Why have foreign aid projects been largely ineffective in Karamoja?

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Despite the considerably large sums of foreign donor’s money sunk in different projects in Karamoja over the years, there is a near consensus that most of these projects certainly didn’t achieve their anticipated goals by all standards. Resultantly, the same problems such as famine and starvation, which these projects were set up to address, keep recurring intermittently.

For years a bunch of these NGOs have been busy merely treating the symptoms of food security crises. Few ventured far enough to treat the underlying cause of the entire problem – drought and water shortage, especially in dry seasons. That is how they have usually given the wrong remedy to the problem – food distribution. Giving out food today can improve short term food security, but the same crisis – food insecurity is bound to reoccur.

There is chronic Poverty and Vulnerability in the Karamoja region, despite the regions rich mineral endowment .

There is a fairly large “aid industry ” in Karamoja, where the World Food Programme and other International and National Organizations have taken approximately half a century distributing food relief. The food aid certainly helps out. However, the must be complementary efforts to tackle the root cause of the problem.

It’s ridiculous how all these “experts” in the NGO sector and Ugandan leaders and Policy makers in government keep doing the same thing and somehow miraculously expect different results. Aridity is a known problem that didn’t just being yesterday. By now different stakeholders ought to have crafted long term solutions to the problem.

For starters, most of the aid projects targeted livelihoods and food security. Most NGOs carry out similar projects, albeit without coordination.  Fundamentally, for most local people, there is a disconnect between what an NGO claims to do, and what they see. Over the years many projects were implemented, but the core problems still persist. In spite of all the protracted interventions, the region remains one of the most underdeveloped regions in Uganda, with high prevalence of poverty.

Apparently some of the failures emanates from inherent flaws in program development. There have been some NGOs whose workers lack deeper understanding of the livelihoods of Karimojong people. All the same, they sit in their offices and assign themselves the roles of prescribing solutions without first understanding the complexity of the problem. Some aspects such as cultural norms, often overlooked by many actors, have imperiled the success of countless projects. Cultural insensitivity and designing projects without input from the locals recurrently makes it unclear in whose interests some of these people work.

Most NGOs come with a warped perspective that pastoralism is not viable in the long run. They also think pastoralism makes people’s livelihoods more vulnerable. Most aid workers view pastoralism as synonymous with retrogressive. This perspective feeds into solution; discouraging pastoralism. The reality is that pastoralism is a strategy inhabitants of dry lands adapt to mitigate challenges of drought. Pastoralism a solution to a problem, not the problem itself.

Since crop harvests are unreliable in most parts of Karamoja, semi-nomadic herding is actually a coping mechanism against crop failure. It’s a resilience strategy in the midst of adverse drought. If aid workers knew what the people need the most, they would prioritize provision of veterinary services and marketing. These would tremendously improve productivity. Since most people have cows in the areas, they receive less money for their animals. Donor’s effort would create impact if they could set up marketing cooperatives or facilitated setting up of meat packing factories to add value. Most development programmes give more support to crop based livelihoods than herding based on freedom of movement.

Paradoxically, people’s local realities are harder to decipher when you are an outsider. The conventional development policy that encourages settlements may seem a wonderful idea. Settlements and promotion of arable farming might have helped to curb cattle rustling. On the flip side however, a local farmer who has been forced to settle in one place and encouraged by NGOs to grow crops become even more vulnerable when drought hits. Settled households that depend on rain fed agriculture are not able cope. They will need food aid forever.  Settlement, the aid worker’s solution, actually creates a situation where households can no longer survive independently when the rains are poor. This is a problem which did not exist when households could survive from their livestock – which they could relocate to new areas.

More often than not, these text-book solutions seldom work because local people are only involved in these projects at implementation stage. They are co-opted at later stages as mere beneficiaries and not as participants. For instance, when the former Minister of Karamoja affairs constructed some houses, instead of sleeping in these houses, some beneficiaries let their animals sleep in the constructed houses. Though well intentioned, this intervention invariably wasn’t a priority to the supposed beneficiaries.

It is not only donor’s money that has been squandered without tangible results. Former Vice president Specioza Wandira Kazibwe is infamous in Karamoja because of her scandalous valley dam’s project. The IGGs report on the Livelihood Services Project (LSP) stated that “the colossal costs so far incurred have borne no benefit to the intended communities and have failed to accomplish the objectives for which LSP was set”. Over the years there have been many scandals that rival Kazibwe’s valley dam saga. The failed projects in Karamoja cost Ugandan taxpayers losses worth billions of shillings over the years.

Karamoja happens to be one of the richest and most endowed regions of Uganda. There is immense mineral wealth beneath the land surface of Karamoja. No effort has been made to empower the people of Karamoja to reap from their rich endowment in mineral wealth and other natural resources. For most NGOs coming to Karamoja, the rationale for their projects is that that Karamoja is an extremely poor region of Uganda that needs to be helped with food. The main effort should be to empower the people to tap these potentials, not giving out posho and beans.

Here is a rich region having Gold, iron ore yet most of its districts can barely raise 2% in local revenues. The local leaders are rather unfazed when their people’s communal lands with minerals are fraudulently grabbed and fenced off by shenanigans. Dependency syndrome has clearly disoriented most local leaders. They expect things to be done for them and can’t strategically think of ways to harness the region’s rich endowment. They idly look on how limestone is been quarried off their land and transported to manufacture cement elsewhere.

By implication, if foreign aid could transform Karamoja, by now it should have done exactly that. More than anything else, Karamoja needs investments to drive economic transformation.  It’s quite hilarious that just like the local pastoralists who only think about cows, the aid workers too are narrow-minded in their areas of focus. They have scarcely thought of ways to empower communities to exploit other opportunities like tourism, mineral extraction, pharmaceutical are many other areas.

The bottom line is that Karamoja needs water, not aid and that is exactly what government and development partners should do. By drawing inspiration from other arid countries like Israel that have harnessed technologies to solve the problem of water shortage for crops and animals. Uganda has enough water bodies. It’s just a matter of figuring ways of getting water from neighboring regions to Karamoja either through pipelines or tunnels.

Above all, all these efforts must be led by the local people themselves. There is need to engage the people in efforts to solve the problem.

By Owachgiu Dennis (An abridged version of an Upcoming research paper for One Direction Institute )



The Dilemma of top-down freebies: Why Uganda’s Poverty Alleviation Programmes keep flopping

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You could literally run of out of fingers if you are to enumerate Uganda’s several state-led poverty alleviation efforts that have failed flat. Over the years, the government has rolled out several projects, but there is embarrassingly little progress to show at the end of the day.  Newer keep flopping just like precursor projects.

Over two decades ago, in 1988, the government with support of World bank rolled out Program for Alleviation of Poverty and Social Costs of Adjustment (PAPSCA). Subsequently, the Poverty Alleviation Project (PAP) of 1993, the Entadikwa scheme of 1996, Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) of 1997, the Poverty Action Fund (PAF) of 1998, the Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA) and the Vision 2025.

After 10 years of implementing National Agriculture Advisory Services (NAADS), a component  of the  ambitious PMA, the president declared that NAADs had failed to achieve its mandate. Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) was created to correct the mistakes of NAADs. Ironically, sooner than later, OWC itself was on spotlight for allegedly delivering rotten seeds to beneficiaries.

The single common feature of all these flopped programs is that they have all been some sort of top bottom interventions. They are plans about alleviating poor people, but without the participatory input of the poor people themselves; the supposed beneficiaries. It has been a case of government doing the same things, but expecting different results. All these programmes entailed government giving out free inputs or cash as entry point for economic empowerment.

The brutal truth is that wealth creation starts from the mind. The government can give out as much money as it can, but without preparing the minds of the recipients, nothing much can be achieved. That is precisely the reason lottery winners often go back to their previous financial status after squandering the windfall. Great billionaires of this world didn’t get where they are from handouts. Some of them now have more money than the GDP of Uganda but they began from the scratch.

Evidence abound of a high number beneficiaries of Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF) who simply sold off the animals they received. That is expected; people tend not to value what they haven’t worked hard to get. A farmer who received a free fresian cow wouldn’t be bothered by the death of his cow. On the other hand a farmer who bought his own cow using his hard earned cash would feel the pain. Thus, some one who has used his own will work hard for the success of the proceed compared to a freebie recipient.   

Worst of all, free things tend to breed dependency syndrome. Some farmers are now stupid enough to shun agriculture capacity building training where there are no “transport refund”. Instead of happily receiving free training on modern agriculture techniques, a farmer now wants to be paid an allowance for being trained. You might ask: how did we get here? Its these free handouts that have exacerbated dependency syndrome and propped this mediocrity.  

Community members who couldn’t be considered as part of a small pilot project by an NGO now have the audacity to organise themselves to complain about missing out on a free handout by a foreign NGO. Ugandan MPs are probably  have a good grasp of the present scale of dependency syndrome.

Sometimes people stay poor because they are oblivious of the fact that they can better their lives. And all that starts in the mind. That explains why even in the era of free education offered by UPE (never mind the quality) some rural parents do not bother  taking their children to school and they are comfortable with it. Some parents force their daughters into early marriages so as to get dowry. There are villages that have too much mangoes in some seasons, and they oblivious they can process it into pulp.  This goes on to show that mindset re-engineering is so vital in povery eradication efforts. Skills, awareness and exposure are much more of a necessity to the rural folks than the handouts.   

The government can give handouts to thousands of villagers, but there is that one entrepreneur who will start from zero and create much wealth than all of these recipients of handouts combined. Since this one entrepreneur can create jobs for thousands of people, the government should focus on creating conducive atmosphere for entrepreneurs.  

It’s far better to offer these inputs at subsidized rates than giving them out for free. The subsidy would be an incentive for the recipient to work harder on their projects since their own money is on the line in case of failure. That would certainly reduce the failure rate by a significant margin. Those who are too poor to afford the already subsidised inputs can still benefit indirectly as employees in these supported ventures.   

President Yoweri Museveni With a farmer


Another viable option is encouraging beneficiaries to form cooperatives, to which government offers matched funding. Being tasked to raise some money on their own, however little, as pre-qualification criteria for accessing government funding will create a spirit of self actualization. The only sorts of ventures where freebies cannot lead to dependency syndrome are social enterprises. That’s because social enterprises can make their money to sustain their existence while creating great impacts or providing crucial services at lower cost.

Dependency syndrome is so bad that even in some communities where people are blessed with immense resources such as land, they can’t acknowledge the value of these assets. Isn’t it shocking for a family collectively owning 100 acres of land to be suffering from starvation? With these assets, even if one had no capital, they could make use o these assets to their benefits. They could enter into short term joint venture with investors, where one party provides the land, and another party provides capital. Sensitizing locals to become aware of these opportunities  is a far much sustainable approach for empowering our farmers rather than handouts.

Looking at the way poor folks cheer corrupt politicians who are responsible for these massive failures, you momentarily realize that the mindset ought to be the starting point of any effective poverty alleviation programme. Above all else, besides the much needed government intervention, we should create an atmosphere where every individual feels duty bound to fight poverty in his/her own homestead.


How Investments in Agriculture can ease Uganda’s unemployment

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Owachgiu Dennis

Most countries lag behind economically because they fail to exploit their competitive advantages. Massive Youth Unemployment in Uganda today correlates directly with the country’s inability to create opportunities in sectors where they have competitive advantages. In Uganda, agriculture is a key competitive advantage because of the large tracks of fertile arable land available countrywide. Uganda’s land can record high yield even without fertilizers.

Since it employs nearly 80% of the population, Agriculture is the sector that can be relied to ignited an increase in household incomes for the greatest number of people. Investment in Agriculture can positively impact on many sectors of the economy simultaneously. Great and mighty economic powers such as the United States of America owes their economic growth to Agriculture.

Farming in Uganda is still largely subsistence

Uganda certainly has numerous untapped opportunities. It is noteworthy that the handful of small holder coffee farmers in Uganda have already made Uganda Africa’s leading coffer exporter and brought in considerable income. Uganda’s production level and earning can still grow up significantly for coffee, just as for other agricultural products. Investments towards processing such products locally could further allow Uganda to export finished products rather than raw materials. Exporting finished products would earn even more money for the country and create many new jobs at the processing plants.

The growth of agro-processing industries to process agricultural products will itself create jobs for multitudes in other related industries. By-products in other manufacturing cycles are automatic raw materials for other products. Other business will emerge to handle Packaging, transporting finished goods etc. When the goods are exported the country will earn the much needed foreign exchange for the economy and improve the balance of payment position.

The fact that countries that are not as endowed as Uganda are doing well means the sky is the limit for Uganda. Arid Egypt grows and exports agricultural products all year round using water from rive Nile, and Uganda has the source of river Nile right here. Israel products several tones of fresh water fish in tanks, and Uganda has the largest fresh water body right here. Botswana exports more tones of beef products globally, yet Uganda has more cows than Botswana. Israel exports more Diary products yet Uganda has more dairy cows than Israel.

It’s time to take advantages of these competitive advantages to uplift the economy. With the bulk of our population being youthful, availability of labour force is in itself another competitive advantage at our disposal. The kind of agriculture that will create enormous opportunities will have to be commercialized intensive agriculture, not the traditional hand-to-mouth subsistence agriculture. This requires real investments and the national budget should reflect agriculture as a priority area.

The huge amounts of money the country can potentially earn from agriculture will automatically spur the growth of other sectors, notably the service sector. Uganda already has a vibrant service sector, but since most people – about 67% live on a 2$ a day- the service sector can’t continually grow in an economy where the majority have a low purchasing power. Agriculture is that one sector that can unlock the purchasing power of the largest portion of the population since it employs the majority. The increase in purchasing power would then increase revenues in the service sector.

Agriculture can thus accelerate economic growth, which will create several new opportunities for citizens.  Most prosperous people who will earn a decent income from agriculture will reinvest the money in other new ventures. It is these new ventures that will create more employments opportunities for our young people. It is on that premise that agriculture must be embraced and allocated up to 10% of the budget annually. As a productive sector, the more money invested in agriculture, the more money government will earn back in tax and non tax revenues. The increased revenues can then be allocated to other crucial budgetary sectors.

The next logical question is where do we get the extra money to invest in agriculture? In my opinion we have three clear feasible ways. One would be to temporarily cut down the state’s administrative costs and use the money to invest in agriculture. Office automation would cut down the required number of personnel, thus saving some money. Reducing on the number of political appointees, by trimming down some non-essential and redundant personnel such as the “senior advisors” who offer no advice at all.

Another strategy is by implementing agricultural and economic zoning in different regions. Zoning will encourage bulk production with the additional advantage of economies of scale. It becomes easy to attract foreign direct investments for agro-processing industries to areas with enough raw materials.

The third strategy would be to formation of individually owned agricultural cooperatives through which many smallholder farmers can pool money together to either carryout farming together or to process agricultural products. The government can set up a cooperative bank or a Bank that is agriculture-friendly to provide financing to the agricultural cooperatives. Alternatively, the government can channel cheaper credit in form of Agricultural loan facilities through existing networks of commercial banks.




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