Guns and hunger : How Karamoja escaped the Horn of Africa drought

Sunday January 08 2012

The Horn of Africa is in the midst of a hunger crisis, affecting approximately 12 million people. Photo/Stephem Mudiari

The Horn of Africa is in the midst of a hunger crisis, affecting approximately 12 million people.

Somalia has been by far the worst affected country – particularly the south – where drought has combined with conflict to cause massive food shortages, displacement and alarming levels of malnutrition. In contrast Uganda, which has similar climatic conditions, has been largely unaffected.

While the scale of the drought in Uganda has not been as severe as in Somalia, parts of Uganda have suffered from erratic rainfall patterns, in particular in the remote semi-arid plains of Karamoja in the northeast of the country. So, why did a famine not happen there? Why is Karamoja today a peaceful place where people concentrate on their livelihood rather than on saving their lives?

And how has the government of Uganda’s development framework for the region — through which the World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners are working — helped to build resilience among the population?

Karamoja is the most underdeveloped region in Uganda — suffering from the highest poverty and lowest human development indicators — and has long been plagued by violence and instability associated with the prevalence of small arms, cattle raiding, banditry, and clashes between ethnic groups. But today, despite the problems that remain, Karamoja is a better, more peaceful and more prosperous place.

In recognition of the need for a holistic and sustainable approach to reducing violence and instability, the Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Programme (KIDDP) was launched in April 2008 by the government of Uganda with the goal of “contributing to human security and promoting conditions for recovery and development in Karamoja, by… working towards sustainable peace, stability and development.”


After 3 years of success, the KIDDP has lost its first “D” and now the plan is ready to focus exclusively on development. So how might the successes of KIDDP have contributed to avoiding a food security crisis in Karamoja in 2011? A deeper exploration of the mechanisms through which instability can lead to hunger may offer some clues.

Genuine food security is a function of four components: Availability (the supply of food in an area); access (a household’s ability to obtain that food); utilisation (a person’s ability to select, take in and absorb the nutrients in food); and vulnerability (the physical, environmental, economic, social and health risks that may affect availability, access and use).

The relative peace in Karamoja, and elsewhere in Uganda, has improved the availability of food on local markets, and reduced the destruction of those assets such as land and livestock that enable communities to produce their own food, or earn income to purchase food. In southern Somalia, the ongoing conflict has deprived large numbers of people of the means with which to produce, buy or sell their food.

In southern Somalia, restrictions on the operation of humanitarian agencies or government programmes due to the ongoing conflict have severely restricted access to food. In the run-up to famine, there was no kind of food safety net for the population.

Therefore, when the effects of the drought were felt, the population of southern Somalia was already extremely vulnerable to food insecurity.
Meanwhile, in Karamoja, relative peace and stability has enabled a number of development partners to continue their work in support of KIDDP, including efforts to diversify and build livelihoods, and provide hunger safety nets for the most vulnerable. 

In the case of Somalia, one of the consequences of the conflict and drought has been large-scale population displacement.

With over 460,000 mostly Somali refugees, Dadaab in neighbouring Kenya is the world’s largest refugee camp. Displacement has undermined the ability of people to wash and prepare food properly and so to avoid disease — which affects the absorption of nutrients in food. In other words, it has affected their utilisation of food.

The KIDDP has helped to consolidate peace and security in Karamoja and has therefore been a key factor contributing to the avoidance of a food security crisis in 2011. What is commendable about the approach of the KIDDP is that through its acknowledgement of the linkages between human security, recovery and development it has simultaneously worked to address the fourth key component of food security: vulnerability to future food insecurity.

Other ongoing resilience-oriented development programmes in Karamoja — such as the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund, which is supported by WFP) — provide social safety nets for vulnerable populations while supporting them to strengthen and build resilient livelihoods. While these efforts continue and improve, Uganda has good reason to be optimistic about the future food security of Karamoja.

Marco Cavalcante and Rosie Bright are programme officers at WFP. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect WFP’s position