For individuals to survive they must have either property or skills and live in an enabling environment. They must also be well fed, well educated, well housed, well clothed and healthy to use their properties and skills effectively and efficiently. Because of space limitations, we shall focus on property and skills.
More than 90 percent of Ugandans similar to medieval Europe (if we define urban to be an area where there are no agricultural activities) depend on land for their livelihood.
As population grows – excess of births over deaths and in-migrants over out-migrants (unlike other countries, Uganda largely resettles refugees instead of keeping them in camps until they are ready to return home) – there will be more demand for land which is no longer readily available.
In the absence of alternatives – because most of the peasants are functionally illiterate – Uganda authorities need to discuss land tenure and land use very carefully to avoid dispossession and joblessness.
Scientifically there is evidence that small scale farmers use land more efficiently than large farmers. Gittinger and others have stressed that in many developing countries small farmers use land more effectively than large farmers although policy makers prefer the latter (J. Price Gittinger, 1987).
Since colonial days, Uganda peasants have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that they are efficient farmers. It was their high productivity and quick response to incentives that convinced British officials to drop the idea of white settlers. These embedded Uganda qualities are still there! Uganda does not need large scale farms.
Therefore talk of privatizing land to large farmers – national and foreign – to increase productivity, feed the nation and generate surplus for export should be weighed carefully mindful of peasant dispossession as they will not get hired as laborers because of capital intensity on large farms.
With non-agricultural skills and low propensity for retraining, dispossessed peasants will create political and economic problems. To avoid them, authorities should assist peasants to retain their land by creating conditions and procedures that minimize the sale of land. The willing seller and willing buyer arrangements have created serious problems.
Peasants should also be helped to improve productivity through extension and affordable credit services, storage and processing facilities, infrastructure – energy and roads – and market information and farmers’ organizations and empowerment to take part in decisions that affect them.
Current discussions in international forums to produce food on Africa land – the world has just discovered that Africa has more fertile land than previously thought – to feed hungry people around the world should be handled with great care. That there was enough land and surface and underground water for irrigated African agriculture was known but ignored when the focus was on birth control and the world had surplus food.
Regardless of the outcome Uganda peasants should neither be dispossessed of their land nor denied food in sufficient quantity and quality. These are inalienable human rights issues recognized in many national and international instruments.
The issue of skills formation is troubling at the moment. During the first decade of independence in 1960s, Uganda was doing well and produced high quality graduates although the quantity was low. The World Bank reported in 1993 that “Although school enrollment was still low [between 1963 and 1970], Uganda’s education system had developed a reputation for very high quality”.
The political turmoil from 1970 to 1985 in the whole country which continued in the northern region severely undermined the quality and quantity of education and skill development. Since 1987, a combination of policy and political decisions has boosted quantity at the expense of quality education at all levels, leaving much room for improvement.
A new beginning is called for starting with primary education which lays the foundation for human capital formation. Massive student drop out and high failure rates especially among girls calls for an urgent rethink of the current situation. While commenting on poor PLE performance in 2008, the minister of state for primary education stressed the absence of school lunches and lack of teachers’ incentives such as housing as major constraints.
Those who fail at this and higher levels have very little chance of acquiring skills required in a competitive global economy – hence are dispossessed unintentionally.