Two students determined to make a difference: Uganda 2015

Ethan Rank (top) and Robert Francis (far right) with AidData fellows at Murchison Falls. Each member of the group worked with an international development organization in Uganda for the summer.

Ethan Rank (top) and Robert Francis (far right) with AidData fellows at Murchison Falls. Each member of the group worked with an international development organization in Uganda for the summer.

The urban streets in Uganda bustled more than the two visiting BYU students had expected before they arrived. While nearly 90 percent of the country’s residents live in rural areas, its capital city, Kampala, is growing quickly. These two students, Robert Francis and Ethan Rank experienced that growth as summer fellows for an organization called AidData.

The fellowship was centered around the principle of capacity building, or teaching skills, rather than simply providing goods, as many international development programs do. Before leaving the United States, Francis and Rank joined the rest of the AidData summer fellows in Virginia at the College of William and Mary for a “training boot camp”. AidData designed the training to prepare students for their teaching duties in Uganda, but both Francis and Rank ended up learning how best to accomplish their work on the job

“I had to do a lot of learning while I was in Uganda; they wanted me to train in [experimental] methods I had never heard of. So I had to learn what [each method] was and the theories behind it, even though I hadn’t known they existed the week before,” Francis said. “But they knew I didn’t know everything, and they were okay that we were all learning together.”

Francis worked at the Economic Policy Research Centre at Makerere University in Kampala training staff in different methods, or experiments, for testing development projects executed in Uganda. These experiments provide valuable data about whether or not development projects are reaching the intended goals. Evaluating international development projects in this way is new, but if done properly will improve the caliber of aid given to developing countries.

“It’s pretty cool stuff,” he said of the evaluation methods. “You’re learning if what you are doing actually works or if you are wasting your money or even making things worse.”

Robert Francis (center) talking with his supervisor, Dr. Alex Ijjo (left) and AidData colleague, Emily (right). The three worked together at the Economic Policy Research Center in Kampala.

Robert Francis (center) talking with his supervisor, Dr. Alex Ijjo (left) and AidData colleague, Emily (right). The three worked together at the Economic Policy Research Center in Kampala.

In another office, Rank trained the employees of a small, non-governmental organization called Agency for Transformation in a mapping software, Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The agency aims to provide information to local farmers about how to maximize output, which is important, considering 60-70 percent of Ugandans rely on their farms for food.

Most of these farmers, however, are illiterate, which presents a challenge for the organization that maps easily fix; maps provide a simple way to communicate information. Learning the software, however, is anything but simple and Rank was tasked with teaching it to agency employees.

“The hard thing about capacity building is that not everybody wants to learn,” he said. “We gave trainings but not everybody in the office was interested or motivated to learn the software because it isn’t very easy,” he said. But he believes in the principle. “It’s a slow process but a valuable one because once they learn the skills, it increases their value as an employee.”

Rank experienced how the new skills can shape the lives of Ugandans. During his time in the country he learned of a former AidData fellow and native Ugandan who has put his skills to use.

“This former fellow is building his own company in Kampala where essentially he does what we did. He goes to companies and he teaches them how to make maps, use excel and these basic softwares, or companies can just hire him out to do it,” Rank said of the young entrepreneur. “It’s great having someone from Uganda who learned these skills that is able to stay there and teach people.”

Both left the busy streets of Kampala feeling optimistic about the country’s future development after a rewarding summer with the two organizations. They felt potential, and worked with several leaders in the country who are trying to harness that potential.

“Obviously there is a lot of suffering and a lot of health concerns, but I wasn’t discouraged when I left. The coolest thing about being there was actually leaving and knowing that it’s only a matter of time before it really develops,” Rank said. “The best thing we can do is not limit their opportunities.”

AidData is a collaborative research organization between BYU, the college of William and Mary, UT Austin, and a non-governmental organization called Development Gateway in Washington, DC. Its research and activities focus on providing transparent information about foreign aid.
Both Ethan Rank and Robert Francis are studying political science and international development at Brigham Young  University.

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