13 December 2012

Ugandan Donor Fund Fraud Hits Poor While Down

Kampala — The donor fund scandal rocking Uganda may prove especially devastating for the underdeveloped region of Karamoja. RNW recently interviewed some of the many desperate Karamojong who had left their homes for Kampala, with hopes of escaping poverty. So far, the capital city has provided no soft landing. And with a huge sum of donor funds earmarked for Karamoja now missing, returning to where they came from is less appealing than ever.

Lucia Kureur can be found crawling through the mud in the slum of Kisenyi. "This is how we survive," she says. The 25-year-old mother of two regularly gets on her hands and knees to collect grains that have fallen off trucks carrying maize to a nearby market. "We also peel rotten onions that may have fresh cores," she adds.

Kureur hails from Karamoja, the arid region in Uganda's north-east that is commonly considered the least developed part of the country and that typically makes headlines for food shortages and violent clashes between cattle-herding pastoralists. Lacking perspective on their real-life prospects, scores of Karamojong come to Kampala only to end up struggling to survive on the streets. For many Ugandans, the plight of faraway Karamoja is visible only in people like Kureur, living on Kampala's streets on and off for the past seven years, and her two children, who beg for money in traffic.

But Kureur's poverty might have been mitigated had the donor funds that disappeared from Ugandan government coffers been channelled, as intended, to Karamoja.

Funds gone missing

According to Uganda's Auditor General, at least 50 billion shillings (14 million euros) have been fraudulently transferred from Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi's office to other bank accounts. That makes this one of the larger fraud scandals to have ever hit Uganda.

Mbabazi has denied personal knowledge of the events. Some of his staff are being prosecuted for the fraud, which has dominated the news for weeks now. In reaction to the theft, the European Union, the World Bank, the UK, Ireland, Denmark and other donors have suspended the disbursement of 300 million US dollars (230 million euros) to the Ugandan government.

Ugandan first lady Janet Museveni, who serves as Minister for Karamoja Affairs, has also been put on the spot. The Auditor General reported that she travelled to Israel eight times in one month, raising suspicions of trips serving to siphon off the donor funds. Mrs. Museveni has denied the allegation, stating that she travelled to Israel on official business one time in September 2010.

Not surprised

Despite her physical proximity to what one might call the scene of the crime, Kureur only learned of the fraud after RNW asked her about it. Neither she nor fellow Karamojong Margaret Amongin had read or heard the news since they don't speak English or Luganda.

Briefed on the situation, Amongin, a 49-year-old mother of five, makes dismissive gestures. Disgust is written on her face when she asks: "Is there no way someone can arrest those people in government?"

Yet, she is not surprised about the fraud. "Our home region is made to suffer because our government steals," says Amongin. Authorities frequently force people like her back to Karamoja, though only for them to return to Kampala.

"Government aid rarely reaches Karamoja," says Amongin. "Most aid that does reach Karamoja comes from foreign organizations." Regardless of who is behind it, the massive fraud means Karamoja's chances for developing remain limited, and potentially more people like Kureur and Amongin will be driven to Kampala.

Direct aid?

Public debate about the aid theft is dominated by commentators who, unlike Kureur, have access to information and media. They criticize donor countries for clinging to budget support, despite repeated scandals involving such funds in Uganda. "Why isn't there a push to return to the old approach where donors managed the aid directly?" prominent journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote in the Daily Monitor last month.

Amongin agrees. "Is there not a way to get the aid directly to the people?" she asks. "By stopping funding altogether, Karamoja will only suffer more." Ironically, where she and her fellow Karamojong try to make ends meet is within a stone's throw from the Kampala's government buildings - precisely where the money for their home region is being channelled away.

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