I have seen how top-down solutions condemn the world’s poorest to eternal poverty – The Guardian

A western-led approach has failed to remedy the problem. Maybe, post-pandemic, a new focus on the poor is needed
In 2020, many people said the world must not “go back to normal”, to the same old ways that defined it before the Covid pandemic. The Overseas Development Institute, a UK-based thinktank, even said “normal was the problem”.
I really wish the world would remember this.
Whether it is a health crisis or the climate emergency, the world’s ultra-poor are the ones who feel the pinch the hardest – during the crises themselves, and in the rebuilding afterwards.
Before Uganda declared its first lockdown in March 2020, households in my area of Kamuli, in the east of the country, were in dire need of food. People found it very hard to secure items such as masks and sanitary supplies. After all, many were living in chronic poverty even before Covid.
That is why I believe, if this pandemic was any lesson not to go back to normal, then poverty is what needs to be addressed.
The world doesn’t necessarily need new sources of funding to end global poverty. The money needed is the same amount that’s already being spent – badly.
Last year, I turned 41. I have never set foot outside sub-Saharan Africa, the centre of chronic poverty in the world. I have known its true wrath. Only a few years ago there were times when I would go days without food.
Uganda has its fair share of poverty but in my region, Busoga, it is the highest, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos), with a rate of 74.8%, compared with a national average of 63%. The deeper you go into the countryside, the harder life becomes. If you discount urban centres such as the tourist city of Jinja, the poverty rate in rural Busoga, such as my village of Namisita, is well above 90%.
This poverty is reflected in news headline after news headline. Busoga is a byword for people living a near-ancient way of life in abject poverty.
Nationally, 60% of working Ugandans earn 200,000 Ugandan shillings (£44.50) a month, about £1.50 a day. But in Busoga many are unemployed. This is especially true in my neighbouring districts of Kamuli and Buyende, home to more than a million people: there are people who earn 50,000 to 100,000 Ugandan shillings (about £11 to £22) in an entire four-month planting season; people who have rags for bedding in their houses.
In March last year, a woman visited my project, the Uganda Community Farm (UCF) in Namisita, to ask for seed, in preparation for rains anticipated in April. Her story was typical: “I don’t have soap. I don’t have salt. I would like to hire an ox plough to help prepare my land, but I don’t have any money.”
Life here has much in common with many other impoverished communities, and current initiatives aimed at ending global poverty make it impossible to escape.
In 2015, when the UN’s global goals were launched, I was hungry, and had been since childhood. I decided it was time for me to take matters into my own hands, and make change my goal.
Today, I know a thing or two about the global antipoverty world. And it is not working.
Take Buyende, a Busoga town of more than 400,000 people, where you would be hard pressed to find any agency that has visited in recent decades. It is the same in many other communities across Busoga.
According to a 2021 Ubos report “poverty programmes and interventions have not had any dent in reducing poverty”. This is because interventions have always been top to bottom. Humanity is still convinced that the best solution for the world’s poor is to sit and wait for the right people from the global north to come and help.
Today, only 1% of all the money intended to end poverty (official development aid and humanitarian assistance combined), goes directly to the extreme poor.
Only 1% of all official development assistance (funding from agencies such as USAid and UKAid), and an even smaller portion (0.4% in 2018) of all international humanitarian assistance (all charitable funding included), goes directly to grassroots organisations in the global south.
In 2018, only 5.2% of the $9bn (£7.5bn) in US foundation funding earmarked for sub-Saharan Africa went to local organisations – the African Visionary Fund, a partnership between the Segal Family Foundation and other US grantmakers, says on its website, quoting the US Council on Foundations.
That means about 99% of antipoverty funding stays in the hands of the global development sector, which means western agencies.
For people like us, the only way to escape poverty is to wait for a chance visit by the sector to our village.
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However, the sector has historically operated at arm’s length from the poor, and is very inaccessible. It is a near impossibility to get anyone from the development sector to work together on poor people-led solutions.
There are millions of well-meaning people who genuinely want to make the world a better place, and who innately want to help people escape poverty, but who have been conditioned into believing that the best way to do it is by safely placing that support far from the poor themselves, being careful not to work with them directly – on the premise that the African poor are wannabe fraudsters.
Only the most “legit” people – those from the global north – must be at the helm. For example, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, this is what was being said in Forbes: “Don’t send money overseas. Even though Haiti is a foreign disaster, don’t send a donation to a foreign bank account. Experts say this is never legit.”
“Within 24 hours of the Haitian earthquake, scammers were at work trying to profit from the disaster,” said CS Monitor. “Beware of bogus online help for Haiti”, warned NBC News. “Be careful about those impulse donations,” said ABC News.
For those of us here, if you contact someone in the global north and ask for a tweet about your cause, they will cringe and decline – often without even taking time to learn about what you’re doing. They have been conditioned to think you are a conman.
This is mostly down to the international media, and the global development sector itself – the same people who are supposed to be the allies of the poor.
To those conditioned to be wary of the world’s poor, I ask: please change your minds. By clinging to this worldview, you are helping to condemn people to eternal poverty.
There is no such thing as humans who are more legitimate than others. We are all the same. The only thing that makes us different is opportunity, or the lack of it.
Even those labelled “fraudsters” or “Nigerian prince” scam artists are only where they are because of economic inequality.
The top-down approach has had more than a good run: it just hasn’t worked. The only thing it has accomplished is to keep those in poverty on the sidelines.
The world has spent more than enough time trying to end global extreme poverty, with the same approaches and the same failures.
If the Covid pandemic is to be a lesson for the world not to go back to normal, now is the time to put the ultra-poor at the helm.
Anthony Kalulu is a farmer in Namisita, eastern Uganda. He is founder of the nonprofit Uganda Community Farm, working to end extreme poverty


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