Ropes and harnesses for Uganda’s toughest climbers

March 13, 2013 by

Members of a BRAC Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents club in Igamba village, Iganga District, Eastern Uganda. (Photo: BRAC/Jake Lyell)

Members of a BRAC Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents club in Igamba village, Iganga District, Eastern Uganda. (Photo: BRAC/Jake Lyell)

I remember well the worn-out look in the boy’s eyes when he approached and asked, in a hushed yet clear tone, “Sir, I really need a job. Can you please help me? Your company?”

It was the fall of 2008 on my first trip to Uganda, and I’d been standing on the side of the road in Kampala, the capital, waiting for a lift. Five years on, I’ve been back to Uganda countless times and made great friends. But I still remember that moment most vividly – the disappointment on the boy’s face when I told him I couldn’t do much for him.

Last month saw the publications of the State of Uganda Population Report for 2012, which confirms what we’ve long known – that Uganda is the youngest country in the world. Not youngest as in the newest, an honor that goes to its neighbor, South Sudan, but youngest in terms of the age of the population: 78 percent of Ugandans are under 30, and 52 percent haven’t reached the age of 15. 

It’s also a country where the fertility rates are among the highest. One in five teenage girls becomes pregnant before the age of 18. These numbers and the factors driving them have a dramatic impact on the lives of Ugandans.

How do you design policy and plan development programs in a country with such a bulging youth population? Two words: Education and jobs.

I was lucky to have been working for an organization that understood this early on. BRAC had the vision to see that empowering young people, especially girls, needs to be one of the country’s biggest priorities. While young Ugandans in general face an uphill climb, it’s a 90-degree incline for adolescent girls.

So BRAC is teaching girls to be expert climbers, giving them the equivalent of harnesses and ropes. The Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents program has 51,000 girls in it, as of January 2013. The members of these local youth empowerment clubs get safe spaces, life-skills and livelihood training, and micro-loans that enable self-employment. It’s a tough climb, but a recent study published by World Bank and other scholars shows BRAC’s ropes and harnesses are working well. The girls are truly scaling new heights.

BRAC quickly scaled-up to become the largest NGO in Uganda, thanks in part to a partnership with The MasterCard Foundation. An unintended (yet positive) consequence is that the organization is now also one of the largest non-governmental employers in the country. The organization employs more than 2,200 people, many of them fresh out of school or first-time job holders – and the median age of a BRAC Uganda employee is just 23.

That’s an impressive track record, but the memory of that teenage boy looking for a job reminds me of the work still to be done. The government, NGOs and the private sector all need to come together to help unleash the energy of young people in Uganda.

We have an opportunity before us – to turn the youngest country in the world into the toughest.

Santhosh Ramdoss, senior program manager at BRAC USA, is currently on a sabbatical for creative reflection. He is taking his time to work on crazy ideas, learn new things and meet inspiring people. Among other things, he is currently working on the great Indian zombie novel.

For more on Uganda’s youth, read the Youth Watch 2012 report for Uganda (PDF): “Problem or Promise: Harnessing Youth Potential in Uganda” is a wide-ranging study of the aspirations and challenges of Uganda’s youth, published by BRAC in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation.