The humanitarian–development nexus in Northern Uganda

Humanitarian action and development aid constitute two important segments of the international apparatus. While they generally share the objective of aiding civilians, the two segments consist of different actors with distinct rationales receiving funding from separate donor drawers. Much has been written on the conflicting interests and interface of military rationales on the one side, and the joint civilian dimensions of humanitarianism and development on the other, particularly in hotspot areas such as Afghanistan, Darfur and Iraq. While their cooperation are warranted as a way to ease the war-to-peace transition, humanitarian actors remain cautions of being too closely associated with military and political actors in fear of jeopardising the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence that guide their work. Similar dynamics and boundary work occur in the interface between humanitarianism and development, but it is less frequently attended to as they to outsiders are understood merely as a composite, civilian segment. This policy note considers this dynamics in light of the recent transition from humanitarian action to development aid in northern Uganda. Decades of civil war in Northern Uganda produced a protracted humanitarian crisis, which saw the internal displacement of nearly two million civilians and the involvement of a plethora of humanitarian actors. Although the notorious rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been pushed out of Uganda, humanitarian concerns and challenges are still lingering today. Yet, 2008 arguably marked the beginning of the end of the humanitarian crisis and involvement in Northern Uganda. The Government of Uganda started to recast the former crisis as being one of recovery and development. This weakened the operational consent to and financial basis of the humanitarian apparatus providing civilian protection and basic services. The discursive recast was more a result of the government’s ambition to reassert its humanitarian sovereignty in the area than a reflection of significant improvements in the region and the civilian’s livelihood in the post-conflict era and area.

Responding to the depleted funding situation, most humanitarian actors started to withdraw, phasing out their activities – arguably “too soon, too fast and with too much unfinished business”, as stated by an informant. Other humanitarian actors, however, recognising the persistent humanitarian needs and concerns instead reoriented their support. They reframed their engagement as development to maintain what they saw as their key mission – helping civilians, regardless the situation’s formal rendering, forms of funding and whether it potentially infringes on the humanitarian principles. The case of the transition from humanitarian action to development aid in Northern Uganda demonstrates institutional inconsistencies and a discrepancy between how the humanitarian principles are being practiced by various actors. The case invites reflection over the nature and future of humanitarianism and how humanitarian challenges are changing humanitarian practice, or, conversely, how humanitarian changes are challenging the instituted orders of humanitarian practice and principles. The case stimulates reflecting over when and who to draw the line for what constitutes a humanitarian crisis, and how humanitarian actors relate and respond to changes in their operational environment. More profoundly, it raises the question: to what extent is there a hierarchy, or contradiction, between the humanitarian principles and more pragmatic approaches to save lives and protect civilians regardless how the situation is formally defined?

Note: This entry is derived from the policy brief ‘The humanitarian–development nexus in Northern Uganda’, authored by Jon Harald Sande Lie and published by NUPI. The policy brief, dated from 10 December 2015, can be read in full here.