Last week we argued that the protest vote against the government, particularly in the central region, was a reflection of unmet or unmade promises to young, frustrated but educated people. We traced it to increased access to education and a more aspirational generation on one hand, and lack of access to opportunity and the absence of social safety nets on the other. Many want to belong, few are chosen, and the penalty for failure is extreme.
In one of his occasional head-on collisions with the truth, the incumbent has diagnosed this as partly a problem of success, not failure. People who go to school, even under the universal primary and secondary education system, which is free of both charges and quality, have higher expectations than those who don’t.
Similarly, children who are immunised are more likely to live longer and healthier lives. But it is not enough to sit back and chest-thump about having helped contribute to the problem without a cogent plan to solve it.
Let’s take education. Amanya Mushega, who was the responsible minister when the UPE programme started, is quick to admit that it was a mistake to enrol seven primary classes in one go. The original plan, to enrol three classes first, then build upward infrastructure, sounds as smart today as it did then.
How come, then, that two decades later, we still measure the jump in enrolment numbers rather than outcomes? Or the number of universities and university graduates rather than the number of patents and home-grown innovations that have come to market? And let’s not get started on that Abdul-like monkey business of trying to turn bananas into powder.
How is it that we still think that a school anywhere in the country or even the world can provide a semblance of learning at Shs7,000 per child per year? How?
If one of the structural adjustments we had to make to balance government books was to introduce patient contributions to the cost of healthcare, how is it that three decades later, we do not have a national health insurance scheme?
After staggering from the Entandiikwa Scheme, the Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture, Naads and now to the Operation Wealth Creation, at what point do we take an honest look at the profit and loss statement of these investments in agriculture?
If we decided that it was a good idea to sell government houses to sitting tenants and even give them competitively-priced mortgages, at what point do we decide that other Ugandans, who did not happen to be sitting tenants of the available houses, should also benefit from relatively low-cost housing?
When is the campaign promise, first made in 2006, to raise a chunk of money and bring down the cost of mortgages ever going to materialise? Do we reasonably believe that young people will ever own properties with mortgage interest rates at around 20 per cent?
When we ask young people to become “job-creators, not job-seekers,” do we consider the high cost of doing business? Why is the Internet slow and expensive? Why are bank and mobile money charges extortionist?
When ministers elbow their way through the traffic in order to arrive just moderately late, as opposed to notoriously late, to their Cabinet meetings, do they ever discuss the lost man-hours and productivity from the traffic madness suffered by the guys whose taxes pay their bills? Is there a masterplan to extend the sewer lines or are the relevant officials just full of bull?
None of these questions are necessarily deep or ground-breaking. One need not even be original about it: We can ask Tanzania about their new bus service in Dar es Salaam, Rwanda about its health insurance scheme and Kenya about its government-guaranteed low-cost housing projects.
I can think of only two possible reasons why such obvious questions would go unasked and, therefore, unanswered. The first is that the status quo is beneficial to some people and an end in itself. Poor people, after all, don’t have to be governed; they just have to be ruled.
The second is that any feeble attempts to address them are weighed down by incompetence and are stuck in the quicksand of mediocrity. It is not enough to say you helped create a problem – neither is it possible to solve it with the same intelligence, or lack of, that created it in the first place.
There’s no substitute for competence.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.