13th April, 2006
NO food for three days

In September 2000, world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York adopted eight development goals, with specific targets to be achieved by the year 2015. Although the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are thus branded, they are basically minimum standards of human development.

With less than 10 years to the target year for achieving these goals, where is Uganda? Are we doing enough to improve the lot of our people? What must we do if we are to score these crucial goals? These and other questions are what The Weekly Observer will be asking over the next eight weeks, with a view to putting the spotlight on human development. In this first part, RICHARD M. KAVUMA looks at Goal One, which concerns absolute poverty and hunger:

Michael Mibuulo cut the figure of a desperate man as he crawled out of a four by six feet hut in Nagojje, 25 km from Mukono town.
“I have not eaten in three days,” he stammered weakly, resting his head against the mud and wattle wall, and looking up at the thatches.
He said life was much better when he used to earn up to Shs 20,000 ($11) a month as a casual labourer. But now he is sick, he can’t dig and therefore can’t earn money. Earlier in the week, he said, a neighbour had been kind enough to offer him a sick pig.

“I just ate the meat; I had no other food – not even cassava or sweet potatoes.” Nagojje is one of the remoter areas of Mukono district. Though most people live in iron-roofed houses, a sense of desperation hangs over the village. Barefoot, half-naked children with distended bellies are a common sight. Most people can only manage one meal a day.

Michael Mibuulo

By all definitions, Mibuulo is poor.
The World Bank defines poverty as “a pronounced deprivation of well-being related to lack of material income or consumption, low levels of education and health, vulnerability and exposure to risk, and voicelessness and powerlessness.”
Poor people are likely to be hungry, lack decent (or any) shelter, be unable to afford medical care, have no job and lose children to preventable illnesses.
In Nagojje, I met Yoana Makapu, 45, who came from his home in Kayunga in search of work. He used to depend on coffee but then the prices fell drastically and coffee could no longer sustain his family. The situation was worsened by the coffee wilt disease.

“A strange disease attacked our coffee trees and they wilted one by one. Now people who know my home, when they see me here, think I was arrested,” Makapu said, embarrassed as he looked at his bare feet and patchy trousers folded up to the knee.

The situation would have been worse for farmers like Makapu if the market had not been liberalised in the early 1990s. According to David Kiwanuka, manager for Quality and Information Services at the Uganda Coffee Development Authority, farmers used to get 20 percent of the market price until the late 1980s. This rose to 45 percent after liberalisation and 80 percent last financial year.

But while farmers get a fairer deal, international prices have plummeted. Kiwanuka, for instance, says that in September 1995, a tonne of coffee cost $4,320 on the international market. Today, it fetches only $1,200. Analysts blame oversupply for the price drop.

Makapu has found work in a neighbouring sugar cane plantation where he earns Shs 1,800 ($0.98) a day.
“We eat sugar canes for lunch,” he says, throwing his hands in the air in desperation.

Fighting poverty is the first of the eight internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

In 1990, about 56 percent of Ugandans were living in extreme poverty. The MDG target is to reduce this to at least 28 percent by the year 2015. However, Uganda had already set itself a more ambitious target of reducing poverty levels to 10 percent by 2017.

But having fallen to 34 percent by 2002, absolute poverty has since risen to afflict 38 of the population. That is 10 million Ugandans, compared to 9 million in 1990.

By the United Nations yardstick, Mibuulo and Makapu are on the wrong side of the poverty line. Makapu has something in the pocket – roughly one dollar a day, which puts him marginally below the poverty line. Even when he used to earn $11 a month, Mibuulo would be counted as extremely poor.

Despite Uganda’s impressive economic growth rates, averaging 6 percent per annum through the 1990s, the country remains one of the poorest. On a scale of 147 countries on the World Human Development Index, Uganda was number 129, according to the world Human Development Report 2005.

Why the poverty

According Alexander Aboagye, the Economic Advisor at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Kampala, rampant poverty says something about the sources of Uganda’s growth and its beneficiaries. While peasants like Makapu are losing out, Kampala is teeming with new office blocks, residential bungalows and the latest car models.

“Inequality has increased,” says Aboagye. “If the source of growth is agriculture, then agriculture should benefit [the rural poor]. But look at what happened to Vanilla: people came in, and when the prices fell, they lost out.”

He argues that poverty is much higher in the countryside largely because most benefits of growth and government programmes go to people in the urban areas – health facilities, water, roads or electricity. Yet barely 30 percent of Ugandans live in towns. Much of Mukono, for instance, is littered with unfinished houses belonging to people who had reaped big from Vanilla before the prices tumbled.

Development experience shows that many countries start by making agriculture more efficient, requiring less labour to produce higher volumes. Then labour moves into industry, where it requires services, spurring the service sector. In Uganda, however, people go into watch repairing and shoe-shining – because agriculture has failed.
As people move into the towns to escape rural poverty, they bring what Aboagye calls the ‘subsistence mentality’ into towns.

“People like the boda boda boys - some of them are just marginally surviving. Real development would require more organised emerging sectors,” he said.
Dr. Augustus Nuwagaba, a poverty eradication specialist from Makerere University, blames Uganda’s poverty on lack of government intervention against household poverty. For long, government focussed on macro-economic policy and provision of roads, health centres etc., but this proved insufficient especially in the face of fluctuation of the prices of agricultural products.

It is a point reflected in the government Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP), the country’s development planning framework. The PEAP document says that government wants to get poorer households to participate in economic growth. The PEAP sets out four major approaches to end poverty: restore security and deal with the consequences of conflict; grow the incomes of the poor; human development; economic growth and using public resources efficiently to eradicate poverty. These approaches are derived from the five pillars of Economic Management; Production, competitiveness; Security, conflict-resolution and disaster management; and Human Development.

Nuwagaba says that economic liberalisation had spawned about 200 local coffee exporters by the early 1990s. As coffee prices fell, many of them were driven out of business by very high lending rates. Today, there are barely 20, mostly foreign, exporters who easily fix the local prices to the disadvantage of the farmers.

POVERTY CAMP: Displacement camps in northern Uganda have ensured poverty remains critical in the war ravaged area

It is not that government is doing nothing, Aboagye says, but programmes do not trickle down to the grassroots where poverty bites most.

Here, Nuwagaba mentions corruption as a key factor, citing the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF) and the Global Fund against AIDS, TB and Malaria, which have been marred by allegations of corruption.

“Money targeted to households has not reached households. For me this has been the major cause of poverty. Government has not done enough to stamp out corruption.”

Uganda has 69 districts, up from 56 early last year, and 32 a decade ago. These districts, Nuwagaba says, have taken poverty (not services) closer to the people.

“We have done research on the impact of decentralisation on household incomes. There is no evidence that increased districts can actually cause a reduction in household poverty.”

New, unviable districts have handed peasants the burden of building infrastructure and buying vehicles for the district bureaucracy.
“What we would have required for households to eradicate poverty is for government intervention in the production process at the household level,” argues Nuwagaba. Government, he says, must take the lead in fighting rural poverty and not leave it to private production.

Aboagye agrees: “The challenge is to ensure that government programmes go where they matter most. To ensure that resources like fertilisers get down to the villages and that people get the necessary technical support to appreciate that using modern approaches will change their lives.”

Population pressure

In its 2005 report, the Uganda NGO Forum cites population growth rate as a major factor in poverty. At 3.6 percent per annum, it is the third highest in the world behind Yemen and Niger. To cater for such a growth rate, the economy must grow at about 11 percent every year, compared to the current rate of around 6 percent.

Explaining the rise in poverty since 2003, the PEAP document blames “high population growth rate”, among others.

It is a concern echoed by the State Minister for Planning, Mr Isaac Musumba, “The one most obvious factor is that many families have [recently] been getting overpopulated beyond their means,” Musumba told The Weekly Observer. “There is a relationship between the population in a household and the poverty level. The more dependants you have, the more you have to produce to maintain your quality of life”.

Musumba says a right balance between population and productivity enables people to finance healthcare, education and other needs that reflect a better quality of life.

A major problem is the lack of political leadership to address the population issue. President Museveni and some other political leaders publicly argue that Uganda needs a bigger population to expand the domestic market. What Museveni does not say is that a large but impoverished population will not constitute a market.

Obviously, this puts development workers preaching smaller families in a difficult situation: who will the people believe?

Where are the poor?

According to the PEAP document, the particularly poor economic performance in the rebellion-ravaged North is a key source of poverty and inequality.
The regional inequality, however, epitomises a bigger trend of a growing rift between rich and poor Ugandans, as captured in the 2005 UN Human Development Report. The Gini coefficient, which measures that rift (with an ideal of zero) rose from 0.35 in 1997 to 0.43 in 2003.

While the national average for Ugandans below the poverty line is 38 percent, in northern Uganda it is 66 percent, according to the PEAP document. Yet the surveys omitted the most insecure areas! That means the situation in northern Uganda is graver than the figures suggest.

The eastern region, which has hosted refugees from the North and even had its own share of insecurity, is second to the North in terms of poverty. Ending the conflict in the North and parts of eastern Uganda is therefore vital to the country’s efforts to reduce poverty.

According to the 2005 NGO Forum report, poverty levels in Uganda can go even below 28 percent in the next 10 years, if special efforts are made to take the benefits of growth to the poor.

Planning minister Musumba points out that tackling household incomes is a central theme of the 2005/06 budget. In his budget speech, Finance minister Ezra Suruma identified the Rural Development Strategy (RDS) as a vehicle for development. RDS is based on supporting farmers’ groups, enhancing rural microfinance services, access to markets, provision of farm inputs to the core-poor and agricultural extension services, among others.

Government hopes that this strategy will deliver households from poverty. But like many other programmes, the challenge shall be in implementation.

The PEAP document says that if Uganda maintains a 6% annual growth rate, inequality reduces significantly and the population growth rate falls to 2.4%, poverty will reduce to 18% by 2013.
This would allow the government to meet the MDG target on poverty, but not its more ambitious PEAP target.

Only in The Weekly Observer Next Thursday: How Uganda is performing on primary education