The Karamoja Dilemma

“Just shipping in food is not enough”, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is quoted as having said about food aid to Africa (Harsch, 2003). This certainly applies to modern day Karamoja. External food aid –‘donations’ of food items that were produced outside of the recipient community – admittedly, is an avenue through which the challenge of food and nutrition insecurity can be addressed. This avenue is especially effective when food and nutrition insecurity results from natural disasters – drought, floods; and/or manmade disasters – war, financial crises – which destroy property and livelihoods, rendering people unable to meet their basic needs. Ideally, external food aid is an emergency intervention which normally should be needed only for a short-term as the emergency situation is resolved. Unfortunately, however, external food aid is no longer a short-term intervention in Karamoja. It has become the popular long-term avenue through which the Government of Uganda (GOU) and some aid agencies have accessed food to Karimojong for decades.  To the extent that the mention of external food aid in Uganda will invariably elicit a certain kind of images of Karamoja and Karimojong. The GOU (Surman, 2013) acknowledges that since 1964 Karimojong have relied on food aid.

The GOU’s Karamoja Action Plan for Food Security 2009-2014 (Office of the Prime Minister, 2009), which had been intended to wean Karamoja off food aid, has failed. During its final year, five years of its implementation later, in 2014, hundreds of households in Karamoja still suffered food insecurity and thousands of Karimojong continued to depend on food handouts (IRIN, 2014). Karamoja is besieged with multiple aid agencies, each reportedly spending billions of shillings in food support to Karamoja. World Food Programme (WFP), for instance, in 2008 estimated that it required 4,000 metric tonnes of food every month to provide food aid to Karamoja (Womakuyu, 2008).  In 2014 WFP provided food aid to over 155,000 Karimojong and also fed 100,000 Karimojong children through school meals (IRIN, 2014). The Integrated Regional Information Network in 2011 estimated that 80 percent of Karamoja’s 1.2 million residents are chronically experiencing food insecurity and are dependent on food aid. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network reports for January and June 2013 warned that households in Karamoja were not able to meet basic food needs (Surman, 2013).

Karimojong being dependent on external food aid is baffling. It is baffling because the Karimojong are semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists who own large herds of livestock – 19.8 percent (2.3 million) of Uganda’s cattle, 16.3 percent (2 million) of Uganda’s goats, and 49.4 percent (1.7 million) of Uganda’s sheep belong to the Karimojong  (Uganda Bureau of Statistics, 2009). Cattle, goats and sheep are major sources of food – meat, milk, blood, butter. The demand for livestock products in Uganda has progressively increased over the years. In a period of less than a year, in 2011, for example, the price of beef in Uganda increased by 100 percent, from 5,000 shillings to 10,000 shillings. The prices of beef in 2014 were still within the range of 10,000 shillings and higher in urban centres, though slightly lower in rural areas. It is the norm, furthermore, that when festive seasons such Christmas, Easter, and other holidays approach the prices of beef and other meats go up. In 2014, in addition, because of the various quarantines that were in place for extended periods of time, the prices of animal products, especially meats, went up countrywide.  No doubt, therefore, trade in livestock related products is a lucrative business in Uganda. The dilemma is: Why are the Karimojong, who are livestock wealthy, perceived to be unable to ensure their own food and nutrition security and to be in need of external food aid?

Food aid induced dependency syndrome (food AIDS) is a condition where communities modify their social and economic behaviour in anticipation of food aid (Little, 2008).  The Karimojong, despite being recipients of external food aid for multiple decades, apparently are not 100 percent afflicted by food AIDS, as is popularly perceived. A WFP assessment, for example, found that external food aid accounts for only 10 percent of the food consumed in households in Karamoja (World Food Programme, 2007). The WFP assessment, in fact, found that the Karimojong acquire the bulk, 33.3 percent, of the food that they consume from the market. The findings of the WFP assessment are indicative that the Karimojong are actively engaged in food production and trade – they rear livestock and grow food crops. The WFP assessment further found that 25 percent of the food consumed in Karimojong households is from their own production, and that six percent of their food is derived from hunting, fishing and gathering. The majority of the food that the Karimojong consume, over 60 percent of it, therefore, they derive from their own efforts – crop farming, animal rearing, foraging and buying; a fact that is grossly under-acknowledged by the GOU, some aid agencies and the Ugandan public in general.

In 1980/1981 Karamoja did experience a famine that was partly triggered by drought, and caused an estimated 30,000 deaths (Devereux, 2001).  Thirty four years later, why is Karamoja still prone to perennial food shortages that result from ‘natural’ disasters? The influx of external food aid into Karamoja, and moreover for multiple decades, it would appear has rendered the GOU insufficiently motivated to address the underlying causes that are inhibiting Karamoja from achieving full self-reliance in food security and sovereignty. Food sovereignty, in this case, is the right of each community to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce the staple foods of its peoples, respecting their productive and cultural diversity – basically, the autonomy of communities to decide what to produce and to consume (Menezes, 2001).

The GOU instead of facilitating the Karimojong to produce food while living a way of life that is culturally acceptable to them has assessed the way of life of the Karimojong, semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life, as ‘backward’ and needing ‘modernisation’. The GOU consistently plans to transform Karamoja in such a way as the Karimonjong stop being semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists and settle permanently as sedentary agro-pastoralists (Museveni, 2012). Sadly, this negative attitude towards the way of life of the Karimojong by successive administrations of the GOU has mostly succeeded in generating an acrimonious relationship between the state and the Karimojong. Accordingly, the Karimojong are suspicious of GOU officials who seemingly promote food aid to the detriment of the Karimojong way of life. A case in point, reports that leaders in Karamoja were dissatisfied with the Uganda meteorology department for consistently giving Karimojong false weather reports (Ariong, 2011). The Karimojong assess such false weather reports as the source of frustration for their efforts to grow their own food – rear animals and farm crops.

The relevance of aid agencies in Karamoja is increasingly questioned and challenged by the Karimojong and others. A lecturer in the school of development studies at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom (Jones, 2011), with over 10 years research experience in Teso and Karamoja, for example, has invited all to depart from the norm of viewing food AIDS in Karamoja only from the perspective of the recipients – the Karimojong. He invites all to examine food AIDS from the perspective of those who are in the business of giving aid. Are aid agencies that have operated in Karamoja for multiple decades now more afflicted with food AIDS than are the Karimojong? Have aid agencies working in Karamoja for decades modified their social and economic behaviour, in anticipation that the Karimjong will need food aid in perpetuity?

Professor Kabwegyere, at the time the GOU Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Management, while discussing the impact of famines on Uganda, noted that the magnitude of disasters in Uganda was more a result of the GOU’s inadequate planning rather than as a result of natural climatic or geological conditions (Directorate of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, 2010). Karamoja is such a classic example.  Successive GOU plans for Karamoja have not been based on an in-depth diagnosis of the root cause of food shortages in Karamoja. Uganda’s policy on disaster preparedness and management, for example, acknowledges that drought is the major cause of famine in Uganda, but it does not fully articulate the causes of drought; some of which may be GOU policies, which result in human action that causes land degradation, for example. Land alienation can cause starvation (Sen, 2010). The alienation of the Karimojong from their land is among the underlying causes that impinge on the ability of the Karimojong to produce food in a manner that is culturally acceptable to them, the semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life (Kanyangareng, 2012). The forceful acquisition of Karamoja’s land in the 1920s for other uses by the colonial British GOU and of the successive post-independence administrations of the GOU, such as was done for the establishment of Kidepo National Park on 1,442 square kilometres of land, alienated the Karimojong from their land (Mamdani, 1982).

Of Karamoja’s 27,000 square kilometres of land, the GOU has designated 41 percent as wildlife protected areas, 13 percent as forest reserves, 25 percent is allocated to mining companies and the remaining 21 percent of the land is required to host humans and domesticated animals as well as urban centres, schools, health units, police units, army detachments and prisons (Kanyangareng, 2012). The alienation of Karimojong from their lands forces them to survive on less land and on lower quality land; moreover, together with their large herds of livestock. It is logical that the Karimojong will be forced to cut down forests in order to create more grazing grounds and/or to over graze the land that they have access to; this to the detriment of Karamoja’s environment. Karimojong have a right to continue living a semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life, as they have done for hundreds of years. It is irresponsible of the GOU and other development actors, therefore, to insufficiently address issues related with the livestock/land ratio in Karamoja; and to be dismissive of the semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life of the Karimojong, relegating it as ‘backward’.

Karimojong, as is the case with all nomadic pastoralists world over, derive their major subsistence from herding and husbandry of domesticated animals – food and trade are primarily from animals. For Karamoja it is cattle that are at the centre. Cattle are the wealth of Karimojong and they are the foundation of their economic and social stability. Cows give milk for food. Oxen give blood for food. Cow hides make sleeping mats and clothes. Cow dung makes flooring. Fresh cow urine has uses too – softening leather, among others. Livestock are significant beyond food production – aesthetic value, rich and complex rituals that would be ineffective without the slaughter of oxen. There is logic to the Karimojong semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life, which is a mixed economy – agriculture and care of livestock.  Basic subsistence is derived from cultivation; agriculture provides the bulk of the staple food – sorghum for porridge. This is complemented by the work of shepherds, mostly youth, who take the sheep, goats, and cattle for grazing – sometimes near their homesteads, sometimes to distant pasture lands for long periods of time – days, weeks, months – according to seasons.  Dairy herds stay at homesteads – permanent settlements, where mostly women and children tend to them.

Sadly, the GOU and other development actors have tended to base their planning for Karamoja on an outsiders view, an abstraction of the semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life; a paternalistic view which believes the culture and the way of life of Karimojong to be the barrier to progress. Often the outsider’s view considers the Karimojong economically irrational – believing that Karimojong just want to have large herds of cattle for the sake of it. The outsider’s view, unfortunately, has led to profoundly flawed assertions – such as conclusions that the problem of Karamoja is the people themselves; that the Karimojong are fatalistic nomads whose way of life is detrimental to the environment.  On the basis of flawed assertions the outsider postulates strategies to ‘modernise’ Karamoja and the Karimonjong; strategies which one after the other have failed. The basic model of the outsider’s strategies is the enforcement of a complete change of lifestyle – from a nomadic way of life to sedentary agriculture; fostering inappropriate development interventions which impose on Karimojong a global-western-centric vision of modernisation.

Case in point, for example, experts have surmised that the failure of the Karamoja Action Plan for Food Security 2009-2014 was because it allocated 95 percent of its plans and budgets to promoting sedentary agriculture; effectively ignoring and undermining the semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life. Policy mistakes resulting from the pursuit of inappropriate models based on the outsider’s view, in fact, are the reason why the Karimojong semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life is persecuted and impeded. For example, the GOU’s planning and execution of extension services is inappropriate for Karamoja. It is perhaps the reason why the GOU’s response to animal diseases outbreaks is so slow – usually taking seven months and more.  Considering that Uganda’s Animal Diseases Act of 1960, unrevised, is the current law in effect, it is no wonder quarantines are unnecessarily imposed for such long periods of time. Uganda’s policies on land use, wildlife protection, forest conservation, environmental protection, water protection, mining, gender, local government and rural development, are particularly inappropriate for Karamoja for they effectively require Karimojong semi-nomadic pastoralist to conform with another’s culture – that of sedentary crop farmers.

Empirical evidence exists which conclusively counters the pernicious view of Karamoja and of Karimojong by outsiders. Simon Levine, an expert development practitioner, has assessed the semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life to be a more secure livelihood for communities, such as Karimojong, who live in the dry belt (Levine, 2010).  In fact, Levine correctly predicted that there was in-built failure in the Karamoja Action Plan for Food Security 2009-2014 – it over emphasised crop farming over rearing of animals by semi-nomadic pastoralist.  The semi-nomadic pastoralist way of life is a functional food system – livestock being the core and crops supplementary. The subsistence resources available to a people depend upon three factors: natural environment, population, and culture; culture works on environments, but environments impose limits on cultures (Hoebel, 1972). Karimojong for decades, through experiential learning, have evolved a semi-nomadic pastoralist way of life which if otherwise was not disturbed by so-called ‘modernisation’ interventions is quite efficient.

Crop harvests are unreliable in most of Karamoja. However, households that are able to rely on semi- nomadic herding as a main livelihood strategy are able to cope with such crop failures, while settled households that depend on rain fed crop agriculture are not able to cope (Levine, 2010).  Findings such as these make it logical to appreciate Karimojong for mastering their environment and for possessing perfect knowledge of their production system – pasture management and rearing practices that are well adapted to their prevailing climate conditions. The GOU’s policies, strategies and interventions in Karamoja – forcing Karimojong to settle into a sedentary farmer’s way of life – effectively cause Karimojong to be chronically food insecure.

The GOU, oblivious that its inappropriate policies are among the root causes of food insecurity in Karamoja, often only deals with the resultant symptoms – such as its plans to distribute food to Karimojong in perpetuity, as is seemingly implied in its disaster preparedness and management policy.  Distribution of food aid in perpetuity is an insufficient intervention. Food aid does not address the issue of environmental degradation that results from high livestock density, which invariably causes over grazing and destruction of forest cover, which causes drought and which negatively impacts on food production – both of crop and of animals. Karamoja today supports Pottier’s assessment that the elimination of hunger is not so much about the transfer of food, but more so of the transfer of power to restore lost entitlements (Pottier, 1999).  It is time for the Karimojong, the GOU and other development actors to restore the lost entitlements of Karimojong semi-nomadic pastoralists. These entitlements can only be restored through the elimination of manmade impediments to the enjoyment of Karimojong of a semi-nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life. An ideal starting point is to work towards enabling Karamoja to achieve food self-reliance, instead of inviting aid agencies to ship food to Karamoja.

Norah Owaraga, the CPAR Uganda Managing Director, prepared this contextual analysis. Owaraga is a cultural anthropologist with an MSc in Development Management and is pursuing research based studies for the award of a Doctor of Philosophy. She is a social entrepreneur and is farming as a business. References cited in this analysis are available on request from Owaraga; email  


  1. This is a very insightful paper. It lays bare the various falsehoods that have been peddled by government to cover their failure to offer tangible solutions to problems afflicting Karamoja, as well as those by international humanitarian agencies to perpetuate the status quo as a way of ensuring that the taps of foreign aid keep on flowing. Thanks a lot Norah. I look forward to reading more articles from you.


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