Community-driven economic development in Northern Uganda
by Rachel Locke, International Rescue Committee January 2007

For the last 20 years, Northern Uganda has been the scene of a mass population movement out of traditional villages and into highly congested, disease-ridden and poorly managed displacement camps. This movement, prompted by the violent conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the government army, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), has left the countryside of Northern Uganda barren. Raids, population movement and access restrictions have destroyed the livestock and agriculture on which the traditional economy was based. People’s ability to earn adequate incomes to pay for education, health care and household necessities and to expand business activities has become severely constrained. As a result, the population has become reliant on donor aid. While there is a longing among the population to return to the days of self-sufficiency, the aid environment does not adequately support internal coping mechanisms. Instead, there is a tendency to focus on emergency handouts for broadly-defined ‘vulnerable populations’. This undermines traditional social structures and leaves people poorly placed to begin recovery when the opportunity arises. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has been operating in Northern Uganda since 1998, has sought to redress this through economic development programmes that support demand-driven productive activities. This article lays out the strategy adopted by the IRC, provides evidence of its successes and limitations to date and makes recommendations for future programming.


Common approaches to humanitarian aid in Northern Uganda


In July 2005, a report covering the preceding six months in Northern Uganda estimated that almost 1,000 people were dying every week in excess of the expected mortality rate for Sub-Saharan Africa. Such extreme mortality levels are indicative of the emergency nature of the conflict. At the same time, this conflict has been going on for 20 years, and some IDP have been in existence for over a decade. While IDP conditions are at emergency levels, the protracted nature of the conflict demands both complex-emergency and non-emergency analysis.


The protracted nature of the conflict has led IDPs to develop internal coping strategies that, for many, are defined by the operational mandates of humanitarian agencies. Because the funding mechanisms of many donors require resources to be directed at particular sub-populations, the impact of humanitarian assistance is often restricted. For example, many donors want to fund ‘orphans and vulnerable children’ (OVC) as a response to children left at risk from conflict and disease. As a result, humanitarian support is often directed at children and young people, without adequate examination of the broader context. Not all orphans are vulnerable, for example, as many have extensive clan support networks. A displaced person without pre-existing social support or land may be more vulnerable than an orphan, but does not fit into traditional vulnerability categories.


Additionally, targeting vulnerable groups without a clear understanding of internal support mechanisms can in fact weaken community and family structures. As stated in a report produced by Makerere University Faculty of Law: ‘The “vulnerable groups” approach serves to oversimplify the complex socio-economic dynamics that impact upon IDPs’ full enjoyment of human rights. It ignores the ways in which members of particular groups take steps to mitigate against their so-called vulnerabilities’. Most vulnerable groups already face stigmatisation. By providing assistance without concentrating on building up internal social capital, these groups could be further stigmatised through assistance programmes that weaken community support in the long term. It is possible that this system of aid is harming traditional cohesion. In Lira District, there is evidence that some families are leaving children behind in IDP camps while the rest of the family returns to home villages, so that they continue to receive relief support as OVCs.


Economically speaking, this type of emergency-style action has resulted in poorly designed programmes. Vulnerable populations receive supply-driven, one-off support without consideration of market demand or systemic constrictions on economic activity. Hundreds of formerly abducted children, for instance, have received training in three particular skills (tailoring, carpentry and brick-making), but the dumping of all these semi-skilled labourers into already contracted markets risks reducing economic opportunities for existing workers. While some trained graduates are able to use the skills they have learnt to earn an income, many continue to seek NGO support after their courses have finished. Others who have never been abducted present themselves to NGOs as falling into this category in order to receive assistance, further exemplifying the problem with vulnerability targeting. This is a coping mechanism developed in conscious response to an aid environment that reduces people’s incentive to be productive: benefits are seen to accrue from weakness and vulnerability, as defined by NGO programmes, rather than from hard work.


Developing appropriate economic programmes


IRC operates in Kitgum and Lira Districts of Northern Uganda, with activities in the areas of water and sanitation, health, HIV/AIDS, education, protection and child/youth-focused assistance. IRC’s interventions have gradually moved from emergency responses towards a focus on longer-term approaches. In late 2004, IRC Uganda made the strategic decision to create a sector with the sole purpose of designing and implementing economic programming. In part, this decision was based upon the population’s articulation of their own problems, as described through a poverty lens, such as children not being healthy due to their family’s inability to purchase adequate food or pay for medical care.


IRC’s approach to supporting economic development is a direct attempt to address these problems while avoiding targeting particular ‘vulnerable groups’. The premise is that the entire economy needs to be supported, including those actors who can help to rebuild it. IRC does not define the population merely as recipients of aid, but rather as individuals trying to lead healthy lives within an extremely brutal and restrictive environment. Community members want to be productive, but are limited by their displacement and the stratification of economic benefits that has resulted from targeted donor aid. At the same time, IRC is acutely aware that particular sub-populations are often less able to engage in productive activities or take advantage of opportunities. By integrating programming between sectors, such as HIV/AIDS and youth-based programming, IRC ensures that such vulnerable populations are reached, while not making them the particular target.


IRC’s focus is on small-scale interventions that can grow over time through market linkages. Building such links helps to support the regeneration of the economy and motivates individuals to become more productive. The assumption is that certain skills and resources are required for an economy to function: access to credit, the ability to manage earned income, a tradable or marketable skill, demand for such skills or products and supportive government regulations. This strategy has been implemented through Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), opening up land for agricultural production in cooperation with the military, the government and local landowners, providing business training and linking farmers with guaranteed markets in the private sector. All of these activities are targeted at the community at large, are demand-driven and propose alternatives to traditional emergency-style economic support.


Limitations and successes


The economic development programme has made great progress. Over 4,000 displaced people currently have access to sustainable and reliable sources of credit, and are learning improved methods to save and manage their money through VSLAs. Although specific vulnerable populations are not targeted, the saving and lending amounts are so small that many vulnerable individuals (such as people living with HIV/AIDS) are interested, and actively participate in VSLA groups. The minimal cash requirements also make groups most attractive to women, who comprise on average 70% of participants. VSLA members have used savings, credit and redistributed interest earnings to pay school fees, enlarge businesses, purchase oxen and build granaries. VSLAs also build up social capital among members who are able to utilise group support to benefit other areas of their lives.


Another positive result of IRC’s work has been an increase in the protection provided to farmers. Because IRC works directly in cooperation with the army, local leaders and landowners, IDPs have enjoyed increased personal security when tending their fields, as well as assurances that the land they use will remain theirs for the duration of the growing season. This has been a major problem for many IDPs, who complain of renting land from landowners who then steal it back after clearing or planting, leaving people with no usable land and the loss of their harvest. By working directly with a private company, IRC has been able to secure price guarantees, market-oriented inputs and access to market information. This is particularly important to farmers who are otherwise cut off from the market and forced to rely upon middle-men, who often purchase at below market prices. Farmers working in groups have also been able to stimulate old systems of community support and what is known locally as kalulu, or labour exchanges (working as rotational groups on plots of land belonging to individual members of the group). Participating farmers have become more productive, are rewarded for their hard work and are slowly regaining some sense of being able to provide for their families.


While there are successes, there are always challenges as well. As can happen, some members of VSLA groups are moving to higher financial borrowing requirements faster than others. Because almost no micro-finance options exist, this means that new groups need to be formed at more intermediary levels of financing. This reflects the requirement for a variety of financial services to meet a range of economic needs. Another difficulty concerns access to land. While IRC has succeeded in securing land in the short term, and providing a model to be used in the future, myriad land-related problems remain, and require immediate attention. These difficulties will be particularly acute in Acholiland once large-scale returns get under way, as long-term displacement has erased traditional land boundaries and weakened traditional structures of land negotiation and adjudication.


Looking towards the future


IRC is only one actor among many doing their best to improve the living standards of the local population in Northern Uganda. The ways in which this is done vary among organisations and individuals. This article does not presume to assert that IRC’s strategy is the best one. Rather, it is meant to shed some light on the need to rethink how humanitarian aid is offered in complex and protracted emergencies. There will always be a need to support those who are unable to support themselves, but the majority of the population does not fall into this category. People long to be self-sufficient, even minimally so, and even in the most destitute of situations. Rather than providing humanitarian support that weakens internal structures and promotes vulnerabilities, aid agencies should be complementing internal motivation through supporting an environment conducive to recovery and rehabilitation.


Rachel Locke is Economic Development Coordinator, International Rescue Committee, Uganda Program. Her email address is: