With food aid programmes in Uganda's northeastern region of Karamoja once again under threat from declining financial aid, experts are calling for more sustainable solutions to the region's food security challenges.
"We must stop the dependency culture in Karamoja. The Karimojong must be taught on how to grow food instead of giving them food. They can't continue depending on relief food and donations for their survival," Fagil Mandy, education consultant and chairperson of Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB), told IRIN.
"We need more concerted efforts to help the Karimojong grow their own food. We need to marshal programmes for small- and large-scale agriculture in Karamoja. This will enable people to grow enough food for themselves and provide school meals for their children," he said.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which has provided food aid to the region for the last 40 years, has scaled down in recent years and is focusing its assistance in ways aimed at reducing dependency. WFP’s new approach includes a big assets-creation project and school meals and other child-focused initiatives aimed at aiding education and addressing Karamoja’s high stunting rates among children. However, WFP has been forced to reduce its school meals assistance due to a lack of funding. With a gap of US$5.5 million in its 2013 budget, WFP is providing one meal a day to students rather than two or three.
"It is true that WFP is faced with funding constraints for the programme and that for some months this year it will not be able to provide lunch and supper [for boarding children], as is the case usually," Lydia Wamala, WFP spokesperson in Uganda, told IRIN.
Affecting school attendance
Government officials admitted this could affect school attendance in a region where the illiteracy level - 88 percent - is more than twice the national average.
"The food has been a good boost in keeping children in school in Karamoja... [It will] affect education in terms of enrolment, quality, standards and performance. The children are going to drop out of school, which is a big worry for us," Education and Sports Minister Jessica Alupo told IRIN.
Some 100,000 children in 279 schools benefit from the feeding programme.
According to Specioza Kiwanuka, the executive director of the NGO Build Africa, one of the ways to ensure that school-feeding programmes are sustainable is to help them set up garden "farms" that are not only used as a source of food but also as training facilities for farmers.
"There is need for [the] establishment of school gardens. These can also be utilized as demonstration centres in good agronomic and post-harvest handling practices," Kiwanuka told IRIN.
"In a such a way, school gardens not only act as a source of food for midday school meals but also parents and pupils are able to learn and adopt agronomic practices to help them improve own household food production," she added.
Officials told IRIN the government has begun working with schools in the region to set up school gardens.
"We have asked the school authorities to identify land for establishing school gardens. We shall plough and give them seedlings for planting. This will bolster food security for schools," Barbara Nekesa Oundo, state minister for Karamoja Affairs, told IRIN.
Families should also be sensitized on the need to set up kitchen gardens.
“…Encouraging establishment of home kitchen gardens would not only boost the nutrition and feeding of the school going children but will also maintain school attendance or reduce the school dropout,” Esther Wamono, a nutrition officer with UNICEF, told IRIN.
Some have called for a change from the local nomadic lifestyle to crop-based agriculture.
"There is need for the sensitization of the population... We need to turn them from nomads to farmers. This will enable parents to provide food for the schoolchildren," Daniel Nkaada, a senior education official, told IRIN.
Others say pastoralism should be preserved, with a combination of specialized livestock raising strategies and opportunistic cropping employed to make the best use of the region's dry and wet seasons and to safeguard the region's environment.
Karamoja is home to an estimated 1.2 million people scattered over 28,000sqkm in the districts of Abim, Amudat, Kaabong, Kotido, Moroto, Nakapiripirit and Napak. The underdeveloped region - which consistently registers the lowest human development indicators in the country - is prone to climate shocks, experiencing a severe drought in 2006, both a prolonged dry spell and flooding in 2007, and another prolonged dry spell in 2008. About 970,000 people were in need of food aid in 2009.
In 2012, harvests were below-average and household food stocks in most areas of Karamoja are expected to be depleted two to three months early, according to the Uganda food security outlook for January-June 2013, released in February by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).
"In most areas of Karamoja, households currently are facing stressed food insecurity conditions. Many households are relying on a combination of market purchases and food assistance, and with normal income sources falling short, poor households will only be able to meet basic food needs. Over the next six months, these households are classified as stressed," said the FEWS NET report.