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Because what they really need is more PENS

December 4, 2009

One of the things I love most about Boston College is the student body’s commitment to social justice and community service. I deeply appreciate that these values played a big part in my education and friendships during college, and I want to support and encourage current students who are pursuing the same goals. Most of my years in BC were spent as a student organizer, raising awareness and political support for a peaceful end to the war in Uganda. Of course, I’m excited to see the passion for Uganda continue at BC. But this is ridiculous:

It’s nearly the end of the semester, so start cleaning out your desks and get rid of those unneeded pens and supplies. Schools in Uganda, Africa are in desperate need for the simplest school supplies, so donate and support schools that educate and rehabilitate former child soldiers.

I get the premise: We have tons of extra pens, they need pens for classes, so we should donate our excess to meet their need. In the process, we can spread some education about Uganda — the ongoing war with the L.R.A., the legislation that is likely to pass soon that would authorize US military support, the crisis in the displacement camps, the legislation currently proposed in Uganda that could punish repeat “homosexual offenders” who are HIV+  with the death penalty, the challenges faced by children returning from war and their communities…

But here’s the problem: Uganda doesn’t need pens. Do these particular schools need supplies? Probably, but do you know how much those same supplies would cost at a market in Gulu or Kampala? Not nearly as much as it will cost to ship boxes of mismatched, half-used, potentially gnawed-on pens from the Boston. In fact, sending pens and other supplies to Uganda could actually do more harm than good. International in-kind donations have the potential to “undermine the local economy by giving away goods that people are desperately trying to sell to support their families.”

The sentiment is good, and could be translated into something more useful: What if, instead of donating pens and other supplies to Uganda, students collected school supplies to donate to resource-scarce schools in Boston? Start with Brighton High – many Lynch School of Education students do their student teaching there, so BC already has a strong connection. If the desire is to serve displaced people, how about donating to the Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment Program? If the concern is particularly for Ugandans, why not contact the St. Peter’s Anglican Church of Uganda in Waltham, located just a few minutes from BC? It’s possible that none of these organizations need school supplies or pens (although I seriously doubt that any public school is going to turn down supplies these days), but donating locally would save shipping costs, improve or begin relationships between BC students and nearby communities, and help a lot of kids or adults who could really use some school supplies.

Still want to help Uganda? Run a “change drive” at the same time. Ask for spare change when people donate their school supplies, and send the money to well-researched programs in Uganda. Even if the only money sent is what would have been used for shipping, the amount of supplies that could be purchased would be tremendously helpful, and any money collected with school supplies would be a bonus.

More importantly though, if American students are concerned about Uganda right now, they should be getting informed and involved about the legislation that is very likely to be passed by Congress in the coming weeks, which will authorize U.S. military involvement in the ongoing war between Uganda and the L.R.A. Smart, committed, and passionate people who have spent the better part of their lives working for peace in Uganda disagree about whether or not this would be a good thing, but either way — many, many lives and communities are on the line, including our own.

Collecting pens and school supplies  for children who have escaped from a rebel army is conveniently apolitical, but the role of the U.S. in Uganda is anything but. Learning about the legislative process and the complicated role of the United States in Uganda is not as easy, morally satisfying, or sexy as imagining that the supplies you clean out of your desk will be helping a former child soldier learn to read and write in a few weeks. But if BC students are genuinely concerned about the situation in Northern Uganda, to avoid political engagement in the current context is disingenuous and irresponsible.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Poff permalink
    December 5, 2009 1:31 pm

    Agreed on all fronts, except that the legislation doesn’t itself authorize U.S. military involvement in the war. a) Such involvement is already ongoing and has been since at least 2002, and b) it merely requires Obama to devise a multilateral strategy to apprehend top LRA leaders; at the moment, it seems unlikely that the U.S. military would be a vehicle of choice.

    But of course I’m 100% with you on the need to become politically engaged. 🙂

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