As in most other dryland areas in Africa, the main economy in Karamoja is pastoralism. Some low-input grain production, especially low-labour input, is also practised as a complementary activity (a no-lose strategy). Population densities are comparatively low and so land is readily available. With unpredictable annual precipitations at times as high as 1,000 mm in places, grain production can yield a significant percentage of a family's food needs at little cost--of course, in other years the yield may be insignificant.
Development policy over half a century--shared by the succession of regimes and NGOs alike--has been to 'help' the pastoralist in Karamoja to settle down and take up crop farming as a main livelihood. That the only areas where such a livelihood is at all possible were an integral and fuctional part of a managed, pastoral livelihood-ecosystem (i.e. the dry-season grazing reserves, mostly in the so called 'green belt') was either not recognized or not given adequate consideration.
As humanitarian intervention in the region has been hooked to agricultural indicators, for decades Karamoja has received significant quantities of food aid whenever the rains have not been good enough to support a viable crop harvest--which now appears to happen almost one year in two, and even for two or three years in succession. Yet for decades Karamoja has not suffered the kind of prolonged drought that causes 'actual lack' of water or pasture (as different from 'lack of access').
In 2010, the logic of linking humanitarian intervention in a pastoral region to indicators based on crop harvests, was questioned. This led to a livelihood analysis study with the goal to understand how the population in Karamoja actually made their living and how they coped with years of poor rains. The research involved several weeks of fieldwork, using a quantitative approach, (1) measuring households' sources of food and cash income (disaggregated by socioeconomic status principally defined by herd size).
Three distinct areas, with different livelihood patterns, were researched separately: the settled 'green belt', that depends on crop farming; the drier areas where livelihoods are almost entirely based on livestock; and a belt where livestock predominates, but where the secondary crop agriculture also plays some role (FEG Consulting 2010a, 201b, 2010c). Three companion studies were undertaken into livestock marketing (Ezaga 2010), potential complementary livelihood activities (Ondoga 2010), settlement patterns and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) (Maggunda 2010), and strategies for climate change (Mubiru 2010). The final analysis also made use of earlier household-economy baseline studies (OPM/SCiUG 2003; WFP 2004; WFP 2006). The following sections provide an overview of the findings based on the final analytical report (Levine with Ondoga et al. 2010). (2)
Food Security: Wrong Assumptions
The body of data used in our final analysis indicated that even in a year with almost complete crop failure, the majority of households in the agropastoral and pastoral areas of Karamoja would be able to cope on the resources internal to the pastoral system (when allowed to manage them). In these two zones (as opposed to the settled green belt, where crop failure left the households without anything), external assistance would be necessary only for the very poor households (i.e. those with little or no livestock), in about the same proportion as in other areas of Uganda. The basic assumptions underlying development interventions in Karamoja, namely--(1) that the region suffers extreme poverty; (2) that it is vulnerable to frequent droughts; and (3) that pastoralism is inherently unsustainable--were therefore not confirmed. Findings concerning each of these assumptions are summarized below.
(1) "Karamoja is Extremely Poor'
Household budgetary surveys which equate poverty with low cash-expenditure conclude that poverty is high in Karamoja. …