Growth, baby mamas, and Uganda’s attempt to fetch water in baskets

Daniel K. Kalinaki

What you need to know:

Now, don’t get me wrong; babies are cute – come here you big toothy thing – but they are also not cheap, as any parent looking for school fees this week will tell you

At iftar (dinner) at a friend’s house the other day, an economist attendee pointed out a fact few Ugandans know or feel: the country’s economy has grown by an average of six percent for well over two decades – one of the longest such continuous growth trajectories in the whole world.
Yet, as many Ugandans know and feel, the country and its people remain poor. One in four Ugandans lives below the poverty line, given as living on less than around Shs4,000 per day. This number fell consistently for about two decades from around 1992 but started climbing again sometime in the last decade, around the time social unrest began to run into police boots (a story for another day).


It has thus risen in percentage and in absolute terms. Percentage wise, the coronavirus pandemic rocked the number upwards from 21 percent as jobs, livelihoods and savings evaporated, sucking almost two million people down back into the poverty sewer, according to the government’s own National Budget Strategy for the current financial year. In absolute terms, the number of Ugandans living below the poverty line is higher today than it was five years ago.

The hidden crisis is population growth. In the 1970s, the average Ugandan woman gave birth to about seven children in her lifetime. This number has since come down, but a fertility rate of 5.4 births per woman is still high, and contributes to a population growth rate of 3.3 percent per year, or just over a million Ugandans born every year.
Now, don’t get me wrong; babies are cute – come here you big toothy thing – but they are also not cheap, as any parent looking for school fees this week will tell you. The relatively high population growth rate means that less than half of that remarkable six percent economic growth is trickling down into the bottom-line, and from a very low base. Three percent growth per year might be remarkable in richer developed countries; in our case it is an opening remark.

Trying to get people out of poverty while they multiply faster than you can lift them out is not sustainable, yet that is exactly what we have been doing for decades. The solution is to either ramp up economic growth, reduce population growth, or both.
While much effort has been expended on the former, there’s been scant attention to the latter. Official policy has shifted, mercifully, from encouraging poor peasants to go forth and multiply, to silence muffled by concerns from some of the development partners that foot the bill.

There are relatively easy ways to slow down population growth. The first is to keep girls in school longer. It is inconceivable that, despite all the public campaigning about it, access to free or heavily subsidised sanitary pads remains elusive, leaving girls to drop out of school when they are at their most vulnerable. Girls who stay in school longer delay their first pregnancy, often have better socio-economic outcomes and are, too put it crudely, usually too busy to have too many children. Women who stay in school are also more likely to encourage their children to stay in school, especially girls. It is magical.

The second is to give women more control over their reproductive choices. We need not get drawn into the abortion debate now resurrected in the United States, and which is usually coloured by different ideological and religious prejudices. We can start, small-small, with contraception.
Failure to use contraceptives results into more than 14 million unplanned pregnancies every year in Africa, including in Uganda. I’m afraid to report, Dear Readers, that some of you are mistakes. It isn’t that Ugandans do not know about contraceptives; reproductive health programmes especially on radio have resulted into 99 percent awareness, according to research from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics in 2020.

But uptake is much lower. Access and affordability are a problem, as are social and cultural vibes that either encourage large families or exaggerate the side-effects of some of the available family planning methods. Poorer women are less likely to have access to information and contraceptives, or the negotiating power to use them. They are thus more likely to have more babies and entrench themselves in cyclic poverty.

Trying to get to middle-income status while people fall back into poverty is like fetching water in a wicker basket. To go forward, it helps to stop going backwards; reducing the number of babies each mama has is a good place to start.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected]; @Kalinaki