Over the last 15 years, the Ugandan government has implemented a series of recovery and reconstruction programs in Northern Uganda to address the social and economic devastation caused by the two-decade armed conflict in the region and set it on the path to sustainable peace. The armed conflict in Northern Uganda between Uganda’s armed forces, the Uganda People’s Defence Force, and the rebel group, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), was characterized by widespread destruction and property loss, massive displacement, and gross violations of human rights, including sexual violence, abductions, killings of civilians, and physical injuries. These violations have had long-term social and economic consequences for victims and their families, impairing their ability to make a living and to reintegrate socially, with varying impacts on men, women, boys, and girls. Numerous victims now live with permanent injuries and disabilities, sexual or reproductive health complications, or untreated posttraumatic stress disorders. Victims with war-related disabilities and survivors of sexual violence are particularly vulnerable due to the stigma and discrimination they face, which limits their employment opportunities and prevents them from fully recovering and living in dignity. Their circumstances have only worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic and the preventative measures put in place to slow its spread, which has devastated the local economy and made supporting oneself all the more difficult.
In 2019, the ICTJ conducted a study mainly in Northern Uganda’s Acholi and Lango sub-regions to evaluate the extent to which these recovery and reconstruction programs, such as Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF), Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), Youth Livelihood Program, and the Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Program, have improved the lives of war-affected populations. As part of the study, researchers interviewed selected central and local government officials and members of civil society organizations working with conflict-affected communities and victims. The study further assessed the prospects of providing interim reparative relief to victims through targeted development assistance. While recognizing the distinction between reparations and development programs, the study explored intersections between the two that could be seized upon to both address the urgent needs of victims of human rights violations and advance local development. If designed well, recovery and reconstruction programs can form a foundation upon which future reparations initiatives can be built. The resulting report, Building Blocks for Reparations: Providing Interim Relief to Victims Through Targeted Development Assistance, identifies substantive and practical recommendations that government authorities at the national and local levels should consider when designing and implementing development programs. It also proposes ways to harness the potential of ongoing programs to address the immediate needs of victims and alleviate the social and economic consequences of the violations that they suffered.
While the government’s recovery and reconstruction programs were expected to significantly reduce the poverty caused by the conflict and improve the lives of victims and other war-affected populations, the study found that they have not yet done so. Instead, it found that these programs, including the PRDP, NUSAF, District Discretionary and Equalisation Grant, and OWC, were often unresponsive to the unique experiences and needs of victims of gross human rights violations and others affected by the war, and had only a limited impact on improving the economic well-being of these populations. The main reason the programs failed in this regard is because they were designed and implemented using a top-down approach. Most of the programs and their implementation guidelines were designed by officials at the national level with little input from the intended beneficiaries or the local government authorities who are tasked with delivering services to war-affected communities. Moreover, victims and other vulnerable groups who stand to gain the most from these programs have been unable to access them due to their restrictive requirements, thus limiting their impact further.
Stakeholders interviewed for the study noted that the long and cumbersome application procedures and requirements acted as a barrier for many victims seeking to access the programs. The design and delivery of the programs were simply not victim centered, making it less likely that victims would benefit from them or to have their needs met through them.
Among the notable priorities victims and civil society representatives expressed is access to quality education for young people affected by the conflict. For children born of the war, education is especially important as a means to break free from the social stigma and reclaim their dignity. “Most of us have children, grandchildren, and so education would be one of the things the program would address. We would all prioritize the education of our children over our education,” explained a woman from Aromo subcounty in the Lango sub-region.
Without a quality education, children born of war cannot compete in the job market and access other social and economic opportunities. In a focus group conducted for the study, a young participant noted children born of war often drop out of school because their mothers cannot afford the school’s tuition and other required fees. “Our parents are incapable of paying our fees, and hence we cannot realize some of our dreams. For example, I want to become a medical doctor but cannot reach this goal,” he said.
Many of the study’s participants decried the absence of decent health care facilities in their communities. Despite the massive investment in rebuilding the social welfare infrastructure in Northern Uganda, health care facilities remain poorly equipped and incapable of addressing the specific needs of the war-affected populations. Many victims who sustained injuries during the conflict have had difficulty obtaining adequate treatment. “Some of our parents have bullets in their bodies; they have injuries that have not yet healed,” said a male participant in a focus group with children born of war. Victims who require regular medical attention often have to travel to distant locations to receive the care they need, while most all victims have been unable to access psychosocial support and counseling to treat the psychological trauma they experienced. Quality health care is critical to the well-being of victims and others recovering from conflict; without it, many of them will never be in a position to enjoy the benefits of the development programs.
It is also vitally important to combat the social stigma that victims face to ensure they have access to community programs and opportunities to earn a living. Members of local communities often consider formerly abducted persons and former child soldiers to be responsible for the atrocities committed by the LRA. They in turn exclude these victims from community activities, including local civic groups and commerce. Development programs must do more to eliminate this discrimination.
Of course, the government’s recovery and reconstruction programs alone cannot fulfill the state’s obligation to provide reparations to victims of human rights violations. However, given the delays in the establishing a national reparations program, it is imperative to design and implement local development programs that offer interim relief to victims and mitigate the effects of the conflict.
To this end, the government should take a human rights-based, victim-centered, and gender-sensitive approach to designing and implementing development programs that takes into account the unique challenges faced by victims of conflict—including formerly abducted women and girls, survivors of sexual violence, people with disabilities, and children born of conflict—and prioritizes their needs. The government should also adopt special measures to ensure children born of war can easily obtain official identity documents that would allow them to benefit from local government programs. Finally, economic and employment assistance services should be tailored to the needs of vulnerable victims including those with disabilities, victims of sexual violence, formerly abducted persons, and children born of war. This involves proactively removing obstacles that might prevent victims from benefiting from development programs, such as transportation costs, application fees, and complex application procedures.
PHOTO: In a focus group conducted by ICTJ on November 27, 2018, community members from the Myene sub-county, in the Oyam District of Northern Uganda, discuss local development programs, their impact, and their shortfalls. (ICTJ/Eva Kallweit)