Tuesday June 24 2014

Left behind: The Budget and the rural realities

By Muniini K. Mulera

Dear Tingasiga:
Finance minister Maria Kiwanuka delivered an encouraging Budget speech two weeks ago. The list of the country’s economic successes, in spite of regional instability and the residual effects of the global economic difficulties, induced a smile on the face of one who is always hungry for good news from home.

News of 830km of new roads, 1,630km of new power transmission lines and 42,000 new users connected to the national electricity grid entitles Ms Kiwanuka to hearty congratulations and encouragement to further success in her role of shepherding the country’s economic growth.

However, reading her Budget speech triggered a recurring question whether my neighbours in Mparo, Rukiga and Kigezi were included among the happy citizens who enjoyed these and other opportunities.
My neighbours are some of the finest people with whom I have had the privilege to share space and friendship. They are hard working families whose industry is as impressive as their resilience against the challenges of rural living.

They are at the mercy of the elements. Their young children and grandchildren walk great distances to get an education that they hope will enhance their chances of emerging from the cycle of hardship and exhausting struggle.

Yet the track records of the schools in our part of Rukiga County are depressingly poor, a dark shadow of the academic excellence that was taken for granted few decades ago.

The children must settle for a suboptimal mis-education that turns them against peasant living without offering the tools for entrepreneurship and innovation or some other profitable endeavors.
Their health care access is rather precarious, with our one Health Centre IV severely understaffed, under-equipped and under -provisioned. So Ms Kiwanuka’s report of “increased quality access to social services” seems to derive from places other than my home area.
My neighbours’ produce, harvested through sweat and exhaustion, is hard to get to the rich markets of the big urban centres, partly due to a very poor transport infrastructure.

Only 11km of road in Rukiga County are under tarmacadam (bitumen). The rest of the roads are usable in the dry season, but impassable when it rains, with whole sections swept away or turned into muddy traps for motor vehicles that attempt the journey.
The negative consequences of these treacherous roads are not visited upon the casual traveller, but on the permanent residents who pay in hard socio-economic currency. For example, the produce traders from the big towns, with better options along the all weather roads elsewhere, skip the treacherous journey to Mparo, leaving my neighbours stuck with produce and no cash.

It is instructive to note that my neighbours’ challenges are rather mild compared to those faced by millions of peasants across Uganda. The traveller through Uganda’s western, central, eastern and northern regions is struck by an abundance of extreme poverty and destitution.

There is an evident disconnect between the much celebrated figures of annual economic growth in last 20 years and the reality on the ground in the rural areas where fully 85 per cent of the population live.

No doubt the reported reduction of the proportion of people living in extreme poverty to 19.7 per cent is one we salute without reservation. Yet one recognises that the definition of extreme poverty has been set so low that my neighbours’ reality is not assuaged by such an impressive number.

Their is a reality where the transmission wires pass overhead almost unnoticed, the cost of connecting their homes to the grid so prohibitive that they do not bother to explore the opportunities.

All of which raise the question whether the 85 per cent of the Ugandan population that lives in the rural areas enjoy even a fraction of what is due to them. Do they get 85 per cent of the budget allocation, or even a significant fraction of it? Probably not. The minority of the polulation, mostly the urban social elite, enjoy a lion’s share that should be reversed if Ms Kiwanuka believes in a socio-ecenomic justice that is both right and a sensible long-term investment.
Dr Mulera is based in Toronto, Canada. muniinikmulera@aol.com