Is Uganda prepared for the rising population challenge?

What you need to know:

State of Uganda’s Population Report 2013 shows that 88 per cent of Ugandans live in rural areas, many of them facing abject poverty, poor service delivery, poor infrastructure, and famine in some areas.

In 1948, there were 25 Ugandans per square kilometre of land. That average has been rising steadily to 48 in 1969, 85 in 1991 and 124 in 2002.

The upcoming census will provide a more accurate picture, but going by the current projections, which show that Uganda has 35.4 million people, the average population per square kilometre of land stands at 150.

The rising population density – having increasingly more people per square kilometre of land – poses serious challenges for Uganda’s growth prospects, experts say. This is especially so since a big majority of Ugandans still relies on tilling the land using the hand hoe.

The State of Uganda’s Population Report 2013, released two weeks ago by the Population Secretariat, shows that an overwhelming majority of Ugandans – 88 per cent – still live in rural areas, many of them facing abject poverty, poor service delivery, poor infrastructure, and famine in some areas.

65 million
The report projects that if the population continues to grow at the current rate – with the less educated or uneducated women having an average of seven children and elites having almost four – Uganda will have 65 million mouths to feed in six years’ time, and the majority of these will still live in rural areas.

Demographic bonus or burden?
The key concern then is whether the current transformation efforts will be helped by the fast growing population.

One view that has gained support recently is that a large population can catalyse, rather than impede, economic growth and transformation.

Two examples usually cited in this regard are China and India, which some say have grown rapidly in recent years because of the pressure from their huge populations to improve the economies and provide what the people demand.

Conversely, some argue that Africa was slow to transform into a developed society because it was relatively sparsely populated, meaning that its people were not always challenged to compete with one another for resources.

President Museveni is one of the proponents of this view, which he pushed in one of the speeches he made in the late 1980s, compiled in his book, What Is Africa’s Problem. He still drives it.

Another ardent supporter of this line is Hajj Abdul Nadduli, the ruling party vice chairman for Buganda region and Luweero District chairperson, who years back offered to donate a heifer to every family in Luweero into which twins were born.

Often, Mr Museveni and bureaucrats in his government and other technical organisations have spoken at cross purposes on the matter of population growth.

A 2011 World Bank report titled ‘Uganda: Demography and Economic Growth’, argues that quicker economic growth in Uganda would be easier to realise if fertility rates dropped dramatically to enable individuals and households to save, invest and eventually accumulate wealth.

A similar report on demographic patterns by the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) says the country can reap from the “demographic dividend” only through ensuring declining fertility rates. This, the report says, would reduce dependency on the small working age population.

Prof Kazenga Tibenderana, a retired Makerere University academic who now works at Kampala International University, moves to demonstrate the challenges of rapid population growth rates in poor countries like Uganda:

“With population growth rates in poor countries more than double what they are in developed countries, poor countries’ economies must grow more than twice as fast as those of the rich countries just to keep from falling farther behind.”

Uganda’s population is projected to be growing at 3.3 per cent per year, in which case an economic growth rate of more than 6.6 per cent per year would be needed, according to Prof Tibenderana’s argument.

Uganda’s economy rebounded last financial year from a low of 3.4 per cent growth in 2011/2012 to just over 5 per cent, but this is still way lower than the 6.6 per cent needed in this case. This would suggest that Uganda’s current position vis-a-vis that of the developed countries, albeit unenviable, is at stake.

But the Population Secretariat paints a much more optimistic picture. “Uganda will, sooner than later, enter a demographic window of opportunity often called the demographic gift or demographic bonus,” the population report says in part. “Such an era occurs when a population witnesses a combination of factors like a declining fertility and mortality.”

But if less people are born and less die, the population growth will still remain high. In the case of a young population like Uganda’s, it would not make much of a difference in the short and medium term, because the young people will have to reproduce when they reach child-bearing years.

As a result, the report says: “The revised Population Policy indicates that even if fertility rates were to drop drastically to replacement levels of around two children per woman, the population of Uganda will still continue to grow by at least 2 per cent for the next 50 years or so.”

The report goes on about the “demographic window of opportunity”: “An increased labour force leads to a reduced dependency ratio. If such a labour force is healthy, educated, skilled and with increased employment opportunities, it will save, invest and spur economic growth of a nation. This is the demographic gift.”

But then comes the caveat: “This window of opportunity, if not planned for, can end up resulting into a demographic burden.”

So what options are available?
The above caveat, particularly the need for planning for the growing population, seems even more pertinent, especially given one important statistic in the population report.

Uganda has the youngest population in the world, with 78 per cent of its people below the age of 30 and 52 per cent below 15 years. The report reaffirms a World Bank finding that “at least 83 per cent of the youth have no formal employment.”

The reports attributes the lack of jobs to the slow rate of economic growth, the small labour market, high population growth rate, the rigid and largely theoretical education system, rural-urban migration and limited access to capital.

As a result, many of the younger people earn their livelihood from odd jobs like boda boda riding, brick laying, petty trade, vending, and casual labour.

These activities, according to Mr Arnold Musoke, a researcher into population issues, cannot usher Uganda into the “demographic bonus”. What is needed, he says, is for the country to develop “ground-breaking” technology to address the situation.

Mr Musoke says Uganda, for example, is ill-prepared to produce the food needed to sustain the population.

“What you find in many villages is that the youth have left agriculture to be employed in the informal sector, like riding boda boda, leaving the women, the elderly and children to grow the food,” Mr Musoke says.

These people, Mr Musoke adds, cannot grow enough food to sustain themselves and spare some for the market, meaning that many households have no sustainable sources of income.

“An intervention in agricultural technology is long overdue,” Mr Musoke says. “To produce an affordable technology that will enable the people to till the land and stop using human power.”

Mr Musoke says the rate of growth of food production can “at best only match” the rate of growth of population growth, “meaning that there is no net improvement over the years.”

Mr Musoke also speaks of “a worrying trend” in which lack of improvements in formal employment and industrial technology has locked most people in agriculture and other extractive activities like fishing, partly explaining the rising tensions over land.

Education and training must therefore equip learners with the skills necessary to enable the transition of masses of labour from the largely extractive traditional sector to the modern sector, which Mr Musoke does not see happening soon.

Planning without numbers
Part of the problem is that the government relies on inaccurate statistics while planning. The national census, which was set for last year, has been postponed twice, leaving the planning agencies to rely on estimates and projections.

Mr Godfrey Nabongo, the communications manager at the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, stresses the importance of the population census: “The census addresses areas like employment numbers, agricultural dynamics, education patterns, and the social infrastructure ... which help in arriving at possible (intervention) measures.”

Mr Matia Kasaija, the State minister for Finance, Planning and Economic Development, adds: “When you plan without data, you will simply be moving in darkness; you must have numbers to enable you to budget and plan appropriately.”

The census has now been postponed to next year and the government insists it will not be postponed again. When it is finally conducted, analysts expect a “slim but not major divergence” from the projected figures.

The real point at issue, therefore, is that Uganda has a population challenge to deal with. The population will continue to increase rapidly in the foreseeable future and whether this will benefit or doom Uganda, it appears, is very much a question for the authorities to answer.

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