Survivors of the brutal war waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the northern region of Uganda are still mired in poverty and hopelessness despite the presence of hundreds of mostly foreign NGOs. However, local NGOs, which are much more effective, get little or no support. Something needs to change, cautions Epajjar Ojulu from Kampala.
The undulating, plush plains of northern Uganda suggest tranquillity and peace, but the reality belying the image is anything but. The people in this region are still struggling to survive following almost two decades of brutal war waged by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
While the rest of the country is enjoying the fruits of a bustling economy under President Yoweri Museveni’s 33-year rule, the northern region is largely wallowing in poverty, despite the presence of hundreds of foreign charities attempting to deliver a better life to the people and to supplement the government’s moribund programmes.
Although up to 500 NGOs, most of them foreign, operate in northern Uganda, “their presence can be seen only in the huge number of four-wheel vehicles plying the region’s potholed roads and the hustle and bustle in bars and hotels in the towns in the region,” says Moses Okello, a resident of Gulu town.
On the ground, the war-ravaged communities continue to be weighed down by war legacies that have not been addressed. According to Norbert Mao, the president of the opposition Democratic Party, who was also born in the north, survivors of the war in the region have been “marginalised and economically excluded from the rest of the country”.
Indeed, economic indicators show northern Uganda lagging behind in every sector. The World Bank says the region’s poverty level is hovering at 84%. The National Bureau of Statistics says six of the 10 poorest districts in the country are in the northern region. It also has the lowest literacy rate, inadequate housing and water supply, and scanty health facilities, among other shortfalls. Unlike other parts of the country, people in the north continue to live in grass-thatched shacks.
Understanding local culture
The bigger issue, according to Alex Pommier, a researcher from the US-based Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, is that although the numerous NGOs in the region have helped the population survive the effects of the war and displacement, their presence has created long- term problems for the local people.
He cites the high dependence on handouts as an example. Today most youths in the region abhor work, says Betty Lalam, director of the Gulu War Affected Training Centre. “These youths were born and raised in the camps for the displaced where everything was provided free. They were idle and most of them resorted to taking alcohol and drugs. The challenge today is to change their mindset on work,” she commented.
The 40-year- old Lalam, an orphan and former abductee of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, who barely went to school as a result, says positive change in the region will only come through providing the young generation with the vital skills needed by their society and the right attitude on how to deal with development challenges.
She says foreign NGOs operating in the region and the government have done little to give the youth in the region these skills. She complains that even her efforts in that regard have not been supported.
Nevertheless, her training centre has equipped up to 5,400 youths with vocational skills since it started in 2005. “I used to train them under trees. When Eskom officials once visited us and saw my plight, they constructed a building for me. They also bought me some computers.” Eskom is a South African power company licensed to operate the country’s Owen Falls hydropower facility in the industrial town of Jinja.
Lalam’s experience highlights the challenges local charities in northern Uganda face. She and other supporters of local NGOs understand the socio-economic and cultural environment better than foreigners and given the necessary financial support, they stand a better chance of delivering the right prescription for the region’s development challenges.
“Unfortunately the bazungu (white people) think they know better. They seem to prefer to do what is good for their ego. They hobnob with local government officials for publicity,” says Lalam.
Lalam’s efforts to get funding from foreign NGOs have failed. “One foreign NGO told me to write a project proposal in order to get funding. I do not know how to do that because I have little education. I paid some people to do it for me but they did not and I lost the money I paid them.
“I need sewing machines, computers, kitchen ware, desks and other equipment for training. Only World Vision has given me some sewing machines. No other NGO has come to my rescue,” she laments.
Some NGOs in the region have fallen prey to local crooks. Susan Odero, a teacher in Oyam district says a conman who posed as a pastor was trusted with tens of thousands of US dollars for a programme meant to build low-cost houses for the people in the area. He vanished with all the money and the US-based donors have lost track of him.
The right approach
Lalam’s organisation is one of the dozen or so local NGOs that seem to have got the approach right for healing the wounds of war in the region right. Another is Victor Ochen’ s African Youth Initiative Network. Ochen’s work has catapulted him to international attention. In 2015, when he was 33, he became the first Ugandan to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Ochen, currently a member of the Global Advisory Group to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Gender, Forced Displacement and Protection, is also a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Justice. Ochen, who grew up with the hardships of the war in northern Uganda, says assistance to the victims of the war should focus on addressing the root causes of the conflict.
He says by promoting justice, love and tolerance, the people of the region will inevitably focus their resources on their human needs. “It is important to empower the youth to determine their future by giving them skills and changing their mindset towards self-reliance through hard work. The youth should be motivated to work for the future which belongs to them. They should no longer be used to foment violence, as doing so would amount to self-destruction,” he says.
The northern region is endowed with considerable natural resources. The government, NGOs and other development partners should have no excuse for not delivering the region from its current distress. Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels – the architects of the two-decade war in the region – has neither been captured nor killed but is a spent force, holed up in the remote forests of the eastern part of the Central African Republic.