Wait… people moved? The story of Northern Uganda

In 2010, I had the opportunity to conduct mentored research with one of my professors at Wheaton College, Sandra Joireman.  Our research, which was published in Human Geography,  focused on resettlement patterns in Northern Uganda.  This post is not to reiterate what we found in our research, you can (and should) read the article.  We were writing the paper from a political science/ international relations perspective.  While we dived into implications for “development work” I have thought of some interesting questions to consider as a planner.

Brief background:

The conflict in Northern Uganda between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government began shortly after Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army (NRA) took control of Uganda in 1986. The NRA was unable to assert complete control over various active  insurgencies in Northern Uganda, the most prominent being the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) under the leadership of Joseph Koney.  Over decades, the violence escalated and it became a civil war.   In this conflict civilians were specific targets of violence.  The organization Invisible Children has brought popularity to the specific tactics used.  Children were forced into the army, individuals were mutilated, young girls were forced to become sex slaves and many witnessed the killing of family members.  Many people left their homes and went to IDP camps. Sometimes this movement was forced by the government in an attempt to protect citizens, other times it was not.

IDP Camp in Northern Uganda

Our research looked at two Northern Ugandan cities– Apala in Lira province and Palero in Gulu Province.  Each area was affected by vilolence and displacement to different degrees. In Gulu 94% of the population was displaced, while it was 40% in Lira.  With the closure of IDP camps in 2008, we wanted to see if there was a change in the ways that people were settling.

Coming Home:

After the conflict ended, people in IDP camps returned home.  But, here is the question: What is home?  Where was home?  In our research, we found that the settlement patterns drastically changed between pre-conflict, during conflict, and post-conflict.

Settlemet pattersns

This image above, taken from our article, demonstrates movement of housing over time.  The polygon in the center represents the “urban area” of the city of Palaro, while the dots represent individual huts.  As you can see in 2003 (during the conflict) the majority of the homes were clustered in the “urban” area as a way for individuals to protect themselves.  In 2010 (after the conflict) there is a marked shift in how people are living compared to the settlement pattern in 1969 (pre-conflict).  Using nearest neighbor analysis, we found that there was a clear change in settlement patterns with people living closer to each other (for more on that, read the article).

Roads 2

We tested an additional factor– were people moving closer to main roads? And we found that Y-E-S they were!  So not only were people moving closer in proximity to each other, they were centering around roads.  We hypothesized that the clustering around roads was so that residents could have an easy “way out” if conflicted started again.


  • Trauma of civil conflict influences the settlement patterns of internally displaced people.
  • When we examine the location of homes before, during and after the conflict, we can see that people are settling closer to neighbors than they did previously.  We expected that people might choose to live in proximity to their original residences, but instead we see that they choose to live closer to roads or means of escape.
  • The magnitude of violence appears to affect settlement. In Palaro, where violence affected a larger percentage of the population and lasted longer, we observe people living much closer to roads than they had previously.
  • In sum: the traditional settlement pattern was disrupted when people returned home after living in IDP camps.  
What does this mean for planners?
   Due to the magnitude of the conflict and the powerful story of child soldiers, the world was interested in what would happen in Northern Uganda.  Invisible Children mobilized teens across North America to start caring for Northern Uganda, calling for building schools and providing basic infrastructure.  Aid groups swarmed Northern Uganda, offering money and assistance to help rebuild the war-torn areas.  But these groups were operating in a “false reality.”  They presumed that people were going back “home,” where they lived before the conflict started.   They presumed that these Ugandans were going to continue the traditional settlement patterns.  As I’ve outlined, people were not following the same patterns–they followed a path that development workers 1) did not expect and 2) were not aware of.  
  Can you imagine if in Detroit, planners presumed that people still lived in the CBD and the outlying parts of the city?  The planners would be taking a very different approach in their planning strategies, assuming that they could continue in the same way as before, ignoring abandoned sections of the city.  In many ways that was the approach that development and aid workers were taking in this portion of Northern Uganda.  They made assumptions about where people were living and made policies and plans around that incomplete understanding.

What would Detroit look like if planners did not recognize that people had left the city? That’s pretty much what happened in Northern Uganda.

We need to understand what is happening on the ground! 
   I believe that development and planning work needs to be more heavily engaged with the reality of what is happening on the ground.  As the above example illustrates, we cannot simply presume that something is happening, we should find out if that is actually the case.   While many people would say that yes, Juliana, that is good in theory….but….that is going to take so much time, we need to act.  I agree, action is a necessary step. But before we run into a burning building to save a small child, we should first confirm that a small child might even be in the house.  The solution is: research. 
     Among people engaged in critical planning, there is a bent against quantitative research, as it abstracts from the situation, turning the stories of people into numbers.  Another critique of GIS/ quantitative work, is that it imposes a Western Rational spatial perspectives on issues.  Where we see issues of migration in clear spatial terms, while local residents may see and relate to space differently.  Many feminists argue that GIS produces a static, masculine map which is unable to show relationships and flows.  It shows a world of men and not women. While I respect that perspective, and think that there is some validity to that claim, it does not mean that we cannot use GIS and other quantitative means to understand lived experiences.   Critical theory and quantitative work can be paired well together, to create a wonderful medium of trying to understand the world.
Take Home Steps:
So, how should this story and discussion change my work as a planner?
  1. Recognize that people are fickle, and do not behave in the ways that we always expect them to.  Presuming that people returning home after living in IDP camps is presumptuous.
  2. As a planner working with the goal of social justice, we need to question norms and assumptions.  Critical Thinking is a key skill for socially-conscious urban planners, as you need to think critically about the work you are doing.  For example, if you were doing development work in Northern Uganda in 2010, you could ask the simple question– “What are our assumptions? Are these assumptions correct?”  This question might lead you to realizing that you were assuming that people were returning to live in the same places.
  3. Don’t be afraid of research. In planning, we have a bent towards action which is done through the process of plan-making.  That process is incredibly important, BUT it needs to be paired with an understanding of what is happening on the ground.  Our desire to ACT needs to be tempered with research, to make sure that our PLANS  are relevant to the situation on the ground.
If you want more information on this research you can look at our poster or you can read the article.     
What do you think?  Are my take home steps ungrounded?  Are there other steps that we should be taking?  Do you agree that we need to add a critical perspective to our work?  Please comment!  

Posted by: Juliana Wilhoit


2 thoughts on “Wait… people moved? The story of Northern Uganda

  1. Pingback: Urban Planning Tool Kit: Steps to Engage Communities | Transnational Planning

  2. Pingback: Story Collecting and Using Objects to understand place and plan better cities | Transnational Planning

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