Contradictions in Uganda’s development policy

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, Ugandans need to take stock of how far they have come and decide on where they want to go. Since the NRM government came to power in 1986, its development record has been characterized by three major factors – overdependence on foreign advisers, abrupt and major shift in development policy (from ten-point program to the Washington Consensus and since September 2009 to economic development planning). I have written on the first two factors and posted the articles on my blog In this article we shall focus on contradictions which give the impression of failure to design policy on some issues or lack of collective responsibility.

Before NRM captured power, its cadres from different development backgrounds had debated and reached a consensus on policies contained in the ten-point program. Until July 1987 when the government launched the structural adjustment program, government representatives spoke with one voice.

Since July 1987, many government representatives have contradicted one another giving an indication of lack of harmony in policy making and collective responsibility. Let us review a few examples.

First, there have been major differences regarding Uganda’s comparative advantage. There are those who believe that Uganda’s comparative advantage is in agriculture and especially the production and diversification of raw material exports. One senior government official addressed the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and stressed that Uganda was well endowed to specialize in agriculture. At the same time another group was reasoning that Uganda will never transform from a subsistence and peasant to a modern economy and society without industrialization to add value to raw materials. The desire for industrialization has led to a second contradiction.

Those who advocate industrialization as a requirement for transforming Uganda’s economy from colonial structures of raw material exports in exchange for manufactured products are contradicting themselves by simultaneously advocating for liberalization of Uganda’s economy allowing free flow of imports.

There is no country in the world that has industrialized without protecting its ‘infant’ industries until they are ready to compete in domestic and external markets. By allowing unrestricted imports of second hand clothes, Uganda’s textile industry has been unable to compete with cheaper imports.

Third, the export of diversified commodities based on utilization of natural resource endowments has contradicted efforts to conserve the ecological system. The growing of cut flowers to diversify exports has resulted in massive de-vegetation of areas around Kampala. The export of timber and fish has led to deforestation and harvesting of wild fish in excess of reproductive capacity.

The increasing emphasis on livestock development for export especially large-scale goat herding will damage the environment with serious adverse impact on soil erosion, hydrological and thermal regimes.

Fourth, the debate on Uganda’s population dynamics has produced the most glaring contradictions. One school argues that Uganda has not reached an optimal level of population growth for rapid and sustained economic development. It urges Ugandans to produce more children. Another school argues vehemently that without urgent and drastic steps to curb Uganda’s population ‘explosion’, the country has no chance of getting out of the poverty trap.

The contradictions reached a crescendo in Kamwenge district where two officials’ views have clashed. On August 11, 2004, the New Vision reported the MP to have lamented that “It seems men in Kitagwenda have forgotten their duty. The rate at which they are making their wives pregnant is low. They need to improve”. He urged men in his constituency to make good use of the maternity center that had been build because a larger population would develop the area faster.

Concurrently, the acting district chairperson, lamented that population growth in Kamwenge district was very high, growing at an annual rate of 3.2 percent. She argued that unless population growth is urgently controlled, too many people in the district will put too much pressure on social services and retard development.

Besides leaving Ugandans confused, these contradictions have created an opportunity for development experts from around the world to take advantage and offer ideas that have kept Uganda a center of experimentation.

Uganda leadership needs to harmonize its views, reach a consensus on development policy and demand collective responsibility.