By Rebecca Miller and Sanjay Gurung, Mercy Corps
In the dry, northern Karamoja region of Uganda, 50 years of humanitarian aid has left the region entrenched in a culture of dependency. Underlying long-term peace and food security is a need for strong local governance, but donors often don’t find that as exciting as emergency relief.
It’s challenging to build the processes, structures and relationships that result in good governance in this region. Karamoja, with its deep red soil and occasional sprinkle of small, rough brush across the arid, flat land, is characterized by cyclical drought and violence from cattle raiding. Just next door to the unfolding violence in South Sudan, the Karamojong want to prove that their own history of violence is behind them.
But while the deep, systemic changes needed to get there are taking place, they aren’t immediately visible. And that makes it tough to demonstrate success.
A facilitative approach
In trying to address these issues and sustain communities for the long term, Mercy Corps has put ourselves in a facilitative role. Rather than handing out inputs, like seeds, and supplies, we’re working with local partners to provide economic and health programming. But we’re also strengthening the local governance behind those systems, positioning them to be functionally self-reliant.
Unlike traditional aid agencies, Mercy Corps’ role in this program isn’t to implement--we’re a facilitator that provides technical support and assists the communities in creating new approaches to solving local problems that they own and use.
Process is key
The process of how this work is done is the program. The core element of this approach is demonstrating the principles of good governance through participatory analysis and planning sessions created for local constituents. What that means is meetings and surveys to consult the ideas of the people living there. It means formal and informal conversations that seek community input and roll up into traditional and local government leaders working together to create plans for the area.
As Mercy Corps facilitates the process, working through the Kaabong Peace and Development Agency, we’re building community members’ skills. This helps ensure their systems are consultative and inclusive so that people feel like they’re part of the process of determining their own future. These local civil society and government leaders have a vested interest in improving the lives of their families, friends and constituents. They want to improve the processes, because they know a better process will equal a better outcome. Our behind-the-scenes program works daily to build these skills to hold leaders accountable to the community’s needs--whether those are health, economic, or security.
Not just checking the box
But this type of approach also doesn’t come with immediate results. International NGOs often want to show that the work they’re doing is having a major impact on the people with whom they work, and they want to show it fast, scrambling to quickly check the box on delivering aid. Instead, we’re partnering to slowly and steadily demonstrate the changes to the local governance system that position these communities for the kind of long-term success that builds economies after conflicts destroy them.
Mercy Corps and USAID are trialing this approach through our “Northern Karamoja Growth, Health, and Governance” program, working to create something that will still be standing many years from now. We’re promoting pro-poor market development so it benefits and includes the most vulnerable. And the results are tangible: improving nutrition and health, increasing local ability to mitigate conflict, and strengthening local governance.
The clearest sign of progress comes through in our local partners: capable, passionate people who are building up their technical and administrative expertise so they can hold their government accountable. And we’re already starting to see some of those sought-after results:
One key local partner, the Kaabong Peace and Development Agency, shared with us that the peace committee in town was hosting meetings without them, a clear sign their work was beginning to take hold.
Learn more: Read Mercy Corps’ April 2013 assessment of strengths and weaknesses in Karamoja’s conflict management system
About the authors
Rebecca Miller is a technical advisor on the Resilience, Governance, and Partnership team at Mercy Corps. She specializes in helping build strong partnerships with public, private and civil society organizations, and provides technical support to design and implement projects that model Mercy Corps’ Principles of Partnership. Her areas of focus are Africa and the Middle East.
Dr. Sanjay Gurung, a senior technical advisor on Mercy Corps' Resilience, Governance and Partnership team, has led research, evaluation and assessment processes in a wide range of countries and contexts. He has worked extensively on the public-private partnership model of good governance and developed Mercy Corps’ strategy to promote good governance. His present portfolio cover countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Balkans.