Uganda Summer Externship by Gage Eller

August 2019 | I have always struggled with the question: How can I, as a young, inexperienced white guy, actually help a foreign, developing country without contributing to issues related to poverty like the White Savior Complex? After studying the cyclical nature of poverty by watching documentaries and reading books such as When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, I felt more paralyzed than equipped to serve others. When I learned about Pepperdine’s unique approach to the Sudreau Global Justice Program’s work around the world––that is, partnering with the Ugandan Judiciary to lend a helping hand in whatever capacity the Judiciary wants––I knew I wanted to be a part of the program. SGJP’s mission stood out to me because it was not to revamp the court system in Uganda, but just to assist in whatever way the Judiciary wanted. It wasn’t impressing its ideas and values onto Uganda, but allowed Uganda to take the lead in determining how to solve its problems. In turn, I saw how judicial externs for Justice K have written papers that led to the country’s adoption of plea bargaining and appellate mediation to solve some of Uganda’s unique problems within the courts, for example.

I have started writing this blog post a few different times, and I still don’t really know how to summarize this experience in one page. But, the main point I want to convey about the past seven weeks I’ve spent in Kampala is that I think SGJP’s original goal in the judiciary has been completed. In other words, I would not say that it appears from my experience that the Court of Appeal really wants or needs summer externs. When I first visited Justice K’s chambers, he was out of the country, the letter that was supposed to be delivered to Justice K notifying him that Grayson and I were coming to work for him for the summer was never sent (so Justice K and his clerks had no idea we were coming), and his office was operating very smoothly despite his absence. I learned very quickly that his clerks were very well-versed in the issues facing Uganda, and not just from a jurisprudential standpoint. I hate to say it, but I was just surprised that all of his clerks were so on top of everything. I never thought that Justice K needed my help specifically, but I did think he needed more hands to deal with the massive amount of work he has in front of him, which plainly has not been my experience this summer.

So, to be completely transparent, I am disappointed with the work I’ve received at the Court of Appeal. It is not so much that I don’t have anything to do anymore­­––although that was the case at the beginning of the internship––but more so that I feel my presence has been more burdensome than helpful to Justice K and his chambers. It often seems that Justice K is scrambling to come up with some sort of project for Grayson and I to work on rather than us taking something off of his plate to alleviate some of the pressure and busyness he constantly faces. Usually, Justice K knows exactly how he wants to come out on a case, so the memos that Grayson and I write are usually just to find some sort of international legal basis for his decision, even if we disagree from a legal standpoint with how he wants to rule.

Upon this realization, I decided to try to shift my perspective and believe that it was good for us to be here to keep building the relationship between Pepperdine and Uganda. And that might be a legitimate, good reason to keep sending students over to Kampala to work for the summer, but I’ve drawn two main conclusions from reflecting on my experience here thus far:

First, I think that it’s nearly time to reconstruct the internship as a whole. If we keep sending students here for the summer and the workload becomes increasingly smaller and less helpful, I think the expectations for the intern’s work should change. For example, one of the clerks Grayson and I work with, Alison, asked us a lot of questions about legal research and writing. She said that Justice K believes that his American interns are much better writers than his Ugandan clerks. So instead of Grayson and I working separately on our own memos (that Justice K doesn’t really need because he already knows exactly what he wants to say in his opinion of the case), I think it could be more beneficial to pair us up with a clerk and work on writing judgments together so clerks can improve their legal writing.

Second, I don’t want any of my reflections and recommendations to take away from the fact that I think the SGJP’s work in Uganda has been a great success. For example, the prison project this year was one of the most successful ones to date, and to me, it was one of the most profound experiences I’ve had and I am forever grateful to have been a part of it. I also think that Justice K’s clerks handling his workload evidences the office’s self-sufficiency, which I think was SGJP’s goal all along. Accordingly, I think that all of these issues are actually stemming from the program’s success, and it makes sense that the SGJP ought to change as the conditions in the Judiciary continue to develop.

Overall, my experience with SGJP has been very trying and eye-opening. I still believe that SGJP has a role to play in Uganda in the years to come. So, instead of being overly-critical of my time here, I am trying to look forward at all of the opportunities for growth to continue to develop SGJP’s internship program alongside Uganda as the country continues to move forward.