Capacity-building and partnership in Northern Uganda
by Ellen Martin, HPG March 2010

In recent years, developing national capacity and building effective partnerships with national and local actors have moved up the humanitarian policy agenda. Yet the rhetoric around sustainability and local ownership rarely reflects operational practice on the ground, making it difficult to identify not only the obstacles to such initiatives, but also the factors that enable their progress. Protracted emergencies raise a particular set of issues about how best to support national and local priorities in the transition from international to national and local aid coordination structures. Drawing on HPG research carried out in Gulu and Pader districts in Northern Uganda in 2009, this article explores these issues from the perspective of district authorities, local organisations and international humanitarian actors in Northern Uganda, with a particular focus on their participation in the cluster approach.

The cluster approach was formally implemented in January 2006 in recognition of the need to expand the humanitarian response in Northern Uganda. Beginning in 1996, the large-scale forcible displacement of the population into camps close to towns and military garrisons became an integral part of government counter-insurgency tactics against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Overcrowded conditions, poor sanitation and limited access to water meant that mortality rates in the camps were significantly in excess of emergency threshold levels.[1]

No sooner had the cluster approach been implemented than the humanitarian context started to change. In August 2006, the LRA and the Ugandan government signed a ceasefire. Peace negotiations followed, and improvements in security have allowed people to leave the camps and start rebuilding their lives and livelihoods. In 2007 the government launched a three-year Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP). Humanitarian assistance to LRA-affected regions has decreased significantly, and cluster coordination structures are preparing to transition into government-led sector working groups and national mechanisms as part of the PRDP. However, the fragility of the recovery process has become increasingly evident, with continued high levels of vulnerability, particularly food insecurity, the return process has been accompanied by increasing conflict over land and renewed instability. This has raised questions over whether the conditions are in place for recovery-oriented programming without the provision of humanitarian assistance. 

Like many other ‘post-conflict’ contexts, the recovery process has been hampered by the prevailing assumption, particularly among donors, that transition is linear. Relief is rapidly being phased out and replaced by development funding, which has been slow to materialise. There are also concerns that the PRDP has neglected peace-building and reconciliation. The PRDP has a strong focus on large-scale infrastructure and economic development, to be implemented mainly through central and district government structures, though there are fears that the capacity of the district government in the North has been over-estimated.

In the absence of any significant recovery activities, the cluster approach adopted a transition strategy, the ‘Parish Approach’. The aim was to ensure that basic services were provided to the population on the basis of geographical area, rather than site-specific assistance. Priorities included basic health and water needs, education, livelihoods support and road construction, as well as capacity-building support towards district structures in civil administration and rule of law. Donors were, however, less supportive of this idea, seeing it as going beyond the humanitarian mandate. Financial support was limited, and at the mid-year review most of these projects were removed from the Consolidated Appeal. The cluster approach nonetheless has had an important role to play in coordinating the transition from relief to recovery, particularly through the involvement of local organisations and district authorities.

In Uganda, clusters were merged with existing government sectoral coordination structures at the district level, called District Disaster Management Committees (DDMCs). The majority of clusters are co-chaired by a humanitarian agency representative and a district office representative. In interviews with district officials and local organisations, the cluster approach was viewed positively overall. While there was initial confusion around the concept amongst government officials and international agencies, it was seen as an effective coordination platform for information-sharing, reducing duplication and filling gaps in response, and a vehicle for strengthening accountability through the monitoring of funding flows. Local organisations have also participated in the CAP, and several respondents gave credit to OCHA for facilitating their involvement.

As humanitarian relief is being phased out, similar structures are being established to coordinate activities under the PRDP. In Pader, the NGO forum has organised meetings with local government officials and community groups to work on developing similar coordination structures. In Gulu, the district NGO forum will be taking over responsibility for the coordination of national and international NGOs. Interviewees noted the need to ensure a coordinated approach to recovery assistance and capitalising on efforts through the cluster approach to develop linkages between the clusters and development actors at the district and national levels. However, district officials and local organisations both remarked on the failure of international humanitarian agencies to align with local priorities.


Coordination with district government and local organisations

The clusters have been transferring coordination responsibilities back to district government structures, and a strategic priority for humanitarian assistance in 2010 is to strengthen district government emergency preparedness and response capacity. A more pressing issue for district authorities is that soliciting information from international NGOs around their planned recovery and development activities has proved a challenge. District authorities are charged with integrating all work plans and budgets into their District Development Plans, yet have found that not all INGOs are willing to submit this information. At a district budget meeting in 2009, only two agencies were present, when 50 had been invited.

District officials are, understandably, frustrated with this situation. During the conflict government structures were destroyed and replaced by camp commandants. With the influx of humanitarian assistance, the North has become a relief-dominated economy, while the district authorities have very few resources at their disposal. Some see the reluctance of agencies to coordinate as part of a deliberate strategy to sustain their presence in the North. The drastic reduction in humanitarian activities has contributed to the sense among some local authorities that they are being excluded from the transition process.

In turn, some agencies do not see value in coordinating with a government which they perceive to be weak. Agencies which do engage complain that local officials frequently ask to be paid a ‘sitting allowance’ for their participation in cluster meetings or workshops. The dilemma facing district government was summarised by one actor, who noted that ‘at the one end of the scale district government want to take control of the recovery process; they are tired of seeing agencies driving around in their nice cars when they are on their bikes. At the other end is the fact that we’re here to do their job, so there is no point in them doing their part, they know that we will fill the gap’ (HPG interviews, 2009).

Coordination with central government and development actors

A second gap identified by local organisations concerns monitoring and access to resources. Previous experiences of recovery programmes implemented through local government structures, such as the World Bank-funded Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, were beset with massive corruption, and insist on close monitoring of the funds to be channelled through the PDRP at the district level. They would also like to see greater support on the part of international actors to increase their own capacity to participate in this process. Meanwhile, the government’s commitment to supporting recovery is in doubt, and there are concerns that resources will not reach the intended beneficiaries. Local organisations have also been critical of the stated objective in the PRDP of consolidating state authority, arguing instead that the key to a sustainable peace lies in building communities’ trust in the authorities. Humanitarian agencies were seen as reluctant to address these questions. As one local organisation put it: ‘humanitarian actors support us but don’t want to be counted as us. Most if not all organisations stop at advocacy’.

One factor arguably influencing this is the shift from relief to recovery approaches within multi-mandated agencies. The UN Country Team has devised a new UN Peace Building and Recovery Assistance Plan for Northern Uganda (UNPRAP), aimed at supporting the PRDP through human rights, justice, reconciliation, local governance, social services and livelihoods and social protection programmes. All sectors place a strong emphasis on supporting a government-led recovery process. Within the cluster approach, the Food Security and Agricultural Livelihoods cluster, co-led by WFP and FAO was the first to develop a transition strategy that specifically linked its activities within the CAP to those planned under the PRDP. This strategy in turn is based on the analysis of recovery needs undertaken by the government in the PRDP. WFP’s new country programme will also involve recovery plans aimed at supporting the government’s priority areas for agricultural growth and the strengthening and diversification of livelihoods. At the same time, the 2010 Consolidated Appeal warns that, if the humanitarian needs of the population are not met in the absence of adequate service delivery and governance structures, there is the risk that the transition from a humanitarian to a recovery phase may be reversed.


Humanitarian agencies often forget the essential role that local organisations play in reconciliation, peace-building and reconstruction, and are happy to leave the responsibility for capacity-building in these areas to peacebuilding or development specialists.[2] In contexts of long-standing humanitarian engagement in particular, greater attention needs to be paid to how humanitarian agencies can support or undermine such efforts, issues that go beyond strengthening local capacity for humanitarian response. A number of local organisations in Northern Uganda are working specifically on governance issues. Initiatives include projects designed to enhance the capacity of the population to participate in planning and monitoring district government resource allocations. One agency has created fora at the Parish level to create a space for communities to debate issues of concern and bring these to the attention of local government representatives.

Humanitarian actors must recognise that, while it was unfortunate that they bypassed government structures during the emergency, this does not necessarily mean that they do not have a role to play in lobbying to ensure that subsequent assistance efforts are tailored in the most appropriate way.


Ellen Martin is a Research Officer in the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG). Her email address is


[1] Republic of Uganda, Health and Mortality Survey among Internally Displaced People in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader Districts, Northern Uganda (Kampala: Ministry of Health, 2005). 


[2] Ian Christoplos, ‘Institutional Capacity Building and Humanitarian Action’, ALNAP Review of Humanitarian Action in 2004, ALNAP, 2004.