The day we treat Museveni at Mulago, we can start calling Uganda developed
Posted Thursday, September 26 2013 at 01:00
In 1986, Uganda, then coming off five years of war and 20 years of instability, had a national airline, a cargo and passenger rail service, and a health system that worked.
Kampala had a commuter bus service and there was an unreliable inter-city bus service too.
They all had suffered the brunt of war. Uganda Airlines and Uganda Railways were bleeding money. Everything was pockmarked with the brutal scars of war and inefficiency. The economy had tanked. Water and power shortages were chronic and we had to line up for beer and sugar and such essentials.
We’ve certainly come a long way. People who used to queue for sugar are now torn between low-calorie sweeteners and honey; there is so much beer even village folk have brands dedicated to them. The economy has grown several times over. These should be the good times, right?
While we have become richer as a country we have become poorer as a society.
Our public health system is in coma. Learning has been suspended in our education system and replaced by attendance. Most of our streets are unlit at night. The garbage goes uncollected. Our sewer system has not been expanded in decades.
How do we explain this contradiction? The privatisation exercise of public utilities and companies throughout the 90s was supposed to make them more efficient, turn them from loss-making, subsidy-sucking liabilities, to profit-making, tax-paying assets.
There are many success stories, from telecoms to banking to agro-business, but that does not tell the whole story.
We now know that public-owned companies can be profitable if they are run well. Emirates Airlines in the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Commercial Bank are notable examples.
We also now know that those people who preached against subsidising public enterprises have gone much farther, by bailing out private companies with public money. They preached water, which we gulped, while they sipped on cabernet sauvignon out of glasses of pragmatic self-interest.
But that does not tell the whole story. We have done two other things that have destroyed our public services and hollowed out the centre of our social co-existence.
The ruling elite have appropriated the profits of privatisation, either by selling themselves the enterprises on the cheap, or by stealing the taxes that we all pay.
If we are not spending money to subsidise Uganda Airlines but are instead collecting taxes from Air Uganda, can someone please show us the money?
The ruling elite has done something else; it has privatised the State itself.
To get reasonable health care in Uganda today one has to go to one of the mushrooming private hospitals around Kampala. To get a half-decent education, one has to take one’s children to one of the many private schools. Even the public parks and spaces have been sold.
One would argue, rightly, that even the most advanced social welfare states in Scandinavia have private cars, schools and hospitals.
The difference is that they maintain public services for those who can’t afford the pricier options, or simply choose not to pay for what they can get free or cheaper.
In our case, we have privatised even the most basic social services. To guarantee water supply, one needs a tank. To guarantee power supply, one needs a generator or a power back-up pack. To guarantee security, one needs a private guard.
All these things cost money but there is no cheaper or low-cost alternative. So our purpose in life has been reduced to the pursuit and accumulation of as much money as we can, ideally with as little effort and in the shortest time possible.
Three social-economic classes are emerging in Uganda today: those who control capital, the state and the provision of private services; those that have access to incomes to rent those services; and those who have neither capital nor income and, as a result, no access to even the most basic services.
The class in charge of capital, the state and allocative decisions has no incentive to improve public social services.
The solution to this problem is not to try and make everyone rich as Bbona Bagagawale and other government programmes promise. The solution is to improve the minimum standard of living by investing more in public services, not private goods.
When Enrique Penalosa became mayor of Bogota, Colombia, some years back and threw everything out of the way to improve mass urban transport, he was asked why he wasn’t doing more for people to buy cars and drive to work.