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Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme A Winner in Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Changemakers International Online Community
by Robert Fritz

The announcement began:

Dear Dr. Mwalimu Musheshe,
Congratulations! We are delighted to announce that the Changemakers international online community selected your entry as a winner in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Changemakers "Cultivating Innovation: Solutions for Rural Communities" collaborative competition. Our entire team, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is excited to highlight you as a leader in the field working to advance rural development and agriculture...

Congratulations on your accomplishment!
The Changemakers Team

For over 20 years, the Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme (URDT), also known to many as "The Uganda Project," has been both an example of, and a leader in an entirely different approach to issues around development.

As contrasted with most problem-solving oriented development programs, URDT is rooted in the basic principles of the creative process. From this difference, village development has been local, sustainable, and successful, while, too often, problem-based programs have not lived up to their promise.

The structure of problem-based approaches leads to a predictable pattern: success is reversed, early progress leads to later decline, and hope often turns into cynicism. This is because problem-driven actions are, at best, short-term. At worst, they end up doing more damage than help.

And yet, much of the world is focused on problems, and therefore, problem-driven strategies. While many people proudly proclaim they are dedicated problem-solvers, so little of their efforts bring about the outcomes they want.

In the field of system dynamics, this is a product of what is called "compensating feedback." System dynamics considers the entire range of complex relationships that form a unified structure. As we know from structural dynamics, structure gives rise to predictable patterns of behavior. And here's what the systems people found: when you push down on a complex system, the system pushes back. First things get better. But then they get worse.

Well-meaning people, for example, try to import aid in the form of food or money to a country that is in need. Over time, the system pushes back. At first starvation goes down. But then the birth rate goes up. Over time the food per capita amount of food in relationship to the number of people goes down. Now there are more people than there is food to feed them. And starvation goes up again.

The help didn't help long-term. It actually may have made matters worse, quite the opposite of the altruistic motivation of the effort. And while this cycle has played itself out over decades, not too many people have noticed how problem-solving approaches do not solve problems, and often, simply makes things worse. It is instinctive to try to solve problems. It is counter-instinctive to rethink the basic proposition of reacting or responding to problems.

Another pattern that the systems people discovered (mostly at MIT under the leadership of Jay Forrester, often credited as being the father of system dynamics) was called, "Shifting the burden to the intervener." As help comes in from an outside source, dependence on that outside source becomes more and more imperative. The system, such as a country or an economy, is less and less able to take care of itself and is less and less sustainable. Unintended consequences indeed.

This is one reason the approach the URDT has taken is one of the most exciting, positive, and, because of its departure from the typical problem-oriented development tactics used throughout the world, revolutionary. There is a vast difference between trying to rid ourselves of problems versus creating the outcomes we want to create.

The URDT has not only adopted a structural dynamics approach toward the creative process, it has made it the centerpiece of every thing it does from education, to village projects, to mass communication to the larger community, to social systems.

One way the creative process is applied has to do with how everything is approached. For example, the first question that is asked in any setting is, "What is the outcome we want to create?" This is the premier question in the creative process. If we are not taking action in favor of what we want to create, what is the point of the action?

Too often, the point of the actions people take has little to do with their desired outcomes, goals, and desired results. Instead the point is simply to have their problems go away. Well, you can rid yourself of all of your problems and still not have what you want.

It is easy to fall into problem-solving. The compelling problem seems to demand our attention, and so people feel that the only thing they can do is address the problem. But this is actually a form of mindlessness in the sense that the problem, rather than what we want, drives our actions, our thoughts, our orientation.

While we might come up with clever solutions to the problem, we are only mindlessly marching to the tune the problem is singing. If anything is the enemy of progress, it is mindlessness.

To answer the question, "What do we want to create," we need to consider something that does not yet exist. Yes, there are plenty of problems. They are visible and obvious. And they seem to demand a sense of urgency. But to envision an outcome that doesn't exist and that is not a product of some problem or other makes use of a higher form of intelligence than problem-solving requires. That is the human ability to imagine. The creative process is exceedingly mindful.

And that's exactly what the co-founders of the URDT used in the creation of their movement. Mwalimu Musheshe, Sr. is the Chairman and CEO of the organization. Silvana F. Veltkamp serves on the Board of Directors, and was Executive Director from the early Eighties to the late Nineties. Ephrem Rutaboba was another pioneer, serving in many roles, and is now also a board member.

I got involved with this project close to its founding in the early Eighties when Silvana Veltkamp invited me to think about how we could use the creative process and structural dynamics as a new way to approach issues of development. The idea was rather simple on one level: teach people how to use the creative process as a way of creating their own destinies. After all, the creative process is the most successful process for accomplishment in history. Silvana and her husband Johan had worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome and Beirut, and had seen millions of dollars squandered while the situations they were addressing got worse, not better. This wasn't a question of mismanagement of the funds. Instead it was something more basic: the problem-driven approach itself.

Soon Peter Senge joined the project, and people from Uganda began to come to America to learn system dynamics, structural dynamics, and the creative process. Around this time I met Musheshe and Ephrem.

The first major product we created was called "The Village Course," a version of one of our trainings. It was presented in pictures that taught villagers how to use the creative process in all aspects of their lives, from personal to communal. Soon, the villagers were producing fantastic results. As they learned and used the principle of structural tension, they became more and more self-generating and independent. One man wrote his goals in big letters on his house, and people were changing the basic ways they were thinking.

This was more than simply creating a number of good things. More importantly it was a change of orientation from reacting or responding to circumstances, to being creative and self-generating. Rather than rely on outside resources, people were learning how to use the resources at hand to accomplish their own goals. A version of the Village Course is still in use today.

Add to the mix the right "village technologies," technologies that are appropriate for the situations people are in. Technologies that do not demand major intervention from the outside. Musheshe, Ephrem, and their colleagues were teaching people sustainable agriculture, making use of organic farming, composting, mulching, crop rotation, and organic fertilizers. They also introduced fish farming and recycling waste into energy. Before the project began, villagers experienced seasonal starvation. But now there was an abundance of food throughout the year.

Success led to success as more and more villages adopted the approach, now called "The Visionary Approach." Through a collective process Musheshe or Ephrem, or one of their colleagues would meet with the members of a village. They let them know they were not there to import money, or aid, or resources, or anything else. They were there to help them create the type of village they wanted. The first day was spent in describing the type of village people wanted, something that people were able to do collectively. By the end of that first session, everyone had a clear idea of the outcome they wanted for their village.

Day two included a walk around the village to consider the current reality in relationship to the vision of the village they had described the day before.

From that, the community had established structural tension. Peter Senge has pointed to shared vision as one of the critical factors in his seminal book The Fifth Discipline. And what is even more powerful than shared vision is shared structural tension in which we have a common vision, and also a common understanding of where we are in relationship to that vision.

On day three, the villagers turn the shared structural tension into an action strategy. Now they know what they want, what they have, and how to move from the actual state to the desired state. The actions are assigned due dates and accountabilities, as people volunteer to be in charge of various strategic actions. The URDT says of its approach, "The programme does not rescue people, it empowers them to create better lives."

From truly humble beginnings of a few villages, the URDT has grown in scope and impact in Uganda. The dedicated staff is now over 130 people on an 80-acre campus. The campus includes three schools, a demonstration farm, a community radio station, a computer and internet center, social and land rights counseling, and a solar technology center. Community leaders, local farmers, business people, educators, religious leaders, police, courts, and local non-governmental organizations attend trainings, conferences, and other events to put the visionary approach to use in their various fields.

The first program Musheshe, Silvana, and Ephrem held was in Kagadi, a small rural community in western Uganda. Now, twenty-two years later, the town has 30 businesses, a 100-bed hospital, and prosperous farms. The people are infused with the spirit of the creative process. The town and the surrounding region have become more prosperous. Infant mortality has gone down dramatically, as has domestic violence and corruption.

I have written about Musheshe over the years. He appears in The Path of Least Resistance, Creating, Your Life As Art, and Elements. I consider him a true world leader of the very highest caliber. Since I have told his remarkable story in these books, I will not repeat it here. But one aspect to the success of the program is clear: the quality of his leadership has been pivotal. He inspires, and teaches. He confronts reality as it is, yet offers people a way to make their highest aspirations and values the organizing principle of their lives. He is continually in a learning mode and in a creative orientation. He is charismatic and humble. He is a living example of what he advocates. If anyone deserves greater recognition, it is him.

But, knowing him, he will point to the many people who have joined with him to create a most worthy vision, which, while true, does not reflect the vastness of his vision and the strength of his character.

So congratulations to Changemakers International and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundatio on lending your voices to such an important cause.

2009 Robert Fritz

Click here for a case study by author Patricia B. Seybold, CEO and Senior Consultant of the Patricia Seybold Group. I have used her article for many of the latest facts about the project. Thanks Patricia!

Click here for the website of the URDT:

If you would like to donate to this organization in the USA, you can do so through the website, or:

Please email your contribution to one of the following:

East Coast Contact:
African Food and Peace Foundation
Attn: Martha Dolben, Chair
1060 Lowell Road
Concord, MA 01742
Tel: (987) 371-3122

West Coast Contact:
African Food and Peace Foundation
Attn: Joel Yanowitz, Treasurer
100 Tamal Plaza, Suite 106
Corte Madera, CA 94925
Tel: (415) 927-7724
Fax: (415 927-4832
Mobile: (415) 378-8906

2009 Robert Fritz


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Updated: 10/24/10