Looking at the empty half of the glass

In my article on the interview given by the
World Bank’s chief economist for
Africa, I observed that
the interview covered the full half of the glass. I reasoned that in order to
give readers a balanced and informed picture, it was necessary to look at the
empty half of the glass as well.

In his budget speech on June 12, 2008, the Minister of Finance covered the full
half of the glass when he reported on the achievements of 2007/8 financial
year. In this article, I am examining the empty half of the glass namely the
social and environmental aspects that were not covered in the speech.

The Minister informed the nation that the
economy grew at a rate of 8.9 percent in real terms considerably higher than
the projected 6.5 percent. One would have expected the Minister to tell the
audience and the nation that the commendable growth rate improved the living
conditions of Ugandans in rural and urban areas. He was not able to do that
presumably because poverty in
Uganda increased by one
million souls during the reporting period. The unemployment especially of young
men and women graduates has continued to increase in spite of an economic growth rate averaging over six
percent over the last twenty years. Therefore, while economic growth is necessary, it is not a sufficient
condition for transforming people’s lives from wretchedness to riches. The
public should therefore demand that in his next budget speech the Minister
present information on the linkage between economic growth and social welfare.

To monitor developments in the social
sectors, the government should establish the equivalent of the Presidential
Investors Roundtable. This arrangement would enable the President to conduct
consultations with all relevant stakeholders on a regular basis and make
adjustments as appropriate. It is important to recognize that transforming
Uganda into a modern
economy and middle class society will be very difficult if not impossible in
the absence of massive investments in human capital especially through
education and healthcare.
Uganda needs a healthy
cadre of doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, computer specialists and
managers etc fit for the 21st competitive global economy.
India’s booming economy
is largely based on its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of
establishing technological institutes modeled on
London Imperial College and Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT) in the
United States. Therefore
investing in higher education should take place alongside investments in
primary and secondary education as well as preventive and curative healthcare.

The Minister of Finance stressed the vital
role played by the export sector in the remarkable growth rate of the economy
during the 2007/8 financial year. However, he did not report that in order to earn increased foreign
exchange from primary commodities including foodstuffs, more land was brought
under cultivation resulting in massive de-vegetation and the consequent adverse
hydrological and thermal changes. Consequently,
Uganda is increasingly experiencing
longer and hotter dry seasons, falling water tables, disappearing rivers and
shrinking lakes and the development of desert conditions as well as irregular
rainfall in amount, timing and duration.

The Minister also did not mention how an
increase in the export of food stuffs to neighboring countries and beyond is
impacting on the food security of Ugandans especially children. The high level
of infants born with low birth weight signifies that their mothers are
malnourished and the levels of stunted and underweight reported by UNICEF in
its 2008 report are unacceptably high reflecting in large part the impact of
Uganda’s export policy of
foodstuffs. It does not make sense to encourage farmers to grow food for cash
rather than for the stomach only to end up spending the earned cash on medical
bills to treat malnutrition-related diseases.

Ugandans and their development partners need
to monitor closely developments in the social sector in the 2008/9 financial
year and beyond to ensure sustainable economic growth and equitable
distribution to all social groups and regions.