Peacebuilding impact in Karamoja

Uganda, May 18, 2011

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Without a doubt, the region of Karamoja in northeastern Uganda qualifies as one of the most fascinating and intriguing places I have ever visited, or studied.

From the moment I arrived in Uganda, the region’s deep complexities began to unravel in front of me – a welcomed, yet still slightly disquieting process that gradually exposed the flaws embedded within each of my previously held assumptions about the conflict in Karamoja. At each turn, a new dimension revealed itself, and with that a clearer picture emerged of the challenges involved in peace programming and implementation.

How does one confront a conflict infused with such an intricate mélange of competing interests, actors, and motivations, each with varying levels of influence? As an intern currently evaluating Mercy Corp’s USAID-funded peace project, Building Bridges to Peace (BBP), this question has been whirling around my head since beginning this final assessment. After almost a month of fieldwork through three districts across Karamoja, the question remains complicated, and its answer even more so, but my opinion now stands on much firmer ground.

First a little background, Mercy Corps’ BBP program set out to address the key causes of conflict in Karamoja by engaging communities in cultural dialogues/exchanges and joint livelihoods projects to build trust and increase shared economic interests. In a region overcome by poverty, and plagued by an increasingly commercialized conflict between pastoral tribes, this was (and continues to be) no easy task.

While the final verdict of the evaluation is yet to be confirmed, Mercy Corps’ multidimensional approach – first targeting the hearts through cultural dialogues, then the minds through joint livelihood projects – stands in my opinion as the best bet to resolving the conflict in Karamoja. That is, the cultural dialogues first lay the foundation of trust and cooperation that is needed for the joint livelihood projects to flourish, which then establish the economic incentives for each community to continue to work with, and not against one another.

My job with this evaluation is to establish to what extent Mercy Corps was successful in these objectives; Has trust between the conflicting communities increased? Are these communities interacting more? Has security improved? In other words, does Mercy Corps’ approach to peacebuilding work? While the final data analysis is still needed to give conclusive findings, my own opinion at this point, along with one strong caveat, is: yes, it does.

This opinion stems from the combination of my informal observations, conversations, intuitions, and experiences since arriving to Uganda – an opinion that I believe quite strongly will be further backed up by the data analysis. One experience during the first days of data collection in Lolelia sub-county, in Kaabong district, stands out in particular:

After finishing all focus group discussions for the day, our participatory assessment team and I walked to the main road to Kaabong town to wait for our driver to arrive with the survey team. Exhausted from a long day of field work, four of the PA facilitators – all nationals from Kaabong – and I planted ourselves beneath what shade we could find, and waited. I pulled out the discussion notes, others tried to doze off, while others chatted away when suddenly the emphatic voice of a man walking by shook each of us out of our respective preoccupations. Wielding an ax in hand, he vigorously repeated something over and over to us, often pointing at me with an expression of disbelief, and amazement. Not understanding what he was saying, coupled with the sight of a man wildly waving a sharp farm tool around, initially sparked some slight anxiety within me, but as I looked around at the unconcerned faces of my team, my anxiety subsided, quickly replaced by curiosity. What was this man so concerned about, so shocked over? He turned to me one last time, grabbed my hand, and repeated something – I nodded, smiled, and said “Alakara” (thank you), and he went on his way.

I turned and asked my team what he had been saying. They responded that he was carrying on and on about how amazing it was that a group of people, even a Mzungu (foreigner) could gather along the road calmly, and without fear…to him, this sight was incredible, and a testament to how things have changed in Karamoja. I then asked my team could we have done this – waited along this road – even last year. They each laughed the idea off as ridiculous – there would have been no chance. I prodded a bit further about why they thought we could do so now. They gave a mix of answers…disarmament, army patrols, and yes Mercy Corps’ BBP program, but what was indisputable was that things in Karamoja have changed, and changed for the better. I then asked what he had said at the end, directly to me…Pauline, one of the facilitators, answered: “You, Mzungu, need to continue with your work here – people now know peace is possible, don’t stop now…”

Which brings me back to that caveat…while I believe Mercy Corps’ approach works, and has substantially and positively impacted the conflict situation between the targeted communities, there is still work to be done. Real, sustainable peace doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it emerges gradually, through the diligent efforts of organizations like Mercy Corps, but ultimately due to the efforts of individuals in the communities, themselves. So far, Mercy Corps’s work seems to be guided by this reality.

That is, with it's multi-faceted strategy, each with a clear target, and always guided by established theories of change, Mercy Corps’ peacebuilding programs are holistic and adaptable – able to quickly absorb new dimensions and knowledge learned through experience. From the previously implemented Pader Peace Program, to BBP, to its current peace program, Alternatives to Conflict in Karamoja & Turkana (ACKT), Mercy Corps has proven that it has a long-term and realistic vision for building peace in Karamoja. And just as that man on the road to Kaabong pleaded, I believe they shouldn’t stop now…