Why Uganda’s economic growth hasn’t ended poverty

During the guerrilla war and immediately after capturing power in 1986 Yoweri Museveni wrote and spoke regularly and passionately about his determination to end the long suffering of all the people of Uganda. He condemned previous governments for indulging in luxuries while Ugandans languished in poverty, hunger, illiteracy and suffered all sorts of health problems including jiggers. He promised that every Ugandan would wear shoes, go to school, eat balanced meals and get treated when sick. At international conferences, summits, press conferences and interviews Museveni articulated unambiguously his administration’s policies of ending neo-colonialism and pre-industrial culture; of industrializing the economy within fifteen years and protecting industries against unfair competition and of state intervention in Uganda’s economy “because, in reality, there is no such thing as a free market. There is always intervention at some stage”(Africa Forum Volume 1. No.2, 1991). The overall outcome of these policies was to lift Ugandans out of their miserable living conditions. He emphasized that the policy of his administration was not to reduce but eradicate poverty. His ideas were indeed revolutionary and he received long applause. Reporters followed him wherever he went and Museveni enjoyed it. I was there in Addis Ababa and New York where he spoke and I witnessed it all.

As the implementation of NRM policies began, Museveni realized that the benefits of economic growth were being shared among a few people at the top of the economic pyramid and he expressed concern at this development. This means that Museveni understands that economic growth per se does not automatically bring about development in the sense of reducing and ultimately ending poverty. He understood the role of food and nutrition security, quality education, good health and environmental protection in ending the miserable living conditions. Museveni added emphatically that studying political economy as undergraduate student made him understand the laws that govern the development of society which helped him in “our struggle with the IMF and the World Bank”. Along the way, however, Museveni changed course and focused on economic growth and per capita income and dropped the development component from the equation which deals with poverty reduction. So what happened? There are three possibilities.

First, Museveni perhaps succumbed to the dictates of IMF and World Bank that focus on economic growth and per capita income. These two institutions believe that market forces allocate resources efficiently, promote rapid economic growth and ultimately distribute income equitably through a trickle down mechanism. Therefore Museveni may have been persuaded to drop the idea of state intervention to correct market imperfections and promote equitable distribution of the benefits of economic growth and allow the invisible hand of the market forces to take care of it. But Museveni knows from illustrations in time and space that trickle down mechanism does not work. Without state intervention which Museveni now does not favor, poverty reduction will not occur. As a result, market forces have made the benefits of economic growth trickle up and the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer and the middle class contracting. That is why the so-called Uganda’s real GDP growth that “accelerated from an average of 6.5 percent year-on-year in the 1990s to over 7 percent during the 10 years leading up to 2009-10” (Uganda Media Centre Press Statement March 9, 2012) has not tackled absolute poverty which still stands at over 50 percent. With a population growing at some three percent per annum against an economy growing at a real rate averaging 7 percent, poverty should have declined significantly if the benefits of economic growth had been distributed equitably. Thus, economic growth per se does not automatically bring about development measured in reduced poverty and increased happiness.

Second, when Museveni was articulating his transformational and development ideas, he assumed that Uganda would be a corrupt free country as he articulated in the ten point program. But corruption survived and has grown exponentially diverting colossal amount of public funds into private pockets much of it banked abroad. Combined with mismanagement corruption has reduced resources available for investment in physical and social infrastructure and institutions essential for meeting prerequisites for economic growth and equitable development. That is why economic growth has remained far below the 9 percent level essential as minimum for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Countries like Asian tigers that have transformed their economies and societies grew at a real average growth rate of ten percent for decades.

High taxation to make up for stolen public funds has also drained resources from the public making it difficult to save and invest in productive activities. NRM’s efforts to address corruption have been timid and the disease has continued unabated. Consequently government has continued to run short of money in spite of massive donations and loans and to reduce expenditures on essential services and raise charges like school fees that are keeping bright students from poor families out of school and universities and cut back on medicines and hospital supplies and allowances to students or delay payment thereof.

Third and perhaps most significant was the launch of the fifty year master plan in 1992 to boost Bahororo domination of Uganda. To the best of my knowledge nobody has denied existence of the plan. It is stated clearly in the plan that the rest of Ugandans should be kept poor, denied access to development resources and meaningful education. Keeping non-Bahororo Ugandans poor is being implemented in various ways through denying school lunch to children from poor families forcing them to drop out of school; keeping the youth unemployed; keeping interest rates too high to make it difficult for poor people to borrow; and keeping imports very expensive some of them used as inputs in manufacturing enterprises. These measures have kept the poor down or made them even poorer. Poor, hungry, sick, illiterate and vulnerable people are economically and politically voiceless and powerless. Museveni and his core advisers believe that Ugandans in such miserable conditions can’t and won’t challenge the ascendancy of Bahororo politically, economically and militarily. But that is where the mistake lies.

From time immemorial it is poor, hungry, unemployed and vulnerable workers and peasants and angry students that have removed or created conditions for the removal of uncaring governments from power as in Ethiopia in 1974. In South Africa the final push to end apartheid started in 1976 in Soweto student insurrection, joined by schools in Cape Town and beyond in 1980. Transition from autocracy to democracy was speeded up by student demonstrations. Peasant revolts in Europe contributed to the end of feudalism. Unemployed and hungry workers in Paris with active women participation and peasants started the French Revolution when they stormed the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789 and dragged the king and his family from their comfortable residence at Versailles to Paris where revolutionary actions were taking place. It was the working poor led by women and peasants of Russia that triggered the end of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 and ushered in the Russian Revolution. In all these struggles politicians including members of the National Assembly in France; parliamentarians in the Russian parliament (Duma); priests like Abbe Sieyes in Paris, Gapon in St Petersburg and Sin in Philippines as well as police and military joined the masses in bringing down autocratic regimes. What lesson can Uganda draw from these illustrations?

We Ugandans are on our own. Students, youth, women, men, priests, police and soldiers we must come together and liberate our country from long serving dictatorship for present and future generations. Nobody will do it for us: others can extend a helping hand but cannot and should not be expected to initiate regime change for us. That would be interfering in domestic affairs of a sovereign state. We should stop listening to NRM promises because they have remained empty. The five-year National Development Plan which replaced the failed structural adjustment program in 2009 has not been implemented. It was designed for election purposes which are over and NRM stole. The press statement delivered by the Uganda media centre demonstrated how empty NRM has become on social issues. The statement did not say a word about the social and environmental status in Uganda. If there was something positive it would have been mentioned. At one time NRM boasted that it was reducing poverty rapidly until the public rejected it and it was dropped. That there was total silence in the press statement says it all: social and environmental conditions have deteriorated badly. Designing good programs like poverty reduction action plan and modernization of agriculture that never get implemented are empty promises to divert attention from dissenting voices. Promising new technical colleges when what we have already is crumbling does not make sense. The oil industry will be a curse than anything else. Oil revenue will go to the few well connected at the top and hand over an environmental mess to the public especially populations in areas where drilling will take place. So don’t pin your hopes on oil revenue because it won’t come your way otherwise you will end up very disappointed.

Expressing disappointment at government failure to deliver on promises through marching, associating, assembling and expressing opinions peacefully is legitimate. It is our right to do so and government should not interfere. Police role is to make sure law and order is maintained but not to refuse permission to assemble anywhere in the country. The military should stay out of law and order business and leave it to police forces that should act professionally.

For the reasons given above, NRM government will not reduce poverty because its development ideology based on economic growth and trickle down mechanism does not work; unchecked corruption will leave the treasury with no development funds; and the desire to make Bahororo king by keeping the rest poor have stood in the way of ending suffering of the people of Uganda. Therefore we Ugandans with a helping hand from friends and well wishers will make the necessary changes that will translate economic growth into poverty reduction. So let’s get to work without further delay. To do so effectively we Ugandans must overcome fear first and foremost. Security forces must refrain from harassing peaceful demonstrators. And NRM must accept that failure to adjust and resort to force and arrest of opposition leaders is counterproductive. Arresting and/or harassing opposition leaders and their families make them popular at home and especially abroad.

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