21 April 2017

Uganda: The Rattle of Poverty and the Challenge of Our Time

Photo: The East African
A family in rural Uganda. Most people in Uganda live below the poverty line (file photo).

I spent the Easter weekend visiting my parents in our ancestral village in Bubulo, Manafwa district.

At 89, my old man has lived a full life. I will hopefully have the chance to share, here, my reflections on his illustrious life when he finally departs to meet his creator.

Driving through the countryside and speaking to rural folks, two key problems are currently of great concern to especially our compatriots occupying the lowest rungs of material wellbeing, across the nation.

The first is the perennial problem of insufficient rainfall, this time happening in the middle of the first season of crop-growing. The second problem is that of the armyworm, menacing away in many districts across the country.

These two problems presage a bigger national food crisis that will undoubtedly outstrip the current famine raging in parts of the northeast and the west. Irregular and insufficient rainfall at this time of the year means critical food crops such as beans and maize, presently still in early stages, will likely dry up.

The upshot will most likely be no harvests at all or very little yields at the end of the crop-growing season. The problem of rain is being compounded, in no small measure, by the runaway armyworm outbreak.

In the twenty-first century, the Ugandan subsistence farmer remains largely at the mercy of nature. If it rains and shines, in appropriate amounts though, he/she subsists. If it rains disproportionately and shines extremely, he/she will likely starve. This means that rudimentary tilling of the land is the predominant form of producing food, largely for domestic consumption and only a little extra for trading in the market.

The growth of human civilization and attainment of social progress has primarily centered on the capacity to manage both the excesses and inadequacies of nature. The key route to this has historically been through scientific inventions and technological innovations. Inventions transform the method of production; innovations improve productivity and transform unit-output.

To his credit, at the level of analytical comprehension, Uganda's ruler of three-decades-standing has a fine grasp of this critical component of social transformation and the struggle against the rattle of poverty, the burden of disease, and the attainment of basic means of livelihood.

Yet it remains a scandal of monumental proportions that a country so endowed with enormous natural resources, including huge water bodies, remains deeply dependent on the whims of nature.

This, more so, in an era of climate change with successive overuse of the global atmospheric sink, the ozone layer, through mainly the burning of fossil fuels that emit corrosive greenhouse gasses.

Unpredictable and changing weather patterns present, by far, the biggest structural difficulty for a poor people. And relying on rudimentary and unsophisticated farming tools and methods leave whole communities vulnerable to unfavorable weather and hostile conditions.

Poor countries like Uganda are trapped in the incapacity to produce on a large scale for both the market and for family subsistence. In addition to remaining beholden to nature, there is an equally important structural impediment, of a poor land tenure and ownership regime.

Mechanized agriculture that would significantly up productivity and, in all likelihood, banish incessant famines cannot thrive in our fragmented and distorted land ownership and usage regime.

The land question has persistently been a hot potato for most of the last three decades of one-man-rule in Uganda. The current rulers had an excellent opportunity to overhaul the land tenure and ownership system in the early years of the regime. They didn't. Instead, over the years, political expedience and brinkmanship have built up an explosive social problem.

Land disputes, over use and contests over ownership have become so pervasive nationwide. And there appears to be no comprehensive and prudent solution in the offing anytime soon. Rather, the NRM government continues to skirt the problem, dancing around with all manner of ad hoc and ill-thought schemes manned by presidential appointees and housed in the president's office. It is disheartening.

Human beings around the world have made great progress in overcoming material want and attaining higher standards of living. Many more people today live longer than they did half-a-century ago. Average incomes in most of the global south have gone up in the last couple of decades albeit at a relatively smaller rate in Africa. There is more access to a bigger pool of goods and services, thus a higher quality of life, overall.

Yet, to be sure, the staggering levels of social backwardness and material deprivation among a sizeable fraction of people in a country like Uganda remain palpable.

The Ugandan economy has been on a leash since the financial crash wrought by the 2011 elections, when the ruling NRM and its strongman literally bought votes, one-by-one. We seem to have never recovered from the near-collapse of the shilling and the economic tanking that sparked walk-to-work protests in April 2011.

There is need for radical economic reform for a turnaround that would focus on increasing productivity. This will not happen with a president posturing around with drip-irrigation and teaching peasants how to fetch water or plant seeds. There has to be a big rethink and fresh approach.

The author teaches political science at Northwestern University/Evanston, Chicago-USA.


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