What the United States can learn from Uganda

In many ways, the United States is a country full of donors. Americans frequently tithe at church, contribute to political campaigns, buy wrapping paper to fund high-school band trips, and donate to countless nonprofits. Sixty-five percent of Americans donated to a charity in 2011, making the United States the “most generous country in the world,” according to the Charities Aid Foundation.

Underneath this accolade, however, lies another statistic. The average American only donates 2.2% of her annual income every yearConsidering that the average annual income in 2007 was $63,091, this means that the average donor gave $1,388. That’s still a good amount of money, but the most interesting part of this study is that poor people actually donated more than their wealthier counterparts. In fact, people in the bottom quintile donated almost twice as much of their annual income as people at the top.

Based on these statistics, it seems that poor people in the U.S. are more generous than those who are wealthy, and I wonder if this trend extends to Uganda as well. In a country where insurance is rare, most people go to their neighbors for help when tragedy strikes. Instead of fundraising for field trips and band camps, people here fundraise for things like antibiotics, kidney transplants, and open-heart surgeries.

I was meeting with a Ugandan professor the other night when he received a phone call from a friend. This friend had another friend who is going to India soon for an emergency spleen removal. For East Africans requiring complicated surgeries, flying to India is often cheaper and safer than going to an international hospital in Nairobi or flying to Europe.

Even though my professor hardly knew this man, he immediately went to the ATM and withdrew 250,000 shillings (almost $100). An hour later, the sick gentleman walked up to us at the campus canteen. He was completely emaciated and his eyes were piercingly yellow, but he smiled with gratitude when my professor handed him the money. By calling dozens of friends and friends of friends, this man had finally raised $5,000 for his life-saving surgery.

Fundraising in Uganda isn’t limited to emergencies—it extends to weddings and parties as well. In December, this same professor threw a party because he was the first person from his village to get a Ph.D. The entire village attended, some 900 people, and they slaughtered a few dozen chickens, goats, and cows for the joyous celebration. It was a party to remember and one that a middle-class American would have been unable to pay for without taking out a massive loan.

But in Uganda, this professor simply tapped into his broad network of friends and friends of friends who wanted to celebrate his success. He formed a small party-planning committee of a dozen people who called over 500 friends to ask for donations. Although some people couldn’t afford to contribute, most people gave $10 or $20, and after a month of fundraising, the $7,000 party was paid for.

As an American, I am envious of the power and flexibility of Ugandan social networks. One of the most common misconceptions that Ugandans have about the United States is that all Americans are rich. That’s not true, of course, and from time to time, everyone needs help, but pride and social etiquette deter people from asking friends and friends of friends for monetary support. When tragedy strikes, people usually take out a loan from a bank or borrow money from a close friend or relative, and it is regrettably common for people to go bankrupt from crushing medical bills.

In Uganda, a strong sense of community and close bonds between friends and relatives prevent such humiliation and despair. Social capital is the bedrock of the economy, the reason that micro-credit groups have thrived, and the social safety net that the government fails to provide.

In some ways, social capital might even make Uganda richer than the United States. The average American has more money than the average Ugandan, but that doesn’t mean that they are happier or better off. In 1995, Robert Putnam chronicled the decline of American social capital in Bowling Alone and other scholars have since published research on the splintering of American communities.

Facebook has allowed us to be friends with more people than ever before, but how powerful are those friendships? How many Americans would give a tenth of their monthly salary to a distant friend without a second thought and without the expectation of being paid back?

I am not a sociologist and I am completely unqualified to make any grandiose claims. Not all Ugandans have this amazing social capital and some American communities might have more of it than the most close-knit Ugandan village. But amidst the constant push for development, I think it’s pretty cool to step back and admire what Uganda is doing well. I would even argue that Americans and Europeans can and should learn from African communities and relationships. After all, forging stronger communities and building better friendships are worthy and important goals that could help the United States to develop.

Within our fractured society, we have recently experienced inexplicable horrors like the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. Something must have gone horribly wrong to cause two middle-class Americans, aged 20 and 25—almost my age—to walk into a movie theater and elementary school and murder their neighbors for no reason.

I have tried to stay out of the political debate swelling up in the wake of these mass shootings, but I think that there has been something missing from that discussion. It’s not just about guns or mental health—although those factors might be important—it’s also about community. There are some places in the world where neighbors are cold, anonymous, and aloof and other places where people willingly sacrifice their own interests to help strangers, and I imagine that this makes some difference in one’s willingness to help or hurt his neighbors.

I don’t know if Uganda holds any answers, but I do hope that I will keep learning from Ugandans as much as I can. And if I take one thing away from my nine-month fellowship, I hope that I will return to the U.S. with the wisdom to build stronger friendships, understand my place in various communities, and help those around me, because personal and societal development are both never-ending journeys.


1 Comment

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One response to “What the United States can learn from Uganda

  1. excellent article Brian; I appreciate your insight into the recent shootings

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