The Head of Asset Creation and Livelihoods in Uganda discusses her career at the World Food Programme (WFP) and the impact of resilience-building activities in local communities.
Originally from Spain, Marta Ortiz has worked for the World Food Programme (WFP) since 2011 in several country offices, including Panama, Sierra Leone and, now, Uganda. Following her volunteer work as a university student — including a three-month trip to Nicaragua with a Spanish NGO — Marta realized that she wanted to explore a career in the humanitarian and/or development field. “I think that’s what’s so great about volunteering — it helps you determine your career,” she says.
Marta describes her current work in Uganda as extremely dynamic, as she engages with people from a diverse array of upbringings, in a variety of settings. An average day might include morning meetings in Kampala with government officials and partner UN agencies like the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) or the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), followed by a trip to rural communities to speak with farmers, refugees or other food-insecure individuals participating in WFP programmes. As Marta puts it, “Sometimes I am in a suit, but I always have my field clothes ready.”
The situation of refugees in Uganda is rather unique, as Marta explains:
“Uganda is one of the largest refugee-hosting countries worldwide and the largest in Africa. There are approximately 1.2 million refugees living in Uganda, with the current influx being driven by conflict in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda is what we call a ‘protracted refugee situation’ — that is, many of the refugees have been here for five or more years.”
With the help of WFP, FAO, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and many other UN agencies and partner organizations, Uganda is working to apply a comprehensive response to the large-scale movement of refugees. Set out in the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) developed by UNHCR, this approach emphasizes helping refugees transition from depending of relief, such as humanitarian food aid, to becoming more self-reliant.
“While many countries have closed their doors to refugees in recent years, Uganda continues to exercise a very progressive refugee policy,” says Marta. For instance, in an effort to encourage self-reliance, the government often provides plots of land to refugees living in rural areas where they can grow food for both personal and commercial purposes. However, as the number of refugees grows, these plots become gradually smaller. “One of WFP’s key objectives in Uganda is supporting the government to make sure its self-reliance refugee model succeeds in ensuring the long-term food security of refugees,” Marta adds.
In Uganda, Marta oversees Livelihoods and Food Assistance for Assets (FFA) programmes that aim to address the immediate food needs of Ugandans and refugees vulnerable to shocks affecting their livelihoods by providing cash, vouchers or food transfers, and improve their long-term food security through the building and rehabilitation of community assets like feeder roads, water ponds, vegetable gardens, etc. These assets are selected by communities based on their ability to create healthier natural environments, reduce risks and the impact of shocks like floods or droughts, increase food productivity, and strengthen resilience to natural disasters.
Asset creation is “exactly the type of activity that can help begin the transition from relief to self-reliance,” says Marta. Reflecting on her experience in Uganda and other countries with WFP, Marta describes the impact that she has seen in communities where FFA programmes have been implemented:
“From my time in Sierra Leone and in Central America, to here in Uganda, I’ve definitely seen improved food security where FFA has been effectively implemented. I’ve also been struck by the autonomy achieved by participants and how the communities can make decisions around the assets. It’s never the governments deciding, ‘Yeah, I’m going to construct this road.’ No. The communities decide and own this,” Marta says, stressing how communities really ‘own’ these activities, deciding what assets to build, and then using and taking care of them. “This type of ownership is what makes the assets sustainable,” she adds.
Marta also notes the value of FFA in improving the nutrition of communities, in particular women. “Programme participants have access to more nutritious foods as a result of activities like the planting of vegetable gardens or the creation of water points for irrigation and livestock, which help increase the availability and diversity of healthy foods,” she says.
Though FFA is powerful as a stand-alone tool for improving long-term food security, Marta emphasizes that integration with other WFP programmes further increases the positive impact on programme participants and their communities. She mentions how farmers who have participated in an FFA programme and have seen their agricultural productivity increase can be linked to markets (through WFP’s Purchase for Progress programme) to sell their surplus food allowing them to earn more as well as invest in growing their businesses.
“At the end of the day, humanitarian and development work often take place in some of the world’s most challenging places,” Marta remarks. “During my time in Sierra Leone, the 2014 Ebola outbreak left many communities unable to get seeds to plant and unable to sell their produce because all markets shops were closed. Lacking reliable access to nutritious foods while the outbreak was being contained, these communities relied on WFP food assistance to cover their basic food needs. However, after the outbreak ended, it was so great to see how thanks to WFP programmes like FFA and Purchase for Progress, these communities were given the hope to transition from receiving food assistance to starting their livelihoods again.”