How appropriate is it to work through local governments and communities as a response to endemic poverty, weak capacity and the legacy of violent conflict? This study by the Institute of Development Studies reviews the lessons arising from the design and implementation of the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund Project (NUSAF) in conditions of ongoing conflict and post-conflict recovery. It argues that considerable demand from communities for project resources and rapid implementation of infrastructure and income generation projects confirms the validity of working through local communities.
While Uganda is not classified as a Low Income Country under Stress (LICUS), poverty levels, social indicators and economic conditions in the 18 districts of northern Uganda are comparable to those in many LICUS contexts, largely as a consequence of prolonged conflict in much of the region. NUSAF is premised on a demand-driven approach in which local communities identify, plan and implement sub-projects that improve local infrastructure, promote livelihood opportunities, and resolve conflict. This would appear to provide some assurance that the design of NUSAF is appropriate in the particular circumstances of northern Uganda and has the potential of producing positive results in an inhospitable environment characterised by conflict and poor governance.
- There appears to be a strong demand from communities for sub-projects. The speed of implementation and the quality of work on community investments is indicative of the validity of the approach.
- Vulnerable groups now have direct access to grant resources to enable them to rebuild livelihoods in conditions of economic adversity.
- While NUSAF is predicated on the community-driven approach, there are enormous challenges entailed in scaling-up a successful demand-driven approach in conflict and post conflict conditions.
- The training component under NUSAF has not been comprehensive; the process of hiring and orienting community facilitators has not been entirely systematic.
- NUSAF depends on local government staff in district and sub-county administrations for the bulk of the appraisal and monitoring functions.
- However, the volume of work far exceeds their capacity to undertake these tasks with sufficient rigour, highlighting the need for strengthening technical capacity of local governments.
Lessons arising from the design and implementation of NUSAF may have relevance for social funds and development interventions in LICUS contexts. These include the following:
- The NUSAF case demonstrates the validity of community driven approaches when existing institutional capacity is weak and development challenges are enormous.
- The potential sustainability of demand-driven projects is greater when local government administrations are involved in planning, appraisal, execution, and monitoring.
- Integrated implementation through local government bodies avoids the pitfalls of parallel institutions that have affected many social funds in the past. However, local governments are susceptible to local political influence and often face capacity constraints.
- NUSAF highlights the value of diagnostic work on the nature of conflict and how this affects different segments of the population and focusing on conflict resolution as a central element in programme design.
- Scepticism remains among the donor community in Uganda about the validity and impact of NUSAF, as it is not integrated into the regular budgetary process and provides additional resources through local governments.
- However, the realisation of NUSAF’s considerable potential could unlock additional resources from donors who are willing to work with the national government and local authorities to rebuild the region’s devastated infrastructure.