20 April 2017

Uganda: Oliver Twist - Ugandans Suffering Hunger and Dying of Starvation

Photo: Steven Ariong/Monitor
A child preparing a meal of posho for her siblings (file photo).
opinion

The frequent media reports of Ugandans starving to death, and some committing suicide due to famine are very distressing. However, more disturbing is government's ongoing reluctance to decisively provide food relief in significant quantities - even to Karamoja which has barely had any rainfall for a year. While there is continuous talk of allocation of miserable funds to this cause, I will reflect on the likely cause of this indecisiveness.

The recent insecurity incidents had government swiftly commit significant resources to security cameras and related operations - which in itself is a plus. However, the critical question is: Why is similar swift and decisive action not accorded to starving and dying taxpayers?

Action expresses priorities. Jesus Christ', "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," provides clarity.

The debate of how detached the political and technical class is from the common man (wananchi) has recently been clearly settled by Dr Stella Nyanzi's much celebrated missives.

While people at the top are naturally expected to protect their privileges as the disadvantaged try to gain more for themselves, the most vulnerable have been neglected at their greatest point of need - by those supposed to front their cause.

Lately, LCV chairpersons are demanding significant pay rise, while our more than well compensated, ever absent, unproductive and self-important MPs are preoccupied with demanding personal security against superficial threats.

That you should send a thief to catch a thief is undisputable. To exhaustively discuss hunger/death in air-conditioned boardrooms is fashionable; however, to starve and smell death firsthand is a completely different experience.

That the fight against hunger is led by politicians and technocrats who spend considerable time visiting dietitians and state-of-the-art swimming pools, gyms and jacuzzis in an attempt to cut weight speaks volumes.

Why would one expect such people--who have not lacked food in 30 years--to understand the starving wananchi's brutal sleepless days and nights?

For clarity, death by starvation is not a one-off, accident like incident. It is a scavenging, degrading, gruesome, and indescribable process lasting days, months, sometimes years, eventually crowned with death.

To argue that, allocating resources to salvage such inhumane conditions diverts funds from very important infrastructure projects (notwithstanding inflated costs and poor execution) is at the least despicable.

Can such households buy flasks to pack food for their children? Which food should they pack? Because such cannot afford vehicles to school, why don't they buy bicycles? Are they teachable if they muster energy to walk to school?

Politicians and technocrats argue that wananchi have unrealistic expectations given government's limited resources (system wastages aside). In addition to numerous freebies like Naads seedlings, health services, UPE, USE and other social services (their quality notwithstanding), wananchi have demanded sanitary pads, and now more urgently, free food. If these are provided, what other free goodies might Oliver Twist ask for? The answer: Who said Uganda is a welfare state?

Typically, governments plan based on priorities which translate into the greatest short and long term benefits (ideally to citizens) - in Uganda's case - security and infrastructure projects.

Unfortunately, while vital, this has been at the expense of health, education and agriculture which have more immediate and adverse consequences to citizens. While donors have lent a hand in health and other critical areas - though unsustainable - it's imprudent to wait for or expect donors (burdened by feeding refugees in the region) to feed starving citizens.

The sight of a few religious leaders and politicians on isolated fundraising/begging campaigns while taxpayers continue to fill government coffers is hilarious.

It is incomprehensible why any government in the world, would not set aside any 'urgent commitments' and provide food to citizens whose existence is threatened by famine.

As Mahatma Ghandi said, "The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated." It is the wellbeing of the common man that is real wealth; not roads, oil and dams. We must learn to live together as Martin Luther king, Jr. asserts "as brothers or perish together as fools."

To remain silent as hapless humans waste away, is to be complicit in perpetrating their suffering and death. The time is always right to do the right thing.

Mr Opio is an economist and a researcher.

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