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Random Lives in Northern Uganda

From a Ugandan employed in security in Iraq:

In Iraq you can get used to the violence, but in Gulu [northern Uganda], it can come at any time.

I went to Northern Uganda to observe an economic experiment — a randomized program intervention focused on highly vulnerable women in the region. The program, Women’s Income Generating Support (WINGS), is being implemented by the Association of Volunteers in International Service (AVSI) and will provide the women with grants and business training.

“Less than an hour after we started, the randomization was complete and the immediate future of 1,800 women was determined.”

Due to resource constraints, the women will receive the intervention in two different phases, allowing a team of economists to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.
Chris Blattman, an economist, and Jeannie Annan, a psychologist, are two of the lead researchers on the WINGS study and have been working together in northern Uganda for four years. The couple met at an internet café in Nairobi in 2004. At the time, Annan was conducting a qualitative study on youth in northern Uganda and, utilizing Blattman’s background in impact evaluation, the pair decided to add a quantitative survey to the project. A year later, they were living in Uganda, hard at work on the Survey of War-Affected Youth (SWAY). Between 2005 and 2006, they managed to track down 750 male youth that had lived in displacement-camp households in 1996. Those 750 men represented 85 percent of the sample, an impressive accomplishment given widespread migration. They tracked one man all the way to London, administering the survey over the phone.
Their ambitions this time around are equally grand. When I arrived in Uganda in early June, AVSI had already identified and vetted the 1,800 program recipients and the baseline surveys were mostly complete. The significance of this shouldn’t be underestimated. A team of Ugandan surveyors, led by a resourceful 23-year-old American woman, had trekked all over northern Uganda on motor bikes and in the team’s repurposed minibus taxi (matatu) to survey the 1,800 recipients. In addition to evaluating the income-generating effects of the program, a team of qualitative surveyors, trained by Annan, will spend the next year intensively interviewing and observing the program participants for days at a time, adding the kind of context and depth that statistics alone can miss.
A random subset of the women will also receive group formation and dynamics training, which Blattman hopes will shed some light on the nature of collective action. He cites recent research by Paromita Sanyal in Bangladesh as the inspiration for this element of the program. Sanyal found that women’s micro-finance groups began to take on greater roles in their communities, even intervening in domestic violence situations affecting women outside the group. Blattman hopes this evaluation will uncover clues about encouraging successful group formation and the ensuing societal benefits.
I arrived in Gulu to meet the research team late at night on my first day in Uganda, having spent seven hours stranded on the side of the hot, dust-red road from Kampala to Gulu with Julian Jamison, another of the project’s principal researchers. While we waited for rescue, I hopefully watched every shimmering vehicle that appeared on the horizon. We attracted some interesting passers-by.
A German man with his wife and teenage son pulled over in a battered Peugeot station wagon to squint authoritatively at the engine and debate the source of the problem with our driver. Ugandans periodically stopped, emerging from their trucks with tools, rags, and bottles of water to address the problem, all to no avail. At one point, a truck passed by, piled maybe 15 feet high with sacks of some kind of produce. Two young men sat precariously on top of the pile, bouncing around, faces lifted to the hot, stale wind rushing by. By the time a replacement vehicle arrived, evening was descending and the air was finally cool.
The next morning, we drove from Gulu to Kitgum, a smaller town in the north. Blattman and Annan kept up a running dialogue on the drive, giving me a rapid education on life in Northern Uganda and the violence of recent years. Northern Uganda, home of the Acholi people, has been battered by conflict on all sides since the mid 1980’s. Others have written about the conflict far more knowledgeably than I can, but suffice to say that the situation is complicated. The western media has primarily framed the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as marauding bandits driven by religious zeal, a characterization which neatens up the situation but obscures the complicated context which encouraged the formation of the group.
The limited coverage of northern Uganda has focused on the gruesome atrocities committed by the LRA, which ramped up the violence in the early 1990’s, and on the kidnapping of young children for use as soldiers and sex slaves. This depiction misses an important truth about Northern Uganda. While other parts of Uganda have experienced exciting economic growth under Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda since 1986, and moved past the battles in the 1980’s for control of the country, these old wounds are still gaping in the north.
Museveni fought bitterly with the Obote regime to obtain power, resulting in substantial civilian suffering and casualties in central Uganda. Ugandans believed, rightly or wrongly, that Obote’s army was dominated by northern Ugandans and blamed northerners for the civilian suffering. Once Museveni succeeded in winning power, his army reportedly behaved badly in the north, punishing the civilians for the perceived sins of Obote’s northern army. Sverker Finnström, in his excellent book Living With Bad Surroundings, writes:

In northern Uganda, it turned out that the conduct of Museveni’s troops — allegedly a well-disciplined army, controlled and educated by its political wing — soon deteriorated. Killings, rape, and other forms of physical abuse aimed at noncombatants became the order of the day soon after the soldiers established themselves in Acholiland …

The looting of crops and cattle by government troops was particularly devastating to the Acholi. As one Acholi explained to Finnstrom, “cattle were sold so that somebody could pay for tuition, but this is now impossible. This has created poverty among the Acholi people. So many people are poor now.”
In 1983, 123,375 head of cattle resided in the Gulu and Amaru districts. By 2003, that number was down to 3,000. Amidst these abuses and the widespread looting of cattle and crops, opposition to the Museveni government eventually coalesced in the north in the form of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
In 1996, the government of Uganda moved over 1.5 million rural northerners to displacement camps under the premise of protecting them. Conveniently, the tactic also served as an effective counter-insurgency strategy. The government instituted curfews and established boundaries at the edges of camps, eliminating most farming in the region. In reality, the camps provided little, if any, protection to civilians, a fact commonly acknowledged in the country and chiefly ignored by the international community. Reports of government abuses of civilians in displacement camps surfaced throughout the conflict.
The conflict in northern Uganda makes for a slippery narrative:
The LRA is a solely religious organization that hacks up civilians and kidnaps children, forcing them to kill; or the LRA’s fight to address genuine political grievances against the Museveni administration is unfortunately obscured by its horrific methods.
The Museveni administration is part of the new wave of African governments, determined to bring prosperity to Uganda; or the Museveni government arbitrarily arrests and brutalizes civilians with no accountability.
The displacement camps were established to protect vulnerable northerners; or the displacement camps are a savvy counterinsurgency strategy, destroyed the Acholi way of life, and offered no protection against LRA raids, forcing children to flee them every night.
I visited a displacement camp outside Kitgum with the research team to pre-test the last-minute addition of behavioral games to the project’s baseline analysis. Jamison, whose research focuses on decision-making, is overseeing this element. Program recipients will play games measuring risk and time preferences and group behaviors at the beginning and end of the program. Blattman and Jamison hope that these games, and subsequent income data, will reveal something about the determining characteristics of successful entrepreneurs.
While the industrious survey team tests the games on a group of four women and two men, I wander a bit. The internal displacement camps completely changed the Acholi way of life in Uganda. Most Acholi formerly lived with extended family on their own plots of land, in mud huts with thatched roofs and ample space between neighbors. While the huts in the camps vaguely resemble those dotting the countryside, the similarity ends there. These are haphazardly jammed together, separated by only a few feet of dusty red land. Various farm animals wander the camp unattended. Someone has written “NO SMOKING” over the door of one hut and, deep into the camp, there’s a permanent-looking red-brick building called the “Real Heart Photo Studio.”
The camp is quiet and dotted with the ashy remnants of fires, the vestiges of huts burned by departing families. The LRA is no longer active in Uganda and the government is encouraging people to return to their homes. The damage, of course, has already been done and it remains to be seen how the Acholi will recover from over a decade of forced displacement. Several of the survey subjects told me that they had managed to plant their first harvest this year but lack of rain had destroyed the crops. Next year they will clear the bush by hand, replant, and hope for rain.
I drove back to Gulu with Blattman for the randomization of program recipients in that province. Gulu is striking in its contradictions. UN land cruisers lined the streets and signs identified the presence of dozens of different NGO’s, but an errant herd of cattle delayed our arrival at the AVSI compound.
Local village and parish leaders from all over Gulu province came to find out whether the women in their villages would receive the program this year (Phase I) or next (Phase II). AVSI held the randomization in a round meeting hut outside their building, the only space large enough to hold the crowd. We sat in white plastic lawn chairs, grateful for the breeze that slipped in the sides of the structure and the shade of the thatched roof.
Federico Riccio, who’s overseeing the program in Gulu, explained the program and randomization carefully to the assembled group, speaking from slides projected on the cement wall of the hut. The region’s ever-present red dust was smudged on the walls, leaving odd blotches on the slides. He spoke in English, while a young AVSI program associate translated, and he watched the local politicians intensely for any questions or hints of confusion.
The actual randomization reminded me of the children’s game Duck, Duck, Goose. The local leaders and several AVSI employees walked in a circle, plucking pieces of paper from a large wastebasket and dropping them into the “Phase I” and “Phase II” cans. People chuckled when their turn came, slightly self-conscious at the simplicity of their task.
After the randomization was complete, the AVSI program associate read out the results. The local chiefs carefully marked each village on their handouts, using knees and chair arms as hard surfaces and emitting noncommittal noises. Less than an hour after we started, the randomization was complete and the immediate future of 1,800 women was determined.
I returned to Kampala and eventually New York after the randomization, but the project will carry on for years. AVSI will conduct training sessions and carefully monitor program recipients, watching for particularly vulnerable women who may need extra help after the program concludes. Over the coming months, the research team will get back on their motorbikes and return to the villages to watch the women, ultimately generating thousands of pages of data on their successes and setbacks.