Sunday January 26 2014

NRM at 28 – what you’ll hear today is not what you will see

By Bernard Tabaire

President Museveni makes 28 years in State House today. It is unlikely Uganda will again have anyone who rules, or maybe governs, for anywhere close. It is a different world. Mr Museveni had his chance, actually created his chance, and ran with it. Good on him.

He will stand up today to talk the big talk about the urgent need for socio-economic transformation and how building dams, roads, deepening the regional market is the way to get there. Security will come in because the UPDF is blasting away in South Sudan. He will remind us how the size of Uganda’s economy will soon hit the $30 billion mark – still smaller compared to say Ghana or Kenya but leagues away from the $1.5 billion of 1986.

That Uganda’s economy has been expanding steadily over the long Museveni decades is not debatable. To continue the growth, it is important to build the needed big infrastructure for the private sector to thrive for the benefit, one assumes, of all of Uganda.

The bigger talk should, however, veer away from economic growth and big roads because big roads do not use themselves. The focus should be the people – Ugandans like you and I and a million others like you and I, to borrow a Koestlerian line.

Economic growth should visibly benefit a vast majority of the people. Otherwise, you end up with inequality in income and in opportunity. These are things that have worried important people like presidents of big countries and Nobel Prize-winning economists for many years. For me, I see inequality around and it is not nice. Yet I do not hear much talk on the subject amongst Uganda’s politicians.

Yes, the poverty numbers have continued to reduce since 1986. Important as that may be, it is not the crucial point. The point is what economic activities are individual Ugandans engaged in that help grow their incomes steadily? It is the money, silly!

The literature on the subject over the last decade as regards Uganda is unflattering. “The evidence supports the hypothesis that higher income groups, possessing more income generating assets (productive assets, human assets, or both), are in a better position to benefit from increased national income,” noted one paper published in 2004. That is another way of saying it is the Sudhirs and Bitatures and Mbires and Alams and Mukwanos and Lalanis and Karias who know the sweetness of the numbers President Museveni will be rattling off for the umpteenth time today.

No one should begrudge our hardworking and shrewd entrepreneurs – assuming they are paying all their due taxes and treating their workers well. It is just that Uganda has nearly 36 million people, each of whom is a distinct individual who wants to be healthy, wealthy and happy. Is their government doing enough to have them in a position where they can work meaningfully so as to continually and reasonably make better lives for themselves?

A year ago, the researcher Lawrence Bategeka, who recently left Makerere’s Economic Policy Research Centre, wrote: “During the past two decades Uganda witnessed remarkable increases in income inequality… The increase in income inequality stood in total contrast to the high rates of GDP growth, which averaged about 7.5 per cent per annum over the past two decades.”

Ah, well.
Income inequality reflects and leads to inequality in access to opportunity. If your child is not going to Greenhill today because you cannot afford it, she is fried. She will most likely not go to a good university and will also not have a network of well-heeled peers to benefit from in the years ahead. It is not funny.

Mr Bategeka concludes: “Tackling inequality in Uganda entails a comprehensive development framework that puts people’s participation in the economic growth process at the centre. People must be viewed as agents of economic growth and transformation and not passive recipients of social services and/or handouts from either development partners or their own government. The approach would entail a changed role of the state from one that sits back expecting the blind market forces to optimize economic growth and address inequality to one that ensures participation of everybody in the economic growth process.”

The people making policy in Uganda understand these things. They should find the courage and creativity to make them work. It is now fairly clear that President Museveni’s ad hoc hops around the country repeating himself about household income is not working. It will only work if he reorganises and reorients his government to do what Mr Bategeka is saying. Otherwise, he will keep hiding under the bush that is GDP figures, incomprehensible to his voters who want to see real money over time in their pockets.
Happy NRM Day to those who care.

Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence.