Issue 36 - Article 4

Movement as a livelihood and protective strategy in Northern Uganda

January 11, 2007
Elizabeth Stites, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

In March and April 2006, a research team from Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center carried out a study on livelihoods and human security in three areas of Kitgum district in Northern Uganda: the Orom trading centre/IDP camp and surrounding parishes, the Agoro trading centre/IDP camp and nearby villages, and Labuje IDP camp and Pager village. The team used qualitative research methods, including in-depth, semi-structured, open-ended interviews with different categories of households, key informants with clan leaders, IDP camp leaders, medical personnel in the camps, NGO and UN officials and military officials, direct observation and participant observation. This article reports the main findings of the study as they relate to people’s use of movement as a livelihood and protective strategy. The article that follows draws on the same piece of research to explore more closely the issue of domestic violence against women in Northern Uganda’s displacement camps.

Decades of war, widespread displacement, economic collapse and social upheaval have devastated the agrarian livelihood systems of the population of Northern Uganda. At present, the main threats to civilians include attack or abduction by the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and violent cattle raids by Karamojong pastoralists from north-eastern Uganda. The security forces, consisting of the government army (UPDF) and local defence units (LDUs), are tasked with protecting the displaced population, but the numbers, skills and efficacy of these forces have been repeatedly called into question.

The Tufts research found a high rate of movement between internal displacement camps and ‘semi-settled’ villages (villages that are inhabited on a regular but not permanent basis). People move back and forth between the villages and the camps in pursuit of livelihood strategies that include security as a desired livelihood outcome. To achieve these ends, residents maintain a calculated balance between security risks and access to essential assets (such as land, livestock and food stores). The pace of movement out of displacement camps in Northern Uganda has increased in recent months due to a decline in rebel attacks and a tentative truce agreement signed in August 2006. This article discusses the main findings of the Tufts study and then examines the implications of some of these findings on the current situation.

Livelihood strategies

People move between camps and semi-settled villages for three main reasons. The first, and most commonly cited, is better access to land to grow crops, collect natural resources and raise livestock. Land availability around IDP camps is limited, and those who are able to access land often pay very high rents. In addition, accessing land near the camps requires social connections. Plots are therefore often unattainable for female- and child-headed households, which lack an adult male to make connections and negotiate on their behalf.

Second, people move out of the camps in search of better living conditions. Complaints about the camp environment include the prevalence of disease, drunkenness, violence, lack of adequate sanitation, and livestock and poultry deaths. Mothers reported that their children were unhealthy in this environment, and sought to keep them out of the camps as much as possible. Adults spoke of the disintegration of inter-generational learning, and explained that young people in the camps were not learning Acholi traditions.

Third, people wish to exit the camps in search of greater independence and self-reliance. Leaving the camp means giving up all or part of the nominal protection provided by the army and the local militia. Households and communities outside of the camps must substitute their own protective measures in place of this external security, but have somewhat less exposure to the military’s regulations and occasional abuse.

People in semi-settled villages have compelling reasons to remain outside of the camps, but many households maintain a presence in the camps for at least part of the time. Most households return to the camps when under threat of attack or when harassed by the military. For instance, residents of the villages outside Orom trading centre move to the camps for a portion of the year when rebel and Karamojong activity intensifies. Many residents of the semi-settled villages around Agoro camp only spend the days in their villages, and are forced back into the camps every evening by government forces. Similarly, huts in the more outlying sections of Pager village are cleared nightly by soldiers, with residents moving to nearby school grounds, into Labuje camp or to the huts of friends and relatives who live in the ‘protected’ zone of the village closer to the camp.

The important point here is not the limited amount of time that residents are able to stay in their villages, but the efforts they make to do so in spite of these very limited windows. Women in Pager, for instance, explained how they are routinely harassed and humiliated by the army and militia if they are found returning to their villages too early in the morning, or if they stay at their huts too late in the evening. The importance of being out of the camps is such, however, that people trek out at first light day after day, re-entering the camp perimeter only after the evening meal.

Protective strategies

Specific security threats and protective responses in the semi-settled villages vary according to location, geographic features and local conditions. Field research points to three different types of protective strategies in place in these villages. Most employ some combination of these measures.

First, villagers in Orom operate their own protection force, consisting of armed men and adolescent males. Unlike a local militia, this self-protection brigade does not report to the government army command. Members of the group have government-registered weapons. They protect livestock and food stores at night, provide security for people walking to the trading centre, act as sentries in the fields and, in some villages, accompany women on traditionally female-specific tasks, such as collecting water, firewood and wild foods.

Second, residents of all semi-settled villages in the study use movement as a protective strategy, although to varying degrees. One group of nine villages outside Orom experienced intense rebel assaults in 2002 and fled to the camp, only to re-establish their villages in a new location two years later. This new site, at the base of nearby mountains, enables residents to seek refuge in the hills when the threat of attack is acute. A more consistent movement strategy is practiced in four villages in a different Orom parish. Residents climb the mountainside each night, sleeping under animal hides tanned to look like rocks, or pressed against the base of trees, disguised as stones. Males from the self-protection brigades patrol the four villages, guarding food stocks and animals and alerting those on the hillside of danger. The final and least extreme pattern of movement occurs in the villages near Agoro camp and in Pager. There, residents retreat to the camps or other marginally protected locations each evening.

Third, residents of both camps and semi-settled villages act collectively to increase their security. For example, women and girls from the camps travel in groups to collect firewood and wild foods, while men usually move out in groups to make charcoal. Residents in the semi-settled villages employ similar practices for natural resource and water collection. They also work the land collectively. The traditional form of collective labour, managed by rwodi kweri(‘hoe chiefs’), enables people to farm a larger area, plant more labour-intensive crops and, for the purposes of security, work faster, with certain people serving as dedicated sentries. While very effective for both food production and improved security, these collective farming practices are rarely practiced around the camps, as plots are dispersed and very small, and people lack the close social ties that existed within their villages.

Achieving livelihood objectives

People move out of the camps in search of improved food security, economic opportunities, living conditions, social relations and self-sufficiency. Security is an over-arching livelihood goal, but leaving the camps can sometimes incur pronounced and increased security risks. Households and communities living outside of the camps organise their resources and livelihood strategies – of which protective strategies are an inherent part – in an effort to achieve a combination of these livelihood objectives.

The Tufts team found that households in semi-settled villages are, overall, better able to achieve their livelihood objectives than those based entirely in the camps. In most cases, establishing or maintaining a presence outside of the camps, even when this is only on a daily basis, affords better land access. Land tenure is more secure, people are able to access larger plots and collective farming is the norm. This translates into improved food security, indicated in part by the ability to feed children breakfast and the availability of surplus food for sale in the camps or transfer to camp-based relatives.

The effect of improved living conditions on children and livestock in the semi-settled villages is pronounced. Parents in the semi-settled villages, even those adjacent to the trading centres and close to the camps, explained the health differences brought by having regular and consistent access to a latrine. Children are clean and mothers engage in hands-on parenting. Ducks and chickens, rarely seen in the camps, can be kept by households in the villages, and are left in coops overnight if their owners have to return to the camps.

The desire for increased self-reliance is achieved, in part, by settling outside of the protected camp perimeter. However, villagers in all of the semi-settled areas remain dependent on the camps in various ways, such as collecting water from the camps, utilising camp health clinics, picking up food rations and visiting camp markets. All village residents maintain social networks extending into the camps, and in many cases elderly or infirm relatives and children live in the camps instead of in the villages.


At the time of the field research, the Tufts team hypothesised that many more communities in Kitgum and other Northern districts were maintaining a permanent or semi-settled existence outside of established camps. This theory was anecdotally confirmed in various locations, including Agoro, where residents spoke of villagers who lived further up the mountainside and grew wheat. IDPs in Lango and Teso regions are being told by the Ugandan government and army to return home, and the ‘decongestion’ of camps in Acholi region has greatly increased since the Tufts fieldwork.

The signing of the truce in August has resulted in an uneasy peace, and the situation across the north remains uncertain. The inhabitants of these settlements have established livelihood and security systems that are well suited to these conditions, as the settlements themselves are constantly in flux and transition. The semi-settled villages in the Tufts study are inhabited entirely by voluntary residents, and consist mostly of able-bodied adults, particularly in areas where security risks are most pronounced.

The strength of social networks in the semi-settled villages underpins the success of the highly adaptable livelihood strategies. These networks allow for collective farming, shared security patrols and sentry systems, shifts in gendered-labour roles and movement in and out of the camps. It is unclear if the shift to decongestion camps will help or hinder the formation and reinvigoration of these networks, but it is possible that the smaller populations of the decongestion camps will allow members of original villages to rebuild social networks that may have decayed from displacement. This could result in the resurrection of collective farming models and an easier transfer back to home areas.


People in Northern Uganda are on the move, whether to decongestion camps, between semi-settled villages and camps, or to original villages or nearby locales. Much of this movement is voluntary, and is part of adaptive livelihood strategies aimed at balancing livelihood objectives with security. The main challenge for policy-makers and programmers is the lack of information on local perspectives regarding the process of decongestion, and the range of factors that cause people to move from an established camp. An analysis of these factors and a better understanding of the potential roles of incentives, coercion and decreases/increases in humanitarian assistance and promises of protection are needed before an accurate assessment can be made regarding the decongestion and return processes. Once this information is gathered (through objective field work in camps and villages), organisations should follow the lead of communities themselves and seek to support those systems that facilitate improved livelihoods and better security and which, ultimately, are geared towards enabling people to return to their land. These systems may include voluntary movement, the division of households, re-establishing collective labour systems and communal land-holding, maintaining links to established camps and innovative protective strategies.

Elizabeth Stites ( is a Senior Researcher at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA.

Further reading

Jeannie Annan, Christopher Blattman and Roger Horton, The State of Youth and Youth Protection in Northern Uganda: Findings from the Survey for War-Affected Youth, A Report for UNICEF Kampala, September 2006.

CSOPNU, Land Matters in Displacement: the Importance of Land Rights in Acholiland and What Threatens Them (Kampala: CSOPNU, December 2004).

Simon Levine and Judy Adoko, ‘Land Rights and Displacement in Northern Uganda’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 34, June 2006.


Comments are available for logged in members only.