Arthur Larok: From streets of northern Uganda to leading ActionAid International

Mr Arthur Larok was recently appointed as the new secretary general of ActionAid International

What you need to know:

  • Mr Arthur Larok was recently appointed as the new secretary general of ActionAid International.
  • Starting this month, the man who grew up in the streets of northern Uganda amid deprivation and oppression will be charged with leading ActionAid International. 

Congratulations on the appointment. Is it sufficient to say that you have already settled into the role given your length of time in the ActionAid system?
It is my utmost pleasure, and thanks for offering me this space.
Yes, I am very familiar with ActionAid since this is my third appointment having been country director in Uganda for five years from 2012, then global federation development director for four years and finally, I held as interim secretary general for the last one year. I have worked with several leaders and staff at country level, and with the international board to chart a direction of travel that has been embraced. However, ActionAid being the dynamic organisation that it is, always has a lot it offers one to learn every day and so I am not complacent. 

With your experience working with both local and international civil society, including several roles within ActionAid, what do you bring to this role?
Every position I have held has been different and in a particular moment in history. I have had the honour to learn a great deal from my times at the Forum for Education NGOs (FENU) in Uganda, the Uganda National NGO Forum, ActionAid Uganda and now ActionAid International. All these organisations worked with many others in civil society from whom I learnt a lot too. All these experiences will be valuable in the new role.

I bring authentic experiences of my life growing up in difficulty, be it conflict, political turmoil, and consequences such as injustice and poverty. In my career, I have learnt to be calm and not panic and I believe this is important in a development context in perpetual flux. And finally, I come with a servant leadership style that is redistributive, inclusive but courageous and decisive.
You are the first Ugandan, the first African, to serve as ActionAid’s permanent secretary-general. Of what significance is this to Uganda and the continent? 
It is not as easy to rise through the ranks in an international development sector that is inherently colonial and racist and so my first appreciation goes to ActionAid for believing in me. I became country director in Uganda at the age of 33 and in 11 years, I am secretary general. At this moment in time, I believe this could have happened only in ActionAid, an organisation that values and invests ‘southern’ leadership. 

Uganda is already known for many things, good bad and ugly. However, I believe this appointment, is an acknowledgement that our lived experiences as a country have international value. The profile of Uganda will be enhanced and the good that we do will be amplified. I have been surprised by the overwhelming support from the country, including from my village and so I will work hard to succeed, and thus fulfil the good wishes.
For the continent, I join a list of admirable leaders like Winnie Byanyima who led Oxfam International and African comrades who either lead or have led other international organisations like Christian Aid, Plan International, YMCA and many others. We collectively carry the responsibility that Africans have a lot to offer in advancing global agendas.
One could argue that pressure from the Ugandan government was a factor in why you were forced to abruptly leave ActionAid Uganda. Were there any obstacles in your assumption of this new position?
I have heard this widely held view, especially on social media that I was forced out of Uganda, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. ActionAid had to persuade me to leave Uganda, a country of my birth and belonging. My departure was not abrupt and in fact I extended my stay when the authorities clamped down on ActionAid and froze our bank accounts. We fought back and secured justice before I left.
As for the current appointment, ActionAid being an independent organisation, not affiliated politically or religiously to any country, the government of Uganda could not have had any role in my appointment or obstructed it in any way.

One would argue the role of NGOs and to a large extent the civil society has been diminishing in Uganda and the EAC region, what can ActionAid under your leadership play to change this trajectory?
The environment for civil society work has become increasingly difficult in the last decade. Political space has shrunk for certain type of organisation and the financing architecture that many NGOs rely on has been changing in dramatic ways. These changes have indeed impacted many organisations negatively, but I don’t think this diminishes civil society’s role.

On the contrary, the cause for social justice for which many civil societies are called needs more of them. The looming climate catastrophe will push over 200 million people worldwide into poverty. We are already seeing unprecedented drought in the Horn of Africa, the humanitarian disasters in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and cyclones in Southern Africa all call for more hands-on deck and NGOs play a critical role. Political turmoil as we are seeing in countries like DRC, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Colombia, Peru, Ukraine call for responses from civil society in their diversity - I would say the ‘harvest is plenty and the labourers are few’. We need to adapt to new ways of working and the times as the traditional ways of organising will probably not be effective. ActionAid is working in most of these countries facing crisis and so we shall adapt and rise to the needs.
The influence of NGOs and to a large extent the civil society seems to be diminishing. What role can ActionAid, under your direction, play in reversing this trend in Uganda and globally?
As already intimated in the previous question, contexts and times have changed and civil society must adapt to remain relevant. At ActionAid, we are constantly adapting to ensure that we are fit-for-purpose and fit-for-future. We have collectively defined a vision of transformation that will see us becoming more politically aligned to progressive people’s struggles and socially embedded and led by their movements. Given our global presence, we shall connect struggles that are rooted in countries to achieve global systems change, which is what is most needed.  

Do you believe that state actors, particularly, in the countries where you operate, comprehend and value ActionAid’s role?
I strongly believe so! We have a footprint in one form or another in 71 countries around the world. In each of these countries, we are positively impacting lives and livelihoods through responding to immediate needs as well as through campaigning work to tackle the structural drivers of poverty, gender inequality and other forms of oppression. 

From Bangladesh where our work is putting a smile on the faces of Rohingya’s in the world’s largest refugee settlement, to Somaliland where, working with women at the frontlines, we are responding to protracted drought, to Ukraine where our European members are leading our response to the crises there, we are advancing rights and changing lives. Our work in Palestine is pushing back on one of the most protracted conflicts in the world, in Jordan and the Arab region, both state and non-state actors see our added value. In Haiti, a country prone to conflict and humanitarian disasters our responses are lifesaving. Overall, in each of the 71 countries, we are fulfilling our mission and results are evident.  

ActionAid, like the aid industry overall, is not free of scandal, including claims of racism and significant corruption. How do you envision your leadership in reversing this trend?
International and local development actors operate in a context of both good and bad. While we try to remain true to our values, we sometimes reproduce the very ills present in the societies we find ourselves in. I already mentioned earlier that the wider sector we are part of, is inherently colonial and racist. 

Scandals are bound to exist, even within ActionAid but we are confident that we have the systems that help us decisively deal with any when it arises. We have a series of organisational health policies that constituent parts of ActionAid that we adhere to. 
We have systems to detect and resolve fraud, we have an elaborate process to prevent sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse and safeguarding and many other measures. In short, we are confident and assured of our internal control measures.