23 May 2019

Uganda: If Museveni Wants to Eliminate Poverty He Should Have Coffee With Stella Nyanzi

opinion

Parliament this week appropriated an "emergency" Shs17.6b, or just under $5m for the President to complete his countrywide "wealth creation" tours. This, as we know from past experience, is politically correct talk for early campaigning.

If it will cost the presidency that much to traverse the country in the month of June, and considering the tour has been on since at least the beginning of May, we can estimate that the tours will cost Shs35.2b, or close to $10m this side of the financial year.

Most of it will be pressed into the hands of members of hastily-formed self-help groups, youth savings associations and defecting Opposition politicians whose needs have overthrown their pride.

There will be some capex items - sewing machines, motorcycles, welding machines, et cetera - and a few organised entrepreneurs will indeed benefit from this capital injection, but most of it will be consumed. School fees season is upon us. The $10m stash will, in effect, be used as a deposit on the 2021 election votes. This is good for the incumbent's re-election chances, but bad for everyone else, including many of the recipients.

They used to be called 'poverty-eradication' tours. Then somewhere along the way, they turned into 'wealth creation'. It is not clear why, but one assumes that the change in name signalled a change in the underlying problem: That the people previously living in poverty had been lifted out of it.

Rinsed of their poverty, scrubbed of their ignorance, and dusted with the talcum powder to prevent disease, they were now marching forward towards prosperity. The next stop on this line is wealth and the doors of the train will open on the left.

The facts tell a different story. Between 1993 and 2006, the number of people living in poverty dropped by an average of 1.9 per cent per year. This progress slowed down in the 10 years that followed and out of every three people that climbed out of the sewer of poverty in the decade to 2016, two fell back in.

The economy grew at an average of seven per cent up to around 2011. In the five years to 2016 it grew at an average of only 4.5 per cent. A World Bank poverty assessment report released in 2016 explained: "There was little fundamental change in how households earned their income that benefitted poverty reduction - either in agriculture or in other sectors."

In other words, there is little to show for all the talk of value-addition, four-acre household plans, bottle irrigation and operation wealth creation, which are the main messages of these tours. What really helped was - wait for it - luck, in the form of good weather.

More than a decade, trillions of shillings and hundreds of tour stops later, the results remain grim: Seven out of 10 people remain in mostly subsistence agriculture. While the sector contributes a quarter of GDP, it is projected to grow at 2.5 per cent over the medium term - lower than population growth rate. It is shrinking, in effect. With an expected population of 105 million people by 2050 we will, at this rate, have nothing to eat.

Rather than press money into the sweaty hands of voters, the smarter thing to do is to invest in things that are actually known to work, like keeping girls in school, reducing the fertility and population growth rates, and giving businesses the liquidity they need to grow and create jobs.

Here is a better way to spend that $10m. We will take just two ideas at random. One, the World Bank report cited above says returns to smallholder farmers would rise by 50 per cent if we stamped out counterfeit and low-quality inputs. So instead of deploying majors and captains to drive around handing out piglets, deploy them on the borders to keep out imports of poor seed and agro-equipment.

Second, keep girls in school. Early pregnancies pluck them out of school, explain why one in four homes is headed by women, and maintain the vicious circle of poverty. Making contraceptives cheap and widely available would reduce the fertility rate as would something as basic as giving girls sanitary towels.

For just Shs7b, the government can keep its word and provide reusable sanitary pads to a million schoolgirls. It is for making this case that Stella Nyanzi has been in jail for close to 200 days now.

It is remarkable when you think about it, but if Museveni really wants to eliminate extreme poverty, he needs to speak to Stella Nyanzi, not jail her.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man's

freedom fighter. write2kalinaki[email protected]

Twitter: @Kalinaki.

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