A powerful, unexpected voice for kids in Uganda

Students at Kabembe Primary School in Uganda. Photo by: Henry Bongyereirwe / Global Partnership for Education / CC BY-NC-ND

Ugandans love their children — but many parents in the East African country struggle to provide them with the foundation for a healthy, productive life.

Over the last two years, however, the business community has become an emerging, powerful voice to help generate more attention and commitment to the country’s future.  

In global efforts to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goal commitment to education and care for a country’s youngest learners, the private sector can be both a powerful and persuasive voice in that effort, adding to the efforts of traditional children’s advocates. Business leaders bring a different type of credibility because they don’t have a vested interest in a particular service — only in ensuring that their country invests in the human capital needed for future success.  

Uganda’s finance minister described investing in the well-being of children as an “economically sound investment strategy for the future.” The minister of education called for a pre-primary classroom in every primary school. Recently, Uganda increased the percentage of the national budget allocated to the ministry of education from 11.1 percent to 12 percent.

While policy changes are the result of many forces, this new leadership from the business community has contributed to these victories.

The country’s major business organization, Private Sector Foundation Uganda, has helped the nation take these important steps. PSFU is led by Gideon Badagawa and works with the international business group ReadyNation. Leaders in Uganda and other nations are recognizing early care and education not just as a support for parents to work, but as critical for the future workforce productivity required to improve overall competitiveness.

New partners advocating for progress

This partnership is part of a growing movement that complements traditional advocacy. The Early Steps program — a collaboration between PSFU and ReadyNation — started two years ago with the goal of building a network of business leaders who would become champions for the country’s youngest learners. It has since grown to include more than 40 business and civic organizations that are pursuing well-known actions such as family friendly policies, while also taking the newer step of advocating for public investments in early childhood development.

The partnership aims to make the “business case” for early childhood investments. A weeklong collaboration on a series of media events and high-level policymaker meetings culminated with the first Uganda national business summit on early childhood in October 2014.

For the first time in Uganda’s history, the private sector was involved in reviewing and promoting child-related policies. The country’s Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development appointed PSFU’s Godwin Othieno to sit on its highest advisory body on early childhood development. Uganda saw its first program-based budgeting framework for ECD, which is now a key pillar in the country’s National Development Plan.

The unexpected voice of the business community has generated significant media attention and has gained visibility outside Uganda. The United Nations General Assembly 25th anniversary celebration of the Convention of the Rights of the Child featured PSFU’s work, as did the first Global Business Summit on Early Childhood, organized by ReadyNation in 2015.

3 lessons learned

These successes have also provided some important lessons for engaging these unexpected champions.  

1. It’s essential to start with evidence, especially data that shows the relationship between early investments and outcomes related to later success, such as completion of secondary school.

2. It’s helpful to frame early education as a business concern that contributes to current and future workforce development, as distinct from a “children’s rights” or moral issue. Speaking the language of business is useful, as that framing is different from the traditional messaging of children's groups, which causes the business message to stand out.

3. It’s important to give businesspeople a variety of actions they can take, from the company to the community to the policy levels. At the same time, they must recognize that policy advocacy is essential to change the life trajectory for large numbers of children.

ReadyNation created the process to harness this force in the U.S. and is now building business champions in Romania and Australia, as well as sponsoring the first European Business Forum on Early Childhood. PSFU has blazed a trail in Uganda. And both are showing that young children everywhere can have powerful allies who will help give them the foundation they need to succeed in life.

Building a productive workforce and prosperous citizenry is a priority for every nation — and that starts with supporting our children.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Sara Watson

    Sara Watson is the global director of ReadyNation, an international business organization whose 1,400 members advocate for improving the economy and workforce through effective investments in children and youth. It is based in the U.S. and works with leaders in other countries to help them create business champions for children. She has M.P.P. and Ph.D. degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School.
  • Godwin Othieno

    Godwin Othieno is a development practitioner with 10 years’ experience in both the public and private sector. He works as a program design officer with Private Sector Foundation Uganda focusing on engaging Uganda’s private sector to increase early childhood investments. He holds a bachelor’s degree is urban planning and master’s degree in development studies. He holds the prestigious best presentation award from the The Global Development Partnership Center of The Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements.