Local approaches in responding to humanitarian crises in Uganda have evolved remarkably over the years, with government, the local private sector, individuals and civil society responses to disasters and emergencies increasingly recognised by the media and traditional international humanitarian agencies.
The domestic initiative has especially grown with the expansion of the private sector, which has sustained Uganda’s economic growth at an average of 6% per annum for a period of nearly 20 years. Many companies have as a result tended to identify with their customers through robust Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies and have contributed to many emergency responses in Uganda. Ugandans in safer parts of the country have also shown solidarity with their counterparts in emergency hit areas, sending them relief in the form of cash and physical items.
These efforts however have largely been frantic, undocumented and uncoordinated, rendering it difficult to determine scale, trends and the impact on wider humanitarian architecture.
In 2010, DRT, with support from the Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) programme undertook a study to assess how domestic response has contributed to the overall humanitarian effort in Uganda over a ten year period. This was done by mapping the domestic response resource flows, assessing the impact and benefits of each resource flow, determining how the resources are targeted, mapping how actors claim resources and assessing both the data and the utility of the method used in capturing and analysing the data. The study was carried out in Katawi and Pader districts which have suffered protracted and recurring disasters in the last ten years including conflict, flooding and drought. It was also carried out at the height of the humanitarian crisis caused by the March 2010 Bududa mudslides, which killed hundreds and displaced thousands of people.
Eighteen months have passed since the study and in the same period the country has sadly witnessed several other humanitarian crises of varying degrees. Heavy rains have caused a lot of destruction since June 2011, killing scores of people and destroying homes and crops. In a district called Bulambuli, around the Bududa area in the Mount Elgon ranges, mudslides struck again on 28 August, killing over 40 people and rendering thousands homeless. In what one newspaper dubbed “The curse around Mt Elgon”, huge stones and a mass of hanging soil in a game reserve were washed downhill burying several houses, an incident wildlife officials blamed on deforestation of the mountain slopes. In perhaps the most gripping and unexpected disaster, lightning strikes killed over 30 people across the country in the months of June and July. These disasters once again tested the ability of the national and local government and other domestic actors in responding to emergencies.
One of the findings of the 2010 domestic response study was the fact that victims of disasters consider the domestic effort to be prompt and immediate, and largely free from the procedural and bureaucratic practices of international agencies – clearly positive traits. However, the domestic effort, led by government and supplemented by private companies and local agencies, is also notorious for being frantic and uncoordinated.
Some critics believed the Government’s handling of the Bulambuli disaster was a disaster in its own right, due to the Government’s late entry into the response effort, and the differing numbers of the dead provided to companies giving out similar relief items. Yet the Government insists that it has responded to disasters in the best way possible, given the circumstances, pushing back against critics, and stressing that even countries with some of the most sophisticated technologies and expertise to predict, warn and respond to disasters struggle “when nature decides to act in a certain way”.
The Bulambuli tragedy however revealed that anticipation of disasters is not yet a key part of the Government’s disaster preparedness strategy, which was a principal finding of the domestic response study. Nonetheless, there have been several positive developments since the study was conducted, including the relocation by the Government of the over 5000 people displaced by the Bududa landslides to a camp in Kiryandongo district (with plans underway to do the same for Bulambuli victims), the approval of the Disaster Policy by Cabinet and the activation of National Emergency Operations and Coordination Centre.
Yet, as the study established, the primary problem has not been about lack of disaster response policy frameworks, but rather the implementation of such policies. Disaster management desk officers exist within key sector ministries, disaster management committees at district, sub-county and village levels, and a full Ministry of Disaster Preparedness exists as a coordinating body. Under it are Directorates of Relief, Disaster Prevention and Refugees. Most of these structures are active during emergencies but go into near oblivion once the event passes.