Karamoja, UN's Grand Experiment in Weaning Off Aid

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 7/19/2011 12:01:00 AM
Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime

The terrible drought situation in East Africa is once again causing a reappraisal of modern aid along the contours of the oft-quoted line above. Having been asked by our local parish to contribute towards famine relief, I was obliged to do so. However, to say that the development community is very much riven by the debate on whether to give aid unconditionally is an understatement.

Traditionally, the United Nations has been perceived as the kinder-hearted aid-giving counterpart to the World Bank and IMF even if the latter Bretton Woods institutions are nominally components of the UN system. This impression is partly borne of the more sympathetic tone usually struck by its alphabet soup of development-related bodies: World Food Programme, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNDP, UNCTAD, UNEP and so on.

Lest you think the UN is composed solely of bleeding hearts, however, comes news about the World Food Programme trying to experiment with--you guessed it--encouraging domestic food production instead of relying on external aid. You can be sure that efforts such as this one in Karamoja, Uganda are the result of no small amount of external pressure. First, you have the Sachs vs. Easterly debate going on with those sympathetic to Easterly firmly emphasizing a gradual shift from aid to economic self-sufficiency. Second, there is also the promising quasi-experiment movement of Esther Duflo and Abhisit Banarjee of J-PAL that de-emphasizes ideological quarrels (a la Sachs vs. Easterly) in favour of experimenting with what works in the field. To paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, it matters not if positive intervention comes from aid or not as long as it works.

Unfortunately, it appears that Karamoja's experimental combination of developing self-sufficiency for further replication in other parts of Africa (if successful) is encountering technical difficulties borne of the especially difficult background situation there. In particular, drought conditions appear to be making more children resort to begging as food aid is being reduced in line with more emphasis on domestic food production. From Auntie:
As appeals continue for the drought in East Africa, aid agencies' eyes are on a region in nearby Uganda which is the focus of a global experiment in aid. In the past year, the UN's World Food Programme has begun a project to try to end aid dependency in Karamoja and make the 1.2 million people there self-sufficient.

Food handouts are being strictly regulated, but many villagers are complaining of food shortages and charities report an increase in street begging by children. "It's getting worse because now there's no food for the children, they all come back to Kampala to beg to earn a living," says Maureen Mwagale, who runs a small charity called Kaana. "These children are both physically and mentally abused."
Once more, conditions may be too "long tail" to constitute an ideal testing ground for this programme:
The landscape of Karamoja is cruel and arid, the people among the poorest in the world. The UN's experiment includes planting thousands of acres of robust crop like sorghum and cassava that can withstand drought, starting new businesses and bringing infrastructure and some economy to the area.

But even now, serious glitches have arisen. The UN has cut school meals because of what it describes as an administrative problem with the supply chain. "We used to have breakfast, lunch and supper," says Diko Ben, the headmaster of Loodoi Primary School. "Now there's just a midday snack. Many here are now malnourished and if it stays like this, I don't think you will see a future." Mr Ben says 200 children, a quarter of the whole school, have left because of the lack of food, adding that every child in school means one less under threat of being sent to beg in the cities.
On one hand, you have to acknowledge the UN's efforts at trying to do something new. After all, aid agencies have been operating there for four decades now. Aside from conflict being continuously in the background, climate change has also been faulted for the region's recurrent droughts. Make no mistake: rich world austerity also has downstream effects on aid recipients. The changing picture for development aid going forward combined with emerging development trends mentioned above alike Easterly-ism and quasi-experimentation result in efforts alike that in Karamoja. Although we of course wish them well, there are certainly no easy answers. Still, I am favourably disposed to the notion that small-scale experimentation in what works and can be scaled up elsewhere (with situational adjustments) represents a potentially positive step. It's just that Karamoja may not represent the ideal starting point given its extreme conditions.