Fred Ssewamala knows firsthand the challenges tied to overcoming poverty and war. He was orphaned at the age of 12 after witnessing the murder of his parents, eldest brother, sister and niece in the height of civil unrest in Uganda. He survived through the support of relatives, academic scholarships and old-fashioned perseverance. Now Ssewamala is helping Ugandans like himself.
Ssewamala, associate professor of social work and international affairs, has combined his past and present to develop economic empowerment programs that help hundreds of children and families in Uganda. The SUUBI programs (suubi means hope in Lugandan) are based on an asset-building model where children and their families are encouraged to start savings accounts with a local financial institution; their contributions are matched through the grants Ssewamala receives. The money in the matched savings account helps pay for the children to attend high school or start a small business.
Most of the savers have never had a bank account and are wary of big financial institutions. Ssewamala's program helps families and children get used to the idea, and it makes them active participants—a key component to the program. "The beauty of this model is that it's a partnership," Ssewamala says. "You are not simply giving them handouts, but you're telling them, 'When you participate, we participate.' These families don't need handouts. They need a helping hand."
After a savings account is opened for the child, his or her caregiver or family members are encouraged to deposit up to $20 per month in that account. Each month it is matched by a ratio of 2-to-1, so for every $20 deposited, those in the program will receive an additional $40 each month.
Another of Ssewamala's programs is SUUBI-MAKA ("hope for families"), which focuses on families caring for children orphaned as a result of the AIDS pandemic in Uganda. These families also receive training sessions that cover career planning, financial planning and monthly mentorship meetings. In August, Ssewamala received a $720,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to fund SUUBIMAKA for the next three years.
SUUBI, which he piloted in 2005, is still operating in Uganda and now serves 400 orphaned children who also receive mentorships and financial management training. "A lot of these kids don't have role models," says Ssewamala. "We need to help motivate [them]."
Ssewamala completed his Ph.D. at Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis, where his primary research focused on asset-ownership and asset-building development. He is currently studying the acceptability of economic empowerment interventions among at-risk youth in Harlem and the South Bronx. He hopes to expand the Uganda programs to several other districts in the country and to additional nations in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia.
It is difficult for Ssewamala to pinpoint how he overcame such an arduous childhood. "It's a real good question and I don't really know what made it possible to be where I am," he admits. But he attributes his success to the support and sacrifices made by his extended family. "It has not been easy to get where I am," he says. "I have been very lucky to be in this country. Now I'm at Columbia, and I'm able to give back to communities that helped me."
Q. How did the idea for these programs come to you?
I was trained by Michael Sherraden at Washington University. He is the father of asset theory, which states that when people own assets they're more likely to think and behave differently. If you're working with these orphaned children and they have no sense of hope, or they're not even dreaming that things will be better tomorrow, the question is: Why should they concentrate on school? Why should they not get involved in risk-taking behaviors? There must be something you can create realistically in their lives for them to think and behave differently...Using the same theory, I looked at poor families in the U.S. who are benefiting from individual development accounts and I saw how important these accounts were to these families, and how they were changing their lives and how they started to think about the future, like saving for small businesses to get out of poverty. And, I thought, how about we use the same concept in a country where two million kids have lost their parents, and most are moving [onto] the streets because they don't want to be a financial burden to their families...At the same time, I didn't want to create handouts, which is what a lot of people do.
Q. How do you choose the children?
We work with a few faith-based institutions in Uganda to identify the schools where we should work. Most of the kids are age 12 to 16 and have lost one or both parents ...And we [work] with community organizations to find the orphaned children in the last two years of their primary education.
Q. Why was it important for you to do work in Uganda?
I know the environment very well. Most of the kids are orphaned and have lost a parent to HIV/AIDS. Uganda was hit hard in the '80s with AIDS. There are high, high numbers of orphaned children in Uganda. This is the right place.
Q. What are your immediate goals for these programs?
We're in discussions with the [Ugandan] government now [to turn this into policy]. We're showing them that it has had positive effects on families and communities. We're seeing that kids are more focused. Kids who are managing their savings accounts are reporting stronger family relationships with their caregivers. With that in mind, we're talking to the government to try to see if we can take this to the national level. We've also met with the minister of education, who likes the idea. We're moving in the right direction.
Q. What have been the surprises?
The parents and caregivers for these kids have started organizing themselves in these communities and demanding for services which were missing for the most part in these areas. For example, they have now asked their banks to bring deposit machines to their villages so that they don't have to spend money to go 10 miles from their village to make the deposits. They're calculating that each time they take a taxi [to the banks] they're losing money... Now they're asking for services to be brought closer to their villages which is really very empowering.
Q. How did you come to choose social work as a profession?
Because I've been helped by people and by communities. I needed a profession that was a "helping" profession. Social work by definition is a helping profession.
Q. What is it about the field that you enjoy the most?
I know you can make a difference, even if it's a small difference, even if you only help one child. That one child can help two and those two can go on to help four. I was the only one in my family—the youngest—who has gone this far. And now here I am writing proposals, planning big programs, which have not only implications for the communities where I'm working but also implications for Uganda and Africa. And this is one person...Each time you help a person, you're not helping just that one person, you're helping the community, you're helping the village, you're helping the nation and eventually helping the world. One person can make a big difference.
© Columbia University