Future Uganda government should avoid another costly experiment

Stabilization and structural adjustment programs began in 1980 largely in Latin America and Africa. Uganda and Ghana adopted them in 1981 and 1982 respectively. The ‘conditionalities’ were so stiff that governments in the two African countries expressed dissatisfaction because the human costs were very high.

In 1984 Ernest Stern, World Bank Vice-President wrote a candid report stressing that structural adjustment had failed Africa. “We … have failed in Africa, along with everyone else… we have not always designed our projects to fit the … conditions in Africa”(New African February 1993)”. Julian Samboma added that “But with their usual arrogance, the IMF/World Bank continued to force these self-same policies down Africa’s throat” (New African February 1993). In 1986 the government of Ghana officially declared that structural adjustment had failed in that country.

When NRM captured power in 1986 there was enough evidence that the shock therapy (comprehensive, simultaneous and rapid implementation) version of structural adjustment was not suitable. In fact the government hesitated to adopt any version (rapid or gradual) of structural adjustment. But when it finally did in 1987, the government went for the shock therapy form. It ignored the advice of those Ugandans at home and abroad who favored a gradual approach: some of them lost their jobs while others were sidelined.

The shock therapists occupied top positions in the reorganized and powerful ministry of finance, planning and economic development and central bank. The new team opened the door to all sorts of ideas from around the world. “…aid missions from rich northern governments, big NGOs like World Vision and Oxfam, development professors from the famous universities, not to mention the UN agencies and the Bretton Woods sisters [World Bank and IMF]. Each visitor brought a flagon of his own potion: Oxfam wanted to turn Uganda into a showcase for debt relief; the World Bank pressed privatization; the United Nations Development Program sponsored an experiment to decentralized government. Pretty soon, everybody’s potion was mixing with everybody else’s, and Uganda became a blend of all the fashionable ideas about development. Of course, this made it still more fashionable. If there is one thing that the development experts love more than success, it is a success that reflects their own brilliant advice” (S. Mallaby 2004).

Uganda became ‘the darling of the west’ not so much because it had a good program which was putting food on the table, but because it was providing the west a unique opportunity to experiment their ideas. After more than twenty years of experiment, Uganda has reaped a whirlwind.

As if the pain of structural adjustment experiment was not enough, Uganda has now embarked on yet another – perhaps more lethal – experiment on birth control. The implosion or decline of population in the developed world and the increasing migration from South to North America and from Africa to Europe have raised the fear of ‘barbarians’ from the south invading the north – hence the urgent need to check population ‘explosion’ or the ‘ticking bomb’.

The resurgence of population scare is due in large part to Patrick J. Buchanan’s book titled ‘State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America’ published in 2006. In it Buchanan has written that the African, Asian, Islamic and Hispanic peoples that the West once ruled are coming to repopulate the mother countries. “And so, as Rome had conquered the barbarians, the barbarians conquered Rome…And the Dark Ages descended. And as Rome passed away, so the West is passing away, from the same causes and in much the same way…” (Buchanan 2006).

Similarly, the challenge of African migrants to Europe is now at the center of debate about the future of Europe. Europe has organized many meeting on the immigration problem. In one of them, Spain’s justice minister warned about the surge of African migrants. The minister added “These people coming from the African continent are knocking on the door of the whole of European Union – we just happen to be closest border country towards the African continent” (BBC September 22, 2006). Earlier Chirac, former president of France had warned that if Africa is not developed Africans of whom 50 percent are below 17 years will flood the world (BBC July 14, 2006).

The two cases above demonstrate that the fear of population growth is not coming from the developing world but from the developed countries. In order to avoid all sorts of political, racial and human rights complications of preventing entry of Third World peoples into the First World countries, the West favors reducing African numbers at the source. To do that some experts and institutions in the West have created a scare namely if Africans do not reduce their ‘exploding’ populations they face the prospect of a catastrophe and possibly worse. They tried to use a country in the great lakes region as a case study on reducing population growth but it was not possible to pass legislation on birth control limiting the number of children a couple can legally have.

They have now descended on Uganda like they did when structural adjustment experiment failed in Ghana. Since the beginning of 2010, the number of meetings in Uganda and articles in the local media on Population is baffling. They are all projecting a catastrophe if birth control is not stepped up urgently. Some are complaining that the government has been slow in formulating an aggressive birth control policy.

The latest scare case is contained in an article by Evelyn Lirri in Saturday’s Monitor (Uganda) of August 21, 2010. She writes about Uganda’s population growth: “It’s a time bomb! But one that will take thirty years to explode and when it does, Uganda could find itself unable to feed its population, it will not have enough schools, hospitals, there will be more squalid settlements and traffic jams will probably be ten times worse than what we know of today”. Here are my preliminary comments on her article for illustrative purposes.

First, Evelyn Lirri should apologize for insulting Ugandans and their present and future leaders. She is saying, if I got her message correctly, that in the next thirty years the only thing that will change in Uganda is population growth. Everything else will remain constant: same number of schools, same number of hospitals and same amount of food etc. In this way, she has compared Ugandans to a herd of cattle in an enclosure for thirty years. The cows will reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of the enclosure because they have no capacity to make adjustments. Ugandans are more rational than cows!

Second, Evelyn Lirri does not tell us the respective contribution to population growth due to natural causes and in-migrants. Uganda has become a magnet attracting people from the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan) and the Great Lakes regions (Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and DRC). The population of Uganda districts bordering Rwanda and eastern DRC is growing very fast with a ripple effect. This has been facilitated by Uganda’s liberal policy on immigration and refugees. There is also a belief as popularized by some officials that Uganda still has plenty of arable land to accommodate more people. Do we know how many immigrants have entered Uganda since 1986 and their fertility rate?

Third, many parts of Uganda have experienced pandemics, epidemics and the adverse human effects of war. For example, Ruakai has been devastated by AIDS, Kabale by malaria, Luwero Triangle and Northern and Eastern Uganda by war. Does the government have actual population figures for these areas and peoples’ reproductive behavior before and after the epidemics and wars in these areas? Usually when a country or community has had such devastation, the natural instinct of survivors is to produce more to compensate for those that succumbed. If this is what is happening, high population growth is therefore a temporary phenomenon. Can Evelyn Lirri help us to understand the demographic dynamics in these areas?

Fourth, it is true that poverty, and associated hunger, lack of electricity and entertainment facilities, school drop-out and low education levels of girls etc, contributes to high fertility. And in Uganda the levels of poverty and hunger are very high especially in remote rural areas where tradition and culture in favor of large families are still strong. Poor and hungry people have a higher propensity for sexual relations than the rich and well-fed. What advice does Evelyn Lirri give to address these challenges?

Fifth, addressing demographic challenges appropriately calls for short, medium and long-term strategies for optimal outcomes. Does Evelyn Lirri have an idea how this should be done?

Sixth, if Evelyn Lirri is familiar with the demographic situation in China, India and Mauritius, what advice would she give to Uganda authorities for the next thirty years?

Seventh, right now Uganda’s population is a liability because of its poor quality in skills and productivity. Is this because of the population explosion alone?

Eighth, dependency ratio as described in the article is more appropriate for developed economies. It should be adjusted for developing countries including Uganda where children contribute useful services from an early age.

Ninth, Evelyn Lirri reported that Uganda’s fertility rate is now six children per woman. She should have added the good news that this is a decline from seven children per woman a few years back albeit slowly proving that Ugandans are capable of adjusting to their environment. Therefore fertility is declining.

Tenth, when you talk to Africans (I meet many at the United Nations Conferences in New York in particular) privately and informally you discover that they are not keen on birth control. That gives the impression that someone is pushing them and that is why enforcement of birth control programs is very weak even in those countries where there is legislation. Kenya adopted birth control in mid-1960s because it was forced or else the country would not get foreign aid. The family planning program never got off the ground during Kenyatta’s presidency because officials were not keen. Many officials were still preoccupied with the human costs of the Mau Mau war shortly before independence in 1963. Much money was wasted as a consequence.

Eleventh, population dynamics are multi-dimensional. There is politics, ethnicity, religion and culture etc. These elements have to be factored into the population equation to avoid trouble especially in Uganda. This may explain government’s reluctance to have an aggressive birth control policy as one of the writers recently suggested.

Twelfth, let me be clear lest I am misunderstood. I want all Ugandans to live a good life, in part, by having the number of children they can afford. But let us be careful how we do it so that we avoid mistakes made in developed and now in developing countries. What lessons can Uganda draw from the population implosion in developed countries and sex ratio imbalances in some developing countries that have had compulsory birth control programs?

Ugandans are reasonable, rational, adaptable and pragmatic people. With an all-embracing enabling environment (education, health care and associated decline in mortality, jobs and old age security and above all education of girls, school lunches and economic empowerment of women etc) Ugandans will adjust their family size to an optimal level. Voluntary birth control should be part of a broad multi-dimensional formula to attain optimal population size in the short, medium and long-term at the couple and state levels. Forcing birth control is a violation of human rights which Uganda authorities should not attempt to do.

Uganda authorities should avoid another hasty experiment mindful of structural adjustment bruises.