The Monitor (Kampala)

Uganda: Nation's Population Growth - Political Dynamite Or a Demographic Dividend?

Uganda's burgeoning population continues to be a source of concern for many people, including government planners. Whereas some politicians welcome the rising population in terms of bigger markets, others are not quite happy with this trend. In this incisive article, Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba (PhD) brings us the bare grit.

Uganda's population is now estimated at 33 million. It is growing at 3.2% per annum, and this is the third highest rate of growth in the world! On average, each woman in Uganda produces 7 children. The total population doubles every 20 years, implying that by 2031, the population shall be 66 million.

It has been argued in some circles that such population is good for the country. That it creates large markets and therefore positively contributes to growth and development. These apologists have often used China as an example that it has developed basing on a large population which generates a big market for goods and services.

I wish to submit at the outset that Uganda's population in its current form as well as the rate of growth are not assets but liabilities because of the following reasons:

The population lacks a demographic dividend

A demographic dividend is a situation where the people in a country possess high productive skills that create both domestic and international competitiveness. Such a population has a high human capital where every person is a "Producer Commodity".

An assessment of Uganda's flow and texture of the population shows a structure that is largely young, dependent, unskilled and therefore uncompetitive with poor attitude towards work, even among those that could have been employed. As a result, there is low human capital formation and very low productivity.

Even where some people could have been productively engaged, the incentive structure worsens the situation, hence, low morale and lack of motivation among the working population.

There are reports (World Bank 2010) which indicate that 6 Ugandans perform the same task as one Kenyan and four Ugandans perform the same task as one Tanzanian. The question is: What is it that makes Kenyans or Tanzanians outperform the Ugandans? What is the incentive structure in these countries? Because it should be re-iterated that a total sum of the salary of 6 Ugandan lecturers is also equal to a salary of one Kenyan. Doesn't the equation therefore balance?

Level of investment in the population

Those who have argued that a large population creates a large market have used China to explain their point. I will now explain the Chinese population question. In the entire world, every 4 people you meet, 1 of them is a Chinese!

The Chinese now comprise 1.4 billion, but it should also be recalled that apart from being the largest country in the world, China is also currently the second (2nd) largest economy, having surpassed Japan even before the Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear disaster.

How has China achieved this? It has invested in the population, increased health and education (skills-mix training), hence developed Human Capital of its population which has enhanced effective demand which in turn has stimulated industrial production and growth.

There is even a theory (not yet researched) that the current global food crisis has been caused by the increase in China's middle class' consumption patterns, hence lack of food for other people. What China has experienced is what is referred to as benefits of the demographic dividend. The people in China are the greatest assets for the country. They provide market not because they are large in number but because they have effective demand- they have the ability to pay for the available goods and services.

Reaping from Demographic Windows of Opportunity

Countries that have benefited from large populations have done so because their governments have invested in the population (education and training, health and skills-mix formation). In fact, some countries such as Malaysia, Irish Republic and recently Mauritius have now advanced to what we call reaping from the Demographic Window of Opportunity.

A demographic window of opportunity is a situation where a county's population is so skilled and productive that they are exported to provide highly required human resources to other countries. In such a situation, the county's population becomes the greatest export commodity, hence contributing to the country's current account (foreign exchange earnings).

Now, considering Uganda's population, how do we score on: the demographic dividend, investment in the population and the demographic window of opportunity?

There is no doubt that a sufficient proportion of Ugandans are highly educated. Secondly, the government has invested heavily in the health infrastructure (there is a Health Centre III at almost every sub-county).

However, notwithstanding the highly educated population, what level of skills does the Ugandan graduate possess? What are the attitudes to work? Are the skills imparted in our institutions the ones demanded on job market? Where is the linkage between training institutions and employment agencies? What is the level of honesty and integrity of the Ugandan workers? What is the level of individual competitiveness?

In terms of health facilities, to what extent are the health centres equipped with drugs and qualified health personnel? (In Kabale District Referral Hospital, there is one doctor instead of 37!-New Vision May 14, 2011). As a result of the poor quality of health services (the majority of health units in Uganda are run by Nursing Aides), most mothers (61%) do not deliver in these facilities; they prefer either traditional birth attendants (TBAs) or deliver by themselves at home, hence very high levels of maternal mortality (16 women deaths per day).

It is therefore clear that the Ugandan population (both momentum and growth) is not an asset. It does not, in its current form possess the required ingredients to stimulate effective demand and ignite economic transformation.

To be precise, 68% of the Ugandan population live a subsistence life (do not touch money in a whole year), while a paltry 1 million out of the 33 million are bankable (have a bank account). Those who are educated seem to prefer white collar jobs and shan technical, vocational and informal skills, yet the latter are the benchmarks for economic transformation. China has now developed a National Qualification Framework where informal technical training is rated at the same scale with formal education.

They have Professors, PhD and Masters Degree holders in informal skills such as tailoring, metal fabrication-welding, motor vehicle mechanics, just like we have our men and women in our informal sector in Uganda. Imagine a Professor of Metal fabrication from Katwe and a PhD holder in Carpentry from Ndeeba!! But that is what China, your 2nd largest economy in the world has done. Tanzania has also followed suit and is also developing a duo National Qualification Framework.

Current Population scenario in Uganda:

It is apparent from the foregoing that the majority of the Ugandan population is either unemployed or unemployable. But some of these people are also educated. They do not have means of livelihood but have at the same time tested some urban amenities and life style.

Such people cannot be motivated to transmigrate (go back) to villages, yet they lack means of sustenance in the increasingly harsh urban economy where everything goes at a price. In these circumstances, the people continue to hear that the Ugandan economy is growing at a high rate (6.7% and this is actually true).

The implication is that such a population of unemployed and the poor are excluded from economic and social development. As Robert Mac Namara, the former President of World Bank and American Secretary of Defence counseled: "the poor people in scattered rural settlements are not as dangerous as the conglomerated urban settlements. If cities do not deal effectively with poverty, poverty will deal destructively with cities"

Let me re-iterate that we have already started experiencing the danger of growing numbers of the unemployed amidst the rising cost of living. Unemployment is political and social dynamite that has to be diffused.

The implication is that the issue of population growth can no longer be ignored. It must be addressed if the country is to avoid the dangers unleashed by unemployed and redundant people, yet, potentially capable of contributing to national development. The way forward is to invest in the population.

The writing is clear on the wall.

The writer is an International Development Consultant and Winner of International Award for Significant Contribution to World Society.

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