Reflections on Uganda and the Post MDG Agenda – Welcome of Uganda @50

Published By UNNGOF |  June 24, 2013

I am pleased to be offering a rejoinder to the wise words of PS Mark Lowcock on a very important subject of the post-MDG agenda in Uganda and across the world. As we speak now, the cacophony of voices is growing louder across the world with different groups holding consultations on the – world we want – and the post MDG agenda. In 2000, this date looked far off. But today all of us remember vividly the year 2000, when our world leaders promised to halve extreme poverty by 2015 with a global plan called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Thanks to millions of people taking action across the globe as well as here in Uganda, this massive global effort paid off. We have already made real progress. Uganda has made great progress in terms of reducing the proportion of the population below the national poverty line. The poverty headcount declined and now is at 25%. Using our national benchmark, this means that Uganda is well on its way to meeting the 2015 global target of cutting poverty in half. But while we celebrate this number it is also important to note that on the other hand, the share of the poorest 20% of the population in total household consumption has fallen and this is an indication of rising inequality. Coupled with the increasing inequality are some of the most dismal indicators that we have to contend with as country.

Our health sector interventions are failing to reverse the worrying figure of an estimated 16 women that die from giving birth in Uganda – everyday. This is on average is one death every hour and 6,000 women every year. These are worrying statistics. It is also now clear that unless we take drastic measures, we shall not reach MDG 5 (Improving maternal health) by 2015. Another worrying statistic is related to MDG2 on education. While we are proud of our introduction of Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1997 and the enrolment in primary education that tripled from about 2.7 million in 1996 to 8.2 million in 2009 other key MDG indicators like the proportion of pupils starting grade 1 who reach the last grade of primary school, referred to as the completion rate, remains low. Official data shows that of the 1.5 million children that start primary one and we only graduate only 500,000 in primary seven. Coupled with the above is the low learning achievement in school. Statistics from our CSO-led national assessment in education – Uwezo – that focuses on children between the ages of 6-16 years shows that 8 out of 10 children in primary 3 do not have the required primary 2 skills in literacy and numeracy. Let me turn to the political economy questions.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Uganda is now 50 years old. 50 years is mid life. Persons in their midlife are always faced with two prominent puzzles which include: i) a crisis of identity, with a perceived gap between what one wants to be and what one is and ii) questioning the meaning of life: what have I achieved, will I ever be able to achieve anything at all? This is similar to the current challenges that Uganda is faced with as it moves towards its first century.
Let me say a little about both; first the identity crisis: this usually comes after a shining career. In Uganda, we all fondly remember the post-1986 years when we were promised a fundamental change and not just a mere change of guards. Ugandans celebrated and indeed saw the coming of the new generation of leaders as something to would propel us into a first world. As a country we became a ‘donor-darlings’ and with that came lots of international recognition and the appreciation of our unique governance model – the movement system – and several other innovations including being the first country to write a poverty reduction strategy paper even before the World Bank. The post-1986 era was therefore supposed to have achieved much more than we can see. But the shinning career seems to be waning, with Uganda now grappling to stay relevant in the global arena. The ugly face of corruption has continued to wipe out all the gains that have been made. The young multiparty dispensation is still marred with scenes of violent confrontations and the police now decorate our streets in the city. While oil has been discovered, the debate about its management is rife with mistrust to the extent that in the last few months oil talk has become dangerously oily.
The population as a whole is characterized by three challenges. One – there is a worrying rundown of public services, two – citizens ‘live are living on the edge’ and three – there is a stark absence and presence of government. Let me elaborate the 3 challenges that we must overcome;
First is the collapse and run down public services. This is a big challenge because for a citizen that pays taxes and votes leaders into power – they are getting a raw deal. This is not just an NRM regime phenomenon, but it is one that comes from years of deceptive government investments. The colonialist worried more about investing for extraction and not for development, the post colonial government spent all the time fighting to maintain their grip on power and not caring about the citizen. Today what we reap is a total collapse of public services that even the post-1986 government has failed to fix. Children continue to go to school and learn nothing, mothers continue to die on hospital floors and poor roads continue to claim the lives of numerous Ugandans.
The second big challenge is the worrying reality that all Ugandans – from the President to the Peasant are ‘living on the edge’ and characterized by all kinds of vulnerabilities. The President does not want term limits because there is no security outside presidency, the peasant desperately ekes a life out of a rugged rural life because that is the only way to live. They dig with a hoe hoping against hope that one day and maybe one day it will change their lives and they will have food security. They accept everything that the next politician around the corner can offer because as we say in Uganda – ‘that is where life it has reached’. A 500 shilling coin is enough to buy a vote, a glass of waragi on election night is enough to drown the sorrows of a man and guarantee an empty life every five years. While we the middle class look on. We see both sides of the road. We look at the comfortable political and new-age electronic thief in government on one side and the desperate urban youth riding a boda-boda like there is no tomorrow and the desperate citizen rural folk who look on mesmerized by the elite gluttony and incomprehensible contradictions that surround our lives. The middleclass continues to ‘live on the edge’ in prayer (for the demon-chasing Christians), the perplexity for the half-hearted opposition politicians that pulls a few camera friendly stunts, to the savvy NGO worker who continues to see a project in every crisis and we construct our own small worlds filled with Facebook, Twitter, DSTV and enjoying short spurts of modernity facilitated by donors funds. This is a big challenge.
The third big challenge is the paradox of a very present government and very absent government. On the one hand we are over governed from LC1 – LC5, Presidential Advisors, an army of Ministers and several other visible troops ‘serving’ the state. On the other hand if you are looking for a supportive government it is not there. Avoidable diseases are killing people – death from Malaria, Maternal Mortality, Infant Mortality, Marburg Disease, Ebola let alone the rise of HIV – are all things to worry about. In fact, whenever there is a fire the fire-brigade is never on time, we gave up drinking water from urban taps long ago, in the education sector parents (even the poor) vote with their feet and try to desperately find alternative quality education in private schools. Yet on the other hand, government is present. If one ‘walked to work’ there is a heavy presence of government, if one protested corruption publically there is government to tell you to protest indoors, police will always find enough numbers to deploy for hotly contested elections but never enough numbers to stop violence against women or child sacrifice. So while government is very absent in the world of social services, government is very present in the world of politics and security services. While in some parts of Uganda you walk 5 kilometers to find a policeman, in Kampala you walk 5 meters to find one. This absence and presence of government is making many wonder, where in the world we are going.
The second question that those in midlife ask is related to meaning and life. Today as part of our midlife crisis we ask the question; what is the meaning of life itself: why are we a nation on this earth? We now stand on very slippery grounds wondering how we got ourselves to this position – where donors are cutting aid, civil servant becoming ‘thieving servants’ and a host of other challenges. But this is also a time to rethink our development trajectory and how we shall embrace the post-MDG agenda. It is clear that globally as we move towards a world after MDGs, we no longer enjoy the faith in multilateral processes of the 1990s that was buoyed by the long economic boom in the developed world. Indeed at the time there was insufficient political will for global collaboration to tackle complex systemic barriers to equitable development.
The post-MDG world will be one that will be characterized by global power that is far more diffuse and more complicated than it was in 2000. We live in a fractured, multi-polar world out there. With countries like China, Brazil and Korea gaining prominence on the world stage a donors and indeed donors ready to finance development that is transactional. This implies that the post-MDG world will have to be one where leadership will be more complex, and it is unlikely that one country can set the global agenda alone. There are many more actors and stakeholders engaged in post-2015 than there were in the creation of the MDGs. We can no longer ignore the BRICS flexing their muscles across Africa – what – with Brazil bulldozing Rio+20 and India, interruption Durban and Doha. Let me submit a few ideas on what we could consider in the post MDG world:
• First – the post-MDG must address the root causes of poverty and must address the structural power imbalances in global power and must, in general, have universal applicability and not be merely applicable to overseas development assistance. It must set more stringent measurable goals for high-income countries in relation to trade, tax policies, and carbon emissions among others.
• Second – while participation was a buzz word of the 1990s, the post-MDG framework must ensure broad citizen participation in its preparation, its monitoring of processes and outcomes in the delivery of services, by setting clear citizen participation targets. This is on the back drop of the reality that, citizens across the world are speaking through their actions. That the day when corrupt elites that cause financial crises and expect poor families and rural peasants to pay for them are over. This message should not be externalized but internalized by all politicians, technocrats and NGO workers. In every uprising, from Cairo to New York to even our homegrown walk-to-work skirmishes and other forms of protest, the call for an accountable government that serves the people is clear. The time of politics being in the pockets of the corrupt few is ending, and in its place we are building real democracies, of, by, and for people. This may not seem the case in Uganda but like viral diseases, these kinds of effects spread variously. If the King of Africa who was just last year a strong man was hiding in the drainage gutter the other day and being smoked out like a common thief, everyone in leadership should pay attention. The new framework, ladies and gentlemen must therefore have an overarching aim of improving human wellbeing and moving away from fragmented goals and targets that have led us to our current global challenges.
• Third – targets must be set according to local context and include context-specific targets for reducing the wellbeing gaps in all development outcomes. Today it is clear that the liberal economy did create a certain type of moral economy that totally disregarded human relational values in the hot pursuit of private gain and primitive accumulation. When we see the senseless burning of markets in Uganda, burning of schools and collapsing buildings, all because people are struggling to make a profit, we must be weary. All these are clear signs that we must rethink the way we do business and stop assuming that faceless demand and supply in the market will cater for people’s welfare. We must now more than ever take an interest in the moral business economy of people and how it structures the liberalized economy. Put simply we cannot leave profit to be the driving force of all economic activity. The search for profits in business enterprises should be based on a value system that first and foremost upholds ethical behavior and does not compromise the morality of the nation – I hope our investor in oil are listening.
• Fourth – the post-MDG framework should embrace the culture of ‘open development’. The idea of open development here should not be about openness that focuses on artifacts such as data, reports, or even processes like democracy and development. It should also go beyond technical aspects and focus on questions of who is participating and how they are allowed to participate. Openness should remove barriers to access, and should grant relevant permissions that allow participation in processes of development. In the post MDG era, we need to build true ecosystems of open development that make data, analysis, communication and feedback/dialogue open to all citizens. The post MDG framework should be about providing access to information, promoting participation and challenging closed and distant decision making on development issues.

Let me finally submit that what we make of the future is up to us. Yes, in Uganda we operate in the difficult terrain, with many temptations and obstacles on the road to transformation. We could complain about the bad governance, aid fatigue and many other things gone wrong. But we could also focus on the positive forces around us so that they can expand – we are alive, there is citizen energy and we are a mature nation. All over the world, citizens are demanding change – change in policy, change practice and change in governance. In Uganda the news is awash with these citizen demands. Clearly there are progressive connections to be made between the state, development partners, academia and civil society. What is clear is that we can’t afford doomsday scenarios or self-fulfilling prophecies. The future needs a dose of optimism and creativity coupled with a can-do attitude to make things happen!
I thank you for listening!