Uganda can do it like Finland

Finland’s Maria Lohela, Nationalist MP and leader of the Finnish delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Kampala, subscribes to the idea that Uganda can certainly follow Finland’s development trajectory rather than rely on Donor Aid.

Over a lively private lunch at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel this week, Maria – it’s hard to call her Lohela with her bright blue eyes – stayed clear of donor-speak as she sought to understand her host country better.

“We visited this project run by the Lutheran World Federation yesterday and saw former child soldiers who were being rehabilitated. It was sad but I didn’t feel that sympathetic sadness, I felt that it was good to see that something was being done. And it should be the people here doing it, not foreigners,” she said.

I was a little surprised, but pleasantly.

When I visited Finland last year with a group of African journalists, we hammered home a consistent message around how countries develop.

An official from the Finnish Foreign Affairs Ministry told us the history of the nation and proudly stated that Finland had refused to take aid to pay their war reparations.

“This made us work hard and built innovation in Finland. Every citizen knew they had a duty to work and use their energy and creativity to build Finland back. We did it with pride and paid back all the money,” he said – and they even hosted the 1952 Olympics while paying those reparations!

This in a middle of a presentation about Finland’s development aid projects in Africa.

I was quick to jump in with, “If that worked for Finland so well, why do you think Africa needs development aid?”

At lunch last week with Maria Lohela, I didn’t need to stress the point.

“I think Uganda can do a lot on its own,” she said, “I have only been here for about a week but I can see that there is a lot of potential here. Ugandans are very hospitable people, the country is beautiful and I see that the agriculture here is great. Actually, Tourism and Agriculture can be key sources of your development.”

She hit the nail on the head many more times during our lunch discussion, and I was impressed with her again – just as I had been when I first met her in Helsinki last year.

That time I had just discovered that Finland had given women full political rights – both voting rights and the right to stand for elections, as far back as 1906 – and they have taken that very seriously ever since. Out of the delegation of eight Finns in Kampala for the IPU, half were women, and Maria was leader of the delegation, never mind her possibly being the youngest member.

That, I told her, was a good point of conversation with the Ugandan politicians she would be meeting, and even better for the Ethiopian delegation who sat next to Finland for alphabetical reasons.

But I wasn’t interested in talk-politics – and neither was she, it turned out.

By chance, I selected a lunch table next to two chatty young ladies who looked up a little surprised when Maria and her team joined me. When we stood up for soup, one of the young ladies asked me if this were a Finnish delegation, and then introduced herself as an employee of FINPRO!

The ensuing conversation and spate of introductions was fun.

FINPRO is a 93-year old Finnish consulting initiative whose objective is to help Finnish companies find success when they go out into the world.

This was the kind of intervention, I had told the Finns in Helsinki, that countries such as Uganda needed – not development organizations building toilets and school blocks.

The more Nokias, Rovio Mobiles, Raisios, Olvis and Atrias that come to countries like Uganda to partner and invest with local companies, transfer skills, the faster and more absolute development here will be.

The more Finnish people buying products made in Uganda, the better for all of us.

And the sooner developed countries stop looking at countries like Uganda through the lenses of war and poverty, the better equipped they will be to take advantage of what we have to offer while creating real development opportunities here.

“That is why I am trying to understand things here, because it looks clear to me that things can be improved with the right approach. I like that message to be well understood,” she said.