Why on earth would anyone be proud of $1,000 GDP per person? 

Musaazi Namiti 

What you need to know:

‘‘A person making Shs4.8m cannot even eat what they want” 

The story of our economic growth is bittersweet. It has bits that bring pleasure, but behind the pleasure lurks a great deal of sadness. 

Last week, Finance minister Matia Kasaija told Ugandans as he read the National Budget that as a result of the robust economic growth, the size of the economy is now estimated at Shs202 trillion ($53.3b), up from Shs184.3 trillion ($48.8b) in nominal terms.

“If Ugandans agreed to share this GDP equally,” Mr Kasaija said, “each citizen would enjoy a GDP per person of $1,146 compared to $1,081 registered last Financial Year 2022/2023.”
That is supposed to be good news. Something, after all, is better than nothing. And, crucially, countries raise standards of living and lift their people out of poverty when GDP per person is growing steadily. 

Nonetheless, the bitter part of the story seems to overwhelm the sweet one. Consider this: On June 7, this newspaper reported that Uganda had secured a loan of $500m (Shs1.9 trillion) from South Korea. Yes, South Korea, which was Uganda’s equal in the early 1960s.

Perhaps “equal” is not even the word when you consider what former South Korean ambassador to Uganda Kim You-churl told Monitor in an interview in 2018.
He said: “South Korea, in fact, was behind Uganda in many aspects. When Uganda was struggling through difficult political, security and financial times, we were pretty much going through a similar situation.”

Many people must be surprised that Uganda is now borrowing from South Korea despite what has been variously described as Uganda’s robust economic growth for decades. 
To me, this borrowing looks a bit like going to a man who once lived in a shack for a loan while you lived in a mansion, driving a swanky car to work and sending your children to first-class private schools. It shows our economic progress for 60+ years is unimpressive.

There is precious little to be wowed about the $1,146 (Shs4.8m) GDP per person, especially when you compare it with South Korea’s $35,000. You do not have to be an economist to understand that if you make Shs4.8m a year, you are very poor.
A person making Shs4.8m cannot even eat what they want, and we are not talking about cheese or salmon. If you earn this amount, there will be nothing in your bank account unless you have another decent source of income.

Ask journalists, (young) lawyers, nurses, police officers and teachers, many of whom earn Shs4.8m, how it feels living on this kind of money.
You can barely consult a doctor; you cannot send your children to decent schools. If you want to travel, Shs4.8 million instantly qualifies you for a visa rejection at not only Western embassies but also African embassies.

This money is so little it probably would not buy enough milk and snacks for the top officials at the Finance ministry for a week. Yet Mr Kasaija presented the GDP-per-person news as if it was the best thing that ever happened to Uganda.
Uganda has attained middle-income status, but there is still plenty of work to do. Many countries, about 100, have attained middle-income status and failed to transition to a higher income status. 

Our neighbours, Kenya and Tanzania, are already middle-income countries, but they are still described as poor countries. 
Middle-income status is not bad news, but it has taken us an embarrassingly long time to achieve it. If Uganda were a person, he/she would have died poor and miserable.


Mr Namiti is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk
[email protected]    @kazbuk