11 January 2008

Uganda: Endless Projects But Poverty is Worsening


I have always been complementary about Uganda's policy and programmatic orientation towards poverty alleviation.

We have a Poverty Alleviation Action Plan (Peap); the Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA); National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads); Bonna Bagaggawale (prosperity for all); and other initiatives. All these poverty alleviation strategies are conceptually vibrant. What I find increasingly baffling though is how such vibrancy could fail to catalyse improved household incomes- especially in the rural areas.

Beginning 1998, government created the Poverty Action Fund (Paf) to channel resources saved from the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief initiative to poverty alleviation programmes. Through Paf, government pledged to increase direct funding for agriculture, infrastructure, health, and other social services.

However, in contravention of the HIPC principles, millions of dollars worth of savings from international debt payments have continually been disproportionately allocated outside the Peap thematic areas.

Consequently, Peap and the PMA have largely remained paper tigers.

On the other hand, Naads and Bonna Bagaggawale have been catastrophically politicised with their funding hooked into government's political objectives rather than economic sustainability principles.

That may explain why poverty is escalating nationwide. More than 70 per cent of the population in some regions (northern) lives in abject poverty while one third of the country faces starvation.

The 2007 UNDP Human Development Report for Uganda has confirmed that indeed Ugandans are in a poverty-freefall - having dropped 10 places on the global Human Development Index from 145 in 2006 to 154 in 2007.

At the programmatic level, the core assumptions underlying PMA, Naads and Bonna Bagaggawale need critical re-examination. Farming remains a highly risky business. Seasonal price fluctuations on farm inputs and outputs; continued lack of marketing infrastructure; absence of value-addition facilities accessible to rural subsistence farmers; and consequently the infinitesimal shelf life of agricultural produce - seem to have shattered farmers' agricultural commercialisation dreams.

The reliability of the Naads enterprise selection mechanism that ideally would orient farmers' production activities to the market is compromised by vagaries in the market environment. Moreover, increasing land scarcity and fragmentation due to growing populations in some regions, coupled with widespread soil exhaustion have edged poor farmers out of the modernisation initiative.

This year's Christmas and New Year pilgrimage to the Kigezi highlands enabled me to interact with frustrated farmers who have given up hope of transforming their subsistence farming.

I was struck by the rate at which enterprises (such as poultry and piggery) which had been appraised viable for land-constrained scenarios have been abandoned. Poor farmers can't meet livestock feed demands and have failed to expand their enterprises to economical threshold levels above which they would realise profit. In essence, the enterprises had become an added burden upon the impoverished households.

Abandoning farming

Herein lies the evidence for UNDP assertion that more Ugandans have abandoned agriculture (UNDP Human Development Report, 2007).

Since more than 80 per cent of Uganda's population has nothing else to live on other than farming, abandoning farming without alternative livelihood options places the country into a historic predicament.

As agriculture loses relevance to Ugandans, destitution will spiral uncontrollably out of hand. Are there any quick fix solutions to this quagmire? I don't think so, but we are not stuck either!

Since infinitesimal, fragmented plots of land are economically unfeasible for farming, government should address the politically unpalatable question of land consolidation. True, land belongs to the people but a package of appropriate incentives could trigger voluntary land consolidation.

A relatively shorter-term and easier solution could be to catalyse "block farming" - where multitudes of farmers with contiguous infinitesimal plots are incentivised to agree to a collective land use plan.

Block farming would build on farmer associations which Naads is empowering; whereupon only farmers who agree to a block farming system would access Naads and Bonna Bagaggawale funds. Setting aside an agricultural commodity stabilisation fund out of Paf would help farmers cope with the seasonally oscillating commodity prices.

Livelihoods diversification towards non-farm enterprises holds significant promise for resource-constrained farmers. Government however, needs to devise and implement a regulatory and incentive regime to kick-start non-farm business entrepreneurs.

With 10 years of a futile Paf, government must reenergise the anti-poverty drive and address itself to the HIPC principles, which demand comprehensive commitments to poverty alleviation initiatives.

The author is a rural livelihoods specialist

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