What happens when two elephants fight in an economy with no grass?

Friday September 14 2018


By Fred K. Muhumuza

They say when two elephants fight, the grass suffers, but what happens where there is no grass? Chances are that there will not even be a fight because the elephants, however big compared to the tiny and lowly grass, will have died of starvation.
Three years ago, I did my usual occasional respect of the traffic lights and stopped to wait for the green light. A khaki uniformed police woman asked me for a ride and I obliged just as she did to my question about her agenda for the day. It turned out to be a tale of two women and four sets of twins.

Constable Auma, not real name, was returning to her station some 30 kilometres from Kampala after bringing an abandoned child to the police centre in Naguru. She was supposed to ride on well-wishers at every stage of her journey as she had not been given any facilitation for the task. I decided to use part of my ‘tax avoidance’ savings to ease her plight as well as reward her efforts and professionalism.

What makes this encounter even more memorable is the earlier incidence when a taxi dropped off at Auma’s station a woman who was allegedly trafficking eight children aged between three and 10 years.
Nalongo, as she later turned out to be, had had four sets of twins in less than 10 years prompting Salongo, the husband, to abandon the family for an unknown destination.

Driven by mother’s love, Nalongo set up a roadside business in Nateete to retail fruits, beverages, banana leaves, etc, in order to take care of her family of nine, including herself.

Despite the ‘free’ Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme, the children were out of school as she could not raise the required scholastic materials after paying for food, rent and medical charges.

Life got worse for Nalongo when government decided to evict roadside vendors, leaving her with no option but to return to the village and ‘scatter’ her children among their relatives.

It was during this trip to the village that the taxi operators suspected she was trafficking children and decided to take her to the nearest police post. The truth came out through professional police investigations.

This true grassroots level story is linked to the bigger truth of the collapse of big businesses, empty arcades, banks selling borrowers’ assets, low sales volumes in shops, factories operating below capacity, low tax revenues and slow economic growth.

Economies are an ecosystem whereby the big ‘elephant’ companies can only survive when the roots of the small grass are anchored in the soil gathering whatever little they can raise.

Big projects such as roads and energy that are supposed to transform the economy through evacuation of farmers’ produce, agro-processing and feeding into exports markets can be a big assumption of floating vegetation.
The reality is that Nalongo and her peers continue to be ejected from their small businesses and land, UPE is inadequate, and the dedicated police officers lack facilitation.

The result is a weak foundation made up of very many poor households that are struggling to pay rent, and put salted cassava on the mats since they have no tables.
It is time for the ‘big elephant’ thinkers to realise the true cause of slow growth, low tax revenues, stunted industries and lack of jobs.
To double the economic opportunities, we have to make poor Nalongo and low-salaried employees the object and subject of our development planning.

Dr Muhumuza is a development policy analyst committed to inclusive growth.
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