NRM: experience is a function of listening, adjusting and practicing

When NRM came to power in 1986, it formed a national unity cabinet with seasoned ministers including the prime minister, ministers of finance and planning and economic development and internal and foreign affairs. It also retained some experienced permanent secretaries. It launched a popular, well-formulated and balanced ten point program. The statements by the president were relevant, giving the impression that he knew what the challenges were and how to address them. Many Ugandans were impressed and supported the program. As expected, the first year was difficult as the government tried to cope with the economic and political crisis.

In 1987, the government abruptly abandoned the ten point program and embraced the extreme version (shock therapy) of stabilization and structural adjustment program (SAP), the very program it vehemently opposed during Obote II regime in 1981-85. The minister of finance and governor of the central bank were replaced as well as senior officials. The minister of finance who was an economist was replaced by a medical doctor in charge of a complex SAP program, implying that loyalty triumphed over competence. The ministries of finance and planning were merged into one ministry and staff in planning replaced that in finance in the new combined ministry of finance, planning and economic development. This was a major change.

As an economist familiar with the challenges of designing and implementing structural adjustment programs having followed the implementation of SAPs in Chile and Ghana I informally approached some ministers and officials in Uganda and/or when they visited New York where I worked and advised them to draw lessons from Chile and Ghana and avoid the mistakes that had already surfaced. It had become clear that economic growth didn’t trickle down to the majority of the population and income distribution had become skewed in favor of the rich.

In the course of informal conversations, I learned that actually the experienced ministers and permanent secretaries were not in charge of their respective ministries. It was ministers of state and directors in those ministries. These were truly NRM cadres who had been rewarded for their guerrilla activities, many with poor basic education and no work experience (many didn’t complete high school or university). They subsequently went through night classes at Makerere to get diplomas that may not amount to much. The program was subsequently terminated. Some NRM cadres with good education and experience were posted in ministries outside their areas of competence (e.g. a medical doctor serving as minister of finance).

I found out that many of these cadres were familiar with colonial, neo-colonial and revolutionary theories and works including by Fanon and Rodney that were largely unconnected with the work at hand. They were confident that as they had won the political war they would win the economic war. This complacency can be deduced from the president’s statement on industrialization. He stated confidently “Uganda will be an industrial power in 15 years, I have no doubt about it. There’s no doubt because nothing can stop us”(A Journal of African Leadership Volume 1. No. 2, 1991). Sadly, what we are witnessing is not industrialization but de-industrialization as some industries close down; others operate below installed capacity or relocate to other countries. This is the price of failing to listen, adjust and practice.

I also advised that the invisible hand of market forces, laissez faire policies and trickle-down economics have imperfections that required a strategic role of the state to prevent or correct them when they occurred. I further advised about the pragmatic changes that had been made in Chile’s SAP program including replacing the entire economics team (Chicago Boys) following the economic recession of 1982-83.

I stressed in particular that trickle down mechanism had never worked anywhere and relying on it to spread – by class and region – the benefits of economic growth was unlikely to happen, meaning that income distribution would be highly skewed in favor of those already rich and well connected. I added that Uganda could benefit from the UN TOKTEN program that pays to hire Uganda professionals in the diaspora for short periods to beef up national professional capacity. I was disappointed when in 1993 the president during an interview with a foreign journalist reported that Uganda didn’t need the services of Ugandans in the diaspora. NRM government was training its staff (The Courier Sept/Oct. 1993).

Meanwhile because it had no capacity NRM requested IMF and the World Bank to assist with designing and implementing SAP or economic recovery program (P. Langseth et al 1995). In short, NRM preferred foreign experts and advisers over well educated and experienced Uganda professionals at home and abroad.

Because it launched a structural adjustment program supported by IMF and the World Bank, Uganda has obtained generous financial support and technical assistance estimated at over $30 billion in grants albeit there is virtually nothing to show for it which should worry development partners that have to explain the use to which their tax payers’ money has been put.

Because of this overwhelming donor support, NRM government became accountable to donors that were interested in economic growth, inflation control, reduced civil service and subsidies, currency devaluation, external debt repayment and accumulation of foreign currency reserves, economic liberalization by removing barriers to trade and price de-control and increase in and diversification of exports, etc.

On the other hand the people of Uganda wanted a development program that would pull them out of poverty, improve education and healthcare and ensure food and nutrition security which the government hoped would be realized through trickle down mechanism. This NRM government donor accountability orientation was captured in a 1993 report which recorded that “The Western donors are happy with the country’s economic development for which they have pledged continued financial and technical support” (Uganda Yearly Review 1993).

Because the economy was designed and rigidly directed by foreign experts and advisers (some of them testing their pet projects), Ugandans didn’t have the opportunity to listen, learn, adjust and acquire on the job experience. Many policy documents and conference statements were written by foreign experts, depriving Ugandans the opportunity to learn by doing. Senior Uganda professionals were told they would be supervised by foreign experts some of them young and inexperienced, causing a lot of frustration, if not outright humiliation.

Here is an example of humiliation. “Just a few years earlier, at one of the Paris gatherings in the late 1980s, a Ugandan official had been taken aside by a World Bank counterpart and told he would be getting a foreign ‘adviser’ – actually, an overseer who would ensure he [the Ugandan] followed the Bank’s policies; when the Ugandan suggested he didn’t need such nannying, he was told he had no choice”(S. Mallaby 2004). That was an order with no room for discussion and compromise. Why then would a Ugandan treated like this in his/her own country have an interest to learn and accumulate experience?

In many cases, young Ugandan NRM cadres were placed above their senior and experienced fellow Ugandans who didn’t participate in the guerrilla war. This has been the general demoralizing trend including in embassies where career diplomats are denied promotion in favor of political appointees and you end up with conflict that undermines performance.

Under NRM regime there hasn’t been a proper environment for generating interest in government work. Consequently, after 26 years in power and still counting, many NRM cadres have not acquired the experience sufficient to address the challenges of the 21st century. The quality of statements and discussions by some Uganda ambassadors and other senior staff at international conferences is too well known to be repeated here. There is consensus that the fault lies with the appointing authority.

To prove lack of knowledge and experience by many Uganda officials you need to follow Uganda’s performance at international conferences and participation in UN meetings. I have been privileged to attend both. At a Geneva conference on Copenhagen + 5 (if I recall the event correctly), I had a conversation with a young Ugandan female participant from the ministry of foreign affairs. Our conversation touched on frequent droughts and floods and their contribution to food shortages in Uganda. The lady argued forcefully that there is nothing the government could do because droughts and floods are “Acts of God” beyond control of any government. I responded that damage to the environment in the form of droughts and floods has been aggravated by extensive deforestation; de-vegetation and wetland clearance which are man-made decisions and have adversely affected temperatures and rainfall regimes including local climate changes. I suggested that a government program of natural resource rehabilitation such as reforestation and restoration of wetlands might help. Apparently because she didn’t know how to respond, she complained bitterly that I was unfairly blaming NRM for a situation that was beyond its control. We parted on that unfortunate note.

Another reason that many Ugandans haven’t acquired experience is that they are unwillingly assigned to departments for which they are not qualified. There was a staff member in one of Uganda embassies who had been assigned to a committee different from what she wanted and was qualified for. This staff member was frustrated because of the unfamiliarity with and complexity of the issues that were being discussed. I happened to be covering that committee. To assist, I gave the member some introductory books and offered to help should that become necessary. There was no interest and the staff member eventually left for another duty station without learning much after some two years on the committee.

There is yet another reason. Some staffers are so secure in their jobs that they don’t see why they should break their backs working hard. They don’t even bother to attend some meetings. Others use office time to do private errands. They get promotions in departments of their choice without toil and have advisers anyway to do the back breaking work.

When structural adjustment failed and was abandoned in 2009, NRM quickly designed a Five Year Development Plan (NDP) largely for the 2011 elections. The plan requires a new team of officials with knowledge of public and private sector partnership which is different from structural adjustment that was based on market forces and laissez faire policies and limited role of the state in the economy. Unlike in 1987 when structural adjustment program was launched, the appointing authority did not make institutional and staff changes. Consequently, staffing and institutions have remained the same and as a result the National Development Plan hasn’t been implemented as reported by the prime minster a few months ago. This could be a function of lack of political will and/or technical capacity to do the job.

It is no wonder therefore that the government has continued to implement the elements of the failed structural adjustment program because they have no capacity to adjust to a new paradigm of public and private partnership that employs state and private sectors in strategically and mutually reinforcing manner.

After the abandonment of structural adjustment program UDU prepared a home grown (by Ugandans) National Recovery Plan (NRP) and sent a copy to the government and offered to work with NRM in the interest of all Ugandans but haven’t received a response and that was more than a year ago. Should UDU have the opportunity to implement the Plan such as in the transitional government we have proposed UDU will ensure that all Ugandans at home and abroad (in NRM, in opposition and independent) will be involved according to their comparative advantage. We strongly believe that once in power, regardless of how one got there, the government should serve all the people and govern justly contrary to how NRM has governed through blatant sectarianism, cronyism and rampant corruption.

The lesson learned is that the number of years spent in a job per se doesn’t enable acquisition of experience. Experience is built through listening and hearing what others are saying and adjusting to changing circumstances; hard work including through extensive reading, attending seminars and workshops and consultations. Uganda will definitely need external expertise but that will be sought when there is no Ugandan at home or abroad qualified to do the job.

Because NRM hasn’t provided the required environment many NRM cadres still don’t have the knowledge and experience sufficient to handle the challenges of the 21st century, explaining in large part why Uganda is retrogressing – a fact that is indisputable judged by, for instance, reemergence of diseases that had disappeared.

For more information contact me at telephone +1 914 699 9132 (land line); +1 212 961 7216 (mobile) and e-mail address: