How Uganda got into the socio-ecological mess and why it will continue

To solve a problem, one needs to fully understand its causes first. The current challenges in Uganda represent many years of wrong policies and priorities starting in 1971. For instance, Amin’s wrong policy of ‘economic war’ which called on Ugandans to use every piece of land to boost production led to serious environmental degradation, warmer local climates and spread of disease vectors like mosquitoes that spread malaria in areas that had previously been too cold for mosquito survival. When economic and social conditions continued to deteriorate, Amin government identified population ‘explosion’ as the number one problem to be addressed through birth control. The problems got worse and forced Amin to invade a neighboring country to divert attention from the mushrooming domestic anger.

When NRM government switched to structural adjustment from the ten-point program it made a wrong policy choice by sub-contracting Uganda’s economy to the private sector in an unregulated environment. Because private sector is concerned with profit maximization, it engages in activities, labor practices and selection of locations that minimize costs. The government made other mistakes of focusing on economic growth and per capita income leaving equitable aspects to the imperfections of a trickle down mechanism of market forces, encouraging export diversification into foodstuffs without first determining domestic requirements, dismissing or marginalizing experienced Ugandans to create room for NRM cadres most of whom did not have experience in negotiating agreements and contracts and monitoring program implementation. So how did adverse social and ecological outcomes come about?

First, the allocation of business with a concentration in Kampala has resulted in the city and its vicinity with some 2 million people contributing some 70 percent of Uganda’s GDP. The remaining 31 million Ugandans are responsible for a mere 30 percent of GDP raising the issue of skewed income distribution.

Second, labor flexibility policy permitted private entrepreneurs to underpay workers who labor under conditions much below standards set by the International Labor Organization (ILO) – a tripartite body of governments, employers and workers. Workers who are hired and fired at will have no permanent source of income. Because of poor quality education, many Ugandans do not qualify for skilled and well paying jobs which have gone to foreign workers. A liberal immigration policy in Uganda has facilitated foreign recruitment with more likely to enter Uganda under the East African community arrangements that allow free mobility and settlement of labor. The ease with which foreign skilled workers are recruited will likely undermine national interest in human capital formation.

Low incomes, under-employment and unemployment, removal of subsidies on agriculture making modern inputs unaffordable, lack of investment in infrastructure especially roads and energy and overall neglect of the countryside and adverse terms of trade have left the majority of Ugandans with insufficient means to meet basic human needs of food, housing and clothing. Thus, extreme poverty, poor eating, poor housing and poor clothing in terms of shoes, for instance, have resulted in the shameful spread of malnutrition especially among children and Uganda’s future leaders, and jigger infestation that if not eradicated quickly will undermine production because people with excruciating pain in their feet and hands will not walk to the fields or when they get there will not hold a hand hoe firmly to dig!

Third, in the area of environment, the wrong policy began by the Amin regime of clearing large swathes of land to boost crop production and livestock herding has continued under NRM government. Although there has been a lot of talk about environmental protection and relevant institutions have been created, very little of practical value has occurred. Land clearance, wetland/swamp drainage and deforestation to increase and largely to diversify exports have accelerated with serious environmental outcomes. The herding of goats on a large commercial scale will harm the environment faster because goats have a higher propensity to damage the environment than cattle or sheep. Fish supplies for export and domestic consumption have drastically declined because fish extraction has exceeded reproduction.

Thus, Uganda got into the social and ecological mess we are witnessing today because of a combination of wrong policies and a profit maximization motive of private entrepreneurs in a non-regulated environment. Jobless economic growth and low incomes of most workers have resulted in high levels of poverty and associated diseases including malnutrition, jiggers and scabies, etc as the obvious external manifestations.

Although structural adjustment program (SAP) was dropped as official policy and replaced by a five-year development plan, the essential elements of SAP such as the dominant role of private sector, inflation control and economic growth, have been retained in the development plan. It appears that what has changed is a name but not the substance of SAP. The strategic role of the state in the development plan has not been spelled out.

Like the Amin regime in the 1970s, the NRM government seems to have identified population ‘explosion’ as the main development problem. Since the launch of the development plan in late 2009, birth control or family planning has taken center stage in Uganda’s development discourse giving the impression that rapid population growth has been identified as the number one economic, social and environmental problem that should engage national and international attention, first and foremost.

While many governments in developed and developing regions have embarked on stimulus packages to address economic recession and unemployment, Uganda has continued to stress inflation control that involves reducing money in circulation and keeping interest rates high and accumulating foreign currency reserves. High interest rates prevent small and medium-sized enterprises from borrowing and investing in labor-intensive programs and undermine higher economic growth. This might explain why Uganda’s economic growth has remained below 7 or 8 percent annually as minimum essential for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the target date of 2015.

Unless there is a fundamental change in policy formulation and institutional structures and staffing from structural adjustment set up, the economic path since 1987 that has created the current social and ecological mess will, regrettably, continue with predictable adverse social and environmental outcomes. If re-elected there is every reason to believe that NRM government will continue its failed economic, social and environmental policies.

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