Oxfam in Uganda Country Director's inaugural visit to the south western humanitarian response

In September 2020, Francis Shanty Odokorach was appointed the Country Director of Oxfam in Uganda. The former Country Director to Oxfam Tanzania assumed the company’s helm amid one of its most challenging times. I sat down with Francis in an exclusive interview on his new role and how the program has evolved over the years.

Q: You are returning to Uganda after 7/8 years as Country Director of Oxfam in Uganda, in what ways has the program changed since you were last here?

A: One of the biggest changes is having ‘one Oxfam’ and one Country Director. Oxfam work in Uganda about seven or eight years ago was in a way that several Oxfam affiliate offices would operate within one country, with each one running its own strategy with different representatives. Yes, these offices were flying the same Oxfam flag, but the confederation arrangement at the time allowed them to run their own offices.

Fast forward now, we have one Oxfam, which means that we now have a singular country strategy to work towards and the confederation made up of about 20 affiliates would evolve into one country team. This organizational alignment served to eliminate a lot of confusion and regulate collective accountability to the local authority. So the Oxfam now I come back to has greater performance in clarity of strategy and a more collaborative, transparent and interdependent management system.

Q: Any observations on Oxfam's achievements and work in Uganda in the past decade?

A: The fight against poverty continues to be Oxfam’s preoccupation. Globally, the organization recognizes that inequality is the driver of poverty so the course of work done in Uganda to save and better lives is most needed in the refugee context and crisis where the sting of poverty is most felt.

The team at Oxfam Uganda should be applauded for its contribution in handling a huge refugee influx that has happened over last few years. With more expertise coming on board to address the root causes of poverty, Oxfam Uganda continues to thrive and should be recognized for its value addition in influencing work, and convening community voices to improve their livelihoods towards fighting inequality over the years.

Q: Do you believe the Program’s humanitarian response has evolved?

A: Definitely, the scope of work has scaled making evolution inevitable. I would say a lot that has changed over the years and Oxfam’s work has had to change with it. Uganda’s geographical position and progressive refugee hosting policy has favoured a refugee influx from her neighboring countries; DRC, South Sudan and Somalia, which is commendable. Around the world, camps are created to receive and process refugees, however, in Uganda, a deliberate humanitarian effort to integrate refugees into the community is seen. Settlements have been developed in place of camps and refugees are provided plots of land, skilling and trainings among other resources for subsistence agriculture and entrepreneurship to promote self-reliance. This is novel. Globally, the Government of Uganda is acknowledged and celebrated for its equitable approach to the refugee crisis regardless of ethnicity, nationality or gender. This political will in support of Oxfam’s strategies and humanitarian policies has definitely strengthened the relationship between Oxfam and the government representatives at the fifth level, as strong as those at the national level. Unfortunately, we are yet to see any repatriation of refugees’ to countries of origin because the situation in the countries has not improved.

Q: On your visit to the three settlements of Nakivale, Rwamwanja and Kyaka II, which area was most captivating?

A: There is diversity to all the refugee settlements that we visited; each one is unique with its own history and adaptability. For example, Kyaka II has been a host to refugees for many years. This means it is more established as it has had time to overcome challenges and establish its internal systems. On the other hand, Rwamwanja still has a lot of challenges, coupled with the unfortunate reality of reduced humanitarian funding.

The South Western part of Uganda is particularly hit by the effects of COVID-19 as the UNHCR and many other donors report a decline in funding that directly affects operations in the settlements.

Notwithstanding, all the partners such as the Office of the Prime Minister and all agencies that are contributing to the refugee operations have made exemplary service in these communities and with continued collaboration and partnerships, working together we can realize our goals of improved livelihood in the different settlements.

Additionally, support and service provision has evolved. There is increased innovation and invention in all the settlements where Oxfam is working. Notably, the WASH interventions have continued to include innovation, ensuring that we can pilot some of the more sustainable models in the provision of safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene to manage any of the incidences that could arise from disease outbreak because of poor hygiene.

The Livelihoods interventions that give a more dignified livelihood option to refugees, and the gender and protection work, have seen young girls collaborate through youth groups in the settlements. The soul of the people remains in how they encounter and resolve inevitable challenges such as music, drama, and community groups and most importantly hope.

And the visit I’ve made in the south western part of course is worth saying that it was the first of its kind for me in this current role and I shall visit other operations like in the West Nile and some of the work we have in the northern Uganda.

Q: What lessons would you carry from your role as CD in Tanzania to Uganda? And why?

A: While I get acquainted or reacquainted with the systems of operation and programs in Uganda, it is important to say that the refugee operations in both countries are under different policies. While both Uganda and Tanzania have a similar history of hosting refugees in the post independence period, Tanzania prefers the encampment policy to Uganda’s has settlement model. Therefore, It would be damaging to transplant Tanzania’s peculiar policies into Uganda without taking into account other contextual factors.

For Uganda, what we will aim at is to ensure that we continue to support systems and programs that were working especially building the local humanitarian capacity through partnerships and resource provision and skilling programs. Our partnerships with international donors and local agencies and the government outfits have proved highly successful. The land allocated to refugees, education resources, entrepreneurial and skills training have increased and deepened self-sustenance among the communities and this is a model I am enthusiastic to steer.

Q: What were some of your memorable interactions with the community members?

A: Well, I met many amazing people during this trip. I was impressed by the professionalism and passion of the dedicated Oxfam staff, committed to their work despite the challenging contexts that they are working in. And I also interacted with a number of courageous refugees. I will speak of one brilliant lady, Nzabonimpa Charlotte, whose resilience was inspiring.

One of Oxfam’s partners is running a Cash For Work Intervention where local labour is engaged in digging trenches to lay a water pipe system to extend water access to those very much in need of it within the settlement. This construction also meant that it could be a potential employment opportunity to refugees that could have much needed impact on their livelihood. This inclusivity is one of the appeals of Oxfam in Uganda, involving communities their own progress and equitable and equal access to opportunities.

When we arrived, Charlotte was seated in her wheelchair under a very small tree at the extreme end of her compound. She was silent for a while, struck by the visit. We introduced ourselves and exchanged pleasantries. She told us that when the opportunity became available, she made a bid for it. The team at Oxfam did not look to her disability as an inability to have the job done. In her determination, she was given a contract to excavate the trenches for the water pipes. While she got a family member from her household who was able to do the physical work, she received payment for the service, in a way, just almost like a local contractor. From that venture, she was able to build a small house, part of which she plans to rent out as a small shop that should continue to provide her a steady income.

At the end of our conversation, she has a parting remark that has stayed with me. She asked, “Why did Oxfam choose to reach out to someone like me? I cannot even lift a hoe to dig even the smallest hole. Why did Oxfam include me in this program?”

Personally, this spoke to my motivation to continue to work for Oxfam; the interventions that we have are designed in a way that they include everyone, nondiscriminatory, and provide people with opportunities beyond themselves. Oxfam’s global and compound evaluation is animated by victories such as these; a dis/differently abled individual, with the capacity to progress is given an opportunity to thrive in a challenging refugee experience. I hope to meet her again and see how much progress she has made.

Q: Moving forward, what is your vision for the humanitarian program in context to the general Oxfam in Uganda program?

A: Well, we are in a process of developing a new Oxfam Country strategy that will run from 2020 to 2030, with the three to five years horizon planning. Deliberately, a lot of the work that relates to the humanitarian program, as Oxfam in Uganda and Uganda as a country has got a legitimate moral authority to engage the regional blocks and to engage the international community to meet their commitments towards peace in region that would see us in the next few years beginning to repatriate refugees because there would have been stability in their countries of origin.

Additionally, besides the really innovative and high impact work we are already doing across the different settlements, I get a sense that Oxfam in Uganda in collaboration with the different country programs in the neighboring countries will have to do more in terms of developing a more comprehensive influencing agenda to tackle the root causes of post migration in the East and Central Africa or the great lakes region. This is a key issue that Oxfam in Uganda will need to continue to contribute towards, as much as continuing to do the work that would maintain and even uphold the dignity of the persons of concern in Uganda.

Q: Lastly, what was the last book or article you read that really inspired you that you would like to recommend to your colleagues?

A: I have read a lot of books and I continue to read. A former colleague in Tanzania gave me this book as a leaving present: LEADERS EAT LAST, by Simon Cinek. The author talks a lot about leadership; why some teams pull together and why some don’t. He argues that leaders are not simply those with authority, but are selfless figures willing to relinquish their best interest for the betterment of those they lead. I would recommend this to anybody.