Short-termism: The biggest threat to Uganda’s socio-economic development

Pamella Eunice Ahairwe

What you need to know:

  • The necessary conditions here are that (1) powerful individuals do not override institutional powers, and (2) institutions be held accountable to ensure they serve the long-term interests of the Ugandan economy. 

The Ugandan economy has progressed but not as projected in the Uganda 2040 Vision. The World Bank estimated the 2020 GDP at US$ 37.6 billion, US$ 3.6 billion shy of the US$ 41.2 billion National Planning Authority (NPA) estimates. Failure to achieve the 2020 projections could partly be due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated effects.

Looking forward, NPA projects a total GDP of US$ 83.6 billion in 2025 for Uganda to achieve an upper middle-income status of US$9500 in 2040. This aspiration necessitates an additional GDP of US$14.36 billion annually in the next three years. It is difficult to attain such high ambitions under the current record levels of short-termism.

Short-termism continues to arrest economic development. Policymakers focus on electoral cycles, paying limited attention to achieving long-term goals (Uganda Vision 2040 inclusive), which are essential for nation-building and economic prosperity. Short-termism has also attracted autopilot leadership as national plans become discarded and policymakers concentrate on sensational issues instead of systematic processes.

Autopilot policymakers inspire national revenue mismanagement. They lead to misappropriating or restricting resources to address unplanned, random, and insignificant needs that satisfy a given group’s political interests.

Consequently, funds to address budgetary needs are deemed unavailable as those to provide unnecessary but politically pleasing amenities are readily available. Such appalling national priorities provide short-term individual gratification and success at the expense of long-term nationwide development.

Electoral cycle short-termism is the biggest threat to national planning and limits consistent economic growth.

Uganda’s peak GDP growth rate coincides with elections (immediately before or after); 1995(11.5 percent), 2002(8.7 percent), 2006(10.8 percent), and 2011(9.4percent). As policymakers get comfortable, growth tends to broadly narrow; 1996(9.1 percent), 2003(6.5percent), 2007(8.4 percent), and 2012(3.8 percent). The future growth prospects might be even lower as powerful individuals continue to replace institutions, rendering their functionality irrelevant. 

Four decades are enough to lead Uganda to the old song of prosperity for all, as countries such as South Korea (26 years) and Malaysia (23 years) achieved so in fewer years. Even African countries, including our neighbours (Kenya and Tanzania), recently graduated to middle-income status by being long-term focused.

Persistent focus on short-term policies within the electoral cycle has denied the current long-term policymakers an opportunity to deliver nationwide basics of economic development, including improved and well-stocked health and education facilities.

The third National Development Plan (NDP III) shows how in 32 years (1986 to 2018), paved roads network as a percentage of total national roads increased by only 13.1 percent (0.4 percent annually). Even in Kampala Capital, a murram road is always less than a Kilometre away.

Poor road connectivity hinders value chain development, increases accidents (as is always during the peak month of December) and worsens health problems associated with poor air quality.

From NDP III, only 24 percent of Ugandans have access to electricity. These face high costs per Kilowatt-hour, continuous and random load-shedding, conditions that cannot foster the effective development of businesses and industries that can produce domestically and regionally competitive goods. Besides, 21 million (highest in East Africa) Ugandans have no clean water access, which affects their well-being.

Addressing these socio-economic issues requires policymakers that are long-term focused and who are interested in making national economic contributions that can benefit future nationwide generations. 

A functional public sector will facilitate private sector development and attract well-intentioned foreign investors, further advancing economic growth and development. The necessary conditions here are that (1) powerful individuals do not override institutional powers, and (2) institutions be held accountable to ensure they serve the long-term interests of the Ugandan economy. This reorganisation will encourage proper implementation of national policies, ensuring that the benefits of good economic development planning become a reality on the ground.

Ms Pamella Eunice Ahairwe is a development economist. [email protected]