After a quiet Christmas spent in various mango trees in my mom’s yard, I made my way to Kampala for the 3rd annual Diaspora Home is Best Summit. It was my first time attending the summit and I’ll have to say, I left both satisfied and empty at the same time. There were many presentations on the state of Uganda’s diaspora, most notable of which were Bank of Uganda’s presentation on a recent survey of diaspora remittance activity and Robert Tugume’s presentation on Uganda’s ‘Upstream Petroleum Sector’ (a sure-to-be hot button topic in 2010 and beyond). More on that later. I was happy to have Ida Horner (@ethnicsupplies) as my tweeting partner otherwise, I would have been the only one manning #ugdiapora hashtag party. Internet at Hotel Africana was in and out so the twitter stream updates were quite intermittent.

The first day kicked off as per usual, three hours late with a steady trickle of diaspora joining the proceedings as speakers were rushed through their presentations. The compressed timeframes due to late starts more than irked a few people who would have preferred to have more time to interact with speakers and panelists. Arguably the star presentation was the opening presentation from Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honorable Okello. He recounted his almost penniless reaspora journey, to his subsequent rise as an entrepreneur and now minister. He cautioned that one shouldn’t come back to Uganda thinking that things are going to happen quickly. In fact, patience needs to be your biggest asset as you consider moving back.

Professor Maggie Kigozi, Executive Director of Uganda Investment Authority gave a rosy picture of all the industries that are sitting idle and waiting for investment capital. She highlighted the efforts the government has put into building an industrial processing park in Namamve as well as an overview of current occupants. There’s a lack of value-add manufacturing, especially in agriculture. A majority of agri exports are unprocessed raw materials; coffee beans, fruits, and seeds which are exported for processing, then re-imported as finished goods. (Value-addition is central to Project Diaspora’s two banner development projects, UMPG and the Women of Kireka, both with export product lines that can be manufactured and processed in-country.)

According to Prof. Kigozi, the value addition manufacturing sector can tap into a cheap labor force and stimulate the economy. It is certainly an area where the diaspora can target their $780 million in remittance dollars. Also waiting to be fully-tapped is the tourism sector, currently bringing in just over a million tourists a year, behind Kenya’s 2 million. In fact just about every sector in Uganda is wide open for business. The energy sector, for those pocketed enough to tackle that industry, are especially positioned to reap both profits and notoriety. Kigozi emphasized that we as a diaspora just need to bring our ideas and capital; to maximize the available investment sectors. Although I am not so sure about the merits of packaging Idi Amin as a tourist attraction, but I get her point.

A heated debate over the state of the duel citizenship bill was partially put to rest on the second day with the announcement that members of the diaspora are now freely allowed to hold duel citizenships. This is a great first step but left several questions unanswered and a majority of confused at the implementation of the bill. While you can legally hold two passports, the bill does not fully restore your citizenship. You are for example stripped of the right to hold certain positions in government. The bill does not address absentee voting. You can’t march into the Ugandan consulate in the UK for example and cast your ballot for elections in Uganda.

Let me get this straight, you want us to come home and invest our $780 million annually and participate in knowledge transfer but you can’t be bothered to include us in the conversation on how we should be governed? Reform starts at the grassroots sure, but without a fresh injection of new ideas & methods on governance, then it’s going to be the same stale leadership that will cancel out any progress the diaspora injects into the private sector. Without adherence to rule of law, for example, it doesn’t matter how many laws your enact. Reform most often comes from without, rarely from within. In Uganda’s case, I don’t see reform happening in any of our lifetimes, if the status quo is (lawfully) protected.

So, in order to maximize diaspora participation and effectiveness, it is imperative the duel citizenship bill be amended to address its Swiss cheese offerings to us, and pay us some due respect by restoring our right to participate in how we are led.

There were a few nuggets of useful ideas presented on the second day of the summit, but not enough to save the forum from a staged satirical comedy of errors. The political party-line grandstanding and microphone hogging gave way to some amusing exchanges, but by and large, it wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before at other diaspora gatherings.

Here’s how I think the political forum should have been structured. FIVE-minute introductions aside, the forum should allotted a majority of the time to the diaspora, who clearly wanted to know how the government is going to address their needs. Each politician should have introduced themselves, then asked ‘how can I help you help Uganda?’ Instead we got 15-minute monologues, with everyone taking cat swipes at each other and only a handful of questions allowed for diaspora feedback. Up to today, I can’t figure out what types of solutions they would enact specifically to help the diaspora become a more transformational force!

Finally, the bill criminalizing homosexuality was addressed in brief, it was then I got to see first-hand that Uganda’s leadership has its priorities confused. There were some reasoned calls to stall or scrap the bill for further review, but no one addressed why the bill was introduced in the first place. And why capital punishment for a lifestyle that doesn’t harm anyone! Protecting Uganda’s traditional way of life is a sorry excuse to enact the death penalty at a time when we are fast hurtling toward a globalized HUMAN culture. Why stop there? Why not the death penalty for prostitution? Defilement? Failure to stop at a red light with a matatu full of people? Dare I propose the death penalty for embezzling public funds? How about blatant disregard for the constitution? I see all the above offenses as much more threatening to the way of life for Uganda’s 33 million people than the lifestyle of less than 1% of the population.

Announcement of the new diaspora desk at the department of internal affairs was an encouragement at least that our importance is recognized and steps are in place to formally start to address our issues. The new office could learn some best practices from Rwanda’s aggressively organized Diaspora network that was launched in mid 2008. Watch this space for updates out of the new office.

If you attended the event or have some ideas on how next year’s Home is Best Summit could be an even bigger success, feel free to share in the comments.

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