Lending a Helping Hand: Assessing Humanitarian Assistance Efforts in Uganda

4 minutes read time
A group of women from a savings and loan group explain how their group and cash box (center) help them build better lives for their families.
A group of women from a savings and loan group explain how their group and cash box (center) help them build better lives for their families.

Lending a Helping Hand: Assessing Humanitarian Assistance Efforts in Uganda

Being forced from your home or fearing for your safety and that of your family are circumstances no one wants to experience or even imagine. Yet over a million South Sudanese have faced this dire reality since the civil war in their newly formed country erupted in 2013. Inter-ethnic conflict continues to cause massive suffering and displacement in too many places around the world. In 2017, 60 percent of the 815 million hungry people in the world lived in countries affected by conflict.

As the world’s largest provider of humanitarian assistance, including to refugees and internally displace persons, the U.S. government is uniquely positioned to respond to these crises. The U.S. government has provided over $277.9 million in the last year and a half to protect refugees and provide life-saving food, water, and healthcare assistance in Uganda. In an effort to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of this assistance, the United States coordinates closely with other donor countries, including through the Food Assistance Convention (FAC). The FAC is a grouping of 16 donor countries that work together to improve global food security by coordinating emergency responses and sharing best-practices.

U.S. delegate Zachary Blackburn boarding the field mission flight to northern Uganda. (State Department photo)

Last month, I traveled to northern Uganda with 15 other delegates from seven FAC member countries and the European Uniion to witness the plight of South Sudanese refugees, the United States’ and our partner countries’ assistance, and ways the international community can improve this assistance. Our trip focused on efforts to empower refugees to take control of their lives, build a livelihood for themselves and their families, and reduce the need for assistance in the long-term.

The Government and people of Uganda have graciously hosted refugees from South Sudan and other neighboring countries for decades, providing the right to employment and offering land to each and every refugee. In fact, with an estimated 1.4 million refugees in the country, Uganda hosts more refugees than any other country in Africa. Our field mission observed several different programs that help refugees take advantage of these opportunities. Some of the programs we visited were helping refugees raise poultry, start a women’s saving and loans group, and grow soybeans. Several of the programs we saw are run by UN agencies and the U.S. government also focuses agricultural support on refugees in this region through Feed the Future.

While the participants face many challenges, from limited land to unpredictable rain, these programs help supplement the food commodities or cash assistance they receive and gain a sense of ownership and direction in their lives. Reading the pages of the accounting book of a woman I met in the savings and loan group, I could feel her toil as she worked to make each monthly contribution to the group savings account and the joy of each loan used for school fees for her children or seeds to grow crops for her family.

Delegates learn about programs helping refugees grow crops to support themselves and their families. (State Department photo)

After a week of visiting refugee families, observing assistance programs, and hearing from local officials, our field mission gathered for a final debrief in Kampala, the bustling capital city of Uganda. As we went around the room and shared our reflections on the week, it was clear that we had all seen the power of lending a hand up and the work that is left to further strengthen the refugee programs. The power of building not just self-reliance, but also resilience was crystal clear. In a region that suffers from persistent conflict and crisis, building people’s capacity to respond and adapt is essential.

Sitting at the table with delegates from around the world, the shared responsibility of responding to emergency situations was evident.  A shared response means leveraging American taxpayer dollars alongside investments from Japan, the EU, and elsewhere to increase the impact. Coordinating donor assistance is exactly the mission of the FAC and why the United States is at the table to ensure that the most vulnerable have a hand up.

About the Author: Zachary Blackburn serves in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs' Office of Agriculture Policy at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.