Why MPs get priorities wrong

A congested patient ward at Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital in 2019. PHOTO | FILE. 

What you need to know:

Women giving birth on the floors of wards and verandahs have been normalised

Ms Mary Serumaga, a social-political commentator, says despite the crises in key sectors in Uganda, wilfully blind parliamentarians carry on as though it is normal for pupils to sit on rocks, bricks and logs in the classroom. Women giving birth on the floors of wards and verandahs have been normalised. She argues that the above are some of the indications that MPs have never voluntarily reduced the cost of administration to eliminate these trends.

During a discussion on late-night TV, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the Leader of Opposition (LoP) clashed over the Opposition’s campaign to discourage external donors from propping up the current corrupt regime. The Deputy Speaker remarked that while discouraging external funding, the Leader of the Opposition has a larger convoy than his own. The LOP took the trouble to retort with “How big is my convoy?” It came as breaking news to viewers that they travelled in convoys.

There is no avoiding the reality that in situations of scarcity, priorities must be set. What are the Executive and Parliament’s priorities? They can be seen in the manner in which funds are allocated. Overall, the government released 99.6 percent of Parliament’s budget. While doctors and teachers remained unpaid in various parts of the country, releases for parliamentary salaries for FY2021/2022 were 99.8 percent. 100 percent of the welfare and entertainment budget was released and 98.8 percent was spent. Parliament overspent its budget for medical expenses with an outturn of 120.5 percent. Similarly, incapacity, death benefits, and funeral expenses received 314 percent of the budget. By contrast, less than one percent of Parliament’s staff training budget was released.

Stunted human development

Compare Parliament’s budget performance to the government’s releases for human development (education and health services). The government regularly fails to meet 100 percent of UPE capitation grants (funds for Universal Primary Education). Teachers have either been on strike or warned of impending strikes for much of the past decade. Doctors and nurses have joined them. Yet the Budget Speech of June 2021 speaks of recruiting 4,200 more primary school teachers to bring the level of filled positions to 70 percent. Close to half of local governments had fewer than half of the secondary school teachers required to meet minimum staffing needs and the government promised to recruit 1,055 secondary teachers. Twenty-one secondary schools without laboratories were to get them. The education inspectorate that had not received any funding since 2016 was to get 440 inspectors. All of the above require extra funding, but the budget share of health and education (human development) shrank by over one percent in 2022/2023. The funding is mainly from the Uganda Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfers Programme (Ugift) loan that began with $200 million in 2017 and now amounts to $500 million as of August 2022. The World Bank administrative fees so far paid for the UgIFT loan are $3,037,132 or Shs11.2 billion.

The healthcare system is in a battle for survival. Forty-five percent of local governments have the minimum number of health workers they need. Drugs and medical supplies remain a perennial challenge. Recently a doctor had to get involved in buying a couple of syringes and three rolls of gauze for a post-operative patient – he wasn’t even on duty. In fact, the input of doctors to finance the treatment costs of patients through fundraisers and other means is starting to become visible on social media. Orthopaedic surgery for a five-year-old, and treatment in a burns unit for a thirteen-year-old – both patients being from among the poorest in society. At the time of writing an appeal was launched for a midwife with a brain haemorrhage needing surgery in Kenya.

Hours earlier, Soroti Regional Referral Hospital, which serves some three million people had announced it is completely stocked out of drugs. Delivery from the National Medical Stores due by January 3 at the latest did not materialise. News continues to stream in about the stockout spreading to all regions of the country. The explanation given by the Minister of Health to Parliament was that the Treasury does not release funds to the National Medical Stores on time, and that there are insufficient funds to deliver the drugs and other supplies to their destinations. Donated drugs face the same fate as donor funds are banked by the Treasury and subject to the same delays.

A teacher conducts a lesson under a tree at Kitiko Primary School in Buvuma District in 2017. PHOTO/DENIS EDEMA

Public servants still have some good ideas, like the planned Emergency Medical Service (EMS). We still had 277 ambulances to go to complete the planned fleet of 460. Type A ambulances, patient carriers, are being phased out and the government is aiming for 219 Type B ambulances with monitoring equipment on board and 15 Type C, which are Intensive Care Unit ambulances with advanced life support equipment on board. Boat ambulances to serve the islands cost half a billion each and a number were donated by Iceland during the pandemic (and immediately impounded by the army). Last year’s phase of the EMS was short of Shs20 billion.

Elite capture of resources

A single Type C ambulance costs Shs5.6 billion and equipment for the eight regional call and dispatch centres for the emergency service required Shs6.7b. That amount – Shs6.72 billion ($ 1,822,821) – was spent on sending a team of MPs to the annual East African Parliamentary Games in Arusha, Tanzania in December 2021. A supplementary budget was sought and given for the purpose. The purpose of the games, as given by Parliament, is to “build relations between the national assemblies” and to “keep the country visible at a regional level”. Presumably, the invisibility of the poor is not as important.

True, some MPs bought ambulances for their constituencies – the obsolete Type A by the looks of things – but few if any MP–donated ambulances are put in a pool and made accessible via a national call centre. They remain in the possession and control of the MP, serving mainly to keep the donor visible. Many are sold off when a member fails in his/her bid to return to the House.

Despite the crises in key sectors, wilfully blind parliamentarians carry on as though it is normal for pupils to sit on rocks, bricks and logs in the classroom. Women giving birth on the floors of wards and verandahs have been normalised. All indications are that MPs will never voluntarily reduce the cost of administration to eliminate these trends. Rather, they will continue to pay Shs12 billion (including parking space) in rent for their excess numbers. MPs on both sides of the House will go on indulging themselves with vehicles on which the Parliamentary Commission overspent by three percent last FY. The Shs116 billion included Shs101.7 million for another vehicle for the LoP.

The Travel Inland budget continues to be abused. Shs10.8 billion was spent on inland travel although hardly any scheduled district outreaches and public hearings took place. Much of it can be attributed to Parliament’s relentless public relations campaign for which five billion shillings were released. Travel abroad was also popular with a Shs16 billion spend. Of that, LoP alone spent Shs958.7 million on maintaining his visibility in the diaspora.

The way forward

The only hope the general public has of having their unmet needs attended to is a national exercise to participate in prioritising public expenditure, a plebiscite if necessary, with the results collated by a neutral body eg UNDP. However it is achieved, digitally or otherwise, each individual should have access to the information necessary on which to base their decision.