To end impoverishment, Uganda needs a new leadership and economic agenda

Poverty – broadly defined – is a social problem that stifles the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Ugandans need to regain freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom to live in dignity. Today, in 2011, except a few families, Ugandans are absolutely poor (in the sense that they cannot meet basic necessities of life). They are sick, getting insane and selling their children to make ends meet. They are undereducated, poorly fed, poorly sheltered, poorly clothed and unemployed.

Maternal mortality is rising and undernourished women are producing underweight children with permanent physical and mental disabilities thus undermining human capital formation. Maximum brain development is stifled because of poor diet during the first three years of life from conception. And Ugandans have the lowest life expectancy in the whole of East Africa, reflecting the lowest level of the standard of living.

Ugandans still use primitive implements such as hand hoes and machetes. They broadcast seed by hand, weed by hand, harvest by hand and grind the grain by hand as was done in medieval times.

Ugandans live in fear of getting robbed, raped, abducted, poisoned or arrested. In all areas of human endeavor, Uganda is moving backward. Ipso facto, Ugandans have lost their dignity in the community of nations.

Uganda is not a poor country. It has varied and complementary demographic and natural resource endowments. Ugandans are resilient, dynamic and innovative. That means that factors that they are unable to control have kept them poor. In short, they have been impoverished. One academic has noted that if you want to understand why some people or communities are poverty, begin with understanding why and how some people or communities became rich.

Studies of pre-colonial Uganda show that Ugandans lived in a time of abundance. There was no endemic poverty and undernutrition. Local and regional markets enabled them to specialize according to resource endowments and exchange surplus for what they did not produce.

With colonialism, all these economic and commercial arrangements changed. The new division of labor reduced Ugandans to produce and export raw materials of low value and fluctuating prices in a downward trend against high and ever increasing prices of manufactured imports, causing permanent unfavorable terms of trade.

As prices of imports increased, Ugandans extracted more from the land for export to maintain the same level of foreign exchange earnings, damaging the environment in the process and diverting labor from food production to the export sector.

The colonial system denied Ugandans good education through which technology and skills that increase productivity and incomes are channeled. Unfavorable terms of trade and poor education began the process of impoverishment or immiserization in Uganda.

During the UPC I government an attempt was made to transform Uganda’s economic structure by expanding the manufacturing sector began in the 1950s to address unemployment challenges. UPC I is also credited with improving the quantity and quality of education, healthcare and nutrition. These components are essential in human capital formation. The 1970s was a lost decade under Amin regime.

The NRM regime has been characterized by pursuing neo-liberal or Washington Consensus policies that reintroduced Adam Smith’s invisible hand of market forces and individual liberty or the right to let alone (laissez-faire), with minimal government role in the economy.

It has been noted that liberal economy reduced global poverty significantly, “but because billions of individuals still suffer extreme privation, the present is no time for liberals to rest on their nineteenth- and twentieth century laurels” (The Independent Review Spring 2009).

In Uganda the Washington Consensus (neo-liberalism) did not work and has left in its trail a wide range of problems of high poverty level and associated social and environmental challenges. The Washington Consensus should have been adapted to Uganda conditions like Chile did after 1985.

The second factor responsible for Uganda’s impoverishment is NRM’s unprecedented level of corruption, sectarianism and dysfunctional institutions and poor leadership in general. The success of Singapore is attributed to: “a charismatic national leader, meritocratic politicians, bureaucrats skilled in public debates, capitalist entrepreneurs who were government bureaucrats, a substantial welfare program on sound financial basis, and foreign managers” (Ezra F. Vogel, 1991).

Thus, the current policies and leadership are not suitable for Uganda no matter what supporters of NRM government at home and abroad may say. Uganda needs a different development model as contained in the National Recovery Plan (NRP).

Uganda also needs a leadership that puts Uganda and its people first rather than focus on accumulating wealth through corruption and sectarianism disguised as individual entrepreneurship and hard work.

Building institutions, infrastructure and human capital and pursuing a policy of transforming Uganda’s economic structure, meritocracy, rule of law and separation of powers would be a welcome step to reverse Uganda’s economic retrogression and onto a path of high sustained economic growth (Uganda needs a growth rate of at least 9 percent – not five as at present – to significantly reduce poverty), equitable and sustainable development.

Above all, Ugandans should be empowered to fend for themselves in a globalizing world.