Patrick Onyango Mangen is retiring as the CEO of TPO Uganda, a position he has held for the past 16 years. In this interview, he looks back at two and a half decades of being at the helm of one of the country’s most successful aid organisations.
The professional marriage between TPO Uganda and Cordaid has always been a harmonious and fruitful one. As firm believers of strengthening local capacity, Cordaid staff have helped Patrick and his colleagues build an organisation which over the years has supported thousands of victims of conflict and displacement cope with their mental health issues.
Just a few weeks before his official goodbye, he leads us through his journey towards becoming an important player in Uganda’s NGO sector.
“I joined in 1995, a year after the organisation was founded by professor Joop de Jong, out of a research project by TPO in the Netherlands. A Dutch team led by professor De Jong was conducting a study for UNHCR to understand the traumas suffered by refugees and their needs to overcome them.
The study was ground-breaking and UNHCR was very inspired by it. They were willing to fund us to start implementing the findings. The Dutch government also provided support. TPO Uganda was founded because they needed a local entity for the implementation.
“My motivation came from my strong belief in values like
compassion and being there for one another.”
I joined as a programme assistant. The strategy of the organisation appealed to me from the get-go. As part of the sustainability plan at that time, after 5 years the expatriate team would leave Uganda to handover responsibilities to an organisation lead by locals.
That is how I got involved. In 2001 I was asked if I would want to take over TPO Uganda and by 2002 we were a truly local organisation.”
What was the situation in Uganda at that time?
“During those years Uganda was dealing with multiple civil crises. At our southern border refugees fleeing unrest from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo were in great need of psychosocial care and mental health support and in the north, we were facing large numbers of displaced people because of clashes with the Lord’s Resistance Army and other dissident groups.
Many Ugandans were stuck in between pockets of armed conflict. What we are experiencing now, with the large numbers of refugees from South Sudan, is our third refugee crisis in the past few decades.
Refugees from South Sudan residing in a settlement in northern Uganda. Image: Petterik Wiggers
On my first trip to the conflict zone in the north, I was so incredibly moved by the situation of the people there. Before, I could not truly imagine the impact of war on communities. It was happening in my own country, but still, it felt very far away. I told myself if I can do anything meaningful to help these people, that is what I will do. My motivation came from my strong belief in values like compassion and being there for one another.
I am sure the refugees and displaced people had a vast array of urgent needs. Why did you decide to focus on mental health?
“Productivity starts with the mind. If your mind is not at peace, you cannot obtain your goals. If your mind is disrupted, that is the first thing you need to fix, to become a stable person, to progress. You cannot move on when you are still mourning all that you have lost. Freeing yourself from vengeful thoughts will enable you to co-exist with those around you and to heal better.”
“The meeting only lasted 20 minutes. We were devastated. Disappointed.
I told my wife I would have to look for another job.”
There is a text on TPO Uganda’s website which states: ‘The story of TPO Uganda is unique’. What exactly is unique in your story?
“I think NGOs are often founded to obtain specific goals. Our foundation was an organic process. Research had laid bare a community that was suffering and in dire need of mental health support. Then a team of Ugandans said: this is what we are going to work on. It started from within, from here. That is what has made TPO Uganda so successful in its endeavours.”
How did the relationship with Cordaid start?
“When I committed to managing the organisation in 2001, I had to build a team. But we were at the end of our budget. That is when my predecessor Dr Nancy Baron and I met Christine Fenenga from Cordaid in a café in Kampala. She bluntly asked me what we wanted from her. At that time, we were desperate, we needed a plan. We needed money.
We were supposed to meet for two hours. The meeting only lasted 20 minutes. We were devastated. Disappointed. I told my wife I would have to look for another job.
Not long after that, we heard back from Christine and she said she was intrigued by our story. She wanted us to send her a proposal.
That was a great and unforgettable moment in my career. Cordaid believed in us and that gave us strength. It was more than just confidence; it was true belief and trust. We submitted our proposal and we came to an agreement. With Cordaid’s funds, we were able to cover all our overhead costs and TPO Uganda could really start to flourish.
Cordaid has supported us ever since. Over the years they started scaling back though, gradually reducing funds. It may sound strange, but I see that as an important contributing factor to our success. This motivated us to reach out to other donors, to diversify our funding sources.
“We simply have the capacity to act and respond. We have always had it. It is inherent to the community structure.”
At the same time, the people at Cordaid kept supporting us in many ways. Just knowing that somebody is there, somebody who believes in you, who will take you by the hand and help you when you are in need, is so incredibly important. Cordaid would send recommendation letters to other donors and that helped us a great deal.”
Why do you think Cordaid and TPO Uganda were so compatible?
“From the start, I felt we had strong common beliefs and common values. That is: believing in communities and empowering local capacity. Not all donors are such firm believers in that perspective.”
Why is it so important to build and strengthen local capacity?
“Anything below that is just disempowering. We simply have the capacity to act and respond. We have always had it. It is inherent to the community structure.
For instance, when we respond to a refugee crisis, we head to the location, we map the area and we identify important people with useful skills, such as teachers and health workers. We always find a lot of highly qualified people. It would be a terrible waste not to use those skills.
Empowering local capacity is also much more sustainable because it will always be available. It will always exist. We do not need expensive ex-pats. Sometimes we might call in the support from a consultant, but that would be on a temporary basis.
I have a strong team of people who are proud of what they are doing. And they are successful because somebody believed in them. You should never underestimate the power of that.”
You have accomplished many great things during your career. Are there, however, also things you wish you had done differently?
“When I look back there is only one thing to which I wish I had dedicated more time and effort; that is working with youth. I feel we could have done more for the specific target group between the age of 18 and 24.
They make up over 60 per cent of the population in Uganda and they are very much affected by the crises. Without any support for many young people, it is very difficult to reach their full potential.
We focused mostly on families, hoping it would trickle down to the younger generations. In some ways, that strategy worked out well, but I cannot help but think there is more we could have done.”
Is it hard to let go of a position and an organisation you have dedicated so much energy and time to?
“Overall, I look back at 25 incredible years with pride and joy. My successor is getting ready to take over and yes, I find it difficult sometimes to think about letting go of the organisation. I am leaving behind staff who all feel like family to me.
I feel privileged to have worked with very special people at TPO, in particular, Rehema my most loyal assistant and Emmanuel who was always a beehive of new ideas and innovations. Together we have built TPO to where it is. But I also believe that a new person will bring in a new set of ideas which will help the organisation forward. I will also remain available for any kind of consultation.
“Sometimes I feel TPO is too lonely in a sector with a large presence of foreign NGOs.”
I am 50 now and there a few things I would like to do with my available time. I would like to travel a bit. I will also spend time with my mother, who turned 83 this year. NGO work is rewarding but also very demanding, so I did not have much time before. At the same time, I will probably remain involved in the sector somehow.”
From the perspective of this new role you will be fulfilling in the sector, what direction do you hope NGOs in Uganda will be heading?
“I hope soon there will be more locally driven organisations like TPO in Uganda. We need a stronger civil society here. Sometimes I feel TPO is too lonely in a sector with a large presence of foreign NGOs. That is a missed opportunity. Locals have a deeper understanding of the context and they work way more cost-efficient. Decisions should be made there where the problems occur.
Displacement will always remain a problem in Uganda, because of our geographical position, amid war-torn countries. We are a very welcoming and open society. I do not see that changing any time soon. As long as we keep receiving refugees with open arms, we will need NGOs to support them.”