The NRM government was unable to detect the diseases of poverty (jiggers, scabies, trachoma, cholera, under-nutrition, pneumonia, insanity and malaria etc) – which have embarrassed the development partners and damaged the image of the government (as it prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2011) that had presented Uganda as a success story in neo-liberal economic growth and poverty reduction – for the following principal reasons.
First, the government followed strictly foreign advice that focused on inflation control, economic growth and per capita GDP without paying attention to the equity aspects. The distribution of the benefits of economic growth by class and region was left entirely to the invisible hand of the market forces which would not be interfered with at all.
Second, the government focused on producing excellent blue prints such as the modernization of agriculture, poverty reduction action plan and universal primary education with the assistance of renowned development experts from around the world. These blue prints were received by the international community as a model of success story before they were even implemented. The government was satisfied with that assessment which boosted its international standing and did not bother with implementation as long as the donors and the media were happy with what they were marketing on behalf of the NRM government.
Third, the government was advised by foreign experts to place Uganda’s economy in the hands of private entrepreneurs knowing full well that their principal goal is to maximize profits and not to reduce poverty. Guided by laissez faire capitalism, entrepreneurs invested in sectors and locations where returns were not only high but could also be reaped quickly. The capital city of Kampala and the services sector offered those opportunities bypassing the rural areas and other towns where over 95 percent of the population live and derive its livelihood largely from agriculture and agro-based activities. Accordingly 70 percent of Uganda’s GDP is derived from Kampala and the surrounding areas and from service like banking, transport and housing.
Fourth, the initial poverty reduction figures that have underpinned poverty reduction calculations since the Movement government came to power have been based on a wrong premise. According to Sebastian Mallaby (2004) the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that have driven Uganda’s economy – through a handful of trusted national disciples in the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development and the Central Bank as well as nationally hired consultants (K. Brock et al., 2004) – “believed that poverty must be receding, given Uganda’s growth numbers; [although] other people at the conference [in Paris in 1995] doubted that the [economic growth] tide was lifting everyone”.
In 1999, the Uganda Participatory Poverty Assessment Program (UPPAP) presented its findings showing that poverty was increasing whereas the World Bank’s figures showed that it was declining. “This apparent divergence prompted some prominent World Bank and Government figures to dismiss and undermine UPPPA findings” (K. Brock et al., 2004). Further, constructive criticism of Uganda’s economic policy was regarded as sabotage by opposition party supporters and dismissed by the government.
The World Bank has been reported to cook figures to show that ‘adjusting’ countries were doing better than ‘non-adjusting’ states and that the former would soon see the light at the end of the tunnel. T. Mkandawire has observed that “The Bretton Woods Institution [the World Bank] has been at great pains to point to the light at the end of the tunnel. And in one case [it has] been caught by ECA [Economic Commission for Africa] fiddling with figures to suggest that ‘strong adjusters’ [like Uganda] were enjoying higher rates of growth than ‘weak adjusters’. As it turned out the contrary has been the case” (P. Anyang’ Nyongo 1992).
Fifth, because the Uganda government wanted to maintain good relationships with key creditors and donors and was fully aware that the one who pays the piper – the donors – calls the tune (K. Brock et al., 2004) it followed donors’ advice even when it knew that that advice was not appropriate. For example, there are officials in the government who know that the policy of exporting foodstuffs while Ugandans are not eating enough is wrong but are unable to reverse the policy decision because that would interfere with the working of the invisible hand of the market which Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and IMF) and some donors favor.
Consequently poor feeding mostly of non-nutritious cassava and maize without adequate nutrient supplements has together with stress (caused by under-employment or out right unemployment and loans etc) contributed to the rapidly spreading mental ill-health including outright insanity. Further many government officials know that a policy of labor flexibility which allows employers to set the wage as low as possible is contributing to poverty increase because the salary is too low to meet the basic needs. But again nothing can be done because the operation of the market forces cannot be interfered with.
Because of these reasons, the spreading and deepening of poverty and the associated diseases was not monitored properly, if at all. The UPPAP which would have given early warning signals was undermined by the World Bank and the government. When the diseases of poverty became too many to hide the Bretton Woods Institutions had to apologize that some of the advice was wrong but they have not shifted from the neo-liberal orthodoxy of market forces and laissez faire capitalism.
If President Museveni’s foreword to the Five Year Development Plan is any guide, one can conclude that the plan will not differ from the structural adjustment program Uganda has followed since 1987. The President stressed macro-economic stability, economic growth, private sector and export-orientation as the engines of growth and development – the very principal pillars that underpinned the structural adjustment program that was declared a failure at a retreat of the Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries in September 2009 which was attended by the President.
It appears that in order to maintain a good relationship with the donors the government has again followed a wrong course which can only make matters worse.