Shine A Light

A cog outside the machine

The experience of entering the world of the human rights "professional" leads the author from Cairo to Liberia, from multilateral organisation to social enterprise

Tindyebwa Agaba
4 August 2011

My name is Tindyebwa Agaba. I am twenty four years old and have a BA in Politics and International Relations from Exeter University and an MA in Human Rights Law from SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies). I graduated in autumn of 2010 and have yet to find meaningful paid employment. As we all know, it is a very hard time for graduates at the moment, but, as I hope to show in this article, also a very exciting time: gone are the days of people with degrees slipping into highly-paid jobs in large organizations (you may be lucky to get an unpaid internship), so what is the alternative to stacking shelves in your local Tesco’s?

On leaving SOAS, I had the dream of becoming a human rights activist. I applied for many positions with organisations and companies in the UK who were happy to abuse fresh and enthusiastic graduates – luring them with the belief that they will become permanent staff at the end of their respective programmes. I took up an unpaid programme in Cairo where I was tasked to legally represent refugees in the UNHCR tribunals.

It was an amazing privilege for me to be able to spend 6 months living and working in the Middle East. Even more amazing was witnessing first hand the Arab Spring – being in Tahrir Square, watching Mubarak fall from power and the people lose their decades of fear and find their voice. What was most striking for me, however, was seeing how large organizations work on the ground. How inhumane, how disinterested, how one can feel like a tiny cog in a huge machine that’s out of control.

Cairo is a “hub” for refugees from the Horn of Africa – a city where displaced people are processed and their legal status determined. The backlog of cases is unimaginably large; the process unimaginably long and brutal, the lack of welfare for refugees corners them into submission and many ‘voluntarily’ return to their country where they had fled violence and persecution. My job was to process claims, write appeals and represent asylum seekers in the UN tribunals.  

In all honesty, this experience fell short of what I expected human rights activism to be. The UNHCR-Cairo is massively financially under-resourced and its budget has steadily declined since 1999; this leads to a woefully untrained local staff, an insurmountable backlog of cases and thus the poor people who eventually find themselves within the system are met with tired, overwhelmed, stressed and potentially inhumane advocates. I know this is better than nothing and I know many people within the organization work with all their heart and soul, but I found myself feeling that I was unable to put a finger on anything tangible I had been able to achieve, that the sheer size of the outfit swallowed up my personal input.

So how can my personal input make a difference? How can I combine my personality and my academic qualifications?

I am originally from Rwanda. When I was 13 years old, I witnessed first hand and participated in conflict on the Rwandan/DRC borders. I managed to escape and when I was 16, was brought to Britain by a charity, where I resumed my halted education.

I was vividly reminded of my own childhood experiences when I visited Liberia in 2010, making a trip for the charity ActionAid. There I met Child Soldiers who had fought in the civil war that had come to an end in 2003. They had no significant education at all but they were buzzing with all sorts of talents, enthusiasm and ambition, but lacking one thing: opportunity. Spending time with them revitalised me (this trip fell within the six-months of frustrations I was going through in Cairo), sparked my imagination of how I could work with them — and learn from them as well. So it dawned on me that after being equipped with such excellent education and my past personal history, I ought to be the innovator and not the job-seeker.

I am therefore going to West Africa this autumn to research for two months and eventually start a scheme that would enhance the Child Soldiers’ skills and raw talent into a more rewarding way of living so that they can be accepted within their communities, where they are currently stigmatised because they were participants in the war. Therefore the scheme will have activities that are both income-generating and focused on community integration, to be achieved through the model of Social Entrepreneurship. Social Entrepreneurship is essentially investing in people and letting them get on with it. Investing in these people would give me the chance of using my academic human rights scholarship in the field. It would allow me to gain an intimate understanding who these people are, and asking them to be the actual stake-holders so that they have a sense of ownership in the scheme. Having spent a great deal of time in the Middle East feeling that I had achieved nothing tangible, here was an opportunity to have a direct impact on people’s lives.

Yes, it might be a difficult period for graduates, but as I have discovered, it is an exciting time as well. It has made me realise that I could be more innovative and use the skills I have accrued over the years in a more useful way than going down the traditional route of seeking employment in mainstream institutions. No ‘cog in the machine’ for me…

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