A Partnership with the Poor

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

In the global fight against extreme poverty, the most important weapon may be humility.

Such is the hypothesis of Father Robert Dowd, CSC, ’87, the political scientist charged with leading Notre Dame’s distinctive involvement in a serious international push to eradicate global poverty by 2025.

Dowd, a scholar of East African political culture, is the director of the Notre Dame Millennium Development Initiative (NDMDI), a series of links swiftly being forged between the Notre Dame family, Uganda Martyrs University, a host of Catholic and international partners, the ambitious work of Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and a tiny village in the verdant Ugandan lowlands called Nindye.

Sadly, says Dowd, failure has plagued many antipoverty and human development campaigns. “Those projects that are driven by the agendas of outsiders almost always fail,” he says. “This has to be driven by the people in the village. They have to own this from the very beginning if this is going to be truly empowering and sustainable.

“All too often, [projects] have turned Africans into passive recipients; they have not really respected the ingenuity, the local knowledge, the desires of local people, the needs,” Dowd says. “If this partnership is going to realize its goals, it’s got to be different.”

Located near Lake Victoria, the massive freshwater lake Uganda shares with neighbors Kenya and Tanzania, Nindye (pronounced Nin-DEE-ay) is a village of 5,000 farmers, fishermen and their families. Much of the farming is done for subsistence, though many villagers earn a scratch income from selling their vegetables, watermelons, sweet potatoes or coffee. Fishermen, similarly, take what prices they can get for their catches from big fishing companies and local traders. Though their village appears scattered to the visitor’s eye, the villagers are cohesive in their efforts to tackle the kinds of problems—inadequate water supplies, poor sanitation, a high number of dependent orphans, exposure to a terrifying list of infectious diseases, a lack of access to proper health care and education—that families trying to live on a dollar or two a day cannot solve on their own. The significance of their new partnership with Notre Dame and Uganda Martyrs is that soon they won’t have to.

Physicians on call
NDMDI is a long-term commitment on the University’s part to serve and to learn. Dowd and Tim Lyden ’02, the initiative’s assistant director, are working to bring what resources Notre Dame can offer to build upon Uganda Martyrs’ existing development programs and extend their benefits to Nindye. Dowd says that at this early stage—NDMDI launched formally in September—it is difficult to predict what Notre Dame’s involvement will require, though it is likely to involve some combination of consultation, research, fund-raising, advocacy and service learning opportunities. But he knows the work will begin slowly and modestly and be guided by local priorities and timelines. Much will depend on the result of needs assessments conducted by research teams from Uganda Martyrs and the villagers themselves. The approach is inspired by Sachs’ bottom-up methods, which are already operative in dozens of “Millennium Villages” that have sprung up in Uganda and nine other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sachs, the celebrated author of The End of Poverty and creator of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), was one of three panelists at the Notre Dame forum on the global health crisis in September. He calls his approach “clinical economics.” He believes the multifaceted causes and symptoms of poverty can be remedied in a generation not by throwing money and ideas at the poor but by listening to them the way a doctor listens to a patient before diagnosis. The treatment is cooperative, recognizing that the patient is just as important as the doctor in ensuring success. It is also aggressive, taking a holistic view of seemingly disparate problems and attacking them all at once. Borrowing from this model, Notre Dame and Uganda Martyrs have agreed in essence to serve Nindye as physicians on call.

Notre Dame’s connection to Sachs’ work strengthened last year when Ray Chambers, a prominent Notre Dame trustee and benefactor, made a $1.25 million donation in the University’s name to the Millennium Village then launching in Ruhiira, a village in the remote mountains of southwestern Uganda. While Notre Dame’s focus will remain on its work with Uganda Martyrs and Nindye, Dowd says the link to the Ruhiira project and to Millennium Promise, the nonprofit organization Sachs and Chambers co-founded to administer the MVP, will be strong, providing opportunities for observation, research and the exchange of information on best development practices.

“We’re not going to try to replicate the Millennium Villages Project,” Dowd explains. “Instead, the effort will build on research that the Uganda Martyrs faculty have already been conducting and be open to creative research projects proposed by Notre Dame students and faculty. Our job is to make the most of an opportunity to learn the lessons of human development and, through doing so, promote human development.”

University president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, agrees. “What [this] provides is the kind of resources people need to get a jump start, to get some kind of basic needs taken care of so that they can sustain development on their own,” he said. “I think it’s important not to elevate our role. I think it’s important to be humble.”

Drawing from experience

Notre Dame is no stranger to Africa, or to scholarship and service in other parts of the developing world in fields ranging from civil engineering and the health sciences to economics, entrepreneurship, law and peace studies. Fully aware of the wealth of in-house expertise, Dowd sees this new initiative as an opportunity to integrate it and get scholars talking to each other.

Through the Congregation of Holy Cross, Notre Dame has particularly strong ties to Uganda. The order first arrived to support the missionary work of the Church in 1958 and is attracting religious vocations from several East African countries. Dowd points out the strengths of working with Uganda Martyrs, a relatively new Catholic university about a 20-minute drive from Nindye. UMU has departments and centers in complementary fields such as agriculture, development and ethics, education and microfinance, as well as extensive experience with development projects in nearby villages.

Dowd has personal ties to Uganda, too. He spent a year and a half of his priestly formation year in Nairobi, Kenya, and visited Uganda often. The experience helped him cultivate his spiritual life and his scholarly interests. But he is clear that while NDMDI is an extension of Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university, the project is not a missionary endeavor.

Jenkins reiterated the point in an online reflection he wrote after joining Dowd and other University representatives on a trip to Uganda in January. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical God is Love, Jenkins explained that “genuine charity is not [extended] in service to an ideology or as a means of engaging in proselytism, but is ‘first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick.’"

During that seven-day trip, Jenkins, Dowd and Lyden were joined by Frances Shavers ’90, Jenkins’ chief of staff; Todd Woodward ’93, associate vice president for communications; Richard Pierce, chairman of the Department of Africana Studies; and undergraduate student Tess Bone. Their itinerary took them to a Holy Cross ordination and a high school the order operates in the city of Jinja, the project in Ruhiira, the Uganda Martyrs campus, a meeting with Catholic bishops in the capital, Kampala, and a leading HIV/AIDS clinic and research center.

“Everywhere we went, we found need,” Pierce wrote in his entry to the delegation’s online journal. “But we also found great joy. The people were happy. The people welcomed us, and although they had little, they shared what they had with us.”

Halfway through the trip, the group, led by Uganda’s MVP country coordinator Johnson Nkuuhe and UMU outreach program coordinator Gelvan Lule, made Notre Dame’s first visit to Nindye. They were warmly greeted by 300 villagers and sat down for an hour-long town hall meeting that addressed the prospects for the partnership. The villagers showed what one ND representative called a “healthy skepticism” about the project. The meeting was brief, but Lyden says the spirit of it was captured when one old woman wearing a rosary approached the delegation, smiled and said, “Let us be family!"

In seven months, Lyden has already spent a significant amount of time in Uganda. He is in constant contact with administration and leading faculty at Notre Dame and Uganda Martyrs as well as with key players at Sachs’ Earth Institute at Columbia and at Millennium Promise. He checks in with the offices of Catholic bishops and local government officials. And that’s all when he’s not working to mobilize and sustain interest among students, faculty, staff and alumni.

That interest is active and palpable. A core team of faculty advisors offers Lyden invaluable counsel, as does a 25-member student panel. Students from the panel traveled in pairs to their dorm communities to lead information meetings in February and March. On the classroom side, one political science professor, Naunihal Singh, is already incorporating an analysis of the project into his senior seminar on economic development. A structured exchange program between Notre Dame and Uganda Martyrs is in the works and may bring students and faculty from the African school to South Bend later this year. Dowd hopes to see the project’s impact on course curricula and campus life grow over time so students can learn something from Nindye without having to go there.

No model exists to guide the initiative. One of the many tasks in the coming months will be to track the lessons learned in the process. Dowd expects to receive a preliminary report from Nindye and Uganda Martyrs later this year and then to begin brainstorming specifics on how to proceed with faculty and students on campus. While research and service are possible avenues for Domers’ involvement—a pair of undergraduates have already lined up on-site research projects for the summer—others may include financial support and advocacy on poverty and health crises in the developing world. What’s most important, Dowd says, are the relationships and the basic human bonds that Notre Dame may be able to forge in Uganda.

“This isn’t just about promoting the human development of the people in the village of Nindye,” Dowd says. “I really believe that by participating in this project, hopefully we’ll become more human. And in that sense it’s about our own human development.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.