Uganda is often lauded for its open approach to asylum seekers. The country currently hosts almost 1.5 million refugees and asylum seekers, predominantly from its neighbouring countries South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But in the largely arid refugee settlements of Northern Uganda, competition for resources between the host and refugee populations is increasing.
Multiple and interrelated crises, including the ongoing economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of climate change on agricultural productivity, a funding shortfall of key humanitarian actors, and globally increased food prices, are aggravating the food crisis in Uganda’s refugee settlements.
The World Food Programme (WFP) – the United Nations body tasked with providing food and nutrition programs to the settlements – is facing an ongoing funding crisis brought about by decreasing contributions of donor states and agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic and increased operating costs in the wake of food price hikes resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One consequence of this is that food rations distributed to Uganda’s refugees, which are designed to only cover basic food needs, have been reduced by half in 2022. The decision has been described by WFP Executive Director David Beasley as “heartbreaking,” but necessary to reallocate scarce funds for those most in need worldwide. Already by this April, the Uganda Monitor reported that refugees in Bidi Bidi, Uganda’s largest refugee settlement, were formally asking for their full rations to be reinstated:
[One] refugee, Ms Esther Lokudu, said food scarcity may make some of them plunge into hunger. “WFP has stopped giving us vegetable oil and has replaced it with cash of Shs5,000. This money is not enough because the prices of commodities have gone high and the money can’t do anything,” she said.
Frank Walusimbi, the associate communications officer at the UN Refugees Agency (UNHCR), says the agency is aware that conflicts may arise when refugees don’t get enough to eat. Food shortages can cause tension and anxiety, which can threaten peaceful coexistence between refugees and host communities, he says.
With the global economic downturn predicted to extend into at least 2023 and likely beyond, there is currently little hope for significant increases in humanitarian funding in the near future. Humanitarian agencies and international partners such as the EU and the Ugandan state instead turn their focus towards longer-term solutions for the food crisis in refugee settings, in particular on the strengthening of local agricultural production, skills building, and environmental protection. According to Professor Pamela Mbabazi, chairperson of Uganda’s National Planning Authority (NPA), interventions building up the local food system have the potential to “not only cushion Uganda from the global food supply shocks such as the ones we are experiencing due to COVID-19 and the Ukraine-Russia war; but could also actually turn around our agricultural sector to make Uganda the regional food basket that it should be, as well as significantly increase our GDP and incomes of our farmers.”
Beyond the benefits of strengthening the refugee settlements’ food security in the face of future international crises, activities targeting the local food system open the door for on-the-ground collaboration between refugees and host communities. Such activities carried out jointly have been shown to improve inter-community relations while building resilient national food systems is seen as an important driver of sustainable peacebuilding in East Africa.