The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Museveni Bans Ministers' Trips As Aid Cuts Bite

The government has initiated some bold responses to the foreign aid cuts announced recently by a host of development partners.

The latest is the ban on foreign travel for cabinet ministers.

President Museveni said, Wednesday, that any foreign travel would have to be weighed in terms of its opportunity cost to government and would be sanctioned by the Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi.

Museveni, sources told us, announced the measures during a lengthy cabinet meeting at the Parliamentary building. He reportedly warned that much as the oil finds in the country portended a bright economic future, foreign aid cuts could affect the nation's march to progress.

"The President told us that there was need to operate within our means and show these Bazungu (donors) that we can do without them," said a minister, who attended the meeting.

According to our sources, the president proposed several measures to cope with what he called "surprising" aid cuts--including the ban on foreign travel, which he said consumes a lot of taxpayers' money.

The ban, however, doesn't come off much as a surprise. In October, when the president was inaugurating his latest batch of ministers, he preached against foreign travel, among other things.

"You should learn to delegate. I no longer travel abroad, I just send [Vice President, Edward] Ssekandi," Museveni said.

According to Parliament's Public Accounts committee reports covering 2010/2011, the ministry of Finance budgeted for Shs 20bn for local and foreign travel for the Executive arm of government alone.

According to this year's budget, the Vice President was allocated Shs 706m and the Prime Minister Shs 218m for travel expenses. Donors were supposed to fund 25% of Uganda's 2012/13 budget at $4.5bn (Shs 11.2 trillion).

Over the last three weeks, several development partners have cancelled aid worth about $300m (Shs 780bn) in protest at the misappropriation of an estimated Shs 50bn in the Office of the Prime Minister.

Parliament and the police are running parallel investigations. The European Union Head of Delegation, Roberto Ridolfi, said recently that the EU, UK, World Bank and Austria, among others, had cancelled up to $300m in budget support until 2013.

A cabinet source, however, told us that when probed, Museveni remained silent on his own trips. He simply said he had stopped making pledges. Last year, while defending the State House and Office of the President budgets, the then minister for the Presidency, Kabakumba Masiko, told MPs that Museveni needed an additional Shs 5bn in the 2011/12 financial year for travels abroad. That amount could pay at least 3,500 primary school teachers salaries for seven months.

According to the State House and President's Office policy statement, Shs 3.8bn was approved for foreign travels in the financial year 2010/11. Figures show that Museveni used Shs 7.4bn to visit 13 countries, host 11 heads of state and foreign dignitaries, and to attend 12 regional and international meetings.

On average, according to sources in the ministry of Finance, a minister spends Shs 30m on a single trip abroad--including allowances. This week, the minister for Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Maria Kiwanuka, said her ministry would issue a statement explaining the measures government is pursuing to get around the economic consequences of the aid cuts.

Already, the Central Bank has come out to say that the suspension of aid, combined with other factors, will slow down Uganda's economic growth to 4.3% from the projected 5%.

Some intellectuals in Africa and outside have always questioned the efficacy of foreign aid. Prominent among these is Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, who argues that "money from rich countries has trapped many African nations in a cycle of corruption, slower economic growth and poverty. Cutting off the flow would be far more beneficial."

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