Northern Ireland and Uganda build links for the future

By Julian Fowler
BBC News

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Image caption,
The humble spud in Uganda is known simply as "Irish"

Assembly members at Stormont are hoping to develop links between Northern Ireland and north east Uganda.

Most people will associate Uganda with the dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s, but in the last 20 years the country has been transformed from a failed state to something of an African success story with a fast growing economy.

The capital city Kampala, on the shores of Lake Victoria, is a vibrant mix of prosperity and poverty with little of the colonial hangover you find elsewhere in the region.

In some parts of the city real estate costs $2m an acre, partly driven by the country's recent discovery of oil.

Of course not everyone has shared in the success story and thousands of people live in squalor in makeshift urban slums.

The links between Northern Ireland and Uganda have developed through the work of missionaries, and more recently churches and charities, which have built schools and hospitals.

One quirky link is the piles of potatoes neatly stacked in pyramids in the markets - the humble spud in Uganda is known simply as "Irish".


But travel north across the River Nile and you are in a region that has been devastated by conflict.

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Using solar lights means villagers no longer have to spend money on kerosene

Until a few years ago 1.8m people, a population the size of Northern Ireland, were refugees in their own country, living in camps as the government fought the rebel child soldiers of the Lord's Resistance Army.

The work of local aid agencies is helping to transform the lives of those who have returned home.

Sean Farrell from Irish charity Trocaire said: "One third of the families we work with would have a cash income of about £40 a year. It's less than £1 a week."

They found that in many villages most of that cash income was being spent on kerosene for lamps.

One thing Uganda has freely in abundance is sunshine so they have given out 4,000 solar lights which Sean Farrell said are extremely popular.

"Every time that you meet a family they say things like: 'Before I spent my money on kerosene. Now I have the solar light now I spend my money on school fees. Now I'm spending my money on tools for the farm. Now I'm spending my money on some medical services for my family. Now I'm saving a bit of money that I can put away.'"

The only one to lose out is the local kerosene dealer.


The consequences of a spark can be devastating, but there have been no fires this year where solar lights are being used.

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The local school has reported the best exam results in the district as children can now read and study at home

There have been other benefits, to health and education. They have helped midwives to deliver children at night and the local school has reported the best exam results in the district as children can now read and study at home.

However, international aid is not as simple as solar lights. Corruption and bureaucracy are a constant challenge.

Uganda has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Russian fighter jets for example. I saw one fly overhead as I was standing in a village with people who could not afford their children's school fees.

The UK government currently gives £100m a year in aid to Uganda. The amount of aid as a percentage of GDP is decreasing and it is hoped Uganda will soon no longer be dependent on handouts from foreign governments.

Members of the All Party Group on International Development at Stormont want to establish a regional contribution - which both the Scottish and Welsh administrations have done in other parts of Africa.

Although they have no budget as it is a devolved matter for Westminster, the MLAs have met the British and Irish ministers responsible for overseas aid to develop a technical assistance programme in north east Uganda.

They say such a policy will help to recognise some of the contributions local people have made in the developing world.

The long-term aim is to help those who have relied on aid to help themselves.

Trocaire's work to develop sustainable livelihoods is being supported by the Department for International Development which has pledged £900,000 in matched funding to end the years of darkness in this part of Africa.

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