Field Exchange Nov 1999: Between a Rock and a Hard Place? Responding to IDP Food Needs in Uganda

Originally published
Philippa Howell is the Research & Programme Learning Officer in the Emergencies Unit, of ActionAid based in UK. This article which she has contributed describes important issues arising from working as a WFP implementing partner with internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Western Uganda. The article draws from a review of the Bundibugyo food distribution which the author carried out in 1998.
Many international NGOs make a long term commitment to communities with whom they are engaged in development programmes. Increasingly, crises such as conflict as well as drought or floods disrupt the lives of these communities and also development activities. When such crises occur, the NGO will want to respond to the communities' needs and, with its existing resource base and local knowledge and contacts, is usually well placed to do so. For the same reasons, such NGOs may be seen as suitable implementing partners by agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP). By taking on this role, however, NGOs may find themselves being squeezed between the policies of the donor agency and the expectations of the community members. When food deliveries are unreliable or the food basket is locally inappropriate, the NGOs relations with the community may be negatively affected, and staff may feel they are not responding adequately to people's needs. The following example raises questions both as to the best way to respond to locally displaced people's needs, and how to optimise NGO/WFP collaboration.

In July 1997 in Bundibugyo, western Uganda, ActionAid responded to the needs of people displaced by rebel activity, initially with a temporary shelter and health/hygiene programme. The local Red Cross was distributing food on behalf of WFP in the initial phase. Relying on a few local volunteers, their logistical capacity was severely constrained. Part of the area was difficult to access due to continuing insecurity. In August, WFP had discussions with ActionAid - whose development programme had been established since 1993 - to implement the second phase of food distributions to some 70,000 people over a six month period.

At this stage, ActionAid local staff in Bundibugyo had no experience of working in emergency conditions, although they received support and training from Kampala. This was the first major experience of an emergency for the whole community. Many people were severely traumatised, both by the violent nature of the crisis but also by the loss of assets and means of production. Some people who fled to the town and trading centres had never before left their mountain villages.

Pipeline Problems

The NGO registered IDPs, worked with camp leaders to involve beneficiaries in distribution tasks and informed the camps when food would be delivered. One of the first problems to be faced was an erratic delivery schedule. This was partly caused by the deteriorating state of the road and bridges, and bad weather conditions. Deliveries also sometimes arrived with only part of the expected rations. This led some beneficiaries to think that the NGO was giving more food to some camps than others. Such rumours were fuelled more easily than might be expected, given the social breakdown, fear and insecurity caused by the displacement. Communications were also more difficult than usual, since local leadership structures had been dispersed. The inconsistency in items delivered resulted in people having to sell some of the rations to buy other food items. In particular, deliveries often consisted of cereal and oil, without any pulses.

The food sales led local authorities to suspect NGO staff of selling food. The frustration experienced by the NGO staff, already stressed by working exceptionally long hours to respond to the emergency, resulted in difficult communications between them and the local WFP representatives. With no prior knowledge of the way in which WFP operated, and little understanding of their logistics and transportation constraints, staff felt themselves to be squeezed between the expectations of the community on the one hand and the perceived bureaucratic rigidity of the UN on the other.

"The food was timely, but later because of breaking bridges food started delaying. At different camps the amount of food was not the same, this resulted in complaints."

Camp leader, Kirumya camp

"Posho was delivered more than beans, which forced people to sell some posho to get more beans to make sauce."

Food scoopers, Bumado camp

Unfamiliar Food Basket

Another issue which caused friction between the community and the NGO was the contents of the food basket. The community's normal diet is based predominantly on root vegetables and matoke. The cereal component of the ration was mostly white maize. Most people in Bundibugyo were not familiar with maize and did not know how to cook it. Those who did were only familiar with posho (maize flour), whereas most of the rations were delivered as whole maize grains. There are several reasons why distributing maize grains in Bundibugyo was inappropriate:

  • Whole maize takes a long time to cook and uses large amounts of water and fuel.
  • Women did not know how to prepare it, e.g. to soak it to reduce cooking.
  • Maize grains carry a social stigma, being served in boarding schools and prisons.
  • There was no grain mill on the Bundibugyo side of the Rwenzori mountains, and there is little or no tradition or knowledge of hand grinding.
  • Differentiated needs were not taken into account: whole grains are very difficult for elderly people and young children to chew.
  • Many people reported stomach pains and diarrhoea due to the change in diet. The cereal was often unpopular to the extent that both posho and maize grains would be sold or exchanged for local food. Those from the distant villages in particular wanted the 'mountain food' that they were used to. Whole maize sold at low prices resulted in profits for traders who could transport it, grind it and re-sell it as flour.
"Maize flour was exchanged or sold to get bananas, rice, sweet potatoes."

Bundimulangya camp

"We gave five cups of posho for a bunch of matoke, because it was the food we wanted."

Bubukwanga camp

"People did not know how to cook maize meal and were getting diarrhoea."

Union camp

Practical issues aside, the delivery of unfamiliar or unpalatable food raises ethical questions. The Code of Conduct require us to "respect custom and culture" and the Sphere food aid standards state that local acceptability and preparation should be considered in commodity selection. This should be possible in a relatively small-scale local displacement where markets are still functioning to a reasonable extent.

Are There Viable Alternatives?

Emergency projects always have to deal with unforeseen events, and to a great extent the negative effects of delays and alterations can be offset by clear communication mechanisms and transparent NGO/community relations. The difficulties in this case may have been exacerbated by the relative inexperience of staff and local authorities, combined with the politicised nature of localised displacement and a traumatised, largely dysfunctional community. However, the displacement has now become long term, although not necessarily stable.

The experience therefore raises some questions. Are externally-sourced food packages (over which the NGO has no control) the best way in which an NGO can meet the needs of locally displaced communities? If there is still a reasonably functioning local market, alternative means might be:

  • buying food locally. This would support the local economy both in terms of commodities and transport. It would be culturally appropriate; supportive to socio-economic recovery; less likely to threaten good working relations with local leaders; and more likely to encourage 'ownership' and greater participation of beneficiaries in needs assessment and implementation.
  • giving cash. This would enable beneficiaries to meet a range of needs according to their own priorities, promoting dignity and empowerment through choice. At present this option is usually considered only through employment-based responses.
Another way, is for NGOs with valuable local knowledge to use this to influence WFP policy and practice. NGOs already well-established in a project area have access to information on local livelihoods and social norms which should result in a high awareness of different people's needs and priorities. This should allow more appropriate and flexible emergency responses. There is evidence that WFP is willing to listen and learn from NGOs. For instance, there appears to be increasing acknowledgement of the benefits of community-managed programmes. The nature of the WFP/NGO partnership also offers opportunities for improvement. Earlier this year, staff from Bundibugyo, and others from Kenya also implementing WFP food aid, invited WFP regional staff to a programme learning workshop. Many issues and challenges raised by the two experiences were discussed, and it was realised that more regular discussions (perhaps even staff exchanges) could improve communications and an understanding of each others' approaches and agendas. A joint action plan for future partnership was agreed. In particular, we all felt field operations would benefit from early introductions and discussions between WFP and NGO staff, especially if a joint assessment is not taking place. Sharing field offices could also improve communications. This would help to clarify roles, responsibilities and procedures, and encourage the early resolution of problems.

What is crucial, if we are to ensure that the food delivery system benefits the recipients rather than the donors, is for NGOs to document and articulate clearly the pitfalls and challenges they encounter: for instance, case studies of the effects of an inappropriate food basket. This kind of detailed information is what WFP staff need in their turn to influence international donor policy. It is currently the attitudes of donors that constrain WFP to making long, complicated shipments of commodities from one part of the world to another, rather than using its resources to promote local production and purchasing of food.

No doubt this kind of advocacy will be most powerful when NGOs pool their experience and present a co-ordinated approach as to the best way to use UN resources to fulfil beneficiaries' needs. If other NGOs have similar or different experiences relevant to the issues raised here, we would encourage them to share and publish.

For further information contact Philippa Howell, Emergencies Unit, ActionAid, Hamlyn House, Macdonald Road, London N19 5PG, England. e-mail