The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Let Us Be More Productive in 2014


But if I had chance to suggest one for the country, it would have to be upping our productivity. While we have done excellently in growing Uganda's population, our overall material well-being remains appalling. Our wealth creation has greatly lagged behind our human procreation.

Uganda's Gross Domestic Product, GDP (the total value of goods and services) is approximately $20 billion. With an estimated population of 35 million, the average wealth for each Ugandan (GDP per person) is about $570 or approximately Shs 1.4 million.

GDP and GDP per capita can be a little misleading. The latter does not tell us that there's a Mr Sudhir Ruparelia, whose wealth is estimated at more than a billion dollars, and a peasant in Pader, who owns no more than a few dozen dollars.

It sounds somewhat tautological to say that the small size of our domestic wealth is because of our low productivity. That is, that we have low overall output due to an averagely low individual productivity. Yet, this is precisely the case.

The percentage of Ugandans engaged in substantive wealth creation and value-added production is very small. The vast majority depends on familial sources for livelihood or survives through handouts from different benefactors, sometimes secured by outright begging.

The politics of facilitation fashioned by the NRM government has compounded matters. To do anything - or sometimes nothing - one has to be facilitated. Other Ugandans, especially urban dwellers, make a living through speculation and deal-making, of the type that adds practically nothing to the already available wealth.

The real estate sector and motor vehicle business top the list in hosting hoards of individuals whose real contribution is creating artificial demand and scarcity. Perhaps the most nauseating group is that of "taxi brokers", who are paid for telling a waiting passenger to enter a taxi. The nadir of their dubious role is when they stop you from boarding a taxi on account of that taxi's conductor "defaulting" on paying the brokers.

The list of time-consuming yet totally unproductive activities keeps growing. The new kid on the block is sports betting. And for many years, the bodaboda (passenger motorcycle) industry has smouldered steadily, covering the entire country, deep in the rural areas.

But for a country in urgent need of mustering substantial resources for national transformation, of what concrete value is trading a piece of land for a passenger motorcycle other than driving a young man away from agriculture and other forms of real production?

While we are at it, the motorcyclists haven't stopped at killing productivity. They have done more. They have worked hard in embracing the most macabre conduct, especially on Kampala's roads, endangering theirs and the lives of other road users. Meanwhile, the authorities remain so supine, failing to enforce even something as basic as requiring every bodaboda rider to carry two helmets: for the rider and the passenger.

With more and more unemployed youth turning to selling ancestral plots of land and joining the bodaboda industry, a critical mass of dastardly conduct is building. And the ramifications for the future are frightening to contemplate. We need prayers, or maybe we don't, since we have had countless end-of-year prayers!

If majority urban dwellers, mostly in Kampala, are largely engaged in activities of little if any value addition and wealth creation, many in rural Uganda take to little more than fulltime alcoholism. It's not unusual for the average rural middle-aged man to be fully occupied throughout the day at a local bar selling locally-produced gin.

Two well-intentioned policies but with grave unintended consequences, by the Museveni government, are largely to blame for the decline in rural productivity. The abolition of graduated tax in the heat of the 2006 election campaigns and the introduction of free Universal Primary Education in 1997, and later secondary education. Without the push to meet a compulsory direct tax, and having not to worry about paying school fees, the incentive to work is diminished.

Left to their own devices, rational individuals make decisions they consider as yielding immediate satisfaction but which hurt the common good. Thus, social systems embodying certain values and cultural mores have historically shaped individuals in the direction of transformation.

It's believed that the "Protestant Ethic," a set of Christian inspired values including honesty, social trust, financial thrift and belief in economic success as God's command, provided the initial spur of Western capitalism and the economic transformation of North America and Western Europe.

Also, the so-called Asian values that foreground strict personal discipline, sanctity of the family, respect for hierarchy and authority, etc, were central to the socio-economic transformation of East Asia.

In the absence of socio-cultural and religious systems that rally society for a shared goal, the responsibility lies squares at footsteps of the state, managed by a transformational leadership. To be sure, in many cases the latter leverages from and reinforces the former. But it appears that in Uganda we are short on all fronts.

Can the Ugandan state midwife more productive Ugandans in 2014?

The author is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University, Evanston/Chicago-USA.

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