Ebola: Uganda’s schools were closed for two years during COVID, now they face more closures – something must change

Classroom. Luweero. Photo: Simone Datzberger

Children in Uganda missed out on more school because of the COVID pandemic than their peers anywhere else in the world. An estimated 15 million pupils in the East African nation did not attend school for 83 weeks – that’s almost two years. Statistical models predict a learning deficit of 2.8 years in Uganda because of the time lost through COVID-related closures.

Now the education system has been hit by another public health emergency. In early November the government announced that preschools, primary and secondary schools must close their doors for the year ten days earlier than planned. This is part of its attempt to contain an Ebola outbreak which had, by 16 November, killed 55 people; eight were children.

Of course, it’s crucial for Uganda to try and stop Ebola from spreading. The disease has a far higher fatality rate than COVID. The country’s packed classrooms and poor school infrastructure, such as poor ventilation and sanitation, make students highly vulnerable to infections.

But young Ugandans have already fallen far behind in their learning because of COVID. And, as the effects of climate change worsen, Africa is becoming increasingly vulnerable to health emergencies, including a number of infectious diseases.

That makes it incredibly important for Uganda to find a way to balance the realities of public health emergencies with children’s right to education. This is a particularly pressing issue in low-income contexts where many children struggle to complete their schooling even outside emergency situations.

Kids are already far behind

In a previous study emerging from a larger project called CoVAC (led by Karen Devries, Jenny Parkes and Dipak Naker), we outlined the many harms and losses Ugandan children and youth faced due to the prolonged closure of schools.

When schools finally reopened in January 2022, one in ten students did not report back to school. Some schools had closed for good.

The government tried to support distance learning through TV, radio, newspapers, downloadable curricula or, in some instances, via mobile phones. However, most interventions, in particular those that required access to a mobile phone or computer only benefited urban elites with the means to send their children to expensive private schools.

Almost all of the participants in our study had no or limited access to the resources needed to effectively engage with these materials. Girls in remote areas were especially disadvantaged, as they tended to have less access to mobile phones than boys.

Most of our study participants were not able to continue their schooling via distance learning. They eventually gave up on their education.

Homeschooling became a common practice in wealthier countries. But in Uganda it was a privilege reserved for only a few children from higher socio-economic backgrounds and expensive schools. The majority of Ugandan caregivers have to make an income in any way they can and often lack the time, space and resources to earn with their children at home.

Although schools will be only closed for a relatively short time, losing another ten days of learning may weaken the trust among Ugandans in the functioning of their educational institutions. Many Ugandans struggle to pay for their children’s school fees and will question the real value of education in light of current and potentially more interruptions.

Overhauling current model

Uganda’s education sector needs to be strengthened so that disruptions caused by future health emergencies do not leave children even further behind in their schooling.

This will require an overhaul of how education is governed, implemented and made accessible during emergency situations. Uganda inherited its education system from its former British colonial administration. The appropriation of western and former colonial education systems by countries in sub-Saharan Africa has been questioned and critiqued by many, particularly African scholars.

Schooling, it is argued, was initially used as a tool by former colonisers to “conquer the African mind”. It ignored local culture and context with the intention to sustain colonial administration and nurture exploitative economic structures.

Today, part of the problem with adopting a universal model of schooling is that the many flaws inherent in western-style education are exacerbated in times of crisis. For instance, the model champions a form of schooling that is time and location bound. It does not easily adapt to alternative forms of education that allow for a more flexible mode of learning in the absence of a functioning school.

If adequately resourced and well implemented, alternative modes of learning during school closures can help the most vulnerable children and youth in their educational trajectories and overall well-being. This could be in the form of supporting distance learning in a different manner, such as the potential of outdoors teaching and learning where there is enough space for social distancing. Nearby teachers could be engaged to support locally organised, small learning groups of children in their respective communities.

Another option could be to ensure safe and continuous access to education in a staggered manner under strict hygienic measures. Investments in partnerships with local agencies and community-based organisations could help to facilitate radio, TV or internet-based learning spaces for children and youth with no access to learning technology.


Some Ugandans told us that they fear schools will be closed for far longer than initially announced. This happened repeatedly during the COVID pandemic. It is also sadly likely that Ebola will not be the last epidemic the country must manage.

That’s why novel strategies and more resources are urgently needed to finally address deeply rooted social injustices in and outside education that arise before, during and after public health emergencies. Otherwise, children will be continuously at a high risk of dropping out of school, making them vulnerable to child labour or teenage pregnancies.

Authors: Simone Datzberger and Brian Junior Musenze

Originally published in The Conversation.

Uganda closed schools for two years. The impact is deep and uneven.

Closed School in Uganda
Photo: © Simone Datzberger

Uganda enforced the longest period of school closures worldwide – 22 months – during the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategy was subject to scrutiny by many local and international organisations in view of the multiple challenges the country’s education sector already faced before the pandemic.

Studies of the predicted and already visible impact of COVID-19 on education in sub-Saharan Africa are beginning to reveal how inequities that affected children and their families prior to the pandemic have intensified during and after school closures. It is estimated that 15 million pupils have not attended school in Uganda for almost two years.

Statistical models predict a learning deficit of 2.8 years in Uganda. Other effects include a 22.5% increase of pregnancies among Ugandan school-going girls and young women aged 10-24 between March 2020 and June 2021. There was also an increase of child labour from 21% to 36%, affecting girls in particular. Some schools have closed for good, as they were either destroyed for new real estate projects or sold.

To understand how the prolonged closure of schools affected the lives of adolescents in Uganda we conducted interviews with 36 young people (18 male, 18 female) living in central Uganda (Luwero and Kampala) and predominantly from a low socio-economic status. Interviews were part of a longitudinal qualitative study, the Contexts of Violence in Adolescence Cohort Study (CoVAC).

While the longer term impacts of COVID-19 on education in Uganda remain to be seen and still need to be studied, emerging evidence from our small cohort study, including other research, shows that the effects for young people have already been devastating. The compound effects of school closures, loss of livelihoods and caregiver stress (especially during lockdowns) also increased the risk of domestic violence, with instances of verbal and physical abuse of children.

Context and intersecting disadvantages

Our study participants were between 15 and 17 years old when we first met them in 2018 and over the next four years we conducted at least six interviews with each young person. We also interviewed their caregivers, teachers or peers so we already knew quite a lot about their lives and challenges.

During the lockdown, we conducted phone interviews between May and June 2020 with 18 girls and 16 boys (mainly aged 16-19 years) who had been participants in our longitudinal study. We interviewed all participants again in 2021.

For the 22 young people (out of the 36) who were in school before the lockdowns, the pandemic seriously disrupted their education. Their experiences varied depending on their socio-economic background, location and gender. We applied an intersectional lens to analyse how pre-existing and intersecting inequities had intensified, with detrimental effects on young people’s educational paths and life circumstances.

For example, young people needed to find ways to generate an income while schools were closed. This posed different challenges depending on gender or location.

Some boys in rural areas migrated to another region to find work, which was often precarious and exploitative. For girls, who tended to be more confined to their homes, and for girls in rural areas, options to earn money were extremely limited. This inability to complete their education, or to work, or to earn enough, was a heavy burden for young people. Some of them felt they had failed.

The pandemic has strained participants’ mental health in multiple ways. They were concerned about whether they would be able to afford to return to school. They expressed feelings of fear, loneliness, anxiety, distress and loss of self-esteem. Very few were able to use distance learning materials.

Several participants experienced unintended pregnancies, reducing their prospects for returning to school. School closures could add to the complex mix of reasons for getting pregnant. Financial pressures, stressful family situations and more free time could all have a bearing.

Structural barriers

Our data also shows that gender, socio-economic circumstances and location have a bearing on the effectiveness of interventions. Not everyone can equally use opportunities to get an education.

Take the example of Atala (not her real name). She is the oldest of five children and helps her mother with chores, childcare and informal sector work. She wanted to train as a nurse but her school results weren’t good enough because – as a girl – she had so many responsibilities. During the first lockdown she was offered a place in a government sponsored vocational training programme in tailoring. But hardly any teaching took place. When the programme finally resumed, classes were rushed. Atala said she got her certificate but didn’t feel qualified to work as a tailor. And she lives in a rural community with no financial means, tools or opportunities to start her own business.

Our study participants’ experiences are a reminder that Uganda’s current challenges in education due to the prolonged closure of schools are not new. Rather, the pandemic worsened existing inequities and structural barriers in education such as: not having access to truly free education; high drop out rates, low learning outcomes or lack of opportunities to find employment after completing school.

These impacts have far reaching consequences for education, reproductive health, mental health, working conditions, and earning opportunities.

Now that schools are open again, we will investigate existing and persisting grievances that affect and disadvantage adolescents, and how they cope with challenges such as paying school fees or catching up with teaching content. Strategies and interventions to ‘build back equal’ can learn a lot from an intersectional lens on the basis of young people’s accounts, their specific challenges, unique circumstances and everyday realities.

Originally published in The Conversation .

Authors: Simone Datzberger, Jenny Parkes, Amiya Bhatia, Rehema Nagawa, Dipak Naker and Karen Devries.

Karen Devries, Jenny Parkes and Dipak Naker are co- Principal Investigators on the CoVAC study

Uganda’s schooling system does not politically empower young people

Classroom. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

More than 20 years ago, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development stated that:

The lack of education stops a great majority of Africans from being citizens in their own right.

However, in the two following decades, there have been very mixed results on how education enhances political empowerment in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some researchers found that in Kenya civic education programmes had positive effects on political participation and engagement. By contrast, other scholars argued that higher levels of education did not increase people’s propensity to pursue “easy” forms of political participation, such as voting in the case of Mali.

One country that is struggling with democracy is Uganda. The country’s political environment remains severely restricted under the regime of long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni. In 2019 Freedom House – an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world – downgraded Uganda from partly free to not free.

The signs of restricted free spaces are there. Civil activism has been dampened by a controversial NGO act, enacted in 2016, which severely limits political advocacy. A social media tax was also introduced in 2018 to boost government revenue and end “gossip” on 60 social media outlets including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

My research project “Democratisation through Education” sought to gain a better understanding of what role schools play in the political empowerment of youth. Does education help young people to better understand how Uganda’s government and political system works? Do they engage in critical discussions in school about social, economic or political issues that affect society and their everyday lives?

In short, I was interested in whether, and how, educational institutions empower Ugandan youth to participate in society as active, informed, critical and responsible citizens.

I found that while the majority of respondents felt they critically reflected on some societal issues in school, their reported knowledge of national political institutions, and on how they would claim and advocate for their rights as citizens, was remarkably low.

Shaping political agency

Civic education was initially introduced into the Ugandan curriculum by the government in the mid-1980s. The intention was to engage the population in the nation-building process.

In 2017, I surveyed a total of 497 youth between the ages of 15 and 29 years (201 females and 296 males). They came from various secondary schools and universities across four regions; Central, North, North-East and South-West. In addition I conducted 37 interviews with actors from the government, civil society organisations, community based organisations, school officials, education planners, teaching professionals and local academics.

When my data collection took place, civic education had just been suspended from the formal curriculum. Civil society organisations I spoke to however felt that offering civic education at school would still be very relevant. At the same time, though they cautioned that it can be (and used to be) misused as a political propaganda mechanism and had to be approached very carefully.

By and large, young people’s responses suggest that Ugandan schools only make a very modest contribution in shaping political agency. Barely 51% of all respondents felt that they had a clear understanding of how Uganda’s political system or government works.

According to their responses, critical discussions about issues that affect society did take place in schools as part of formal lessons. But they tended not to revolve around “politics”. Instead, data from the survey revealed that these discussions focus on apolitical topics such as teenage pregnancies, early marriages or alcoholism. According to one male:

Discussions are mostly about how the world is diverse, composed of plants, animals, buildings, water, bodies, that societies are made of families.

Youth did seem to learn about their basic rights as citizens, such as the right to education. However, hardly any reflection or discussion appeared to take place in schools on why political, economic or societal grievances occur. Instead, according to some respondents, these discussions would be held at home or in their communities. In the words of one of the respondents:

It is hard to discuss…issues of society and the world because even teachers fear attacking the evils of the world and society so even as students we develop the fear because we are afraid of being singled out as less patriotic.

Patriotism seems to have a certain priority in schools. Paintings stating “be a patriot” were found on school compounds. Young people also mentioned “patriotic school clubs” with the purpose to serve the country by nurturing positive attitudes towards their country, themselves and work.

Gender differences

There were some striking gender differences per region.

For instance, in the central region (Kampala) only 32.6% of young women said they understood national politics compared to 61.6% of young men. This suggests that the quality of education – which appears to be better in urban areas – does not necessarily translate into better understandings of politics among girls.

On average, more than half of the respondents reported an interest in politics, though their interest levels varied significantly between gender and regions.

The lowest interest was reported by females in Kampala (34.6%). The highest by men in the South-West (75%). Unexpectedly, 69.7% of females in the North-East reported to be most interested in politics, significantly more than young men in the same region (55.1%). The North-East, known as Karamoja, is one of Uganda’s historically most marginalised and impoverished regions.

A political role

It is highly questionable whether schools are democratic change agents that stimulate individual political agency in Uganda. The bigger question probably is, should schools take on that role?

If yes, then it is important to acknowledge that educational institutions are embedded in and dependent on surrounding social, political and economic structures. In other words, the education sector alone is not the magic bullet for democratisation, economic growth or poverty alleviation. It can only make its contribution towards systemic change at large.

For this change to happen, there needs to be a shift in thinking among education sector planners and actors (not just in Uganda) about the purpose of education.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on 18 December 2020.

Afghanistan: When Conflict meets Education, Desire and Hope

Photo collection & commentary by Najeebullah Azad.

©Najeeb Azad: “Afghan Children”

Afghanistan is not only known for the war against terror but it is also the fifth youngest country in the world, with 68% of its population under the age of 25. For the Afghan freelance photographer and education activist, Najeebullah Azad (called Najeeb), this demographic boom not only creates risks but also many opportunities. Young people want to contribute to and benefit from the country’s development, yet much depends on older generations and the political as well as economic environment. According to a survey conducted by The Asia Foundation (2016), in total 71.2 % of Afghan youth are currently unemployed, 25.7 % illiterate and 13.8 % are addicted to drugs. At the same time, 69.8 % of Afghans reported that they are ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘always’ in fear for their personal safety. In addition, the percentage of Afghans with a family member who was either a victim of crime or violence increased by 1.2 points, to 19.4 % in 2016. Not surprisingly, 29.6 % of Afghans want to leave their home country due to security risks and lack of economic opportunities. Notwithstanding these challenges, Najeeb continues to be a proud citizen of Afghanistan, who embraces the diversity of his home country and deeply appreciates how gracefully Afghans live their lives.

In his photo collection, Najeeb reflects on the interplay of conflict, education and hope. In his view, Afghanistan’s youth remains the country’s greatest untapped resource for a better future. Below he comments on his photographs.

“War & Peace. The dilemma of Afghanistan”

©Najeeb Azad

About 104,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001. The war on terror is still ongoing, however there is nothing as precious as hope for a bright future for Afghans. In this photo, a young man is standing on an artillery which was used during the Afghan-Soviet war. The artillery is now used for recreational purposes, allowing people to understand their bitter history and hope for a peaceful future.

“The cost of war”

©Najeeb Azad

A father praying for his son at the cemetery of Enlightenment Movement. The cemetery is named in remembrance of the death of 80 Hazaras (a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan), killed by IS during a peaceful protest about the TUTAP (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan) power line project.

“Children rule Afghanistan’s present and future”

©Najeeb Azad

Children in a nursery school cheering for peace in Bamyan, the central highlands of Afghanistan. The school is located in Arzu Social Centre (Arzu means ‘hope’ in Dari) funded by an NGO, which offers English and computer classes, and a laundry room for women only. Currently, about 38 percent of school age children (4.2 million in real numbers) do not have access to schools, most of which are girls.

“Winter examinations”

©Najeeb Azad

Students attending examinations at Noor High School in Jaghori district, Ghazni province. The first Noor High School was established in Quetta, Pakistan by Afghan refugees who escaped the Taliban, supported by a charity from Japan. After the fall of the Taliban, a subdivision of the school moved to Ghazni province of Afghanistan. Most schools in peaceful areas of Afghanistan do not have proper buildings and facilities and schools located in insecure areas of Afghanistan that still have proper buildings and facilities are at constant risk of being targeted by the Taliban.

“Poverty affects children enrolled in schools”

©Najeeb Azad

A student searching rubbish bins in Kabul in the hope to find a used product which he can still sell to pay for his school expenses. Most school kids in Afghanistan are working part-time as street sellers and rubbish collectors to support themselves and their families.

“Child Labor”

©Najeeb Azad

A student reading in front of his father’s shop in Kabul, where he works to help his family. I talked to him, motivated him about his hard-work, and told him that he is the future of his conflict-affected country, a country which is now a ruin due to decisions of our old generation.

“Young Shepherd”

©Najeeb Azad

A young shepherd supporting his community and family by getting paid for every herd he takes care of. He told me that, the survival of his family is the idea of a bright future for him.

“Educated but unemployed”

©Najeeb Azad

University graduates celebrating their graduation from a private university in Kabul. Only 9.6 percent of college-age students (around 300,000) are enrolled in public and private universities in Afghanistan. The majority of youth does not have access to public higher education and can therefore only enroll at a private university if their families can afford to pay for the fees. However, those few who manage to graduate from a university struggle to find stable employment.

“A school bell made of the remains of an artillery”

©Najeeb Azad

I rang the bell and it was very loud! The noise of war is always so loud, but now this school in Bamyan province of Afghanistan is trying to keep the volume of war low, and shine the world with peace through the remains of war artilleries.

According to Save the Children, more than 400,000 Afghan children were dropped out of school in 2017 due to growing instability in the country and the forced returns of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. Conflict has also forced more than 1000 schools to shut.

“Kite runners of Kabul”

©Najeeb Azad

Afghan children flying their kite on Wazir Akbar Khan hill in Kabul. This photo reminds me of Khaled Hosseini’s book – A Thousand Splendid Suns.



Born in Afghanistan, Najeebullah Azad lived his childhood as a refugee in Pakistan during the Taliban regime, and completed his undergraduate degree in India. Najeeb is currently pursuing his Master Degree in Education Policies for Global Development (GLOBED). He has previously worked with NGOs and the United Nations in Afghanistan. He believes the world will be a better place for all through educating the uneducated. Najeeb is an education and civil activist, amateur writer and novelist, and a freelance photographer. He has been awarded by UNESCO, WMO, and many other organizations for his photography. He is currently organizing his photo exhibition about life in Afghanistan across Europe to raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan, with the aim to collect donations to build a public library for women and children in his country. If you want to support Najeeb’s work, please contact him at: najeebullah.azad@yahoo.com

Uganda: Digging for Social Justice in Karamoja

Co-authored with Tenywa Aloysius Malagala.
How the poor provision of education for the Karamojong affects the community’s ability to advocate for their rights.

Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015
Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015

Nestled amid the hills of the northeastern Ugandan-Kenyan border, a small Karamojong community in Nakabaat struggles to come to terms with a conflict-ridden past and the consequences of mineral resource exploitation by national and international companies. Uganda’s history of state formation was followed by anti-pastoralist policies and decades of drought, land disputes, and land dispossession, leaving the community deprived of food, water, healthcare facilities, and access to education. Locals from areas like Nakabaat have experienced cross-border conflicts for many years. However, what threatens the fragile peace today is no longer warrior nomads or border disputes but Karamoja’s nascent mining industry.

Although the area’s huge mineral deposits have the potential to revitalise the local economy, improve the living standards of a conflict-affected population, and foster processes of sustainable peace development, the region’s natural resources have fortified suffering, abject poverty, structural violence, and human rights abuses instead.

Karamoja remains one of the most underdeveloped sub regions in Uganda, and it displays the highest multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) in the country: 79.1 per cent live in severe poverty compared to the 38.2 per cent national average. As such, the region remains extremely vulnerable to internal and external shocks, ranging from security, political, environmental, and health-related threats. Yet, Karamoja is rich in two assets: mineral resources (including tin, gold, iron, nickel, copper, cobalt, marble, limestone, graphite, gypsum, wolfram, uranium, and lithium) and cultural diversity (consisting of tribes from Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan).

At first glance, the vast lands of Karamoja may appear vacant and unexploited. In reality, they are not—communities, not individuals, usually own the land. This clearly challenges any genuine attempts to identify rightful owners for consolation and compensation prior to engaging in mining activities. According to the latest report by Human Rights Watch (“How can we survive here?” 2014), there are currently three active mining companies in Karamoja engaged in different stages of the mining process. These include Jan Mangal Uganda Ltd (a Ugandan subsidiary of an Indian jewelry company), East African Mining Ltd (a Ugandan gold exploration company), and DAO Marble Ltd (a Kuwait-based group).

The report further highlights the difficulties of land rights and ownership and states that

“While Uganda’s mining law requires a surface rights agreement to be negotiated with land owners prior to active mining and payment of royalties to lawful landowners once revenues flow, the law does not require any communication or consent from the local population during exploration work.”

What makes matters even worse is the government’s resistance to implementing communal or collective land ownership based on the Karamojong’s communal tradition.

In a way, history repeats itself in Karamoja—only the exterior actors have changed. After colonial rule, the borders between Kenya and Sudan were redrawn, and the majority of the Karamojong’s grazing regions were left outside Uganda. The extent to which the long-term effects of externally imposed borders have caused civil unrest and conflict in the region remains a highly debated and often disputed point.

In pre-colonial Karamoja, political power was exercised over people and not over land or territory. In other words, the nature of semi-nomadic societal life rendered the whole notion of individual land ownership almost irrelevant. Any territorial claims would have endangered the very basis of survival for most pastoral communities. Upon independence, forceful attempts by Ugandan governments to settle Karamojong pastoralists have resulted in decades of conflict and widespread poverty. Today, the Karamojong’s lack of legal proof and land ownership puts them in significant jeopardy of experiencing rights abuses as mining activities continue to increase.

The small Karamojong community of Nakabaat serves as a prime example of how resource exploitation and land acquisition by mining companies increase structural violence and violate human rights. Disarmed by the Uganda People’s Defense Force, the community abandoned cattle herding (and raiding) to mine for small quantities of gold instead. Yet, between 2011 and 2014, their modest existence was severely disrupted when Jan Mangal Ltd entered their land.

Initially, Jan Mangal Ltd promised to develop and compensate the community in exchange for their gold-mining activities, but the company did not live up to its promises. When the community raised concerns about issues of land ownership, Jan Mangal Ltd asserted that the land belonged to the government. Four years down the line, the company has depleted the mine of its gold and has left the impoverished community behind. Miles of black pipes used to pump water into the mining site still remain and serve as a reminder of their activities. In a group interview, the community of Nakabaat claimed that throughout the period of Jan Mangal’s presence they were refused access to water from the pipes. Notably, Karamoja is one of the regions in Uganda that is most affected by frequent water shortages and drought.

These days, there are only traces of gold left at the site. Young Karamojong miners reveal that for one “point” (i.e. the size of a few sand corns) they earn 5.000 Uganda Shillings (UGX) or US$ 1.70, and one gram presently sells for UGX 50.000 or US$ 17. Ugandan businessmen from Kampala are their main clients. Sales figures are purely the result of chance, and there are periods when they sell no gold at all. A “point” of gold may easily take up to one day of mining and involve several members of the community. Fatalities occur frequently due to the poor set-up of the mining site.

Any local attempts to formally complain and report Jan Mangal Ltd have so far failed. Even when the community sought legal assistance from the International Federation of Women Lawyers, Jan Mangal neither responded nor attended meetings about the case.

Besides, communities such as Nakabaat simply lack educated individuals to advocate for their wants and needs, not to mention to engage in lucrative mining activities and businesses for themselves. When we asked community members how many of them attended school, only one young man raised his hand.

Karamoja has the highest percentage of Uganda’s population with either no schooling or incomplete primary education (79.8 % being female and 64.8% being male). Numerous efforts by the government in collaboration with international donors, aid agencies and civil society organisations are currently underway to increase educational attainment among the local people. These positive developments notwithstanding, it may take a time span of two generations until remote communities are able to advocate for their rights and needs.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

Virtually Constructing Awareness Campaigns – Restrictions of ‘Viral’ Global Public Discourse #Kony2012

If a global civilian discourse and consequently public sphere ought to exist – it is very exclusionary in its nature.

Stop Kony 2012 Poster. Invisible Children
Stop Kony 2012 Poster. Invisible Children

“When the farthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically; when any incident you like, in any place you like, at any time you like, becomes accessible as fast as you like; when you can simultaneously “experience” an assassination attempt against a king in France and a symphony concert in Tokyo; when time is nothing but speed, instantaneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Dasein [Being] of all peoples; when a boxer counts as the great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for?—where to?—and what then?”  (Heidegger)

The majority of large INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) regularly update their online communities on developmental work and pressing needs on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Most prominently, Invisible Children urged millions of people to take part in a global awareness campaign in order to chase one of the most notorious criminals worldwide: Joseph Kony. Reactions to the film have differed enormously. The UK-based INGO, PeaceDirect criticised the campaign as out of context and without any local ownership. For Justice in Conflict author, Mark Kersten, the film does not offer an accurate portrayal of the actual conflict in Uganda as the problem is far more complicated than simply stopping Joseph Kony (for more details see also CTV News interview). On 12 March, the Guardian published a graph by Charlie Morton called ‘Phony 2012’, revealing that in 2011 about US $ 1.7 million was spent on Invisible Children staff and only 1 % of all funds raised will in fact directly reach the Ugandan people. Yet, according to Luis Moreno Ocampo (the International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor), the media crusade had ‘mobilised the world’ and Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie has called for ‘Ugandan warlord’s arrest’. The question is: Can a viral video change the world?

Hence, the focus of this blog post is not about the ethics, politics or strategies of the Kony2012 campaign as such which has already been discussed by so many others. Rather, it will deal with whether more attention should be paid to the exclusionary nature of awareness campaigns in cyberspace. Put simply, can we truly “mobilise the world” for a particular cause – virtually – through social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube? In a Habermasian lens – does such a thing as a “global” public sphere even exist? Notably, Habermas’ accounts of the public sphere are a reflection of societies in western liberal mass-welfare democracies. Bluntly transferring his notions to a global level will certainly result in some conceptual flaws. In a quick experiment to explore the usefulness of the term at global level, one can more or less argue that a global public sphere emerges out of dialogue, discourse and exchange – the same is true of cyberspace. Global public discourse then acquires a transformative or emanicpatory nature parallel to, and in concert with, global state structures. Access to such a global and virtual public sphere would, in principle, be open to all citizens in that populace (in re-interpretation of Habermas account):

“(…) act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicise their opinions freely. When the public is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence; today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. (1989, 231)”

More than 20 years later, his definition has gained a completely new dimension through advanced media technologies and social media platforms. The Internet has become a medium which is assumed to be non-exclusionary, egalitarian and democratic.

But is this really the case for campaigns such as Kony 2012? Beyond the excitement of pursuing international criminal justice through mass-civilian advocacy, one crucial question stands out at the fringes of this endeavour: How are these virtual campaigns absorbed domestically in countries such as the Democratic Republic of  Congo, Central African Republic, Southern Sudan or Uganda (all areas in which Kony has operated or operates)? How can their voices be heard – virtually?

Many studies and academic literature have focused on the issue of “aid absorption capacity” in LDCs (Least Developed Countries). Strikingly, not much attention is paid to how the influence of communication and information technologies is in fact absorbed and internalised in countries ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI). In other words, how does the Kony 2012 movement and the numerous online initiatives and campaigns run by numerous INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) affect domestic public discourse in the LDCs in question? Who among the broader population in these countries has access to social media platforms such as Facebook and can make use of advanced media and communication technology and thus launch his or her own campaign?

In a short assessment, one major indicator is certainly the illiteracy rate within LDCs. Citing a UNESCO fact sheet from 2011, “In 2009, the global adult literacy rate was 83.7%, compared to 89.3% for youth. The region of South and West Asia is home to more than half of the world’s illiterate population (51.8%). In total, 21.4% of all illiterate adults live in sub-Saharan Africa.” Notably, adult literacy rates were below 50% in the following sub-Saharan countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone. According to the HDI 2011, in countries in which the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) operates or operated, the literacy rate of both sexes above 15 years of age is:

  • Central African Republic: 55.2 %
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: 66.8 %
  • Southern Sudan: (not listed)
  • Uganda: 71.4 %

One could argue now that the Kony 2012 campaign is based on a film and the issue of illiteracy is only secondary. Still, taking Central African Republic as an example, 44.8 % of the population are not able to understand written information, google the video online or comment on it. In this regard, media absorption capacity in LDCs is also limited because of:

Language barriers: Especially in rural areas where not everyone is fluent or fully understands English (or in the case of other campaigns/countries, French or other western languages).

Restricted access to computers and costs: Access to a computer or other advanced media communication tools are still a privilege in all LDCs. For example, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the standard hourly rate to use the internet is about 5,000 Leones,  equivalent to USD 1.35. This is 15 cents more than the average person earns per day.

Thus, if a global civilian discourse and consequently public sphere ought to exist  – it is very exclusionary in its nature. As well-intended as many of these campaigns are, they take place in a “virtually” isolated global public debate from the very local civilian sphere.  The “what for” is only one out of so many other important aspects. More attention needs to be paid to the “where to” as marginalised civilian spheres should not be excluded from the global discourse and should also have a “viral” voice. However, what is even more essential is the “what then”…?

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE


Habermas, Jürgen (1986): On society and politics – a reader, edit. by Seidman Martin, Beacon Press,Boston

Habermas, Jürgen (1996): Between Facts and Norms, Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, translated by William Rehg, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Heidegger, Martin (1959): Introduction to metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University Press

Voices to the Youth – ‘We can see the light but we are not working’ (Sierra Leone)

Youth in Freetown are bubbling over with hope for a better life.

S.L.F. Street Life Family. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2011
S.L.F. Street Life Family. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2011

Freetown – In the middle of a community near to Belairpark, only five minutes motorbike ride from the city centre, the daily challenges of poverty lead to the formation of a support organisation. In Freetown, necessity definitely begets ingenuity. A club called ‘Street Life Family’, in short S.L.F., uplifts young men who have lost almost everything except for their dignity, hope, and each other. ‘Together as One’ – is the motto of the club, which builds on mutual respect, unity and team spirit. S.L.F. was founded, in 2000, by Mr. Ahamedi Tijan Kabbah – also known as ‘Grandpa’ – under the initial name ‘Peacemakers’. Yet S.L.F. is not a political Grassroots Movement as such, but, an informal social support system for all of its members. Struggling with the consequences of the conflict and poverty himself, Mr. Kabbah simply reached out to the youth of the community with the message: ‘Let us be together’.  Eleven years later it is hard to estimate – even for S.L.F. members – how many people are de-facto part of the club in which members often come and go. The core of S.L.F. though, consists of about 50 young men who live either on the street or share a small room with a couple of other friends or members, sometimes at the compound or somewhere else in the nearby slums. Some of them have jobs, some are unemployed, some are artists or students and some simply describe themselves as ‘Jacks of all trades’. No matter how they generate their income, all S.L.F. members contribute at least a very small amount of their money to the club. Every evening one can find a big cast iron pot full of rice at the S.L.F. compound. In rotating shifts one member prepares the food for the entire club. For some it is the only meal they will have per day.  But that is only a small part of club life and initiatives. Taking the road uphill Belair Park to Mr. Kabbah’s house one can see a handful of young men working hard to build a road with only a few tools. Everyone in the community knows that the funds to build this particular road were already allocated and then misappropriated twice.  Now these young men undertake the job for free, earning nothing but the occasional tips from passing cars and motorbikes.

In 2007 and without any external support or funds thus far S.L.F. even created its own school called ‘Bomba Adult Education Center’. The idea came from Mr. Alusane S. Dumbya a local artist, play writer, poet, narrator and cartoonist. Lectures are held three times per week by Mr. Dumbya himself and other teachers. Everyone is welcome to join in – S.L.F. as well as non S.L.F. members. To their delight sometimes even workers from the streets of Freetown spontaneously come by and participate in classes. Lectures taught are about ‘general knowledge of all aspects’ according to Mr. Dumbya. One of his latest classes for instance focused on the ‘Lost Legends of Sierra Leone’. The key message of this particular class: Sierra Leone is not poor of natural, human and cultural resources, but, mismanaged.

Sierra Leone – Amongst the international community the country is often referred to as a ‘success’ story in its process of recovery from a vicious civil war and a transition to peace.  People are indeed tired of fighting. Their frustration about slow development and the on-going and widespread corruption, however, remains. Almost ten years after the war people are still living by the day, in fact, 63% of the population has less than $ 1.25 as disposable income per day. Current life expectancy is estimated at 48.2 years, almost half of the population is illiterate, child mortality rates are high and every fifth women dies from preventable complications during birth or pregnancy.  Talking to people living in the slums of Freetown they say that they still feel that in part things are slowly changing to the better in the form of road construction and electricity. Nonetheless, the latter is often unreliable and their core concerns seem unresolved. While pointing to the flashing lights from residential areas in the hills surrounding Freetown Mr. Kabbah says: ‘We can see the lights but we are not working.’ Sierra Leone has one of the highest youth unemployment rates worldwide. It is estimated that approximately 60% – 70% of young people don’t have a job or any prospects for a regular and stable income, and consequently better life.  And even for those who manage to find employment, wages are so low that it hardly leads to any major improvement. Not surprisingly local labour units are weak – lacking capacity and rights.

How do young people cope with all these challenges, constant uncertainties and most of all powerlessness to change their own situation? One major source for encouragement and strength are certainly their clubs. There is hardly a young adult in Sierra Leone who does not belong to a specific club or group. The purpose of these clubs varies from dancing, making music to sports or any other social activities like contests or public events.  Some clubs are for leisure activities only, others, like S.L.F., are the only social support network they have. Interviewing youth from different clubs and backgrounds they all agree that clubs are a major contributor to sustaining the peace in the country, in so much that they bring unity amongst the youth. One S.L.F. member adds that ‘We [the club] have to be at peace with ourselves first in order to bring peace to the other communities’.  Yet, such a peaceful coexistence of all youth clubs in Freetown was not always the case.

A notable proportion of clubs in the city associate themselves with a specific movement. So, Central Freetown belongs to the ‘Blues’ (also known as CCC – Cent Cost Crips), West Freetown to the ‘Reds’ (also known as RFM – Red Flag Movement) and East Freetown to the ‘Blacks’ (also known as Kekeke or Black Leos). In terms of membership (thus number of local clubs affiliated to one movement) the CCC movement is the biggest one – followed by the RFM and then the Black Leos. Recently a new movement (yellow and black) emerged in the South-Eastern part of the town but the three other groups signal clearly that they still have to work on growing the number of members and gaining respect.  In the past gang fights or ‘beefing’ as they call it, occurred quite often. Presently all the movements are proud of having established a culture of discussion and declared a ‘cold war’ between all the parties involved. Negotiations were initiated in November 2010 by the CCCs together with the help of the Minster of Internal Affairs and Local Government Mr. Dauda Kamara. Each movement burned down their flags and granted the other group the right to spray their initials on the walls in the territory of the others. However, eight months later it seems that this peace process is built on a very shaky ground. Although Minister Kamara’s successful attempt in ‘gang fight mediation’ is highly appreciated amongst all groups, their daily frustrations persist. In a group interview with the head of the CCCs, a young men who calls himself ‘Gangster Number 1’ and about 30 other members it is made clear that the expectations of the Blues were not met.  From the moment they stopped the ‘beefing’ in the streets they felt left alone again. No further signal with regards to support or help for a better development of their ‘blue community’ has since reached them. More concretely, if they don’t see their lives transformed in the near future, they would not exclude that the ‘beefing’ might start again. On top, the CCCs are not alone with their dissatisfaction. A group of students who belong to the RFM equally state: ‘If things won’t change for the youth in next 2-3 years we’ll go mad.’ Opinions differ enormously whether a potential re-occurrence of gang fights might constitute a potential threat to the peace process of the country. For some local Civil Society Organisations, it is a phenomenon that can be found in any other big city around the world, for others it can have a destabilising impact which shouldn’t be underestimated at all.

The reality is that the youth in Freetown are bubbling over with hope for a better life. But if their situation remains unchanged it is only a question of time before fights re-occur. ‘Sometimes I think god just fools me’, said a young man belonging to the RFM. and S.L.F. grandfather Mr. Kabbah seems also very concerned. ‘I don’t want to see the youth to lose their head’ he says in reference to the challenges and frustrations they face. Considering their past and daily struggles it is absolutely impressive that the majority did not.

This article was originally published by: LSE IDEAS and Africa at LSE