Feature: Refugees in Uganda move towards self-reliance

Under the Self Reliance Strategy, refugees in Uganda have been allocated land to grow their own food, among other initiatives. This has made them less dependent on handouts, boosted their self-esteem and given them skills to rebuild their communities upon return.

Sudanese refugee Anjelina Muraa runs a small restaurant in Maaji settlement, northern Uganda.   © UNHCR/K.McKinsey

ARUA, Uganda, Oct 13 (UNHCR) - Even though he was a successful farmer back home in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the last thing Salim Saliman expected to find as a refugee in neighbouring Uganda was economic prosperity.

Today, though, thanks to his and his wife's hard work and some help from UNHCR and its partners, he is an economic success story - a poster boy for the Self Reliance Strategy pioneered by the Ugandan government and the UN refugee agency.

Unlike many other countries where refugees are confined to camps and are entirely dependent on food handouts, the Ugandan government allocates land - often amazingly fertile land - to refugees for farming. Although refugees do not own the land, they can use it to support themselves for as long as they stay in the country.

In northern Uganda, the Self Reliance Strategy (SRS), in place for nearly two years, sees tens of thousands of refugees largely growing their own food (supplemented in many cases by reduced rations from the World Food Programme) and taking advantage of other business opportunities to support themselves. At the same time, UNHCR, while paying the bills, has handed many services, such as health care and education, over to local authorities who now cater for both refugees and Ugandan nationals living intermingled in settlements. Refugees will eventually pay taxes and pay for their health services just as Ugandan citizens do.

"Refugees who live active and self-supporting lives in exile are better prepared to return home when peace is established in their countries of origin," says Juan Castro-Magluff, UNHCR's Acting Representative in Kampala. In addition, he says, "skills learned in Uganda can be used to rebuild communities back home."

Saliman has taken full advantage of the opportunities offered by SRS.

With the help of six employees, he farms three acres and his wife farms another 1.5 acres, on which they grow cassava, sesame, sorghum, peanuts, potatoes, bananas and even some rice.

He has been designated a model farmer by DED, the German Development Service that implements SRS for UNHCR in the Arua area in north-western Uganda. As a model farmer, he is introduced to the best techniques for growing a variety of crops on a small plot, knowledge he passes on to fellow refugee-farmers.

Not only are Saliman and his wife Hariet able to support their seven children (five other grown children are still in the DRC), but they also sell their surplus. Saliman steps into one of the buildings in his family compound to proudly show off the motorcycle he has bought with his profits.

"I am very happy I am able to provide for my family and send all my children to school," Saliman says. "The experience I am getting here is going to help a lot when I go back to DRC. I'll take this knowledge home and it will be helpful to me there," he adds - neatly summing up another aim of SRS.

Although farming was one of the foundations of SRS, refugees have taken the initiative in other ways. Anjelina Muraa, a 25-year-old Sudanese refugee, runs a tiny one-table restaurant in Maaji settlement, near Adjumani. She serves about 45 customers a day - Ugandan travellers, fellow refugees, and staff working in the field for non-governmental organisations.

Anjelina says it is just a hand-to-mouth existence, but her profits are enough to enable her family - her husband, three children and a brother-in-law - to scrape by. "I would like to get to the stage where I can save something," she says. Still, it is rewarding to be self-sufficient. "It's good to be able to help yourself instead of being so dependent on handouts," she adds.

In another display of initiative, Sudanese refugees near Adjumani banded together in 1990 to start their own secondary school in their settlement. Alere Secondary School now has more than 1,100 students, mostly refugees, but including some 200 Ugandan locals.

"The most striking thing is that this school was not even started by teachers, but just people who recognised the importance of keeping their children in school," says Francis Selle, the deputy headmaster of the school, which, despite overcrowded classrooms, no electricity and a shortage of textbooks, has managed to send a number of students on to university.

UNHCR is now assessing the successes and shortcomings of SRS, and looking at whether it can be a model for other countries. One drawback is that attacks on some of the northern settlements by the Lord's Resistance Army have disrupted farming in some places. Some refugees who fled rebel attacks are afraid to return home to work on their land, a setback to SRS.

In general, though, it is clear SRS is saving the UN money while boosting refugees' self-esteem and diminishing the dependency syndrome. As of May 2003, more than 47,000 refugees in 35 settlements in northern Uganda were no longer receiving food rations, while nearly 45,000 refugees in 26 settlements were receiving partial food rations. UNHCR and WFP calculate that in 2001 and 2002, they saved more than $13 million because refugees produced some or all of their own food.

Model farmer Salim Saliman with his wife and one of his sons in northern Uganda's Arua area.  © UNHCR/K.McKinsey

Back in the settlements, SRS gets the seal of approval from refugees themselves. Jeslen Jaguru, a Sudanese widow who has been a refugee for 16 of her 32 years, farms one hectare of land near model farmer Saliman, growing peanuts, sesame, sorghum and cassava, and keeping goats and chickens as well.

She is not completely self-sufficient, and still relies on the partial food rations she receives from WFP. But she is full of enthusiasm for the self-reliance concept. "I need more land and better weather," she says. "I would like to work much harder."

By Kitty McKinsey in Arua and Adjumani, Uganda