Confronting neoliberal business culture in Uganda

Policies that are made to improve businesses instead squeeze them to the very core. FILE PHOTO.

Continued from last week

……….they felt, in many cases, frustrated and powerless, and saw reason behind the malpractice: namely, to impoverish, exploit and dominate them.

The farmers were, therefore, often very critical of the state of the neoliberal rural economy; especially given its failure to bring about the benefits that farmers had enjoyed in the era of better functioning cooperatives.

The reasons for the specific level and forms of malpractice in neoliberal Uganda - or in other neoliberal societies and the neoliberalised global economy at large - cannot be explained in detail here due to lack of space.

The few state and donor initiatives that address some of the issues in the rural economy have often come very late in the reform process, are scanty and are political in specific ways.

Nevertheless, and despite the strong forces of the neoliberal status quo, they sometimes bring improvements, even for smallholder farmers.

More encouragingly, some farmers successfully re-organised themselves as cooperatives, for instance in the Bugisu Cooperative Union.

At times, high produce demand (or, produce scarcity), or finding out about the specifics of the malpractice of the deceiving traders (and identifying the more sincere traders) also helped some of the farmers to get a better price and to be less exposed to the tricks.

Notably, some traders rejected the spreading stress on short-term profit and the related malpractice.

They built long-term oriented relationships with farmers, based on some notion of mutual trust, commitment, and cooperation; and farmers appreciated this.

These traders were often also negatively affected by the fraudulent practices that were carried out by some of their colleagues. Some traders, for various reasons, gave up (or significantly reduced) their malpractice and became more upright business actors with a concern for honesty and fairness as well. Social disapproval of malpractice by family and community members played an important role in encouraging this transformation. These traders then sometimes became positive role models in their communities; counselling the youth, or advising younger traders to abandon their malpractice too.

Many traders, especially smaller operators (much like most of the farmers), also raised criticism of the existing economic conditions and realities of the Ugandan state, for instance the indifference of many officials, weak public services, significant corruption, high taxes, unfair market dues and other forms of resource extraction.

In isolated cases, traders’ committees were established to limit or eliminate undesirable behaviour and we also came across some state and non-state actors that were involved in efforts to lower the level of malpractice.

Yet overall, the explicit, effective and regular regulation of malpractice in the agricultural produce markets seemed not to be the rule in the study region, especially in the early liberal period of the 1990s and early 2000s when malpractice was reported to be particularly high in some market places.

In summary then, our research suggests that at the broader level the dynamics and outcomes of the changing moral and political economy in Uganda since the liberal reforms have led to increasingly unconstrained moneymaking, in which those with social, economic and political power often pursue their self-interest almost without regard for the costs to others.

Related to this is frequently a focus on quick profits with little regard for quality or for longer-term considerations. There seems also an increasing ability of the rich to ignore social conventions and constraints.

This self-interest is being rationalised, supported and justified by a new set of neoliberal orientations, norms and practices that increasingly govern Ugandan economy and society, as they increasingly govern life in other countries undergoing neoliberal reform, and they bring with them undesirable consequences, such as poverty, unemployment, injustice, inequality, uncertainty, insecurity, corruption, crime and a rising cost of living for a significant part of the population.

These deteriorating socio-economic conditions, in turn, affect again the relationships, norms, values and practices in the market places and communities, often negatively.

Because the neoliberal reformers are in thrall to the abstract idea of the market, they usually do not pay attention to real markets, such as the ones the farmers we interviewed use. They fall into the ‘trap’ of what James G. Carrier and Daniel Miller called ‘Virtualism’.

As a result, they do not see that these real markets are not the ‘free’, harmonious and neutral zones of wealth creation that their models claim. They do not see - or choose not, or are ‘not allowed’ to see for political-economic reasons (e.g., political and economic interests) - that these neoliberal markets are, instead, arenas of political, social, cultural and economic relations, interactions, struggle, power, deception and different views of morality. Only under very specific conditions did we find market arrangements that seemed to bring more genuine and durable benefits for some of the weaker economic actors.
Uganda is regarded as the African country that has adopted the neoliberal reform package most extensively.

That reform appears to affect more than just markets. Destructive norms and practices have also gained ground in other key realms of society that have been ‘modernised’ according to neoliberal prescriptions, e.g. in the education, health and public administration sectors.

And many Ugandans we talked to have noted a significant shift since the late 1980s regarding the way in which, more and more, they are made to think, feel and act.

What these few insights seem to tell us is that the reform has brought a broader moral restructuring with many questionable and destructive outcomes so far.

At the core of the neoliberal moral norm set that is being promoted by powerful actors in the different parts of the world is the motto: maximise your self-interest!

According to the neoliberal dogma, this leads to outcomes that are best for the society as a whole, for example, ‘maximum social welfare’.

Together with the unrestrained self-interest principle come a number of corresponding norms (and orientations) of behaving and relating to each other that are encouraged in various direct and indirect ways: these can include dimensions of a more or less crass homo economicus, instrumental rationality, individualism, egoism, low other-regard and empathy, opportunism, cunning, money focus, a disregard for the common good and so on.

For Uganda’s case, it seems that in the last two decades a part of the set of the moral norms in the country - that is, the ‘frontier’ of what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable, proper and improper, legitimate and illegitimate, or praiseworthy and blameworthy behaviour against the background of the (changing) moral principles in the country - has shifted to some extent in a particular direction: namely, in a neoliberal direction.

The dynamics of this neoliberal moral restructuring process - which is coupled with a dramatic political-economic reorganisation - are pervasive, speedy and contested, and have led to a range of substantial and connected problems for many people and for society as a whole.

Jörg Wiegratz is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield