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The Meaning of Sustainability (In Practice)

The second Okere Summit for Sustainable Development was held between 23 and 28 Jan 2023 in Okere City, Otuke parish, Otuke district in Northern Uganda. The summit focused on the theme “The Meaning of Sustainability (in Practice)”. The conference was organized in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Stanbic Bank and Segal Family Foundation. The conference was held at Okere City to demonstrate her work as a practical experimental lab working towards the attainment of the SDGs. The week-long meeting brought together policymakers, development practitioners, academicians, local leaders and community members. The summit converged a diverse group of people; 25 development workers coming from different parts of Uganda and over 100 community members to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals in Uganda. The objective of the summit was to conceptualize and understand the practical meaning of SDG and demonstrate confidence in taking practical innovative steps to sustainably develop their communities.

For the opening ceremony, the Okere choir treated guests to the rich cultural aura of the Lango people. The choir made up of youth and elderly beamed with pride as they played traditional instruments and sang two melodious songs which recognized Okere city initiative as a great opportunity /blessing to the community. All participants introduced themselves each stating their expectations from the summit. These were people from different walks of life, including, local leaders, policymakers, researchers, academicians, development workers, students and important community members. Mr Ojok Okello, Founder of Okere City welcomed the participants to the Summit and wished them a fruitful time of learning and network engagements

A keynote address was given by Banjwa Adventino (Ph.D. Candidate, MISR) on the topic of Place, Context, and the idea of Global Development Goals. He explained the meanings of sustainability and development for ease of understanding. Sustainability (in practice) is an opening to think about place-specific social practices and struggles, and their corresponding context-specific conceptualizations, through which translation may render the idea of sustainability, and the broader conceptual ensemble around which SDGs are crafted. Giving a couple of examples, he noted a key scholar Samir Amin who contributed to the emergency of the SDGs in one statement stating that poverty reduction is “nothing but an empty incarnation as long as the policies that generate poverty are not analyzed, denounced, and alternatives proposed”. The SDGs were set to address global poverty and address the challenges of the MDGs. Furthermore, meaningful engagement in locally meaningful initiatives such as those taking place here in Okere required localizing the SDGs, especially in the local language. The language of global development goals is rendered possible by the assumption that the concepts (around which these goals are crafted) are timeless, all-embracing, and universal. He stated that “language makes it extremely important to think about the meaning acquired by such conceptual categories (development, poverty, literacy, environment, etc.) embedded in global development goals when such goals are pursued in a context like Okere”. Therefore a need a redefine the SDGs to fit the local context. The Summit participants were also challenged to revise their thinking to think locally and act globally.

In a special address by Ojok Okello (Founder and CEO of Okere City), he elaborated on what the SDGs mean for Okere City and why the project emphasizes the use of local conceptions of progress and development to encourage community ownership and participation. Ojok emphasized the mission of Okere City which aims to create a sustainable village of development practice and theory. This he said could only be possible through impact-led partnerships with other organizations such as the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Enjuba, and Segal Family Foundation, among others. To conclude, Ojok implored the participants to unlearn, think anew, and start small radical efforts in their communities and where possible replicate the idea of Okere city in all villages of Uganda and Africa.

Another special address was also heard from Anna Reismann, Country Director, KAS, Uganda and South Sudan. She explained why KAS invests in the SDGs, saying that KAS believes working together with the right communities and leaders can push the SDGs forward and transform and build communities. Fundamentally, she emphasized that organizing public life, whether through global goals like the SDGs or national, and local initiatives is a complex political process. Organizing public life and seeing how people can contribute to the development of public life requires mobilizing people. Therefore KAS advocates strongly for a democratic way of enabling people to be key participants in making decisions that affect them. Ms. Reismann encouraged the participants, especially leaders, to listen to their people and each other before making decisions right from the local level. Rather than expecting good leaders to solve all problems in communities, they rather need to listen and engage their citizens as well as create more networks for partnership in meeting the needs of their communities. "Every human being has dignity. All political decisions and all we do has to be centered on the dignity of the individual" she emphasized. Notable recognition was given to all women who came to the summit with their children. It was a reflection that their family members agreed with their valuable contribution to the discussions.

After the remarks, a panel discussion session exploring insights on opportunities and challenges of achieving the SDGs in Uganda was organized and it was moderated by Solomon Serwanjja, founder and CEO of the African Institute for Investigative Journalism. Similar to many rural communities in Uganda and Africa at large, Okere is facing the negative effects of climate change, poverty, illiteracy, and poor health outcomes, among others. Seasoned experts and professionals from academia, NGOs, political leadership, and financial institutions contributed to the discussion.

The Corporate Social Investment Manager at Stanbic Bank, Diana Ondoga alluded to their social investment in communities the bank serves. This is through partnerships for maternal health, financial literacy training, and early childhood training opportunities among other projects. As a youth leader and climate change advocate, the Coordinator of Africa Youth Initiative on Climate Change, Grace Luwedde emphasized the importance of having youth as the majority population at the centre of development. Young people understand the needs of their communities and contribute to achieving SDGs through local initiatives. Sustainability is for everyone and can only be achieved through the collaborative efforts of all people. Timothy Masembe, the Sustainability Manager at the United Nations Federal Credit Union further echoed the importance of listening to the community’s needs and wants to promote sustainability and longevity. According to him, “sustainability requires patience, commitment and continuous support towards development initiatives”.

Education being the pillar of Okere City’s operation, their Founder and CEO, Ojok Okello highlighted their critical areas of investment in education. Radical decisions and solutions are being made in early childhood education through their nursery and primary school section which had a combined figure of over 200 children in 2022. There is a working partnership with Enjuba to develop a practical education curriculum for early childhood. Ojok understands that education is a key investment in human capacity and potential. As such, vocational skilling in carpentry and tailoring for youths, especially many school dropout girls, is ongoing. For the local leaders, sections of the constitution have been distilled and taught to equip their understanding for effective operation within their jurisdiction. Okere City prides itself in also empowering its older population through adult literacy. “You cannot make significant progress without education. To be informed, analytical, skilled, and knowledgeable needs education. Not just for children but adults too” he concludes. These educational milestones are appreciated especially by Aaron Kirunda, (CEO Enjuba) who believes that children are our future and investing in them is a great investment. However, little effort has been made to give children these basics that could increase their chances of succeeding and having a better life. Aware of the high dropout rates in primary schools within Uganda, Enjuba is investing in the development of a localized contextual model of early learning. Aaron also called for parents to invest time and resources in learning how their children learn by listening to them.

Otuke local government district actively engaged in the summit with representatives from various departments. Through the District workers' representative and local councilor Jasper Opio Omara, the district administration appreciated the development efforts in Okere City. Amidst the former challenges of conflict from cattle raiders, the district's local leaders are making efforts to move forward. Commitments were made to support the project by digging a borehole in Okere City, widening the road to the area, providing monitoring to the education sections, and supporting its health center

Key recommendations from the audience highlighted aspects, such as;

- Inclusion: children with disabilities should be included in all programs and catered for in the development of the early childhood curriculum.

- Community tourism: Inclusion of cultural amenities to make Okere City a tourism destination.

- Partnership: The Adwari LC3 women's representative, Akello Rose, appreciated the efforts being made and still requested more partnerships in supporting education and health within the area.

During the course of the week, different workshop seminars were also held as summarized below;

Unlocking the power of philanthropy to achieve the SDGs: The hybrid session was conducted by Twasiima P. Birigwa from Segal Family Foundation. The foundation works with Africa’s visionaries amidst the extremely limited development models to garner collective efforts necessary for sustainable development. Mrs. Birigwa noted that philanthropy and the culture of giving long existed in African societies before Western models of development. This was recently observed during the COVID-19 pandemic when communities showed solidarity. Segal Foundation provides philanthropic entities and partners with access to networks and knowledge that has previously been gate-kept. Okere City is one of the multiple initiatives being supported and also equipped with resources over a long-term period. The interest in community transformation is propelling people, to be honest, and accountable in doing the needed work. Considering that less and less foreign funding is being advanced to African organizations, Africans were urged to be engaged in negotiating funding alternatives so as to pivot out of the endless cycle of poverty.

The role of the fourth industrial revolution in achieving the SDGs: Sharing with participants via Zoom, Solomon King Benge, Founder of Fundi bot; stressed the need to prepare Africa’s children for the technology of today and the future. The company is planning for the future of primary school children and other kids like those in Okere city for the future which they don’t have control over. The summit understood that technology will certainly disrupt work and employment, but there is a need for people to up-skill and re-kill to match the trends. The achievement of SDGs can also be accelerated using technology by increasing access, personalization, and efficiency in various sectors such as healthcare, education, energy, and more, through the use of tools like Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big data, among others.

Taking Climate Action, Solutions for a changing planet: Grace Luwedde from Pollicy Uganda, engaged participants in group discussions on fighting global warming and the impact of climate change on global dynamics. Over a decade, climatic shifts have been seen nationally and globally; droughts causing famine, rising water levels, and droughts among others. As much as the ecosystem has been designed to take care of itself, the increasing human activities are increasing greenhouse gases is making this impossible. This requires behavioral change conversations right from home and individual levels. To the observable challenges of; inadequate clean water sources, prolonged droughts, unsustainable subsistence farming, poor health care services, inadequate learning materials, and insecurity; it was suggested that solutions such as digging more boreholes, tree planting for rainfall formation, afforestation, irrigation, sensitization about primary health care, encourage consumption of balanced local diet, training and delegating leadership roles, conducting school tours and exchange visits. Just like most parts of Otuke district, Okere city has poor soil fertility, coupled with poor farming methods and high dependency on the weather for agriculture; soil fertility can be increased for food productivity through the use of natural fertilizers e.g. cow dung, compost manure, straw, plant stalks; irrigation from water harvest from swamps, geological surveys, growing more drought-resistant crops at large scale, sensitization about weather forecast information, use of satellite images to locate water sources, -proper storage of seeds like the use of grannies, among others. To contest the climate-related issues, it was recommended that Okere city encourage more tree planting especially Shea trees, livestock agriculture for manure and biogas; eco-tourism involving the community members and introducing a talking compound for conflict resolution.

Decent work and employment for a sustainable future: Timothy Masembe, sustainability manager at UNFCU as well as James Wire an entrepreneur and ICT Expert facilitated this session. It was understood during the session that decent work involves fair working conditions, fair pay, good management as well as treatment of workers with dignity as human beings deserving agency without being slaved around. The summit noted with concern that youth unemployment triggers social unrest and better negotiations of employee payments can better be done when workers understand the value attached to their skills. However, employment cannot be a source of wealth. Income streams should be able to sustain one even when not employed. The explanation was given for various forms of wealth emphasizing its need to go beyond abundance and supply to become a commonly shared wealth. Agreed was drawn on work culture and ethics as key for thriving at workplaces. Support should also be shown to domestic manufacturers and those in value addition so that more employment is created.

Building Sustainable Communities and resilient cities: This session was facilitated by Sam Stewart Mutabazi, an Urban Management & Transportation Consultant. As a private investment for the public good, the Okere City project is considering longevity in rural development. It was noted that all the sustainable development goals apply to the community as much as they apply to Okere City. Its future development, therefore, requires careful planning for its development. It was predicted that with the diversification of culture in the near future, Okere City could become an institution for cultural research with a preserved cultural heritage.

Attaining peace and stability: This session was facilitated by Alexander Omara, a Human Rights Officer at African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET). Mr. Omara noted that for peace and strong institutions to develop, deliberate efforts must be made to have peace at personal, societal, and national levels. Communities need to have a state of security, calmness as well as fairness in how people are treated. For a community that once suffered conflict mounted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, rape was used as a weapon of war as women were raped and later forced to return home with children born in captivity and never accepted in the community. The trauma and psychological issues are evident. As much as different organizations have been set up to manage national and regional peace, it was noted that different cultures have various ways of handling conflict and reconciliation. The promotion of truth-telling expresses how people feel about the conflict was emphasized. Other activities promoting reconciliation include; cultural festivals, community sports, and open discussions among others.

Measuring sustainable development: This session was facilitated by Bonnita Nyamwire, Research Manager at She noted that the progress of the global goals is measured through tools, indicators, statistics, finances, sample population, and targets. This requires each country to understand its focus and identify the SDGs applicable to them for planning, creating partnerships, accountability, budgeting as well as improving and refining interventions. Disaggregation of data helps one understand the specific things around given people. As such, data should be accurate, timely (not outdated), and in understandable formats, with sources easy to get in multiple languages.

Early childhood education for sustainable development: This session was facilitated by Aaron Kirunda, Founder and CEO of Enjuba. According to Mr. Kirunda, for children to thrive in our current world of information and confirmation bias, the focus should be given to children’s learning right from birth. From age zero to five, children learn through experiences. This can be encouraged through good health n nutrition, playtime, and age-appropriate networking, showing them care, love, and affection; ensuring their safety and security. Talking to them also builds their vocabulary, language, and connection with other people. Investing in kids will also promote their executive skills of time management, task initiation, and organization thus setting them up for success at school, work, and in relationships. Just as Okere City and Enjuba are making efforts in transforming early childhood development, all actors at different levels are encouraged to invest in children because they are the hope of the nations.

The summit was monitored and evaluated through attendance sheets and post-training evaluation of the participants covering areas around content delivery, and quality of service.

Based on the evaluation,

90% of the participants said that the summit significantly facilitated their better understanding of SDGs.

All (100%) of the participants said the summit was a unique opportunity for interaction and free exchange of ideas about sustainable development.

95% said that the facilitators at the session were knowledgeable and firmly grounded in their various technical fields.

Participants’ key takeaways from this training:

● “Holding the summit in Okere City ensures that it is located in the community it serves and among those who play a role in achieving the SDGs. It also shows that achieving SDGs sustainability lies in the hands of the community” - Anna Reismann

● “Elderly women going back to school is unimaginable in most societies but in #OkereCity the tides are different as elderly women are actively taking up literacy and numeracy lessons. This is part of the community transformation project taking place in the area.” Ogenrwot Pacific

● “A great learning opportunity and understanding how sustainability is possible using our own resources and very much using our raw materials. It was great to share different ideas with different experts during the Okere Summit” Edgar Mpuuga

● “Being part of the #OkereSDGSummit23 is such a great opportunity. OkereCity idea of development can be a case study for rural development across many communities in Uganda”. Gladys Chaiga

Concluding remarks

The second edition of the Okere Summit for Sustainable was yet another unique opportunity to bring together various experts to reimagine and discuss what the SDGs mean in practice. Important to note is that during the summit, there was intense interaction and maximum attention among the participants as they were brought from different parts of Kampala and they had to stay in a remote village, with limited access to internet connectivity and telephone network. To keep the participants grounded in their present physical and mental state, mindfulness and mental wellness sessions were interlude with various forms of physical exercise techniques. Using the analogy of ground, chair, and air; participants learned and practiced methods such as grounding, breath works, mindfulness, self-regulation, and Compassionate self-awareness. Numerous sports engagements with community members in tennis, boxing, storytelling, dancing, and village tours among others cemented the bond between the summit guests and community members. Whilst the local meals provided were highly appreciated, the shared accommodation services made some participants uncomfortable, although they said they didn’t mind it.

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