‘In a Sorry State’ dramatises underhand donor aid dealings

James Joughin’s debut comic novel In a Sorry State, published in 2014 by Banange Press, is about the fast and furious world of development experts.

Divided into five parts, the novel follows novice aid worker Faith Cullimore as she visits impoverished villages in northern Uganda.

Cullimore, Bent Baxter and others are hired by HSC Ltd, one of the top consultancy outfits in England, to travel to Uganda and review a large agricultural project — a thinly disguised reference to the real-life National Agricultural Aisory Services (NARDS).

The project is in line with what Cullimore studied for her PhD.

NARDS is a showpiece project that everyone from the government to the Ministry of Overseas Development (MoDE) again a reference to DfID in England and other donors love. Visitors come from far and wide to admire the project.

A new phase of the project is scheduled to start but an objective review is needed from an independent team. The MoDE lawyers turn to HSC to put together the team. MODE wants the review to be positive so that they can go ahead with the new phase.

The HSC team arrives in Uganda just as the country prepares to host the World Poverty Conference. The opposition is against the conference because the government plans to spend $200 million in just one weekend. The police have been causing trouble in the Katwe settlement.

Faith has come to support the project and help the people of Uganda. But, she is already confused about the NARDS project in Gulu District. What is the project trying to do? Is it going to help the poor? Who are the poor any way? She wonders why the people were not left where they are because they were happy.

Faith and Dr Baxter come to learn that some of NARDS budget has been given as handouts to the ruling party as patronage for the president’s family.

Journalist and anti-corruption campaigner Charlie Crisp informs Faith that the local people seem reluctant to talk to her because nothing works in Uganda.

The roads are bad, the drains are blocked, the power is off, and the Internet is down. But the people think there is nothing they can do about it.

Faith and her team are taken aback when a major-general who is the minister of agriculture demands a bribe after issuing a letter of authorisation for each member of the team to be bona fide consultants for the ministry.

Crisp is arrested by men in black balaclavas carrying automatic weapons, and taken to a safe house. He is tortured and later hospitalised.

In his report, Dr Baxter says that NADS has been infiltrated and the project is a total disaster and disgrace.

Goons disguised as policemen attack him in his hotel and leave him for dead.

Faith manages to sneak back to Gulu because she wants to gather empirical data. She learns that the NADS project has been stopped and its offices demolished. She escapes from security officials who have come to arrest her during her field work. The government is against foreigners running around, poking their noses into things.

Faith is stoned to death by a mob after a minibus she was travelling in knocks down and kills an old man.

However, the donors pledge to continue supporting NADS with another $200 million.

Joughin was born and educated in Scotland. He first visited Africa while studying development economics at the University of Edinburgh. He worked for development agencies all over Africa. He now lives in Brighton.