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Who are the “poor and vulnerable”? A view from Karamoja, Uganda


By Alexandra Barrantes

Across the globe, governments, researchers and international agencies have striven to better understand poverty and vulnerability, and to provide technocratic solutions to measure income or multidimensional deprivations. Some of these solutions are aimed at guiding policies that will then, hopefully, address poverty in a particular context. Conversely, these exercises have, on many occasions, been combined with a push to identify the “deserving poor” who will benefit from government services and programmes, alongside a policy to target scarce resources to those most in need.

Unfortunately, as more progressive studies on development have shown, technocratic solutions are often inadequate in addressing a social issue that has much deeper roots in history. In particular, such methodologies do not give sufficient weight to the systemic, structural inequalities, discrimination, stigmatisation, and lack of opportunities that undermine wellbeing across societies.

Other dimensions to better understand poverty, vulnerability and inequality have also been gaining traction, including dignity, shame, psychological and stress-related factors. More importantly, great strides have been made towards further consolidating more participatory methodologies and approaches that incorporate lived experiences of poverty and the fundamental understanding that freedom from poverty is also about human rights.

Are we not all exposed to risks and shocks?

A case study in how to better understand some of these issues was a qualitative research project undertaken by Development Pathways in Karamoja, Uganda, commissioned by  the World Food Programme (WFP).

Published this year, the 2017 in-depth study examined food, nutrition and income insecurities across the Karamoja region of Uganda through an approach that considered vulnerabilities at various stages of the lifecycle. Contrary to the perceptions and images of Karamoja as a particularly vulnerable region, our findings illustrate that the vulnerabilities experienced by people in Karamoja are no different from those experienced elsewhere. In any given context, people are continuously exposed to risks and shocks that can easily impact on their living standards. An analysis of the risks and shocks faced by households throughout Uganda highlights the volatility of family income.

In a region such as Karamoja, where three-quarters of the population live below the national extreme poverty line, assessing who is vulnerable and who is not is immensely difficult. During the course of our research, many respondents remarked how difficult it was to define who were actually the most vulnerable. In the study, we understood vulnerability in terms of access to various factors beyond income across the entire lifecycle.  

Self-perceptions of vulnerability indicate that different communities in Karamoja consider themselves to be vulnerable if they are deprived of access to care and social support networks across multiple generations, or if they lack physical strength and the ability to work.

There are multiple factors undermining the viability of inclusive development: high levels of poverty, lack of cash in communities, unfavourable structural transformations, outsiders’ negative images of the region, the weakening of traditional social norms, an economy based on the exploitation of the local population, ineffective governance, unequal power structures, and loss of control over land, among others.

Vulnerability in Karamoja is not defined by a single characteristic or indicator across the population but rather it is characterised by multifaceted risks and shocks experienced by individuals, as illustrated in Figure 1. Vulnerabilities can be linked to specific stages in people’s lives, although many risks cut across the lifecycle, such as malnutrition, disability and illness.

Figure 1: Vulnerabilities faced by people in Karamoja across the lifecycle

Concern over malnutrition in young children is high among families in Karamoja. Around 32 per cent of children are stunted, which affects their cognitive development.[1] Women indicated that the low food intake of children was particularly problematic during times of sickness, as young children are prone to malaria and diarrhoea. For school age children, school attendance rates are particularly low in Karamoja, which strongly impedes their access to future educational and employment opportunities. Due to the perceived limited returns on investment through going to school (in particular high rates of unemployment), very few children attend secondary school. The opportunity cost of sending children to school rather than having them support household earnings through meagre wages, is high. Further, there are significant social barriers to schooling for girls – such as fear of teenage pregnancy – which puts many parents off sending their daughters to pursue secondary education.

Adolescents and young adults are among the most excluded age groups as they face the risk of unemployment now that traditional pastoralist livelihoods have become less and less viable. In particular, men are often portrayed by local authorities as disaffected and unwilling to do “hard work.” In contrast, we concluded that a lack of appropriate opportunities is the main driving force of unemployment. Women of working age experience the heavy burden of providing for their families, as the main caregivers for children and providers of food for the households, even when they are engaged in casual labour activities outside the home that involve heavy work and long hours.

Older people in Karamoja are population categories that have been left behind in Karamoja. Older persons have suffered marginalisation within the communities due to their diminishing role as authorities. An examination of the demographic context in Karamoja indicates important challenges faced by older members of society who do not have access to reliable support. Households often consist of multiple generations, with members relying on each other for care. Most older people live with younger generations, placing significant care responsibilities on adult children if the older family members are unable to care for themselves. On the other hand, in many cases older persons contribute to childcare and household chores. Many older persons also live in “skipped-generation” households: indeed, almost 40 per cent of older women in the region are solely responsible for their grandchildren, who will suffer if their needs are not adequately addressed.

Other dimensions: negative labelling of “the poor”

Our research also revealed an additional – and unfortunately very common – underlying factor that hampers the development of progressive policies in the region. Instead of focusing on the structural causes of vulnerabilities and providing real human, social and economic development solutions, there is an ingrained negative stereotyping of people’s “idleness” and “laziness” and an assumption that the longstanding presence of development partners in the region has engendered a culture of dependency. Phrases implying “laziness” were often suggested by respondents when discussing vulnerabilities. When probed, respondents expressed the view that some people were lazy, not only creating problems for themselves but also casting the Karamojong in general in a negative light. A negative consequence of these stereotypes is the perpetuation of the misguided notion that working age people in the region are the “undeserving poor”.

This unfortunate view of the reality that many Karamojong face, has, of course, distorted policy choices. So how can Governments (and development partners) properly address poverty and vulnerability in a more sustainable manner, rather than blaming excluded sections of society for their own poverty?

A need for inclusive social protection programmes

Karamoja showcases a development context where social programmes are targeted towards priority groups that are viewed as more vulnerable, in particular the category known as “the poorest,” a term that makes little sense in a context of widespread extreme poverty and vulnerability. As a result, many of those classified as “able-bodied” are often excluded from support. In a context of high vulnerability in which even local residents find it impossible to identify “the poorest”, this can perpetuate further insecurities by generating the perception that certain categories of the population are less deserving of support than others.

A lifecycle approach to social protection becomes crucial in addressing vulnerabilities that are experienced from childhood to old age as well as the inter-generational transmission of poverty. Inclusive social protection should be regarded as a key instrument for delivering adequate food and nutrition security in Karamoja (and elsewhere). Regular, predictable transfers allow households to stabilise their incomes and level out their consumption, thereby enabling them to deal more effectively with the shocks and crises experienced throughout the lifecycle. The Senior Citizen’s Grant (SCG), a form of universal old age pension, is the only core inclusive lifecycle scheme that Uganda is currently delivering, and that has proven to have substantial impact.

Introducing an inclusive lifecycle social protection system could help bring about the transformative change that is needed, thereby moving away from siloed approaches to development, in particular if it is part of a broader initiative among development partners to work together towards strengthening universal public services in the region. Given that the Karamojong face a range of risks, shocks, stresses and vulnerabilities throughout their lives (as all societies do), an inclusive social security system could offer families the platform they need to escape poverty and build sustainable and independent livelihoods. Investment in inclusive, lifecycle social protection has been key to the success of high-income countries, and it can also play a similar role in the future success of Karamoja and, indeed, Uganda.

To conclude, universal provision of social protection and public services based on the concept of entitlements – rather than targeting specific groups, which can lead to unwanted dynamics and fragmented service delivery – should be the core principle for enhancing citizenship and addressing exclusion in societies. This principle would allow us to move away from discussions on “deservingness”, which stereotype “the poor” and “vulnerable,” and label the behaviour of those experiencing social exclusion as the cause of their own challenging circumstances. Let us hope that the self-perceptions of vulnerability that were captured during this extensive research can better inform policy responses in the region. We are convinced that the Karamojong know what is best for themselves: development partners just need to start listening to them.

[1] Source: Demographic Health Survey 2016

Our blogger, Alexandra Barrantes, is a Senior Social Policy Specialist for Development Pathways.

Read more like this:

Publication: Situational Analysis of Food, Nutrition and Income Security in Karamoja: “A normalising view of Karamoja”

BlogAfrica’s rapidly ageing population is in need of social protection, yet it continues to be largely overlooked

Our Work: Improving food, nutrition and income security in Karamoja

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