The humanitarian impact of neglect: Uganda’s emergencies
by Mark Adams April 2002

Uganda is widely regarded as one of Africa’s few success stories. But, this rosy picture masks continuing natural crises, civil conflict and political emergencies.

When it is in the news at all, Uganda is often associated with progressive policies of democratisation and poverty reduction, and successes achieved in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Yet this image hides a more complex reality that includes displacement, natural disaster and conflict. Long-running insurgencies in the north (Acholiland) and west (Rwenzoris), along with raiding by Karamojong in the north-east, have left more than 500,000 people displaced. Organisations such as Amnesty International regularly report systematic rape and mutilation of civilians by rebel groups; according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), an estimated 6,600 children are missing, abducted by rebels. In early 2001, an additional 190,000 people in the Karamoja region in the north-east were classified as drought-affected. Uganda is also host to almost 176,000 refugees, principally from Sudan.

Screen Shot 2012-11-05 at 3.22.54 PM

Despite their heavy human cost, these emergencies seem to have been largely forgotten by the international community. Last year, funding for the UN’s annual Consolidated Appeal for Uganda was expected to reach just 40% of needs, with $14,680,300 committed. In 1999, internally-displaced people (IDPs) in Uganda received around $2-worth of assistance per head, compared with $23 in Afghanistan, and $21 in Liberia. NGOs, on which the Ugandan government has generally relied for assistance to IDPs, have also struggled to raise funds. In September 2000, a joint position paper issued by ten international NGOs calling on the EU to increase funding for emergency response activities met with only a limited response.

The reasons for this neglect are complex, to do with government competence and commitment within Uganda, and the political and strategic priorities of donor states. As OCHA puts it: ‘The perception of Uganda as a strategically located and favoured nation discouraged some potential donors from acknowledging the various crises and the need to restore basic services and rights. There was a tendency to “close one eye” in order to maintain relations’.

Capacity and governance failings

The internal nature of Uganda’s emergencies – in particular the IDP problem – means that responding to them is seen by large donors as principally the government’s responsibility. There are instances of funding being channelled through state structures to finance programmes jointly implemented by NGOs and the government, but in such cases NGOs are largely sub-contractors, and there is little funding available for NGO-defined interventions.

Placing a government at the centre of an emergency response is correct in many ways. Legally, governments are responsible for assisting and protecting their own citizens. However, many NGOs believe that this reliance on the state and government for emergency response as part of a long-term development process has ignored the needs and rights of the victims of these emergencies. Experience suggests that, while resources are made available at a national level, and government commitments are made to respond to the needs of displaced and emergency-affected populations, this does not necessarily translate into effective emergency response by local government structures. Government institutions and local authorities have struggled to come to terms with the changes that have taken place in the relationship between NGOs, donors and the authorities. They continue to look on NGOs, rather than themselves, as providers of resources and services. In western Uganda, for example, district authorities are calling on NGOs to provide support for resettling IDPs.

The reasons for government failure include decentralisation, poor capacity and corruption. As a result of the process of decentralisation, which began in 1992, poorly-resourced districts with little human capacity are required to design and implement emergency interventions. Many have struggled to do this, hampered by the often poor civil service staffing that exists in peripheral, isolated and conflict-affected areas. In addition, revenues have decreased in these areas because displacement has reduced local tax-raising capacity. Often, district and national authorities call on international NGOs to assist them but, lacking resources, there is relatively little that NGOs can do. Corruption is also a major problem; Transparency International (TI) ranks Uganda as the third most corrupt nation in the world, and has estimated that 54% of all government money is lost through graft.

Strategic and political factors

The response of donor governments to the emergencies in Uganda is influenced by strategic and political factors. To Western donor governments, Uganda is popular not only because of its efforts to pursue a democratic, economically liberal and pro-poor model of development after decades of war and decline, but also because it occupies a strategic position in the Great Lakes region. The conflict in Acholiland is linked to Uganda’s support for the insurgency in southern Sudan waged by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which has bases in northern Uganda. While Uganda has its own historical and political reasons for this support, it is also useful to other countries that wish to contain and punish the regime in Khartoum, particularly the US. External perceptions of Uganda as a stable and progressive state have meant that, over the past 15 years, assistance to the country has been predominantly developmental, rather than humanitarian. Donor nations and multilateral donor institutions have increasingly focused on working with the government to implement programmes of democratisation, economic development and poverty eradication and to assist with efforts to counter HIV/AIDS, using programme-based rather than project-based instruments such as sector-wide approaches (SWAps) and general budget support. However, humanitarian action in conflict-related emergencies is typified by a project-based response to identified needs, delivered impartially by organisations that jealously guard their neutrality. Development assistance has very different features, including a much bigger scale, the abandonment of neutrality and conscious efforts to legitimise and strengthen government and state structures. Having made the switch to a developmental approach, reverting to emergency relief would represent a political, as much as a technical, decision, implying a reduction in political and practical support to the government. Given the general international political support for the Ugandan government, governmental and multilateral donors may well be reluctant to take such a decision.

On the ground, many NGOs have used humanitarian, not developmental, models. Emergency interventions are planned and implemented on a project basis. The security of personnel demands that agencies do not associate themselves too closely with the government or its representatives. In most parts of the country, however, security is good, the government is relatively popular and such operating procedures seem inappropriate. Nor do they reflect the relationship between donors and the authorities. Balancing these different ways of working and the response to these different situations is not easy. Trying to run emergency-type interventions within a broader ‘development’ context has given rise to considerable problems and tensions.

International NGOs and agencies are coming to terms with this in a number of different ways. Some feel that the only course of action is to ‘hunker down’ and see out this situation, remaining ready to provide assistance to conflict- and emergency-affected populations when the political context changes and donors are more willing to fund international agencies directly. Others are investigating other ways of advancing their work, such as information-gathering and sharing; joint planning and project implementation and advocacy, between NGOs and with UN agencies; building local government capacity for emergency response; and encouraging the development of national policies and capacity. OCHA, for instance, is encouraging the government to develop a clear policy on IDPs in an effort to give substance to its legal responsibilities of protection and care.

Whether these alternative ways of working will prove effective is unclear. They do nonetheless seek to address the pressing needs of emergency-affected populations within the constraints that exist. However, funding remains limited even for initiatives such as these. ECHO has claimed that it is unable to respond to emergency project proposals from international NGOs in Uganda because different agencies have given the office inconsistent and therefore unreliable information. Yet an attempt by Oxfam to carry out a comprehensive survey of IDP needs in the west of the country has indicated that there is also inconsistent interest in funding assessments and surveys. In November last year, Oxfam reported that the study was only 50% funded.

At the same time, donors themselves seem unwilling or unable to clarify the criteria they use to decide whether or not a particular situation is a humanitarian emergency or not. This is obviously functional – donors do not wish to be constrained by ‘technical’ criteria into responding or not responding to emergencies when decisions are probably made as much, if not more, on the basis of resources and political considerations. However, without such clarity, good-quality information is not necessarily the key to prompting action that the donors sometimes suggest. Efforts by NGOs generally to establish minimum standards for emergency response through the Sphere Project and the Quality Platform, and recent efforts by CARE Australia to develop independent criteria for emergencies, are important initiatives to address these inconsistencies in emergency response. In this context, however, they may be doomed.

The human cost of neglect

Uganda does not fit into the neat boxes we have constructed for managing aid programmes. The country is peaceful and stable in some places, but in others is in the midst of long-term and often extremely violent conflicts, in which civilians are the principal target. The support of most bilateral and multilateral donors for the present government is important in promoting long-term development for much of the country, but it has failed to address the needs of emergency-affected people. Moreover, the political commitment to development, rather than humanitarian assistance, appears to have contributed to the downplaying of these needs. Efforts to encourage minimum standards, professionalisation and consistency of emergency response in the humanitarian sector underline the fact that this is no reason for neglect, but rather for a proportional response. When a country has more than 550,000 IDPs, surely the response should be substantial.

Mark Adams has worked in relief and development projects in East Africa and the Horn of Africa since 1997. In 2001, he worked for Irish NGO GOAL, carrying out an emergency needs assessment in Uganda. His e-mail address is: Mark_Adams19@bigfoot.com.

References and further reading

Uganda: Breaking the Circle, Protecting Human Rights in the Northern War Zone (London: Amnesty International, 1997).

Robert Gersony, Uganda: ‘Breaking God’s Commandments’: The Destruction of Childhood by the Lord’s Resistance Army (London: Amnesty International, 1997).

Scramble for the Congo: Anatomy of an Ugly War (Washington: International Crisis Group, 2000).

Ritva Reinikka and Paul Collier, Uganda’s Recovery: The Role of Farms, Firms and Government (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 2001).

Apolo Nsibambi (ed.), Decentralisation and Civil Society in Uganda: The Quest for Good Governance (Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 1998).

Anthony Zwi and Joanna Macrae, War and Hunger (London: Zed Books/SCF, 1994).