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Money and human rights

Earlier this year, as I interfaced with the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee of the Ugandan Parliament, regarding the then Anti-Homosexuality Bill (yes – that legislation which apparently most Ugandans support), a former Minister of Ethics and Integrity walked into the Committee room.

Although he had not listened to my submission, he felt compelled, and proceeded, to respond to it in general terms. Perhaps predictably, the response was weak on substance but very strong on hyperbole and invective. While not referring to me directly, he spoke generally about agents of ‘Western imperialism’ – who had essentially sold their souls in the service of a foreign agenda bent on destroying the national fabric.

In what could only be described as a long diatribe, he criticized what he called ‘the nonsense of human rights’ and likened opponents of the Bill to those Africans who, in the colonial moment, had betrayed their societies for trinkets. While I had been prepared for a good faith and respectful exchange of views with the Committee, which in fact had been happening prior to his arrival, his intervention left little or no room for any serious or meaningful dialogue.

I was particularly incensed by what I took to be a personal insult. In my response to him, I disclosed what I ordinarily would not have done in such, or any other setting – the fact that in January 2016, in a letter signed by the former President of Botswana Festus Mogae, I had been offered the position of Senior Legal Advisor to the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) – charged with overseeing
the democratic transition process in South Sudan - a position which would have been attended by a monthly remuneration of USD 10,000 (likely tax free given the diplomatic status of that organization).

I preferred to stay on at Makerere University, with a salary which at the time was about USD 1,000 (and which has only slightly improved these 7 years later). I disclosed this to him – and the Committee – to make the point that I might be involved in human rights work for a variety of reasons, but certainly the pursuit of, or the inordinate desire for, money is not one of them.

I must admit that I returned the ‘nonsense’ word back to the former Minister, to an extent that, in the heat of the proceedings on that rather cold Kampala morning, the Acting Chair of the Committee had to quickly intervene to restore order. I might even have, in the heat of the moment, invoked my Kiga heritage to explain why I would not be tolerating ‘nonsensical’ personal attacks on that particular day.

Nonetheless, since that time I have often reflected on that exchange. The former Minister’s accusations echo those often levelled by a number of Ugandans – both ordinary citizens and the political establishment – about the human rights movement in Uganda. That far from being authentic and indigenous, it is foreign-sourced, foreign-funded and foreign-influenced.

It is a charge which is particularly difficult to shake off. It goes both to the legitimacy and credibility of the civil society movement in Uganda, as it does to the very idea of human rights as conceptualized and practiced in Uganda. And it is a charge which the human rights movement, and the broader civil society, in Uganda must find ways of effectively responding to.

There is no denying the fact, for instance, that some people have found a career ‘doing’ human rights work. There is, in fact, absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing such a career. It is one which is as legitimate as a career in say, engineering, farming and so on. And to that extent, there is nothing wrong or illegitimate in obtaining reasonable compensation for such work.

At the same time, a career in human rights is very different, in a critical way, from others. It is a call to serve higher ideals – often in a context where one may have to confront and resist powerful forces – political, social and economic – in defence of fundamental principles.

It is, and must be, therefore, not just a career but also a calling, just as the practice of medicine (or teaching) is, or should be. Indeed, in many ways, it has parallels to religious priesthood – requiring a sacrifice of self to a cause greater than oneself.

In the same way as Priests might receive monetary support for themselves and the work that they do, so too, should those who serve humanity in the field of human rights be able to seek, and accept, financial support for their own work.

I hasten to add, however, that in this same context, those who ‘do’ human rights must be keen to remain clear as to what exactly it is that they are doing, and for what purpose they do it. If the main purpose is the advancement of certain important ideals – hard fought through the work of many persons over many centuries – then it follows that certain painful sacrifices may have to be made in the service of that cause.

While money is important to the conduct of human rights work – as it is for medical work or priestly work – it is essential to always recall that it is the work that is important, not the finances which might support it. Put simply, while money is important for human rights work, human rights work should not be done primarily for money.

I had the immense privilege, and good fortune, very early in my own professional life, to learn this critical lesson from two gentlemen whom I consider to be my ‘fathers-in-the- law’. The first was early in my work as an Assistant Lecturer at the Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC), at the School of Law, Makerere. It must have been around 2009 or 2010.

The then Director of the Centre, Prof J Oloka-Onyango, asked me to sit in on a meeting with a particular grantmaking organization which had some ideas about a partnership. I was surprised, when following the meeting, the Director informed me that HURIPEC would not be proceeding with that particular partnership, since it was not aligned with the Centre’s focus for that period.

I learnt the importance of prioritizing the focus and impetus of the work, rather than being randomly led in the direction of funds. The next lesson would come a couple of years later, in 2012. Prof Frans Viljoen, the then Director of the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, had found a creative way of having the Centre support my doctoral studies.

The arrangement was that as I worked on my thesis, I would also dedicate some time to supporting activities under the Disability Rights Project, from whose funds I would be receiving support. A few days after my arrival in South Africa, he called me into his office to discuss the specifics of the arrangement.

Not quite recalling some aspects of what we had previously discussed over email, and asking me to refresh his memory, he rather offhandedly and somewhat apologetically remarked: ‘Money does not speak to me’.

I think, from its curious phrasing, the statement was probably some kind of direct translation from the Afrikaans language. I am sure that both gentlemen have long since forgotten these ‘small’ incidents – but I continue to reflect on them as particular examples of what money should be, or rather not be, in human rights work: as a means to a higher end, rather than an end in itself.

If, as it is often said, in this world, ‘money talks’, then those who do human rights work should be careful about the kind of ‘dialogue’ they have with, or about, money. They should not always be available to hear the things money says. In many real ways, the nature of that (human rights work-money) dialogue will have direct and indirect effects on the depth, effectiveness – and legitimacy – of human rights work and advocacy in Uganda.

I think a useful guide in this respect is for a human rights practitioner to ask themselves: ‘If there was no funding for the work that I am doing, would I still do it?’

If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then they are probably well-situated in terms of their work and advocacy. In this regard, it does not bode well for the strength, sustainability – and credibility – of the human rights movement in Uganda that so many NGOs closed, or dramatically scaled down, their operations when the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) was effectively forced by the State to shut down its operations in Uganda.

It is not lost on me that some of these reflections might appear to be extremely self-indulgent. I am, after all – by virtue of serving in a public university – a public servant whose own salary is assured from the consolidated fund.

I might be able, from the security offered by that status (what was in older times referred to as ‘permanent and pensionable’ status) to pontificate in ways which those doing the ‘real’ human rights work, ‘on the ground’, do not have the luxury to. After all, they also have children to feed, clothe and educate – and a variety of bills to pay.

Their beeping ‘yaka’ meters, like mine, often require urgent attention. Some do not even have access to electricity, or other basic amenities. I deeply understand this. At the same time, an effective response needs to be collectively found to the present, and rising, challenge to the human rights movement – and the very concept of human rights itself – coming from within and without Uganda.

This challenge is both captured in the former Ethics Minister’s reference to the ‘nonsense’ of human rights (and presumably human rights practitioners). It is also represented in the recent statement by the Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) regarding the ‘misuse’ of human rights.

Incidentally, I wonder whether this response might not be found in a rather unlikely source – St. Paul’s guidance regarding work by religious preachers. In 1 Thessalonians 2:9 (New International Version), St Paul says, ‘Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.’

This exhortation is repeated in 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 to the effect that: ‘We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.

We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help,but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.’ St Paul’s counsel is relevant in three ways. In the first place, while a lot of the funding for human rights work in Uganda comes from the West – its actual source is from ordinary tax payers in those countries.

Real people, with their own real needs (and beeping ‘yaka’ meters). It is important that their funds if and when received, be used conscientiously and scrupulously accounted for. Secondly, it is critical that human rights practitioners try as much as possible not to be an eternal burden to those unseen and unnamed persons.

In this regard, it may very well be that, for human rights work to be credible, those who do it adopt St Paul’s ‘tentmaker’ approach, in which one’s source of livelihood is derived from alternative sources – including professional services as a lawyer, social worker, teacher and so on – so that the advancement of human rights work is not vulnerable to ‘pay-to-play’ charges.

Finally, the human rights movement must develop deeper roots in, and linkages to, the Ugandan society in which it operates. Ugandans do give money to causes they believe in. That they do not currently significantly support human rights work (at least in direct material terms) perhaps also speaks to efforts which need to be undertaken towards indigenizing, popularizing – perhaps even decolonizing – current discourses and praxis in this field.

The writer is senior lecturer and acting director of the Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC) at the School of Law, Makerere University, where he teaches Constitutional Law and Legal Philosophy.


0 #1 Kiibira Derick 2023-11-18 13:22
I personally find this commentary timely and good counsel both to current and potential human rights practitioners.

It supplements Dr's submissions at the human rights convention 23. Surely this is remaining Strategic litigation
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