KARAMOJA, UGANDA, January 2011
Thousands of people in north east Uganda are facing starvation after a severe crop failure and drought. The Karamoja region is one of the poorest parts of Africa. But aid agencies say food handouts alone are not the answer. They are trying out a new approach where only the most vulnerable get help. It’s a policy that has considerable risks. Our World Affairs Correspondent, Humphrey Hawksley reports.
A sun scorched plain of arid soil dotted with stunted bush stretched from horizon to horizon, the landscape broken only by jagged outlines of mountains and human figures walking miles and miles to collect food and water.
At the junctions between dirt pot-holed roads, aid agency logos are everywhere, from Unicef, Irish Aid and others set against this barren landscape and ramming home an increasingly worrying point that this is African Hand Out territory Land – propped up every year by tens of millions of dollars of Western aid.
Just outside the dusty one-street town of Kotido are rows of massive World Food Programme tented warehouses and across the road from the compound is a field of ruined Sorghum. This year’s hope that that planting crops would bring self-sufficiency, failed because a disease that swept through the sorghum and killed it.
Karamoja has been like this for decades, always on the edge of crisis. This year 200,000 people will get emergency food. Two years ago, it was a million. The World Food Programme has been here on and off since 1963. More that forty other agencies are registered as working here. Yet the people remain among the poorest in the world, and now with budgets being cut in Western economies, questions are being asked about how to end the drain of money on places like Karamoja.
“There’s a lot of attention on what we’re doing in Karamoja,” explains Stanlake Samkange, the World Food Programme director for Uganda. If you don’t provide assistance, people are going to die and that’s a very compelling humanitarian imperative. But we need to do more than that. Just keeping people alive in the same conditions they’ve been in the past is not good enough. And changing that means people are taking risks.”
Mr Samkange has been tasked as the risk-taker, A few years ago, working at the WFP head office in Rome, he drew up a plan to wean people off aid. He was then sent to Uganda to see if he could make it work. There he came up across Western donors, including Britain, who made it clear they would only give money schemes if they were committed to making people self-sufficient. Cheque books began to close.
If this works, some 75 per cent of the money spent on food aid will be saved. If it fails, “we’ll be left with a big emergency crisis,” says Mr Samkange.
Karamoja has become his test case – and Magdelena Echak in the village of Longerep is feeling the impact.
Magdelena lives in a compound surrounded by a fence of interwoven tree branches, their ends spiked to deter thieves, stealing food and livestock. The only way in or out is to crawl through a tiny entrance. She carries a baby in her arms and three other children, their noses running and their bellies expanded through hunger, huddle around her. She has two food baskets. One is empty. One has enough, she thinks, to last for a week. She stares blankly at them, as if the situation is neither good nor bad – just normal.
The last World Food Programme hand out was in November. The small Sorgum filed that she planted had been ravaged by a crop disease.
“How will you survive, then?” I asked.
“I can find wild fruits in the bush and cut down wood there and take it to the market and sell it.”
“Is that enough for all the children?” I asked.
She pointed to a brittle, old, dried goat skin hanging inside her hut. It was crawling with insects. She brought it down and banged it throwing dust into sunbeams coming through gaps in the roof. The edges of the skin were jagged. She took a knife and sliced off about inch square chunks.
The children’s dulled eyes lit up a bit. Expectantly, they gathered around like scene out of Oliver Twist. Magdelena handed our slices of raw skin. They grabbed them, chewing frantically and wolfing them down – fur and all. They wanted more, but Magdelena said ‘no’. She had to preserve what she had.
“I’m frightened,” she explained. “Soon this is all I will have left.”
The WFP says it’s monitoring closely and no-one will starve from this new project. But a head office blueprint is a world away from hard decisions being made on the ground. Just a few miles away from Magdelena’s village, the tented warehouses of the World Food Programme are piled high with supplies, posing the question – for how long do you withhold food from children before they resort to eating raw goat skin.