The Cycle of Dependency: When Helping Does More Harm than Good

Ever since colonization, the people of Uganda have become accustomed to foreigners coming in with a savior mentality, pushing initiatives that, despite good intentions, may not help the locals solve their real problems.

This reliance has created a cycle of dependency that is difficult to break. But it can be broken – by empowering Ugandans to transform their own communities through local ownership and financial independence.

The Musana Community Development Organization, which I co-founded as a home for 80 orphans, is an excellent example of this. Soon after creating the home, we discovered that the “orphans” that we supported had parents and relatives that loved them. These parents were willing to leave their children at our door because they believed that outside help was necessary to provide their children with a chance at a better life.

It was then that the greatest need of our community was revealed. Transformation needed to come from within, free from outside dependency.

Musana operates in the community of Iganga – a town nestled between Kampala and Nairobi that is battling a lack of family panning, high poverty and birth rates, and a popular truck stop that fosters prostitution and HIV/AIDS vulnerability.

At Musana, we are tackling these issues with a new approach.

All of our projects are initiated by a team of over 70 local leaders, and are recognized by the government and town of Iganga as aiding in the positive transformation of society with a development model that incorporates social entrepreneurship, sustainability, accountability, and local ownership.

Our model consists of partnering and collaborating with Iganga community members to create businesses that can generate income to fund our other outreach projects. For example, funds generated through a popular restaurant, a bakery, and a 20-acre dairy, goat, and pig farm can then be put back into our hospital, skills-development programming, and schools.

Musana’s nursery and primary boarding school, which educates 650 children in the region, is the organization’s largest running project. Over 80 percent of current students are paying school fees to attend, while the rest receive scholarships.

In 2014, we reached 86 percent financial sustainability, which impacted over 2,700 individuals. As we expand, we are on track to become 100 percent sustainable by 2018.

Our staff urges members of the community to maximize their potential. In return, the children can grow up admiring and emulating their own people as difference-makers, pointing at themselves to continue the trend. It is no longer about outsiders implementing what they think is good development, but is instead about what the community wants and needs.

Our initiatives provide the community with health care and education, additionally empowering the most vulnerable people through skills development and microloans.

Furthermore, because corruption is so common in developing countries like Uganda, accountability is essential. We have strict checks and balances and internal controls to ensure that every Ugandan shilling is spent with integrity and supports the cause.

“Sustainability” seems to be the buzzword du jour in the nonprofit world, but the only way to truly accomplish this feat is to work to complement the local community and economy.


*Leah Pauline co-founded the Musana Community Development Organization in Uganda six years ago with her sister. Musana began as a charity but quickly shifted its focus to local ownership. It serves as a model for other NGOs looking to be financially sustainable.

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