mentality behind. 

Originally a children’s home for 80 orphans, Musana Community Development Organization decided to change its model from a system that perpetuated child-rearing dependency to one that encouraged parents to provide what they could. Today, says co-founder Leah Pauline, “we are more than a charity. We're a sustainable solution for the community.” 

Since its creation six years ago, Musana has grown into a locally owned organization. It comprises a team of 60 Ugandans, who together with the founders, identify the organization's way forward. At Musana, development is no longer about outsiders implementing what they think is a good idea, but instead it's about local initiative.

What makes Musana stand out

Leading the way for other NGOs, Musana has set a goal to be 100 percent financially sustainable by 2018.

Its first and largest project, the nursery and primary boarding school, is the closest to being self-sustainable. Roughly 600 students are attending this upcoming semester, an estimated 500 of whom are paying fees, with the rest receiving scholarships.

Businesses created and run by locals are also moving the Musana community closer to achieving sustainability. A trendy restaurant (the “only place in Iganga you can find a burger” says Pauline), a dairy farm, and handmade women’s crafts are all businesses funding community outreach.

A bakery is the newest sustainability project at Musana and has quickly become profitable. Proposed and started by the head of child care, the kids often come in and help bake. “It's neat to see her pass on that empowerment. It’s really successful,” says Pauline.

Challenges along the way

In order for the local staff and community to truly take ownership over Musana, finances needed to come from within. For other nonprofits interested in achieving sustainability, Pauline suggests finding local leaders to partner with, run, and support the organization.

However, the road to financial sustainability is not an easy one.

For Musana, convincing leadership of the value of financial sustainability was the first and most difficult step. It took finding the right individuals but also continually referring the team back to Musana’s mission, explained Pauline. This model was new to most of the staff and, like any mindset, took a while to understand and incorporate into regular decisionmaking.

Once a solid and supportive team of Ugandans were on board, a trial-and-error period of staff-led businesses began. “It was a long process of finding the most profitable pieces, and what would work best,” points out Pauline.

This transformation was the longest part of Musana’s journey. Yet as they say in Luganda, one of the national languages of Uganda, “Okusoma Tekukoma” – learning never ends. 

Next for Musana 

Following a local needs-based assessment, the Musana Community Health Center is planned to open in July of 2015.

To address Uganda’s 700,000 unplanned pregnancies each year, there will be a focus on maternity care and sex education. Staffed by locals to promote sustainability, the center will respond to the community reported challenge of transportation. An ambulance, and in the future mobile clinics, will improve access to health care for 80 percent of Iganga’s population that live in rural areas.

Ultimately, the local team at Musana has become much more than advocates for financial independence. Through community contribution, self-reliance, and pride, they are paving a path for the next generation of Ugandan leaders.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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