Commentary

Here is how we can address chronic hunger in Karamoja

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By Oscar Kanyangareng

Posted  Wednesday, December 30  2015 at  02:00
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A lot has been said in the media about the current hunger situation in Karamoja. Development stakeholders have also held discussions on the issue but most of these views are distorted.

Most of the current narrative revolves around providing relief food aid, promoting crop agriculture and alternative livelihoods. The issue also stood out at a food security stakeholders meeting in Moroto in September. The underlying causes of hunger are not, however, being addressed. This, therefore, calls for sustainable solutions suited to the local conditions.

The underlying causes of chronic food insecurity in Karamoja is the unreliable rainfall, regular droughts, poor soils, inappropriate policy framework and poor governance. Any lasting solution needs to factor this in.

Other intermediate causes are poor veterinary services, diseases, conflict and insecurity that have depleted livestock numbers from 3.5 per capita in 1963 (FAO, 1963 census) to 1.6 per capita in 2008 (UBOS, Livestock census, 2008), coupled with poor livestock husbandry. Crop production is low due to rudimentary agricultural skills and lack of basic supportive services.

Also, the food market system is distorted with poor infrastructure, leading to high cereal prices and poor terms of trade for livestock. The weak local economic base also limits other income sources to buy food.

The appropriate food security and livelihood strategy is first to focus on Karamoja’s comparative advantage. Karamoja has 20 per cent of Uganda’s cattle, 16 per cent of the goats and 50 per cent of the sheep (Livestock census, 2008). The Karimojong are livestock keepers because livestock is more likely to survive on dry lands than crops. When rains fail, one can move livestock in search of water and pasture but you cannot move crops in search of water.

Yet currently, most interventions have neglected livestock development. The government’s Karamoja Food Security Action Plan allocated only 7 per cent of the Shs120 billion to livestock development and the rest to crops and other support services. The African Union Policy Framework on Pastoralism (2011) states that “pastoral areas are less suitable for crop husbandry, and livestock production remains the most viable opportunity to harness scarce biomass resources”.

US-based Feinstein International Centre states in its 2013 report, ‘The Livelihood Dynamics in northern Karamoja’, that “Livestock production is and will be the backbone of the economy in Karamoja and represents by far the biggest economic opportunity in the region.” They recommend increasing herd growth. Crops are only an additional source of food and incomes because of the unreliable rainfall. When rains fail, livestock should serve as a wealth reserve.

Most interventions have also emphasised alternative livelihoods. But according to the Comesa strategy for food security in pastoralist communities in Eastern Africa (2010), diversification is complementary and supplementary. Complimentary is along the livestock supply and value chain such as veterinary services, livestock trade, beef, milk and leather industries. This should be the first focus of diversification.

Then supplementary diversification, which focuses on options away from livestock - crops, tourism, mining, etc., follows. This is vital because not all pastoralists will be stuck on livestock forever. But opportunities should be opened and the people make choices.

In dry areas such as Karamoja, irrigation and improved agricultural techniques are necessary for sustainable agriculture. Without this, crops fail, the cycle of hunger continues and the cry for relief food resumes. Tourism and mining sectors for which Karamoja has potential if developed, can also raise extra incomes to buy food.

Quite often, most interventions try to fit a square peg into a round hole. An example is when planting materials were distributed to all sub-counties and they dried up in the arid Rupa Sub-county in Moroto. It’s important to target crops in the wetter western agricultural zone that borders Sebei, Teso, Lango and Acholi sub-regions. The agro-pastoral zone in the middle of Karamoja is semi-arid and suitable for livestock keeping and some opportunistic crop cultivation. The extreme eastern zone bordering Kenya is arid and most suitable for livestock rearing.

There is also need to empower communities, especially women, and build local capacity to be resilient and withstand shocks and disasters. Also, since we now know that drought will hit Karamoja every three to five years, we need to have a contingency plan. Quite often, the interventions (when they come) are late - when all livestock are wiped out, people have sold ox-ploughs, eaten seeds, sold hoes and even migrated or died. It is often too late to save assets, lives and rebuild communities (OXFAM, 2011). Interventions should, therefore, be timely and development focused to help rebuild communities and not relief food focused as is often the case.

Contrary to what some people think, the Karimojong embrace opportunities that enhance their livelihood and lifestyles such as using phones to scout for water and pasture. The challenge is that they are misunderstood and most interventions aim to change them ‘to be like us’. As Minority Rights Group states, “pastoralists are made to fit into services, instead of services made to fit into the pastoralists livelihood system’ (MRG, 2013).

The African Union Policy Framework on Pastoralism re-affirms this by stating that “pastoralist communities are not static and resisting change but they are adapting to change based on available socio-economic opportunities suitable to their livelihood system”. But most interventions go with their own biases. Then they blame the Karimojong for resisting change. How? Have they rejected restocking livestock?

There is also need to pass a pastoralism development policy matched with investments that factors the pastoralists’ unique circumstances. Tanzania, for instance, has a pastoralism development department in the Ministry of Agriculture.
To sum up, Jeff Hill, the Usaid Eastern Africa director for policy once said:

“Livestock provides more food security than growing crops in many arid and semi-arid areas. The food crisis in the Horn is essentially a livestock crisis...and this vulnerability is a result of chronic under-investment.” (The Guardian, Friday, September 2, 2011).

Mr Kanyangareng is a development specialist and civil society activist who hails from Karamoja. oscarokech@gmail.com