Issue 36 - Article 2

The failing humanitarian response in Northern Uganda

January 10, 2007
Michelle Brown, Refugees International

Despite improvements in the past year, and the cessation of hostilities between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) signed on 26 August, the humanitarian response in Northern Uganda continues to fail. The crisis remains one of the most severe in the world. Over 1.7 million people are displaced from their homes, without access to basic services such as water, sanitation and health care. In the past two years, the government has made promises to respond to the crisis. UN agencies have deployed additional staff, and NGOs have expanded their programmes. None of these efforts has led to a noticeable improvement in living conditions for the displaced. While mortality figures are contentious, it is certain that they are high. In its (controversial) study in 2005, reported on elsewhere in this issue, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put excess mortality at 1,000 deaths a week. Clearly, a large-scale humanitarian response will be needed for some time to come.

The government’s response

Kampala’s response to the war has been to increase the military budget, without developing parallel political and non-military initiatives. In addition to sporadic provision of basic services in camps, there has been little governmental support for demobilisation and reintegration, or for the Amnesty Commission (the chronically under-resourced government body charged with issuing amnesty certificates and assistance packages to former LRA combatants). While the displaced report that they now feel safer in the camps than they did a year ago, and that they have more trust in the Ugandan military and the government’s Local Defence Units (LDUs), abuses are still widespread; rule of law and access to justice remain absent, and government services in the camps remain inadequate.

Although the government passed a National Internally Displaced Persons policy in 2004, outlining its responsibilities for assisting and protecting displaced people in the north, this policy has not been implemented, and the government lacks a concerted strategy. Likewise, a Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) of government officials and key donors, set up in May 2006 to assist in the implementation of the government’s Emergency Action Plan for Humanitarian Assistance in Northern Uganda, has largely been a failure. While it has led to improved communication between the government and donors, some observers believe that the JMC was established primarily to create the illusion that the government was doing something to respond to the crisis in the north, and to dissuade the UN Security Council from taking action on the situation in Northern Uganda. Whatever its purpose, the JMC did not strengthen the government’s response in the north, nor did it improve living conditions for IDPs.

The JMC is to be subsumed under the government’s Peace, Recovery and Development Plan, which focuses on return, resettlement, reintegration, reconstruction and reconciliation. It is, however, unclear how the government intends to implement this very ambitious project. Given its current inability to provide services in the camps, there are serious questions about the government’s capacity to do so in places of return – an undertaking which will require significant additional human and financial resources. There are fears that this new policy, like the JMC before it, will be yet another attempt by the government to raise money for programmes that will not be implemented, and/or another bid to placate the international community by giving the impression that Kampala is engaged in reconstructing the north and providing resettlement and reintegration assistance.

Humanitarian needs in Northern Uganda are enormous. The central government must dramatically increase its allocation of resources for basic services in Northern Uganda, and must encourage qualified personnel to work there. There is little accountability for government staff who do not meet their responsibilities; on assessment missions over the past four years, we at Refugees International have heard countless complaints about malingering government officials, teachers and health staff. According to a UN official, ‘Uganda is a functioning state. There are structures in place, but they are ineffective in the case of the north’.

The government’s weak response to the crisis is evident in the consistently low-quality education provided in the IDP camps. Despite a policy of universal primary education throughout Uganda, and subsequent improvement in literacy rates in the rest of the country, IDP teachers interviewed by Refugees International report that large numbers of children in the north either do not attend school, or attend classes where one teacher instructs up to 150 students (more than twice the national average of one teacher for every 65 students). Teachers are often absent from schools and are poorly paid, if they are paid at all. Few students continue their studies beyond primary school because of the high cost of secondary education, and the need for students to work to help their families. As there are few secondary schools in Acholiland, students must pay for accommodation far from their families. For those who do continue, the drop-out rate is high. There are few training or employment opportunities, so young people in the camps are idle, frustrated and lacking in hope. Emergency education, which focuses on basic literacy, numeracy and life skills, and catch-up programmes for people who missed years of schooling, are desperately needed.

The lack of reproductive health services is another serious problem. There are no emergency obstetric services in camps, and limited family planning services. Although the HIV/AIDS rate across the north is unknown, the Ministry of Health estimates that prevalence rates are above 9% (the rate in the rest of Uganda is 6.4%). Voluntary counselling and testing and the provision of anti-retroviral drugs are both limited, and women do not have access to drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS. Condom availability is reportedly not as widespread as it used to be, and more sensitisation is required to persuade people to use them. The majority of rape survivors in camps have no access to medical services, such as emergency contraception or post-exposure prophylaxes to prevent HIV transmission, and counselling is not widely available. The effects of rape and the lack of reproductive health care will persist long after the conflict has ended.

The ‘decongestion’ process

Since 2005, the government has supported a ‘decongestion’ process, through which IDPs move from overcrowded camps to smaller settlements closer to their homes. Since May, security has dramatically improved, and the LRA has largely stopped attacks on civilians moving outside the camps. As a result, IDPs are travelling more freely between their land and the camps.

Despite improved security, however, IDPs in Acholiland have not permanently returned to their places of origin; instead, they appear to be moving to decongestion settlements. The movement of large numbers of people to these smaller, less crowded settlements, where they are able to access their land more freely, has had an undeniably positive humanitarian impact, but conditions in the settlements vary. Services and assistance are not consistently available in all the settlements, and there are indications that the government is not able to provide services in many of them. In some cases, the Ugandan military was instrumental in identifying new sites, which were often selected on military grounds. In some cases, water points are outside the settlements and there are no schools or clinics. NGOs and UN agencies are now serving IDP camps and decongestion settlements, but agencies are already very thinly spread.

The UN’s protection strategy focuses on the principle of freedom of movement; indeed, those who want to return home should be allowed to do so. There is a return process in place in Lango and Teso, but most of the displaced in Acholiland – at least those that Refugees International interviewed – do not want to return to their homes until peace is assured. There is a great deal of hope invested in the Juba peace talks, but IDPs remain sceptical about long-term peace. Despite government statements to the contrary, internal displacement will remain a long-term problem in Northern Uganda.

The response of humanitarian agencies

Until recently, insecurity prevented humanitarian agencies from providing adequate services in the camps. Given the unpredictability of LRA attacks, humanitarian agencies were understandably cautious in their movements and travelled to camps with armed escorts, usually between 10am and 4pm. Although LRA attacks occurred primarily outside camps, NGOs were reluctant to establish a presence within the camps. Typically, NGO and UN personnel spent only a few hours in camps, and sometimes visited a camp only once a month. This lack of presence severely limited the programmes that humanitarian agencies were able to implement, and programmes that went beyond meeting the most basic needs were rare. As security has improved, NGO and UN personnel are able to spend the night in some camps, and can travel to many without military escorts. Despite improvements in access, however, the humanitarian response in Northern Uganda has not markedly improved.

The UN Country Team has expanded its presence in Northern Uganda. However, NGOs assert that it has not exerted sufficient pressure in its dealings with the government, and has not been vocal enough in calling attention to the government’s lack of response to the crisis. As one NGO worker put it: ‘Where is the UN’s leadership around the IDP Policy? Where’s the denunciation? The UN here, although they are focusing more on the emergency, is still very development-minded and therefore wary of offending the Government’. A dedicated humanitarian coordinator could play an important advocacy role, and could keep the spotlight on the humanitarian crisis in the north.

Coordination is another area of weakness in the overall humanitarian response. In the more remote camps, very few agencies are implementing programmes; elsewhere, several agencies work to provide one service, such as water and sanitation or livelihoods. Uganda is one of the test cases for the UN’s cluster response to internal displacement, an effort to improve accountability and coordination by making certain UN agencies responsible for specific areas of activity. It is still too early to assess the effectiveness of the cluster response in Uganda; agencies interviewed by Refugees International are noncommittal about the process and its impact on humanitarian response in the north, although they are supportive of the concept. In Uganda, protection is viewed as the most challenging cluster, and agencies have expressed concern about the leadership of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), particularly given its small presence in Acholiland and its limited capacity.

With improvements in security and access, the time is ripe for the government to fulfil its obligation to protect and assist its citizens in the north. Donors account for roughly half of Uganda’s budget, and must hold the government accountable for following through on its promises and plans. Given the lack of infrastructure, the devastation of village life and weak government capacity, reconstructing Northern Uganda will be a lengthy process. Humanitarian needs in the north will persist; a strong government response is vital for sustainable peace.

Michelle Brown is a Senior Advocate and UN Representative for Refugees International. Her email address is:


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