Scapegoat tactics will not solve Uganda’s development challenges

From time immemorial, most human beings have blamed someone else when things went wrong and have taken credit when they went right. This is true at work, in homes and at state level. Some governments are known for blaming the “Acts of God” such as bad weather when the crop fails, population explosion to explain environmental degradation and increasingly using laziness to explain increasing unemployment.

Those who have read Uganda’s budget speeches will have noticed that when agricultural output is low and food prices go up, blame is leveled at the weather – usually drought. There is some truth in that. However, it is very well known that rain-fed agriculture carries risks which can easily be overcome. And the government knows that. It has talked about the benefits of irrigation and even allocated resources for the construction of dams to collect water for farming purposes – crop cultivation and livestock herding. That was many years ago and farming still suffers from droughts and increasingly floods.

As the country moves towards the green revolution and commercial herding, reliable water supplies are going to be more important than ever before. With increasing demand for food and agricultural commodities for export and domestic use, Uganda has no choice but to step up irrigated farming. But this is not going to be easy because water tables are dropping, lakes are shrinking, and rivers are disappearing or becoming seasonal. Therefore an irrigation strategy will need to be combined with measures to check environmental degradation.

Population growth has also been blamed for many of Uganda’s economic, social and environmental ills.  When the regime faced economic and related difficulties in the 1970s after the windfall from the seizure of Asian properties had been used up, it complained that Ugandans were producing too many children beyond the country’s means although there was no way of knowing how rapidly the population was growing because up-to-date statistics did not exist. Notwithstanding this constraint, the government embarked on a birth control program which it had rejected a few years back when the economy was doing pretty well.

It is true that rapid population growth can have an adverse impact on economic performance. But before one can design a birth control program, one has to first understand specifically why couples are having many children. There is a tendency especially by some foreign advisors and their former students to rationalize that Ugandan couples produce more children than they need because they have no access to birth control facilities. This is not entirely true. Studies show that massive family planning programs in East Africa since the 1960s have not achieved much – free contraceptives were everywhere. There are reasons for that. In a rural setting where some 90 percent of Ugandans still live economic, old age security and cultural factors demand large families. Take the case of early marriage.

In Uganda, many young people are getting married at a very young age once they drop out of school. Once married custom requires that the couple should have children without delay otherwise it will be considered infertile and none wants to be in that category. Therefore one of the least controversial methods of reducing family size is to keep children in school. This can be done by providing free and compulsory primary and secondary education in addition to school feeding programs.

There is sufficient evidence that school meals keep students especially girls in school and improve their performance. All parents want their children – girls and boys – to get a good education but are forced to keep them at home especially girls because they cannot afford education expenses or they want them to help with domestic work. Food rations to take home have helped girls to stay in school and delay marriage. These are inexpensive measures to implement to reduce population growth. Advising parents and children against early marriage while necessary is not a sufficient condition. What about laziness?

With mounting unemployment and underemployment challenges and the associated rise in crime, domestic violence and alcohol consumption – it has been said but needs to be confirmed that Uganda is number one in alcohol consumption in the whole world – attempts are being made to find a culprit. Initially it was explained that in a market economy the private sector had primary responsibility for creating jobs. Many ministers and senior officials have stressed that the government has provided an enabling environment for that to happen. But the explanation has fallen on deaf ears. These days one hears stories to the effect that Ugandans are lazy and that is why unemployment especially of young workers is rising. This contradicts stories from many other quarters praising Ugandans for had work with good results.

Explorers, missionaries and colonial administrators credited Ugandans with hard work and this asset explains in large part why Uganda escaped becoming a white settler colony because cotton and coffee were produced in sufficient quantities and cheaply by Uganda peasants with minimum supervision.
Ugandans are hard workers by nature but sheer determination is not enough. The natural endowment needs to be complemented by good education to fit them into the labor market. The current low quality education has shut the door to many job seekers who are roaming the street and cannot find jobs because they are unemployable. Who is to be blamed? Second, opportunities for self employment are limited. Terms of credit are beyond their means. Securing land is becoming increasingly expensive. They need guidance in their effort which government can provide.

It is time to recognize that laissez-faire policies that the government has pursued since the 1990s have not worked in the labor sector. And when a policy does not work, it should be adjusted or replaced altogether.

Time has come to recast Uganda’s economic policies based on market forces and the private sector as the engine of economic growth and equity. Clearly they have not worked as originally intended. Producing annual statistics on rapid economic growth, inflation control and export diversification, however laudable and well received by the international community, will not create jobs, put food on the table and ensure sustainable development.

The government will therefore need to intervene strategically to iron out the imperfections of the market forces and create infrastructure, institutions and capacities that create jobs and end unemployment. Finding scapegoats has inherent limitations and should be abandoned.