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Milk matters are serious matters in northeastern Uganda

Karimojong woman and child

Karamojang woman and child in Kotido, Uganda (photo on Flickr by Courtney Chance).

An interesting report on ‘milk matters’ has been produced by the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, USA, in collaboration with Save the Children. It looks at milk in children’s diets and household livelihoods among the Karamojang, a pastoral tribe in northeastern Uganda.

The blurb for the book says that households in the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda have seen a precipitous drop in access to and availability of animal milk in recent years. The declining milk supply affects livelihoods, food security, and markets, but has the greatest impact on the diets and nutrition of young children.

The research illustrates both how significant the loss of milk has been to diets and livelihoods and how households have responded to this loss.

The authors, Elizabeth Stites and Emily Mitchard, say that information from impact evaluations of interventions made to increase milk supply among herds in pastoral areas is limited, ‘making it difficult to recommend one intervention over another based on the likelihood of success. The context for a given intervention plays an important role. In Karamoja, the combination of politics, conflict and insecurity create an extremely complex operational environment for any intervention.

‘The tested intervention with perhaps the most promise for Karamoja is improving livestock health through veterinary or [community animal health worker] projects. . . . Importantly, pastoralists themselves are well aware of the impact of animal diseases on milk production, and are quick to point to poor health of their herds as a constraint to adequate milk supply. Such programs are already in place across Karamoja, but respondents report problems in the consistency and reach of treatment. The military policy of protected kraals, insecurity and the various policy and political impediments to livestock mobility have negative repercussions on animal health; hence even if such interventions are comprehensive in nature, it is unknown if they can counter the negative impacts of overcrowded and sedentarization of herds.

.’ . . [M]obile livestock husbandry would likely be strongly endorsed by both livestock owners (for improvements to animal health) and by programmers (for its cheap bottom line). Successful implementation of this recommendation would require a national policy that promotes and values pastoralism, the opening of district borders to allow herders to access their traditional dry season grazing areas, providing mobile security (as opposed to protected kraals) in areas where needed, careful location of any ‘resettlement’ areas or other agrarian settlements to ensure balanced interests between agricultural groups and herders in the fertile zones, and improved representation of pastoral interests at the local, regional and national political level. . . . ‘

The following are among the study’s conclusions and recommendations.

‘This report highlights what is obvious to those who follow the situation in Karamoja: there are no quick fixes or easy solutions to the situation in the region. And this situation—one of chronic poverty, protracted conflict, and decades of marginalization—impacts not only the prospects for economic development or sustainable peace, but also reaches into households to affect the youngest children.

A discussion of milk, therefore, is not simply a discussion of what children eat and what they do not. A discussion of milk is a conversation about processes that extend back in time and reach into the social, economic and political sphere. The absence of milk in households represents the loss of a way of life, anger with political and military systems, and desperation among parents seeking ways to provide for their children. . . .

‘For international and national actors to address the nutritional impacts of the absence of milk they will have to take on the processes and systems that contribute to the wider problems in the region. To have milk is to have health and well-being. Health and well-being are possible without milk, but are not possible without fixes at multiple levels.

‘In the meantime, organizations and agencies need to continue with those programs and projects that support local priorities—such as animal health—and also those projects that encourage greater well-being for children. School feeding remains critical in the region, as parents will send children to school so that their children can eat. . . .

‘Programs that support [community animal health workers] and veterinary outreach should continue and should be evaluated to learn what models, in the eyes of herders and livestock owners, are most effective and have the greatest impact on animal health and milk production. . . .

‘This study sought to understand how changes in livelihoods in Karamoja in recent years have affected the ability of households to provide milk for their children and how households are coping with these changes.

The overall message from this work is that milk matters, and people know it. Parents recognize the signs of under nutrition and seek means to address these problems. Milk may be scarce or even nonexistent in many households, but young children are consistently prioritized to receive milk at the expense of consumption by other family members, social norms and exchanges, and important cultural rituals.

‘By working at multiple levels to improve the policy, economic and security environment in the region, external actors should be able to improve both child nutrition and livelihood sustainability of local populations. This will require political will, continued efforts to promote national policy change, and programming that focuses on longer term and incremental improvements. In the interim, nutritional surveys and targeted interventions for young children and pregnant and lactating women will continue to be required.’

The whole report is available at the website of the Feinstein International Center, at Tufts University: Milk Matters in Karamoja: Milk in Children’s Diets and Household Livelihoods, by Elizabeth Stites and Emily Mitchard, Oct 2011.

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