Uganda's arid northeastern Karamoja region has been dependent on food aid for decades, but new programmes by the government and its partners aim to bring an end to the cycle of relief and see the traditionally nomadic Karimojong become more self-sufficient through more settled livelihoods.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which has provided food aid to the region for over 40 years, has significantly scaled back and changed the dynamics of its Karamoja operations. These now support 150,000 people in extremely vulnerable households, down from one million in 2009.
Increasingly, WFP and other organizations in the region are moving away from food donations to cash-and-voucher-based food assistance programmes, in line with the government's World Bank-funded Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF) 2, which aims to improve the region's infrastructure and create employment in the construction, health and agriculture sectors among others.
"We are finding a way out of the Karimojong continuously needing and depending on food aid. In line with the objective of improving the livelihoods in the region, we have shifted from food aid to food assistance. We shall only support the very extremely vulnerable individuals," Sory Ouane, WFP country director, told IRIN.
Karamoja is home to an estimated 1.2 million people scattered over 28,000sqkm in the districts of Abim, Amudat, Kaabong, Kotido, Moroto, Nakapiripirit and Napak. The underdeveloped region - which consistently registers the lowest human development indicators in the country - is prone to climate shocks, experiencing a severe drought in 2006, a combination of a prolonged dry spell and flooding in 2007, another prolonged dry spell in 2008. About 970,000 people were in need of food aid in 2009.
"Karamoja is still a very fragile region; it has several issues. The food situation needs to be monitored. However, we don't plan any emergency food distribution," WFP's Ouane said.
The changed strategy aims to enable Karamoja to eventually build the capacity to absorb these shocks without needing outside support.
One such programme is WFP's Karamoja Productive Assets Programme (KPAP), which in 2011 yielded close to 56,000 acres of crops, over 70 dams, 300 acres of trees, as well as roads and other community assets through cash- and work-for-food activities.
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The German federal enterprise Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) has used cash-and-voucher-based food security programmes to rehabilitate a road - increasing access to markets, medical services and humanitarian relief - and a pond, improving access to water for the community’s livestock, farming and domestic use. A 2012 analysis of these programmes found that they had a positive impact on beneficiaries both through "immediate results from cash earned... and also the longer-term impacts on livelihoods from the infrastructure projects themselves".
"Our people are very hard working. We can produce our own food instead of depending on relief. What we need is empowerment of our people by government," Simon Peter Aleper, a member of the Karamoja Parliamentary Group, told IRIN.
Through the Ministry of Karamoja Affairs, headed by Uganda’s first lady, Janet Museveni, the government has embarked on several projects to boost the region's capacity to feed itself.
"We are intervening in all aspects to enhance food production and development of Karamoja," Martin Etyang, assistant commissioner of programmes for Karamoja at the Office of the Prime Minister, told IRIN. "We are providing vulnerable households with oxen and ox-ploughs, giving farmer groups walking tractors, supporting 8,000 women's groups to open acres of land using tractors, and providing seeds."
Augustus Nuwagaba, a poverty eradication consultant, told IRIN that in order for meaningful development to happen in Karamoja, the government needs to focus on addressing the issue of water.
"The region experiences erratic rains with a long dry spell that doesn't support farming," he said. "There is need for government to ensure the prevalence of water on regular basis... to devise means of harvesting and keeping water for irrigation and feeding animals," he said.
Etyang noted that the Karamoja ministry was building dams in all the districts to regulate the water supply; plans are also underway by the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Water and Environment to set up irrigation schemes in the region.
Karamajong leaders are also encouraging the government to mine the precious metals found in Karamoja - including gold, silver, copper, iron, titanium and cobalt - and use the proceeds to develop the region.
Key to the success of Karamoja programmes will be the effective implementation of NUSAF 2. Its predecessor, NUSAF 1, was plagued by allegations of corruption. "There was misuse of resources and accountability problems in NUSAF 1. Most people ate the money meant for the projects to boost food production and reduce aid dependence... [They are] now being prosecuted in Karamoja," said Etyang.
A more settled life
Local leaders are working to convince the traditionally nomadic Karimojong to adapt to a more settled way of life; they say government disarmament exercises and cattle-branding have largely put a stop to the practice of cattle-rustling in the region. Former cattle-rustlers could now be engaged in other activities.
"They should be involved in aloe vera growing, gum arabic, small-scale petty trade and income generating activities," said Adome Lokwii, the Kotido District chairperson.
"As leaders from Karamoja, we are sensitizing our people to complete[ly] stop moving up and down. Our people value cows so much, [but] we want them to embrace change and government programmes. We are turning from nomadism to agro-pastoralists," said Rose Lilly Akello, an MP from Kaabong District.
NGOs on the ground say many Karimojong have already changed lifestyles. "The Karimojong are already settled, and the traditional nomadic lifestyle that was practised in the past...has been outweighed by several factors and no longer exists... Karimojong pastoralists are... diversifying their livelihood options in adaptation to the changing context," said Sylvia Atugonza, programme coordinator for the Riamiriam Civil Society Network in Karamoja.
"Consultations have been ongoing and the people do now appreciate the need to combine both pastoralism and agro-pastoralism as long as the weather permits," she added.
"The Karimojong are determined to do agriculture. Most of them have moved into green belts and fertile areas for agriculture," Joseph Orisa, the Kotido District information officer, told IRIN. "Karamoja is soon going to be the food basket for Uganda."