Uganda's food aid experiment

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Media captionFor one family a shortage of food means they must eat goat skin

A sun-scorched plain of arid soil stretches from horizon to horizon - the flat landscape broken only by human figures walking to a remote primary school to collect food.

After drought and crop disease, thousands could face starvation in Karamoja, north-eastern Uganda, one of the poorest parts of the world.

It is now a testing ground for ending aid dependency.

Outside the centre, near the town of Kotido, families queue to pick up enough food to last 10 people two weeks.

"I used to have animals and was able to grow food, but now there's only wild berries to live on," says Maria Nyaolo, who is now almost blind and trekked 20 miles (32km) with four children to reach the centre.

'Not good enough'

Food aid has been coming here since 1963. In 2009, one million people needed emergency help.

This year, it is expected to be 200,000. The World Food Programme (WFP) admits that emergency has now become routine, which is why it is changing its way of tackling the problem.

"Just keeping people alive in the same conditions they've been in the past is not good enough," explains Stanlake Samkange, the WFP director for Uganda.

"Changing that means people are taking risks - people who are receiving support are taking risks, we are taking risks."

Mr Samkange helped draw up the plan at the WFP headquarters in Rome, and was then sent to Uganda to see if it could work.

It is a detailed road-map to persuade people to plant crops, start small businesses and begin building a self-sufficient society. It would also save large amounts of money.

"Our operations in Karamoja typically would cost between $60m - $80m (£37m -£50m) a year," he says. "The new approach costs $23m a year."

Western donors support the move, partly because money is becoming tight and aid budgets are under closer scrutiny.

Since 2007, as the WFP made annual appeals for crisis relief, the UK has given more than £27m ($43m), all the time impatient that emergency and crises in Karamoja had become the routine.

"At the moment, the international community is having to spend in food support £28 ($45) per head for population of half a million in Karamoja," says UK International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.

"For spending £38 a head this year and next year we are hopeful that, in a very short period of time, all of these people will be able to look after themselves."

The Ugandan government has also been putting pressure on WFP for change.

"They have destroyed the energy and commitment the people used to have to sustain their livelihood," says Peter Abraham, a government party member of parliament for Kotido.

Eating goat skin

The WFP keeps large stocks of food in tented warehouses in Kotido. But now it will only go to the most vulnerable - the rest are being persuaded to fend for themselves.

But there are also those who are feeling the impact.

Magdelena Echak lives in the village of Longerep, in a compound surrounded by a fence of interwoven tree branches, their ends spiked to deter thieves.

Image caption Despite decades of food aid these people are still going hungry

She carries a baby in her arms and three other children, their noses running and their bellies expanded through hunger, huddle around her.

The sorghum crop she planted has been killed by disease.

The last WFP hand-out was in November. She says she has enough food to last for about a week.

She stares blankly at her empty food baskets, as if the situation is neither good nor bad - just normal.

"I might be able to find some food from the bush," she says.

"Is that enough for the children?" I ask.

She points to a brittle, old, dried goat-skin hanging inside her hut. It's crawling with insects.

She brings it down and bangs it, throwing dust into sunbeams coming through gaps in the roof. She takes a knife and slices off small chunks.

The children's dulled eyes light up a bit.

Expectantly, they gather around like a scene out of Oliver Twist.

Ms Echak hands out slices of raw skin. They grab them, chewing frantically and wolfing them down - fur and all.

They want more, but Ms Echak says "No". She has to preserve what she has.

"I'm frightened," she explains. "Soon, this is all I will have left."

The WFP says that it is closely monitoring Karamoja and that no-one will starve.

But Ms Echak's situation poses a question about trying to wean people off aid - for how long do you withhold food while children are eating old, raw goat skin?

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