An Open Letter to Uganda’s Honourable Ministers and Members of Parliament : Poverty is Man-Made: Uganda Can Do Better.

Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” Nelson Mandela 

 RecentlyI saw a news post from a great friend and former colleague stating, “while Africans stash their money in foreign banks accounts leaving their fellow citizens wallowing in poverty, a 9-yr old U.S citizen built a classroom block for pupils in Mpigi District, Uganda." The Ugandan Minister of Trade and Industry who was called to officiate the ground breaking ceremony, was pictured crying and wiping her tears with her hands upon seeing malnourished, jigger-infested bare-footed children whose voices failed in an attempt to entertain her and her guests. “We need to realize our mistakes and correct them ASAP to give all our children a chance for a better future.” My friend lamented. 

 Malnourished and bare-footed primary school pupils of  Namabo, Kafumu Parish in Mpigi district 

Malnourished and bare-footed primary school pupils of  Namabo, Kafumu Parish in Mpigi district 

 He also included a link to a recent article in The New Vision, one of Uganda's major newspapers. The article went on towards the end to say, that "the funds were donated to the ministers's own NGO from American donors." First, in no authentically democratic country would a minister or any government leader for that matter own a not-for-profit. If they did it would be in someone else's name to avoid conflict of interest, and perhaps fraud, but that's not the point of this post. 

I currently work and live in India on a fellowship to study and support innovative education and vocational training models created by leading social enterprises and NGOs in partnerships with the Indian government.

These models supported by the Indian government are helping improve youth skills,  providing them with high employable chances, as well as an entrepreneurial foundation, hence improving both their livelihoods, those of their families, communities and eventually their nation.

Certainly India is far from ideal, and it will take a few decades to create sustainable economic and social mobility for 500 million in the informal sector in a country with a population of close to 1.3 billion.  However, the government, corporations, social entrepreneurs and NGO leaders are working frivolously in partnership and speedily creating a foundation for an economically stronger perhaps a socially stable India.  Despite the government’s own corruption challenges, there are definitely leaders poised to tackle it head on. And the government so far has enacted forward-looking polices that if implemented ambitiously as they look on paper, India could be on a long road to economic stardom.

Among them is The Right to Education Act (RTE) of 2009, CSR Act of 2013, requiring all corporations  working in India and with Rs 50million ($806,450) in net profits to pay 2% towards the country’s social development.  This is not to mention other campaigns such as Make in India and Skilling India to ensure that 500 million people, majority of whom are the youth between 10 to 30 years-old have a promising future and perhaps a fairer shot at life. Through the STAR program, the government is promising to financially reward youth who graduate on time and with great scores from vocational skilling institutes.

It’s clear that India is piloting innovative policies, programs and campaigns uncommon in other developing countries, and in my region of East Africa it’s only Kenya and young Rwanda that comes close to comparison, and certainly not my home country of Uganda.  

In fact it seems that when it comes to important sectors of our country such as education or health care, the country is regressing about 15-20 years back.

 Given my experience in India, this should not come as a surprise that I am offering a few important lessons that I believe the Ugandan government, the NGO, and corporate sectors could learn from India.  If the  Hon. Minister of Trade and Investment and her fellow Cabinet as well as Members of Parliament really want to see social progress championed by the current government, here are a few examples  to ponder on instead of shedding tears of pity for malnourished  children whose feet were infested with jiggers, we can do something about it.

1. Uganda’s leadership should first ask itself, what are Uganda’s needs for the next 5-10, 20-30 and 40-50 years? What is our country’s vision for 2020-2050 and what type of education will get us there, and how? What is our role on the global stage, given the powers of globalisation?  Is it to be a military powerhouse in East and Central Africa, is it to become, as Ortega, a fellow Ugandan put it, “perhaps an industrialised super-power?”  It’s not until we have figured out what our output and our long term goals are that we can design or implement an education system that gets us to where we want to be.  Once this is clear as daylight, then train people religiously and frivolously as well as seek council from other nations and  let us work hard and and in unity to get us there.

2. Take 30% of all the resources invested in military technology and expensive government vehicles and invest it in improving the quality of teachers and education especially for the children in rural and impoverished areas of the country. Keep in mind that Uganda's future belongs to all not only those who have the wherewithal to afford the private education. Without creating a tide that lifts all boats, inequality and system imbalances will eventually breed corruption and cronyism that will come back to bite us all. Watch what happened in Burkina Faso. 

3. India has heavily invested in Science and Technology and Research and Development. That's why IBMs, Oracle, Accenture and other multinational corporations find it easy to move their operations here, because they are sure to find a skilled workforce. Why not partner with India which is already our friend, and either create a standing fellowship between India  and Uganda to train engineers, doctors, scientists & business entrepreneurs similar to what President Kagame did with his Bridge 2 Rwanda program.  We should be wary of copy and paste models  such as the Brits system we’ve had for as long as our country exists, and have for the most part yielded undesirable outcomes.  Why not hire these experts from abroad and within to build our own institutions.  Pay trainers from abroad or pay the local ones better so they don't leave the country. This would be a “kill two birds with one stone” strategy. Reduce brain drain as well as build institutions using local expertise. Where is these funds to come from you ask? Hon. Ministers here are just a few suggestions.

a) Our parliament is quite over sized with 385 seats for a country of only 37 million. That’s one member of parliament (MP) for every 96,000 people. Perhaps it is true that it takes 3 Ugandans to do the same job as one Kenyan or 7 parliamentarians to do what one U.S legislator could do. If we capped this number to about 150 maximum; perhaps we could use those savings to solve some of the poverty challenges we have failed to?

b) If we reduced the number and prices we pay for expensive vehicles for high level government officials to one, and with one body guard, I think this could free up some cash to focus on improving failing and broken Universal Primary schools.

c)  On this point we could also reduce the 24 Million UGX that Members of Parliament receive to highest 10 million UGX, this would save us a total of 5.39billion UGX per month that we could invest in skilling Ugandan youth through research and development and industry-based training. a

d) It would help if required all Uganda’s MPs to present an annual or bi-annual  score card for the funds appropriated for their constituencies’ development.  I am sure through accountability mechanisms we would save enough to at least have enough  meals for kids from impoverished backgrounds if not mid-day meals for all children in primary schools as India has done it.

4.  Take those funds saved by paying MPs and government bureaucrats less by 40% and add that to oil revenues and invest it in "Make in Uganda" policy and ensure every private and government institution of higher learning has an R&D department. Hire trainers from India, China, Singapore and or the U.S to train our vocational institutes students how to make our own products at home, keeping in mind where we have our most competitive advantage.  For instance our flourishing agricultural industry could use some value-add that would bring in more revenues.

5.  While we are at it, we should create a right to health policy, train doctors and nurses and pay them 30% better than they are getting today.  If our country does this, I guarantee there will be few or none abandoning their careers for jobs in the NGO sector,  multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, and leaving the country for better pay.  Keep in mind that we are losing a generation of smart innovators in almost all sectors of our society who would be piloting solutions, creating cures for diseases, and solving our health challenges in the 21st century. If we pay our physicians, nurses and health practitioners better, and invest more funds in their practical training and do so efficiently, we are likely to reduce our mother to child HIV transmissions by half, reduce maternal and child mortality and morbidity by half,  ensuring a healthier foundation for a stronger, productive and well respected Uganda.

6. A “Clean Uganda Policy” is very ripe for our country. Unbeknownst to you Hons. Ministers and Members of Parliament, air and water pollution is a silent killer perhaps now so more than AIDS, T.B and Malaria. Pollution is affecting the lungs of 14% of our children's population. That's a huge number considering that 50% of our population is below 15 and 80 % bellow 30 years-old. How do we "clean" Uganda you say? Start by streamlining loopholes from revenues from second-hand car imports, fight corruption, and invest in hybrid city buses.  But to do this, we have to first deal with the corruption in the taxi and boda boda systems. 

a) We have to work with the roads and transport ministry and with Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) to have city-bus lanes and commuter stops

 b) Work with KCCA & other city mayors across the country to create motorcycle and bicycle lanes to encourage more riders than drivers.

c) If we are thinking long term, city commuter trains should be on our  long-term plan list.

d) We cannot clean Uganda without dealing with the trash problem. And for this we have a clear example and perfect example. Next door neighbour and Uganda's baby, Rwanda holds a great lesson for us. If we only could have the stomach to deal with corruption in the polythene bag industry, then we could stomach cleaning our trash and investing in  recycle companies to make our cities even closer or comparable to Kigali.

7. Last and perhaps greatest point to underscore. None of these "great" policy initiatives even if undertaken, can jump from paper to reality without a true functioning democracy. Where cronyism, nepotism, favouritism, and all isms are fought with tenacity and relentlessness that of fighting the same way Nelson Mandela and the ANC fought apartheid or to put it in current terms how we fought and conquered the Ebola outbreaks.   This is the only way the 80% of country 99% who are youth deprived of opportunities and shut out from the capital markets and today’s Uganda’s “economic development” will ever have a second shot at achieving their god-given potential.

Finally, Honourable Ministers and Members of Parliament, esteemed leaders of our country and champions of our democracy for this generation and perhaps the next.  These seemingly simple milestones can only be achieved if the following a hight on your radar

a)     Cross-sector collaborations

b)    Intolerance to tribalism, corruption and cronyism ,

c)     less partisanship, and a lot of financial investments and self-sacrificial work for our country. 

d)    Inclusive leadership that ensure no citizen whether young or old, poor or rich, able and differently-abled, religious and non-religious, hetero or homosexual is denied health care, education and any social services because of their social status. 

When we all stand under the our national flag raised hight with its bright colors of Black, Yellow and Red, and sing with pride the first stanza of our national anthem

Oh Uganda!

May God uphold thee,

We lay our future in thy hand.

United, free,For liberty

Together we'll always stand.”

Both black, yellow and red colours of our flag as well as the first stanza of our national anthem should always reminds us of the“Unity”, of the “Liberty”, and of the “Freedom” to be a Mugadn, Mugisu, Mulango, Munyankore or Mukaramoja and still find pride and freedom in the same flag,  because only then, can we truly be Ugandan and can we truly and forever, “Always Stand.”