Gulu — Fleets of NGO-owned 4x4s crisscross northern Uganda, as they did during the region's two-decade war, but now, rather than provide emergency relief, they are supporting economic activities for hundreds of thousands of formerly displaced people.
"Today I am driving these agriculture field staff to Paicho Village to check on the harvest of our cereal farmers," Patrick, a driver of the NGO Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), told IRIN.
Some 7,000 smallholders in the Acholi subregion of northern Uganda are involved in Purchase for Progress (P4P), a commercial cereal farming initiative of the UN World Food Programme (WFP). The project is in line with the donor-funded, government-administered Peace Recovery Development Plan (PRDP), currently in its second phase.
According to WFP, the P4P farmers have earned more than US$280,000 since the programme began in 2010.
Programmes like P4P are welcome in a region that is now peaceful but remains extremely poor. The Ministry of Finance's poverty status report for 2012 notes that some 40 percent of people in Acholi are classed as "absolute poor", compared to 4 percent in the capital, Kampala.
"Though the peace has returned in a situation where the LRA [Lord's Resistance Army] rebels are still at large outside northern Uganda, prosperity remains elusive for the war-affected community in here," Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, chairpman of Gulu District, told IRIN. "It's only a few within the resettled communities who are now doing better and able to meet their family's needs like education, health care and adequate meals."
Mine-clearance programmes conducted by groups like the Danish Demining Group are also opening up formerly inaccessible tracts of land for farming, which more than 80 percent of the population relies on for their livelihoods.
"This mine clearance has changed my life because I am able to access my land. In fact, I planted two acres of maize and beans this season and harvested five bags of maize and two bags of beans," said Peter Ogero, who lives in the village of Agoro, in Nwoya District. "I believe the harvest will feed my family next year right to the other harvest."
"Early recovery" activities are designed to help national institutions and communities recover from a conflict or a natural disaster, enter transition or 'build back better', and avoid relapses.
Initiated in a humanitarian setting, they seek to build on humanitarian programmes and catalyze sustainable development opportunities. They encompass the restoration of basic services, livelihoods, transitional shelter, governance, security and rule of law, environment and other socio-economic dimensions, including the reintegration of displaced populations. More info here.
He noted that, with additional support in the form of high-yield seeds and farm implements, he would be in an even better financial position.
But early recovery programmes have not been without problems. A massive corruption scandal in the Office of the Prime Minister - responsible for the PRDP - resulted in the suspension of direct aid to the Ugandan government by major donors, including the UK and Ireland. Experts say this will impact some programmes in the region.
And according to Stephen Oola, head of research and advocacy of the Refugee Law Project, many of the early recovery projects are targeting areas that were not affected by the 20-year war between the government and the LRA.
"Most of the early recovery programmes developed for northern Uganda have been the best transformative tools produced, but they are flawed because of skewed implementation and its extension to cover areas outside northern Uganda, beyond the conflict-affected places like Mbale, Masindi District," he said.
He cited problems like land conflicts among resettled communities - particularly those displaced in camps for long periods - as well as poor roads, inadequate health services and schools, and the failure to provide the rural population with required agricultural and livelihood support as major obstacles to recovery.
"Governance of the recovery programme requires proper monitoring and evaluation to enable people to make the right decisions to address problems and obstacles to the recovery process," he said.
"The devastations are still very visible on the faces of the population because the real problem that affects their well-being is not being addressed," Oola added.
Though life has improved for Ogero and his family, they still struggle to access basic services: "I have to walk one kilometre downhill for water.
The schools are a long distance for my children, and health centre too," he said.
Better management needed
An October 2012 analysis of the government's IDP policy by the Refugee Law Project found that much of the population perceived programmes like PRDR and others - including the World Bank-funded Northern Uganda Social Action Fund and the National Agricultural Advisory Services - to be riddled with corruption and favouritism.
Many believed "that each programme favoured the rich and those relatives or friends of the administrators with the power to select programme beneficiaries".
An August 2012 paper by the think tank Overseas Development Institute (ODI) noted that "rigorous impact assessment" was missing from early recovery and livelihoods programmes in the north.
It highlighted a lack of research and "scarce documentation of people's own initiatives to recover from conflict", and noted that some of the most vulnerable people were left out of the region's numerous recovery and development programmes.
"The targeting emphasis is moving from vulnerable populations towards 'viable' groups - those who have the assets and can even take advantage of opportunities to produce a surplus for the market," the authors said. "This approach leaves behind many people who, for one reason or another, are unable to take advantage of these opportunities."
A mid-term evaluation of the recently concluded Northern Uganda Early Recovery Programme (run by, among others, the UN Development Programme and WFP and the UN World Health Organization), in the Lango subregion, found that early recovery programmes provide useful, sustainable benefits, such as teaching communities skills in resource management. But it also found a need for better coordination, improved monitoring systems, and better strategies to pass on projects to local authorities.
Agencies providing psychosocial assistance say recovery programmes must go hand-in-hand with efforts to provide trauma counselling and protection to communities.
"What we are seeing there is a big gap in places where social protection structures are required in this community," said clinical psychologist Birke Lingenfelder, who is part of a trauma-healing programme in the region. "You know a society that is still suffering trauma never functions because the manner in which people behave relates to recovery and development."
ODI's paper noted, "There is also evidence that the destitution borne out of repeated exposure to serious violations, asset loss, land grabbing, landlessness and even loss of family labour as a result of the war is contributing significantly to an inability to adapt and recover fully".
Government officials say, despite the challenges, there have been major changes in the economic landscape in the north, and efforts to lift the region from poverty will continue. "Realizing change requires time and resources. The government is committed and doing all it takes for the people of northern Uganda," Rebecca Otengo, minister for northern Uganda, told IRIN.