Why govt anti-poverty programmes failed

President Museveni launches the Parish Development Model programme in Kibuku District in February 2022. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Findings reveal that despite many interventions by the government to achieve structural transformation and modernisation of the economy, poverty prevails.

As high poverty levels continue to bedevil Uganda, questions are being asked about how effective government programmes have been over the last three decades.

Findings reported in the Ministry of Finance’s Poverty Status Report 2021 published in February 2023 reveal that despite many interventions by the government to achieve structural transformation and modernisation of the economy, poverty prevails.

In the 2014 version of this report, several recommendations were made, including the need for cheaper credit, support to education and skills development, promotion of agro-processing industry, and market-oriented production.

Others were quality extension services, land management, orderly urbanisation, social protection for the vulnerable, an informal sector pension scheme and health insurance for the poor.

But the 2021 report raises questions about implementation of the proposals.

For instance, agricultural extension services through Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) are hinged mainly on input distribution, which sharply contrasts with National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) methods.

There is a resurgence in commercial farming, boosting agro-processing. However, access to affordable credit for agricultural ventures is still a hurdle, it says.

In the past 10 years, the country has seen limited progress under the Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme, Presidential Initiative for Skilling the Girl Child, the Youth Livelihood Programme, among others. The same can be said of other initiatives.

“… the Social Assistance Grant for Empowerment project [for older persons] is being expanded across the country, [but] the eligibility age has been increased from 65 to 80 years, leaving out other vulnerable elderly populations,” the report says.

Similarly, “the relevance and quality of education are being addressed through curriculum reforms and specialised programmes, although this is yet to translate into job creation among the youthful population that has continued to migrate to urban areas and abroad in search of jobs.”

It also notes that a significant proportion of the population who migrated to urban areas, settling in the slums, found themselves in the informal sector and exposed to poor working conditions with no social protection.

This likely increases urban poverty, the report notes, adding that many of the 2014 recommendations remain a work in progress.

The poverty burden remains high, despite huge investments by the government, according to an Afrobarometer study in 2022.

“The experience of moderate/high lived poverty is more widespread among residents in the northern (78 percent) and eastern (69 percent) regions than among their counterparts in the western (58 percent) and central (49 percent) regions,” the pan-African research and survey network, which conducts public attitude surveys on governance and socio-economic issues, says.

A 1992/1993 Uganda National Household Survey showed that 56.2 percent of the population was living below the poverty line, dropping to 44 percent in 1997.

Five years later, government, in 1997, rolled out its Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) and Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP).

A key peg under PEAP was the introduction of Universal Primary Education.

Enrolment of children in primary school rose from 2.9 million in 1996 to 5.3 million in 1997.

Then in 2010, Uganda moved away from the PRSP framework to National Development Plans (NDPs) guided by the Comprehensive National Development Planning Framework.

Over the first NDP period (2010-2015), GDP growth rate averaged 5.5 percent, lower than the target of 7.2 percent.

The proportion of the labour force employed increased to 75 percent, and poverty rates fell to 19.7 percent. The proportion of Ugandans accessing electricity from the national grid increased to 14 percent, albeit lower than the target rate of 17 percent.

Among the interventions of note is the third Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (Nusaf III) aimed at building the resilience of poor households in the north.

Nationwide investments in public health, education and community services are often talked about but with relatively low real progress on the ground.

Every sub-county should, by now, have a fully-staffed health centre and secondary school. The reality of scarce resources, however, means these ambitious policy pronouncements largely remain on paper.

“… the quality of health care and education provided by government institutions remains challenging. The lack of national health insurance also limits the poor’s access to specialised health services, employers are also questioning the relevance of education curricula,” the report states.

There continues to be a disconnect between programmes and population benefit.

Afrobarometer, for instance, found that less than 16 percent of the assessed population benefited from the National Agricultural Cluster Development (NACD) programme.

The NACD was for improving farm productivity for 450,000 farmer households in 56 of the country’s 136 districts between 2019 and 2021.

Only 12 percent said they benefitted from the Social Assistance Grant for Empowerment; 10 percent from both Operation Wealth Creation and Emyooga.

About one in 20 Ugandans reports that a family member benefitted from the Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme, which targeted nine million women, according to Uganda Bureau of Statistics data in 2016.

Historical context 

The country’s finance and planning ministry observes that poverty targets were not achieved in NDP I because of “weak implementation capacities and poor management of contracts.”

Between 2016 and 2020, NDP II was brought into play.

Its target was to reduce the number of Ugandans living below the poverty line (living on less than $1 or Shs3,700 a day) from 19.7 percent to 14 percent, increase incomes to $1,039, increasing GDP growth rate to 6.3 percent, and reduce maternal mortality to 320 of 100,000, among others.

There were mixed review of NDP II, with GDP growth averaging 4.7 percent. The proportion of the population living under the poverty line actually increased to 21.4 percent in 2016/2017.

An opportunity was missed by Operation Wealth Creation during NDP II through which the government hoped to bring farm inputs closer to farmers and increase value-added output.

“Cases of uncoordinated delivery of farm inputs remain a bottleneck, the uncertain performance of OWC, relative to Naads, could be due to the limited participation of farmers in enterprise and input selection,” the poverty status report noted.

The Naads programme has been flagged as having been more organised than OWC, with a strong institutional set-up that valued farmers’ participation in determining agro-inputs to be supplied.

Government attention to specific vulnerabilities of youth, women, persons with disabilities (PWDs), children and older persons is noteworthy on paper, but the reality paints an opposite picture.

We have had the Disability Grant to provide seed capital to organised PWD groups.

In its 2018 report, the National Council for Persons with Disabilities said access to the grant and the total amount of the grant was insufficient to improve the livelihood of PWDs.

Annually, the government releases Shs3b for PWDs.

“Moreover, the programme is plagued by many challenges. These include lack of clear guidelines, corruption and misappropriation of the grant at the district level, misuse of the grant by the beneficiaries, merging the grant into the social development fund, no clear monitoring and evaluation system,” the report stated.

Loans under the Youth Livelihood Programme and the Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme were supposed to set up vulnerable youth and women in business enterprises.

But limited skills, and a limited market has affected the repayment of loans.

North Uganda case

Before introducing Nusaf II in 2009, the government slotted in the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), a $600m (Shs2.2 trillion) initiative launched in October 2007 for post-conflict socio-economic recovery.

The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) where PRDP was situated, released a technical assessment in 2020, which concluded that the programme was hamstrung by “conceptual challenges”.

“The weakness has been that there is little coherence between the different types of investments. Hence, it has neither been possible to provide an overall analysis of public expenditures in the north nor to monitor performance and impact of programmes,” OPM said.

A review revealed that there was no overall strategic framework. Northern Uganda has been approached largely from a development perspective which assumed that state authority is functioning normally, OPM’s technical assessment added.

The report also noted that “each of the sub-regions of northern Uganda has been affected by different levels and types of conflict and each faces specific socio-economic challenges and opportunities.”

More than Shs1 trillion went into PRDP over three years.

Prof Morris Ogenga Latigo, a former MP and currently a commercial farmer in Agago District, said the poverty alleviation plan was not viable.

“Unfortunately, the government thinks throwing money at the people without consulting them on what works for them will yield fruits. The same beneficiaries will waste it,” Prof Latigo said.

According to him, Nusaf, PRDP, among others, relied on false premises given their top-bottom approach.

To reverse the trend, Prof Ogenga suggests that government engages directly with affected communities.

Mr Arthur Owor, a policy analyst with the Centre for African Research-Uganda, concurred, noting the mismatch between what works for the affected population, and what the state assumes works for them.

“The design of these programmes to revive the country have been problematic right from the start. There have been issues with it, for example, in the north, the strategic objective of PRDP was rebuilding the lives of returnees. But the project ended without tackling that component,” Mr Owor said.

He warned about the negative impact of “the dependency syndrome” which has inadvertently been cultivated by both the government and non-state actors in northern Uganda.

“The handout approach that the government has taken has forced our people to resign to a position where we depend on the state or NGOs,” he said.