Give all Ugandan youth Sh7,500 – even if they drink it

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • What can be done? In 2011 the government, working with a group of donors, started rolling out the Senior Citizens Grant, in which older people over 65 received a social grant of Sh25,000 a month. Today everyone who is 80 and over is eligible.

In the last month, I have covered a lot of kilometres in Uganda. There are many obvious difficulties, but also a lot of beauty and hopeful points.

There is one depressing sight that plays out everywhere; too many young people sitting around in towns and townships, hoping for the odd job to come along, or waiting for a local politician they helped win the last election (by beating up his rivals and their supporters) to “give them something small”. As Uganda’s feeder roads become both unmotorable and increasingly even unwalkable, with potholes the size of a crater lake in Tooro, they are setting up extortionate road repair gangs. For throwing a few fistfuls of earth on a pothole, they set up roadblocks at which all motorists must pay a fee.

Their desperation is understandable, but we are in dangerous territory.

What can be done? In 2011 the government, working with a group of donors, started rolling out the Senior Citizens Grant, in which older people over 65 received a social grant of Sh25,000 a month. Today everyone who is 80 and over is eligible. At the last count, north of 360,000 Ugandans had been enrolled in the programme. Uganda being Uganda, many of those who have been enrolled aren’t getting the money. Like the national pension, and the first disbursement of the Parish Development Model (PDM), it is being wasted and stolen by corrupt officials.

It is time to think of a crude Universal Basic Income (UBI) for youth and reduce the indignity and stress in which the majority of them on the fringes of cities and upcountry live. UBI can be challenging to execute, and as the world tests it, there is still no agreed best way to do it. However, the biggest fear that it would be a disincentive for people to work or be industrious has not been proven in a single case.

So, let Uganda, the country with the youngest people as a percentage of the population in the world, do a UBI lite. How might this be done? As someone who will never have to stand for election, I propose that the Senior Citizens Grant be reduced by Sh2,500 each. Next, more money should be raised from road tolls, especially the Kampala-Entebbe Expressway, which last year collected Sh34 billion. There should be an additional Sh50 added to the present cost, which will bring in some good millions.

There is a need to decongest Kampala, and one way would be to impose a version of London’s congestion charge on each car that goes into certain parts of the city. Then, those who abuse environmentally protected or sensitive areas, like wetlands, should be targeted. Every house built in a swamp will be charged a Sh25,000 “green penalty” until it relocates, and 15 percent of the value of crops grown there will be levied.

Because officials will steal the money, youth groups who know that the money is going into their kitty should be the ones tasked with collecting these latter two levies. I can’t figure out where the money collected should be centralised, but I think a collective overseen by national Local Council (LC) youth leaders might be a good governance structure to oversee it.

As to who should disburse it, the best entities would be mobile phone companies. The way it would work is that every young Ugandan would get just Sh7,500 a month – minus the telco’s transaction cost.  Millions of them don’t make that in a month. The money can only be received via mobile money, which means all young will have to get their National IDs. There are thousands of IDs lying uncollected around the country; this might be an incentive. There are those who might need to get the updated ones. The cost of it could be docked off their monthly stipend.

There is the small matter of buying the phone. Here, a baseline could be set for a basic feature phone (akabiriti), which can be as cheap as Shs30,000. The telcos could be given a one-year concession to import kabiritis tax-free, lock them, and provide them to young people, again docking the cost off their grant. The telcos would automate these payments and do a massive blast at the end of every month to millions of youth. The small cut they get from each of them could bring them immense profit.

There could be incentives created for youth to increase their grants. Every six months, young people would have an opportunity to show that they did something positive with the money, even just buying a chicken. Those ones will be rewarded with their grants being increased to Sh10,000, and then later Sh12,500 if they remain progressive.

I used to fear that people would drink such “easy money” and splash it on women. My views have evolved. I now think that such expenditures are also good for the economy. We will not believe what that Sh7,500 change money will do.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. 

Twitter: @cobbo3