South Sudan Refugees in Uganda Wary of Plan to Get Money Instead of Food Rations

Nonprofit donors are considering such a shift, arguing that giving money would help refugees eat better and would boost small businesses. But some refugees at Rhino Camp worry that not receiving food rations could lead to far worse problems.

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South Sudan Refugees in Uganda Wary of Plan to Get Money Instead of Food Rations

Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

Refugees at Rhino Camp, a settlement in Uganda's northwestern Arua District, receive monthly food rations from World Vision Uganda and the World Food Programme. Some families get up to 0.9 kilograms (about a quart) of oil, among other food items.

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ARUA, UGANDA — Since Betty Maneno fled South Sudan a year ago and came to Rhino Camp, a refugee settlement in Uganda’s northwestern Arua District, she has had to rely on others to survive – from clothing and household items to food and firewood for cooking.

Before the mother of two came here, she and her husband owned a retail business and made enough money to buy items that today she can’t afford or has no access to. But now she receives food items, including corn, salt and oil, each month from World Vision Uganda. Plans to introduce cash in lieu of food, however, could put her family in jeopardy, she says.

“We might end up using the money to meet other needs we have – such as soap, clothes for children – and starve,” Maneno says. “I would prefer they give me food, not money.”

Plans to give refugees at Rhino Camp, a settlement run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), cash instead of monthly food rations have been met with frustration by some. While advocates say money will help refugees diversify their diets, some refugees are worried that monetary compensation will force them to pay expensive transportation fares to food markets far from the settlement, leaving very little money for food. Others say it may cause conflict among family members.

Uganda is currently home to more than 1 million refugees from South Sudan, Africa’s newest country. Refugees also come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi and other nations.

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Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

Betty Maneno, a mother of two, holds her 1-year-old daughter, Alice Alele, outside their home in Rhino Camp, a refugee settlement in Uganda's northwestern Arua District. She receives monthly food rations, but recent discussions between World Vision Uganda and the World Food Programme could result in monetary allowances instead of food.

The influx of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda began in 2013, two years after South Sudan gained independence. Disputes among members of the ruling political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, led to violence in the country, displacing residents. In Rhino Camp, there are 103,678 South Sudanese refugees, says Jena Toma, deputy refugee desk officer for the district.

At the settlement, each family, regardless of size, is given a plot of land measuring 30 meters by 30 meters (98.4 feet by 98.4 feet), on which they live and can build, farm or own small retail businesses, says Felix Ade, chairman of the welfare council in the settlement.

Uganda’s policies afford refugees the right to work and own businesses and property, and Uganda has become host to one of the 10 largest refugee populations of any country. Those at Rhino Camp also receive monthly food rations from World Vision Uganda, with support from the World Food Programme. The rations include Ugandan staples such as beans, cowpeas and mealie meal, a maize flour.

Each refugee receives a set amount of rations, based on whether he or she is new to the settlement, has lived there for more than a month or falls in the category of “extremely vulnerable individuals.” Moses Mukitale, communications coordinator at the World Vision office in Arua, says pregnant or breastfeeding mothers and the elderly are among those considered “extremely vulnerable individuals.”

Since September 2017, World Vision Uganda and the World Food Programme have been discussing money as an alternative to food rations.

Mukitale says his organization is currently giving refugees at Rhino Camp the options of food, money or taking half of their aid in food and the other half in cash.

But he says World Vision Uganda is hoping to transition into a money-only compensation model at the settlement sometime in March. Each refugee’s monthly cash allowance will be equivalent to the amount currently used to purchase monthly food rations for one, says Mukitale. The estimated monthly allowance per person will be 12,000 Ugandan shillings ($3.30).

He says plans to allocate money instead of food will give refugees at the settlement purchasing power, capital to start small businesses and the opportunity to diversify their diets. This model has already been implemented in other parts of the country and is working well, he says.

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Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

Susan Aremo, a South Sudanese refugee, holds her 14-month-old daughter, Proscovia Kareem, outside their home in Rhino Camp. Aremo says she prefers to receive monthly food rations rather than money.

“Some want money to start income-generating activities,” he says. “They are already giving cash in some camps in Koboko District,” he says of another district in northern Uganda.

But some say monetary compensation is not a practical option for many at Rhino Camp. Simon Ade, a father of three, says his wife will have to travel for two hours to the closest food market, in Arua’s central business district. He says a round trip could cost up to 20,000 shillings ($5.50).

Susan Aremo, a mother of two, says the change could affect family relationships. The heads of some households might mismanage the allowances, she says.

“Husbands might get the money and go and drink, and fighting will occur in the family,” she says.

Jeine Aje, a 29-year-old mother of five who has been living at Rhino Camp for a year, says that since World Vision Uganda staff started giving refugees at the settlement the option of food or money, there have been several quarrels among family members.

“Last month, some people almost cut themselves using pangas [machetes] when they gave us partly food and partly money,” she says. “Families almost separated because of money.” But Aje says if funds are managed well, World Vision Uganda’s proposed form of support could work for refugees.

“We can use the money to have a balanced diet,” she says. Cassava, rice and milk are some of the food items that Aje hopes to buy with her monthly allowance.

Editor’s Note: Felix Ade and Simon Ade are not related. Peter Aule and Samuel Ede, refugees at Rhino Camp, translated some interviews from Lugbara and Bari.

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