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An uneven dirt road runs past shops selling dried goods and essential items in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, empty in the early morning. August 2023.
Bidi Bidi is one of 13 refugee settlements in Uganda that host some 1.4 million people assisted by WFP. Many say they’re now struggling to fill gaps left by steep aid cuts.

EXCLUSIVE: How a WFP food aid revamp has gone wrong for refugees in Uganda

‘The community is not ready for the policy, and the policy is affecting the community.’

A World Food Programme (WFP) policy shift to prioritise aid for the most needy in the midst of global budget cuts has left many of the 1.4 million refugees it assists in Uganda considering desperate measures as they scramble to feed themselves and their families, The New Humanitarian has found.

Refugees say crime, child marriage, prostitution, and sexual abuse are all on the rise, as families try to fill the gaps left by reductions in rations and cash assistance. Some parents have reported withdrawing children from school as they can’t afford the fees.

  • At a glance: How WFP’s prioritisation policy is impacting Uganda refugees

  • WFP hoped to target 25% of Uganda’s most vulnerable refugees. Because of budget shortfalls, only 14% were placed into the highest category of assistance. 
  • Roughly 4% of the refugee population now receive no food or cash assistance.
  • A leaked report from a consortium of response organisations said cuts have triggered crime, prostitution, sexual abuse, and child marriages.
  • Aid officials said they raised concerns before the cuts were rolled out about security ramifications for their staff.
  • WFP says available funding will determine how many people can be recategorised if they appeal their cases.

Spurred by continuous funding shortfalls, the prioritisation scheme – billed as a “needs-based” policy to assist the most vulnerable and wean others off assistance – began in 2021, with the last and most controversial phase being rolled out since July.

Last year, overall ration cuts meant refugees were receiving less than 40% of their basic survival rations. Now, as the scheme is fully rolled out, some are receiving even less or nothing at all, with several refugees and aid officials describing the impacts as disastrous.

Security measures in the refugee settlements have also been stepped up since July to prevent protests, with police overseeing food distributions, while aid groups had expressed fears for the safety of their staff because of potential unrest over the new measures.

“We thought we were in peace,” Peter John Ayume, a refugee leader in Imvepi settlement, which is located – like most of Uganda’s 13 refugee settlements – in the northwest of the country, told The New Humanitarian in November. “But now we are undergoing economic war.”

Uganda response insiders say the prioritisation scheme is a policy experiment going wrong – and one that could have global implications as WFP makes cuts in nearly half of the 86 countries where it operates, including Bangladesh, Haiti, and Syria.

Uganda, which allows refugees to work and move freely within the country, is often held up as an example of a progressive host nation that is a good testing ground for others to learn from: What works in Uganda – or doesn’t – often influences what happens in other responses.

During a six-month investigation, The New Humanitarian reviewed leaked reports from WFP, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), and other organisations involved in the response, and spoke to more than a dozen aid workers, diplomats, government officials, UN workers, and refugees living in eight of the country’s settlements.

The investigation found that the rollout of the new prioritisation scheme had dire consequences for many refugees and that WFP pushed it through without thoroughly consulting other aid groups or those who depend on the assistance, according to those interviewed by The New Humanitarian.

In the new prioritisation policy, refugees are assigned different vulnerability levels – from Category 1 for the most vulnerable to Category 3 for those considered self-sufficient. The 4% of refugees in Category 3 now get nothing. The 82% deemed “moderately vulnerable” (Category 2) receive about 30% of WFP’s standard rations, and the 14% considered “highly vulnerable” receive 60%.

Several people interviewed by The New Humanitarian said there were problems with the data that was collected to justify these changes. Some critics said much of it was old, while others said there were flaws that risked placing vulnerable refugees into categories 2 and 3.

In response to questions, WFP told The New Humanitarian it worked closely with partners before the scheme was rolled out in stages, and that the prioritisation policy was aimed at using data to make sure the most vulnerable people receive the highest possible ration. 

“These are painful choices for our staff to make, but even more important when resources are stretched,” a WFP spokesperson told The New Humanitarian in a 13 December email. The UN agency added, however, that due to budget shortfalls it was only able to provide the highest rations to 14% of the refugee population, instead of the 25% it had initially targeted.

The new prioritisation policy did not come out of nowhere. 

For a number of years, donors have been pushing to reorient refugee assistance in Uganda, according to interviews with donor representatives and humanitarian actors. 

In particular, the United States and Britain – the largest donors to the response – have questioned blanket support in a protracted crisis like Uganda, where refugees are likely to stay for many more years, according to those interviewed by The New Humanitarian.

Little warning, few appeals

Since the prioritisation, refugees in the so-called “highly vulnerable” category receive 7.6 kilos of cereal a month or, for those receiving cash, between $6.40 and $7.40 per month.

Many of the refugees now receiving less assistance said they haven’t been able to appeal the changes, reporters found.

“I got no warning for people being categorised,” Isaac Ankora, who lives in Bidi Bidi, said in August, adding that he only discovered his family would stop receiving assistance when his wife collected their food rations in July, giving them little time to prepare.

Isaac Ankora told The New Humanitarian that refugees were not warned about the new prioritisation policy. He only discovered his category when his wife went to collect food aid. August 2023.
Sophie Neiman/TNH
Isaac Ankora says refugees weren't warned about the prioritisation policy, and he only discovered his new category when his wife went to collect food aid.

“I discovered [my category] when I went for the food ration,” Enock Suro, who lives in Kyangwali settlement, told The New Humanitarian in September. “I had no prior idea about it.” 

Out of nearly 22,000 appeal claims, WFP said roughly 1,200 have been recategorised, but added that the number of people who can be recategorised depends on available funding.

WFP – one of the humanitarian sector’s best-funded outfits – had already been implementing ration cuts due to budget shortfalls for several years, and the UN agency said various forms of prioritisation have been going on in its work around the globe for a long time.

“Prioritisation has long been at the core to all WFP operations in identifying, targeting, and prioritising the most vulnerable households,” a WFP spokesperson said. “It is contextual and particularly important as humanitarian aid budgets are shrinking.”

But aid officials said it’s still vital to get the process right, especially as what happens in Uganda could be used to guide food aid responses in other settings as funding shrinks and needs grow.

“Prioritisation, as such, is a good policy,” one humanitarian worker told The New Humanitarian, requesting anonymity because they weren’t authorised to speak to reporters. “But if people get less food or cash, they need to get more support to be self-reliant. You need to drastically rethink your policy, and think of major ways to support refugee livelihoods. And this is not [being] done [in Uganda].” The aid worker also described the current levels of assistance as “absolute madness”.

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“The categorisation process and the tool being used have some gaps [...] some families may be overlooked. Child-headed households, for example, will never make it to Category 1. It's not a case-by-case consideration, so some families may slip through the cracks.“

A UNHCR official at a Refugee Humanitarian Partners Group (RHPG) Meeting – 6 June 2023, Kampala

Before the changes in Uganda were implemented, UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations, including WFP itself, had raised concerns about their potential consequences.

One study, carried out on behalf of WFP, UNHCR, and the Ugandan government, called the idea of vulnerability criteria “relatively arbitrary” and pointed out a very high exclusion error rate, meaning that refugees could be wrongly placed in a less vulnerable category.

In private minutes seen from a Refugee and Humanitarian Partners Group (RHPG) meeting on 6 June, WFP also raised concerns about the prioritisation, given the reductions taking place in the broader cuts policy.

“We are uncertain if prioritisation will be successful because ration cuts are taking over,” one WFP official stated during the meeting.

Although Uganda provides land and a safe haven to refugees, it says its obligations end with hosting and it is up to the aid organisations to come up with the rest of the support.

“The government has no ability to provide additional support beyond what we are already providing,” Douglas Asiimwe, Uganda’s acting refugee commissioner, told The New Humanitarian. “The international community must meet their obligations and commitments towards refugees.” 

‘Slow-burn crisis’

Uganda hosts one of the largest refugee communities in the world, but the response is also one of the worst-funded. The overall inter-agency response in Uganda has a funding shortage of 87%, or $846 million, according to the private minutes from the RHPG meeting in June. 

And with budget cuts also affecting other organisations – UNHCR, which oversees the refugee response in coordination with the Ugandan government, has a funding gap of roughly 74%, or about $255 million – response workers said they fear a “slow-burn crisis” could push refugees out of Uganda, perhaps back to the conflict areas they fled. Most escaped wars in Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Anecdotal evidence from refugees and response workers suggests this is already happening, with some families heading off to countries such as Kenya, where they heard rations were higher. 

Jacob Okot has diabetes, and says he was wrongly placed in category two. As result, he is no longer receiving the aid that he needs to survive. August 2023.
Sophie Neiman/TNH
Jacob Okot has diabetes, and says he was wrongly placed in Category 2. As a result, he says he is no longer receiving the aid he needs to survive.

“I have no clothes, no bedding,” Jacob Okot, who has diabetes and claims he was wrongly placed in Category 2 in July, said from Bidi Bidi in August. “I even raised all those complaints to them. But nobody has ever reached me to assess my living condition.”

Ayume, the community leader in Imvepi, said neither people with chronic illnesses – such as diabetes or HIV – nor those with disabilities were being put into the categories that gave them maximum assistance. 

“They are struggling to find a way of living,” he said in November. “The disabled people are not in the position to walk long distances, to search for food or to collect firewood.”

Refugees in Uganda have also reported spikes in theft, prostitution, child labour, and domestic abuse, largely due to the cuts, according to a report shared with The New Humanitarian in November by the APEAL Consortium. The report, which has not been released publicly and sampled 515 refugees, also mentioned that incidents of alleged sexual abuse and exploitation were on the rise. 

Response workers also flagged an increased risk of suicides, according to the RHPG notes from June.

One suicide that still reverberates amongst humanitarian and refugee circles was that of a 15-year-old boy who hung himself in August. 

According to three response workers who spoke to The New Humanitarian on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to speak about the death, he allegedly took his own life after finding out his family had been recategorised in the least vulnerable category – a new designation that would have meant no assistance. With siblings to care for and parents who left the settlement to find work, he was suddenly considered the head of household.

It was unclear what other circumstances might have contributed to his death, but UNHCR had warned in the RHPG meeting that – because of gaps in data – “child-headed households” had the potential of being miscategorised.

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“The impact of prioritisation and reduced rations has led to worsening food security conditions and an increase in negative livelihood coping mechanisms, as evidenced by notable shifts in Food Consumption Score (FCS), Coping Emergency, and Dietary Diversity Score (DDS).”

A WFP official at a Refugee Humanitarian Partners Group (RHPG) Meeting – 10 June 2023, Kampala

“While targeting models are generally effective, there can be instances where the model may not perform well in predicting vulnerability,” a UNHCR spokesperson told The New Humanitarian in an email on 12 December. “Child-headed households are, by definition, extremely vulnerable and UNHCR recommended all child-headed households be automatically included in the category of the most vulnerable families. This recommendation was followed.” However, it was unclear whether it was followed in the case of the 15-year-old.

Initially, the implementation of the final leg of the policy – the prioritisation scheme – was supposed to start in June 2023, but several response workers said on condition of anonymity that their organisations still had no information on the size of rations or the numbers of refugees in each category by mid-April. Eventually, the rollout was delayed.

Implementing partners also voiced concerns about the safety of their staff. In recent years, there have been a series of violent incidents in which refugees attacked warehouses, vehicles, and humanitarian staff in protest over their food supplies. 

James Kawa of Bidi Bidi told The New Humanitarian that an across-the-board ration cut, applied equally to everyone, would be preferable to prioritization—which could cause conflicts. August 2023.
Sophie Neiman/TNH
James Kawa says an across-the-board ration cut, applied equally to everyone, would have been preferable to this prioritisation, which could cause conflicts.

Some refugees said more time was needed to make adjustments.

“The community is not ready for the policy, and the policy is affecting the community,” said Peter Gift, a leader in Rhino Camp refugee settlement.

James Kawa of Bidi Bidi, who was placed in Category 1 and is receiving the maximum amount of support available, said an overall ration cut – applied to everyone in the settlement – would be preferable to the current prioritisation scheme. 

“If my neighbour is not getting something and I’m here in Category 1, then my neighbour will automatically have a grudge against me,” he said.

Questionable data 

The prioritisation scheme was largely based on data collected during profiling surveys by UNHCR and government workers between October 2021 and August 2023, according to several response workers who spoke to The New Humanitarian on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to speak to reporters. 

Refugees said they stood in long lines for hours, and sometimes days, during the survey, only to spend as little as a few minutes answering questions posed by UNHCR and government representatives.

“It was not clearly explained to the communities that [they] were going to use this information for this particular purpose,” Anthony Mgowa, of the Palorinya settlement, told The New Humanitarian.

WFP and UNHCR did not share details about what factors would be used to determine ration allocations, to ensure that applicants did not craft responses to improve the likelihood they would receive better allocations, three response workers and one donor told The New Humanitarian, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“They were not giving time for people to explain themselves well,” 30-year-old Agwe Lino said of the survey in Bidi Bidi. “They were rushing because there were so many people.”

Several response workers and one diplomat said that because the survey was done over such a long period of time, some data may have been old and not reflective of people’s needs. The data also didn’t account for recent spikes in inflation and higher cost of living expenses, which could have further skewed people’s true vulnerability. 

The end result, they said, was that categories were often not based on actual needs or vulnerability. 

Instead, the size of each category was determined by the amount of money available, according to the three response workers and one donor representative, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. WFP also told The New Humanitarian that funding shortfalls prevented them from putting more people into the most vulnerable category. 

A UNHCR powerpoint presentation in early June (one month before the final stage of the prioritisation policy was rolled out) – leaked to The New Humanitarian – warned of “inbuilt targeting errors” in the design of the prioritisation scheme, in which “certain profiles [were] systematically overlooked”. 

“Data accuracy” was also identified as a challenge. In the same meeting, the assistance representative for UNHCR Uganda expressed concerns over the gaps in the categorisation process and the tool used, stating that “some families may slip through the cracks”, and that “child-headed households, for example, will never make it to Category 1”.

WFP said the targeting was built on an index of 13 indicators and based on data from a 2022 UNHCR-led survey, as well as recent assessments. UNHCR said the survey allowed for refugees to update any changes in their situations through a specific period. 

Refugees who felt they had been put in the wrong category were told to call a hotline run by WFP, but many told The New Humanitarian their complaints went unanswered. 

Wilbert Nadi, a resident of Bidi Bidi, is no longer receiving any aid from WFP. He scrapes by farming crops on a plot near his house, August 2023.
Sophie Neiman/TNH
Wilbert Nadi says he is no longer receiving any aid from WFP and scrapes by farming crops on a plot near his house in the Bidi Bidi settlement.

“They never explained,” said Wilbert Nadi, from Bidi Bidi. “They told me that I fell in Category 3 (no assistance) and... if I wanted to leave, I can leave.”

Others were told it could take at least four months to review their cases. 

The “appeals mechanism” has also come under criticism. It isn’t an appeal as such – it only consists of double-checking data, which amounts to “data cleaning”, one response worker told The New Humanitarian, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Additional measures that could have verified the data – such as follow-up interviews or household visits – have also not been built into the process. 

A second UNHCR powerpoint presentation leaked to The New Humanitarian confirmed that such additional measures were not possible, describing the appeals procedure as “lean and cost-efficient”.

An uncertain future

WFP, UNHCR, and the Ugandan government have commissioned a number of studies in recent years to examine refugee vulnerability. 

A 2020 study – the Vulnerability and Essential Needs Assessment (VENA) – concluded that the large number of highly vulnerable refugees makes it difficult to provide guidance for the targeting and prioritisation of assistance in the response. 

The problem is compounded by what humanitarian workers say is a lack of coordination between the various organisations involved in the response.

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“The outlook for WFP in the upcoming year appears increasingly bleak. [...] Given the current level of support, WFP anticipates depleting its funds and running out of financial resources by June 2024.”

A WFP official at a Refugee Humanitarian Partners Group (RHPG) Meeting – 14 September 2023, Kampala

The prioritisation policy is also seen as only concerning funding and food. That means that health, gender, and education – areas that are all impacted by the policy – are also ignored.

“If you don’t have UNICEF at the table: what does this mean for access to school? If you don’t have UNFPA at the table: what does this mean for gender-based violence?” the humanitarian worker asked, referring to the UN agencies responsible for children and women.

In the meantime, many refugees in Uganda continue to worry about how the prioritisation policy will play out, hoping for an improvement in their desperate situations.

John Udo, the leader from Palabek settlement, was placed in Category 2. He told The New Humanitarian in November that what he and his family have been given since prioritisation only lasts eight days of the month. Now, he relies on asking friends for help.

“Sometimes it is not easy for them,” he said. “They are also poor, like us here.” 

Edited by Paisley Dodds.

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