Dispatch from the field: Connecting the dots

International development in theory versus practice

Julia Tops was working at AKF Uganda as a Regional Partnerships Fellow, as part of AKFC’s International Youth Fellowship Program.

When I was completing my Master’s in International Development, my professors would often emphasize the importance of rooting our analyses, solutions, and discussions in local contexts. However, the recurring question that kept popping up in my mind was: what does this mean for people’s daily lives? Although I had previously travelled to the field for my studies and personal adventures, these trips merely scratched the surface of peoples’ nuanced realities. Participating in the Fellowship program helped me understand why we must root our work in local contexts. This started the moment I landed at the Entebbe airport in Uganda.

One of my main realizations was the disconnect between how we speak globally about development issues, and how people with lived experiences speak about them.

A wide landscape photo of a sunrise over the city.
On the way to Kampala.

The real “ah-ha” moment of how development could look in practice occurred when I did on-the-ground work with local colleagues and communities in the West Nile region of Uganda. I was fortunate enough to travel to this part of the country numerous times, but one trip resonated deeply. This was when we went to deliver resource mobilization training to a local civil society organization (CSO) and were able to discuss — in detail — the issues they tackle in their communities.

Two small buildings with thatched roofs, surrounded by trees and foliage. Above them is a blue and pink sky.
Moyo, in the West Nile region of Uganda.

This two-day workshop took place in December 2023 and was born out of a need to strengthen the ability of local partners to seek funding opportunities. We covered topics such as setting thematic priorities and developing a programme framework to reference when seeking donors, as well as donor mapping and how to successfully interact with donors.

Tables with green tableclothes are set up in a well-lit room with high ceilings..
The training in Arua.

Walking into a room with forty participants for my first formal training in Uganda was daunting, to say the least, and it brought up a series of questions: Would my workshop be helpful? Did I design it in a way that was engaging, given local cultures and their approach to workshops? How could I create a safe space that allowed genuine discussion to unfold?

After my AKF Uganda colleagues opened the workshop with a prayer, an address from a local government officer, and an icebreaker, it was time to dive in. It was important to me that this was responsive to the needs and expectations of the partner organization, so with my heart in my throat, I started with a brainstorming session of what tactics were being used, what challenges they faced, and what they expected of this engagement.

Initially, the conversation started slowly, with long pauses, and I awaited their responses with bated breath. But after the morning session, some participants became more interactive, and their energy was contagious! It started amongst colleagues within the same CSO, spread to the other CSOs, and finally between CSOs, AKF facilitators, and me. Enough time in the day became our biggest constraint, as insightful conversations began to open within what became a safe environment.

A group of workshop participants are sitting at a table, writing notes in marker on pieces of poster paper.
The resource mobilization training in Arua.

As a Regional Partnerships Fellow, a lot of my work faces outward toward potential partners and donors, with a formal and tailored approach. However, this experience was refreshing in its informality and fluidity. I was able to address general capacity-building processes like proposal development and had the opportunity to learn about contextual factors that influence how organizations actually operate. Our local partners gifted me with their knowledge, time, and concerns, dialoguing with an openness and trust that was eye-opening and much needed to address key barriers. It was illuminating to hear the constraints that CSOs face with resource mobilizations, where some were expected and assumed but many discovered relied on the unique context faced in their community. I was honoured to be included in discussions of delicate realities that they navigate, and their experiences to date.

We connected in and out of the workshop room while staying at our conference hotel, and hearing local stories and practices was invaluable. My understanding of the once-foreign notion of the “local context,” was solidified by the work and accounts these local CSO partners shared. It went beyond theory, to see and learn about how they undergo resource mobilization and provided insight into how this work is done and why they believe it is worthwhile. For example, one organization was practicing their donor pitch and rather than focusing on their project experience to date, they opened by speaking about one beneficiary and her journey to their training that day. It was tasteful, respectful, and moving – painting a picture of how they connect to and understand the community they are serving. It was in the stories in and of themselves that we uncovered the key for CSOs when speaking with partners and donors. Being genuine is a strength, and that became apparent through their plethora of experiences and stories. How to share that message was ultimately the skill that we honed.

A large group of participants stand outside for a photo.
A group photo with the civil society organizations and local partners at the training.

Overall, this workshop became my lived experience of capacity exchange. At the end of the sessions, I received feedback that the CSOs felt empowered, and I can say that the feeling was mutual. I learned a great deal about the context, its people, and how perspective is a powerful tool for change.

I look forward to continuing to learn and meaningfully engage with other perspectives – this experience has taught me the importance of operating, processing, and acting thoughtfully, in both my professional and personal life.