The Humanitarian–Development Nexus: Lessons from Northern Uganda

International aid can be grouped into two separate realms; humanitarianism and development. Increasingly these segments of the international system rub shoulders, sometimes even overlapping and challenging each other. The realms of humanitarianism and development draw on distinct rationales involving different actors with their particular mandates: humanitarianism’s imminent needs-based approaches building on the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence are as such fundamentally different from the more long-term, political, rights-based development approaches.

When I lived in Kampala in 2005–6 for my dissertation fieldwork on the World Bank-Uganda partnership, most researchers, international aid agencies, activists and advocacy organisations were focused on the civil war in northern Uganda where the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) had been terrorising, looting, killing and abducting civilians over two decades. Meeting other researchers and other donors I was often asked why I did not focus on the situation in the north. When I arrived Kampala again in 2012 to incept studies on the protection of civilians in northern Uganda, Kampala friends and informants – including representatives of the UN, donor agencies and the government – often asked why I came now, since the humanitarian actors were wrapping up and terminating their activities in northern Uganda, with some relocating to the new hotspot of the northeastern Karamoja region, other withdrawing from Uganda, while some choosing to stay by reconfiguring their aid portfolio.

While seemingly trivial, these brief temporal snapshots – reflecting a general turn in the collective mentality of aid practitioners and researchers – draw attention to more profound questions pertaining to the humanitarian sector and the protection of civilians discourse. The first refers to benchmarks, i.e. how and when do whom decide a situation is no longer a humanitarian crisis but rather a recovery and development phase? Does removing the humanitarian crisis label necessarily mean there are no more humanitarian concerns that need to be attended to? Secondly, what does the transition say about the nexus and interplay between humanitarian action and development activities, and how are humanitarian concerns and protection activities programmed for in a non-humanitarian context?

When I recently visited northern Uganda (February 2014), a representative of the NGO forum said that Gulu, the regional capital, for a long time suffered from NGO obesity, but that the situation now was in reverse – too many NGOs had withdrawn too soon with too much unfinished business. The massive NGO influx causing this obesity was prompted by the CNN effect caused by Jan Egeland when he, in the capacity as head of OCHA, in late 2003 brought attention to the conflict, describing the then 17-years old civil war in northern Uganda as the worst forgotten humanitarian crisis on earth.[1] Soon, the world’s attention was on the civil war in Uganda, and subsequently a plethora of international donors and humanitarian actors moved in with large humanitarian programmes to protect the civilian population and aide the government’s efforts.

For over two decades the Acholi population in Northern Uganda has been affected by the LRA and the government’s failure to sufficiently quell the LRA and stop its terror, looting, killing and abduction, and in the wake of this, to address imminent humanitarian concerns and the widespread lack of development in the northern districts. By 2006 more than 90% of the Acholi population, about 1,7 million peoples, in northern Uganda lived in more than 200 IDP camps seeking refuge and protection from the LRA.

The camps, designated as ‘protected camps’ were set up by the government from 1996 and onwards as a means to protect the civilian population from the civil war. As such, the camps – which the government forced the population to relocate into – are a witness of the government’s own failure to protect its citizenry and its inability to beat the LRA military. Yet, these camps were far from safe. They had high mortality rates due to weak protection and service provision. People within the camps died from violence, malnutrition, malaria and AIDS,[2] and those moving outside of the camp – to go to the market, fetch water, collect firewood, and farm their land – feared being attacked by the rebels. In this context, international donors, NGOs and multilateral organisations played a key role in remedying the situation among civilians both within the camps and in affected communities.

Gulu, the regional capital of northern Uganda was, however, soon put on a strict diet for its NGO-obesity. After the conflict effectively ended in 2006 when the LRA was pushed out of Uganda (yet still at large, roaming the borders of CAR, DRC and South Sudan) and with the start of the peace talks in Juba, South Sudan, people gradually started to move back to their home communities. As such, 2006 marked the start of the end of the humanitarian crisis – at least at the official level: In 2008 the government took the donors to the north showing them that the war had ended, that the guns were silenced and that the people had started to return to their home communities. This was very much the government’s call – just as swift as they decided to establish the camps and forced the rural people to move into them, the government also closed the camps based on its own assessment and claim to victory over the LRA after its massive military offensive code-named Operation Iron Fist (2002–6). International donors – primarily multi- and bilateral ones not present in the north albeit funding activities there – bought into the government’s argument, persuaded that the humanitarian crisis was over and not in need of external humanitarian assistance.

Recasting the situation as a phase of recovery and development, the government urged the donors to move their funding from humanitarian action to development assistance. With this other aid mechanisms become prevalent. Instead of being guided by the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence in which humanitarian actors largely bypass the state to implement their own programmes or provide financial support to activities of existing non-state actors, development assistance is far more political both regarding which programmes that are implemented but also because development aid to a much larger extent should involve domestic state structures under the auspices of the notions of participation and ownership guiding development partnerships.

In northern Uganda, instead of channeling the monies directly to donor selected partners, the government demanded the donors to route their monies via its national budget, as direct budget support. Thus, the government was able to finance its general programmes in the north and to secure the implementation of its own Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) and the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF).[3] To the donors, particularly after having consented to the government’s assessment that there no longer was any humanitarian crisis going on, it was hard to rebut the government’s appeal. A consequence of the transition, or the recast of the situation from one of crisis to one of recovery, meant not only a general transition from humanitarian to development aid. It also meant a dramatic reduction in the number and scope of humanitarian NGOs and activities to the advance of the government’s own plans now funded by external actors.

However, despite relative peace having gradually returned to the area, humanitarian concerns persist and multiple legacies of the conflict have still not been fully addressed. The transition from humanitarianism to development came sudden, and today’s common rendering of this change is that too many organizations withdrew too soon with too much unfinished business that are not sufficiently addressed by the government’s development plans. These concerns include issues of repatriating and reintegrating former abductees and LRA soldiers, reducing the prevalence of guns among civilians; reducing the amount of unexploded ordinances; address the psycho-social effects of violence and war, particularly emanating from the inhumane IDP camp policy and the camps as a system of ‘social torture’.

When returning from the camps many realized their land had been occupied. Hence issues of land rights and access to arable land in an area where the majority depends on subsistence farming are major concern and source to violence and social unrest. This, coupled with lack of farming knowledge among those born and raised in the camps, have made many of the returning IDPs to settle in the urban areas, notably in and around Gulu, where idleness and unemployment cause drinking, social problems and violence, including gender based violence. The social services are weak and largely missing, the governance system is malfunctioning and there is a lack of democracy. The development of social services as e.g. schools and health clinics was paused during the conflict. The civilian population is not properly aware of their rights, and different traditional structures and justice systems still prevail over the formal governmental framework making access to justice arbitrary and largely limited to urban areas.

In sum, there are many concerns that challenge both the individual and collective peace and security in northern Uganda. Admittedly, many of these issues are not only of a humanitarian matter but pertain perhaps equally to the realm of development aid. To a large extent these problems are of the same ilk as found elsewhere in Uganda, and might just as much be linked to poverty as to the civil war. It is, however, undeniable that in Northern Uganda these problems have been exacerbated by the prolonged conflict and the lack of development over the last two decades. The challenges have also become more visible after the end of the conflict, gradually surfacing with the withdrawal of humanitarian actors erstwhile filling the void of the government’s lack of protection and service delivery.

Yet, the question remains whether these concerns should be understood and addressed as pertaining to the realm of humanitarianism or development – and indeed the extent to which such a distinction, if at all, is relevant. Returning to the two initial questions referring to benchmarking and the humanitarian–development nexus, the case of northern Uganda provides for some interesting observations.

Regarding benchmarking, the case demonstrates that removing the humanitarian crisis-label from the situation in northern Uganda was far from merely based on an assessment of the humanitarian needs on the ground and among the affected population. While the situation in the north has improved significantly over the last years, recasting it as one of development has most likely served less the needs of the civilians than the government’s needs to reassert control over the north and claim victory over the LRA. Interlinked, the case illustrates how it matters whether one classifies the situation as one of humanitarian crisis or as one of post-conflict recovery and development, as this translates into which part of the international toolbox that is at your disposal – and indeed conversely, that it provides limitations on what type of actors and activities that are present in the given situation: the demise of the humanitarian actors also meant removing critical rights based advocacy groups and activities not only bypassing the government but often also challenging it.

Development activities are nominally more conducive to the government’s own strategies and structures. As the Ugandan columnist Andrew Mwenda holds, the Ugandan government has for decades played politics with the conflict in the north, transforming it into an opportunity for regime survival by enabling the government to quell political resistance under the auspices of civilian protection.[4] With this, however, came a plethora of international actors that not only aimed to aide the situation, but also gave attention to the political challenges and weak governance. Moving into the development phase could thus be seen as one way of getting rid of the many critical voices. More profound, however, is how the nominal move from humanitarianism to development can be seen as a means of the government’s long-term strategy of political consolidation and rebutting political opposition in the north, now driven by foreign aid.

The case also informs about another inevitable concern of protracted crises and the war-to-peace-continuum where it is difficult to demarcate the transition from one phase to the next, i.e. the nexus of humanitarianism and development – and thus what often is described in negative terms as a humanitarian mission creep. Humanitarianism and development are two features of international aid. Despite overlaps, they work according to different principles, where humanitarianism’s claim to neutrality rubs shoulder with the politics of development. Obviously, and as many have pointed out in a number of cases, including Northern Uganda, the practices of humanitarian aid tends to fall far from its guiding principles. If not by intention, humanitarianism operates in a political landscape and inevitably has political effects. The complex linkages of the Ugandan government, local and international agencies and NGOs, as well as the current and historical political opposition emanating from the north have made humanitarianism part of the political context.

The relationship between the two-pronged sides of international aid is nevertheless a matter of perspective. While the nexus between humanitarianism and development causes disturbance among policymakers and debates in conference rooms at the headquarters level, those working in the field often have a more pragmatic relation to this schism, and the intended beneficiaries of international aid tend not to distinguish between humanitarian action and development aid. Yet, as argued above, their differences have practical effects for the delivery of aid and the protection of civilians – as observed in the ongoing transition humanitarianism to development in Northern Uganda.




[3] It should be noted that these programmes, run and coordinated by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) came under critical donor scrutiny from 2012 and onwards due to the unmasking of rampant corruption, thus causing donors to reduce support to these programmes.

[4] Mwenda, A. (2010). Uganda’s politics of foreign aid and violent conflict: the political uses of the LRA rebellion. The Lord’s Resistance Army. Myth and reality. T. Allen and K. Vlassenroot. London, Zed Books: 45-58.