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Situational Analysis of Food, Nutrition and Income Security in Karamoja: “A normalising view of Karamoja” (December 2020)

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by Alexandra Barrantes & Matteo Caravani

Executive Summary

After decades of failing development aid, the World Food Programme (WFP) in Uganda has committed itself to identifying innovative approaches to better address food, nutrition and income insecurity in the Karamoja sub-region (referred to as Karamoja) of northeastern Uganda. For this purpose, Development Pathways was contracted to undertake a situation analysis to uncover the underlying causes of food, nutrition and income insecurity in Karamoja, and to generate ideas for innovative social policy solutions and provide recommendations.

The situation analysis demonstrates that development across Uganda is highly uneven. In several instances Karamoja scores worst when compared with other regions in terms of food security, poverty, education and healthcare indicators. The roots of Karamoja’s economic impoverishment can be traced back to the colonial period, when it was treated as a region of “exception” within the overall rule of the Ugandan State. This treatment resulted from a longstanding perception of transhumant pastoralism (the primary livelihood strategy of the Karamojong people) as “primitive”, “irrational” and “violent”.
Over years, such treatment has relegated the region to the margins of the state formation process. As such, the inhabitants of Karamoja lack proper legal frameworks as well as benefits in terms of public goods and infrastructure, and legitimate political representation.

Despite the long-term presence of development partners in Uganda, the development gap between Karamoja and the rest of the country has widened since independence.
Interventions have thus far set out to “treat the symptoms” of chronic food, nutrition and income insecurity in the region, as opposed to addressing the structural causes. As such, they have not had a significant impact on communities in the region. Over the past three decades humanitarian aid, targeted poor relief and workfare schemes have proven to be the most popular interventions carried out by development partners and by the government. While such interventions may have somewhat positively contributed to the avoidance of famine episodes, they have never succeeded in advancing the population’s overall well-being and inclusion in the country’s development.

Furthermore, “development” in Karamoja has consistently been conceptualised as agricultural by the government and development partners. Yet, with semi-arid lands due to repeated drought, unpredictable rainfalls and consistent below-average crop yield per hectare, agriculture is proving to be untenable as a major livelihood strategy in the region. If agriculture is continually promoted in this way, the Karamojong will never be able to produce enough food for their own subsistence (unless there are significant investments in irrigation).

Based on relevant literature and research findings from this study, it is right to say that the underlying causes of “failed development” in Karamoja cannot be traced to the Karamojong’s own failings. Over decades, the Karamojong have largely been subjected to the stigmatising characterisation of themselves as “lazy”, “idle” and “aid dependent”. They cannot be understood using a narrow sectoral approach. Such an exogenous negative narrative has been internalised by many Karamojong, heavily impacting notions of their identity and self-worth.

To shed light upon how and why Karamoja continually performs worst in terms of national average indicators, extensive available data has been disaggregated by age and gender from a lifecycle approach. This information has further been enriched with a livelihood analysis, thus revealing specific obstacles each age and gender group faces across a wide range of economic activities. If the government and development partners do not acknowledge the livelihood transition that has occurred over the past fifty years – which is causing increasing impoverishment and “intersecting inequality” – this may become the cause of further destitution. In this regard, the “business-as-usual approach” of government and development partners within the project cycle should be re-thought from scratch. The current livelihoods diversification requires innovative policies and projects and new ways of collecting data. Unless new efforts are made to improve the reliability of quantitative data, the designing of effective development policies will remain highly limited.

While the issues affecting the region are somehow unique compared to other rural areas in Uganda, this report illustrates that the “exceptionalism” prism – usually cast by the government and development partners onto the region – has been responsible for the reproduction of such negative development indicators. Paradoxically, a “normalising view” is a progressive approach to positively include Karamoja as a contributor to overall socioeconomic development of the country. For this reason, the report looks at what are generally neglected topics in the region, such as unemployment and labour market dynamics and issues related to land tenure and power relations.

Finally, the situation analysis proposes a different interpretation, whereby the Karamojong’s problems are cast as being more similar to those of other rural areas of northern Uganda and related to issues such as deficient universal goods (healthcare, education and social security), land rights, low wages and high unemployment rates. The result is a report that will be useful for policy makers – both government and development partners – since specific problems are identified and appropriate policy interventions are provided.