In search of dignified work: rebuilding lives and livelihoods in northern Uganda

by Richard Mallett | Overseas Development Institute
Monday, 2 March 2015 16:32 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For over two decades, northern Uganda was terrorised by a brutal war between Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the state. Millions of civilians were at the centre of the conflict: those who weren't abducted, maimed or killed were either herded into huge displacement camps – the conditions were widely described as atrocious – or forced to resettle in another part of the country. Many thousands sought refuge in some of Uganda's towns and cities.

Since 2006, the north has emerged as a largely stable region, and the question of how to rebuild is now the top priority. Conflicts of this duration and intensity leave scars, not only on bodies but also on society and economy. Justice and redress are necessary elements of a meaningful recovery, but so too are actions which make people better off – or which at least help them recover what was lost through decades of war.

Today, the government, buoyed by aid dollars and NGO activity, is trying to make the livelihoods of northern Ugandans better. Youth unemployment is a huge concern. In response, every year millions are poured into schemes like vocational training, microfinance and enterprise support with the intention of helping young people get into the labour market and make a decent living.

Work is an important part of social rebuilding, providing a sense of meaning and purpose beyond the simple generation of income. The means through which an individual makes money contributes towards the self-construction of their identity; it can define who they are and how they fit into society. In a place so affected by violence and social dislocation, these immaterial aspects of work take on particular significance. Creating jobs here is not just about economic returns, but is central to a process of empowerment in the post-war landscape.

Last year, researcher Teddy Atim and I spent some time interviewing young people in Lira town as part of a study into youth employment. Lira is the second largest urban area in northern Uganda. In addition to its long-time residents, it is also home to thousands of people who have moved from the surrounding villages in search of better opportunities. We wanted to find out whether this urban labour market was meeting young people's expectations; whether it was providing them not only with the incomes required to survive in a cash-based urban economy, but also with the means to do so in a dignified way.

Our research suggests that the labour market is falling well short. Lira's youth are looking for dignified work, where their basic rights are respected in addition to payment. But on countless occasions, we were told how employers and managers ask for sexual favours in return for jobs or how new employees are forced to cook the books to avoid dismissal.

In the sector we focused on – catering, including work in hotels, restaurants and bars – young women are stigmatized by the wider community as immoral characters, labelled as prostitutes wasting their lives away in a deviant occupation. There are impacts here not only on the mental wellbeing and stability of these women, but also on their capacity to secure better work in the future: reputations are built through occupations, and social ties matter when it comes to accessing opportunities.

The potential for career progression within the sector is also extremely limited: it is much more likely for young people to move sideways (from one establishment to the next in rapid succession) than up the chain into better paid jobs with more authority. There are also extreme forms of informality that define young people’s participation in the urban labour market. Contracts are non-existent, labour rights are essentially unheard of, and delayed wage payments are commonplace. Think zero hour contracts – but much, much worse.

In a new photo series on the Guardian Development Professionals Network, I highlight some of the challenges faced by young people struggling to find decent work in Lira’s labour market. And over on the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium blog, Paul Harvey reflects on what this research – together with new case studies from Afghanistan – tell us about what a ‘good jobs agenda’ should really look like.