The fact that the NRM stays in power does not mean this new term is not an opportunity for change. The government has many years of experience, qualified people and a vision, so it is time to make a real change for the bulk of Uganda’s population, that voted it so faithfully.
A country like Uganda has so many deficiencies that it is hard to prioritise. Everyone will agree that the country needs roads, better health care, better education, security, protection of the environment… the list goes on and on. So the main challenge of the government is not how to provide all this, but where to start. To do this, it has to navigate a forest of donor priorities, a parliament stacked with opposition MPs and an increasingly loud civil society. But hard priorities have to be made, and all manifestos of the presidential candidates, including the NRMs, fell short of acknowledging this reality. It is not possible to increase the percentage of the budget spent on health, agriculture, infrastructure and education at the same time. Government resources are finite, and URA still has a huge challenge in widening the tax base (instead of increasing the burden on existing tax payers).
Before we start our list of priorities, let’s think about our goal. Our goal is to become a middle-income country, says the President. Our goals are set out in the sustainable development goals, says the UN. Our goal is to all have a decent income and access to basic services such as health and education, say the people. But common to all these goals is the notion of economic development, albeit in a sustainable manner (not degrading the environment at the same time). We now need to consider Uganda’s unique demography in this equation. The country’s main resources (let’s leave oil out for now) is agricultural products and tourism. These are both sectors seeing growth limited by the global economic conditions, that are not looking very favourable at the moment with the EU in recession and several trading partners in conflict (South Sudan and Burundi). It is unlikely that these two sectors will create sufficient jobs for the booming population. With fertility rates at the current level, this is a ticking bomb that gets bigger by the day. But theory stipulates that a young population can also create a “demographic dividend”. This is what should be the goal of Uganda’s policies, to find a way to capitalise on its population. Its either that, or one day the bomb will explode.
How can this be done in practice? Here are some thoughts, which could be the basis for a policy discussion between the government, parliament and civil society.
First, let’s start with taking some measures to control the growth rate of our ticking bomb. Let’s make family planning available to all girls and women in Uganda, even the remotest areas. The programme should come with education about how to use it, as well as the benefits of child spacing. It should always be a personal choice, but it is necessary to make this an informed choice. In addition to reducing the burden on the economy in future, this will help families have more resources and time for each child, reduce domestic violence, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS infections and the burden on women in general. Countries like Ethiopia have shown how state-led family planning programmes can show results.
In addition to having fewer children, families should be guided on how to nurture the development of each child. Through churches and mosques, parenting, adult literacy and life skills classes could be made available, even in rural areas. It is shameful that the leaders of tomorrow are stacked away in boarding schools from primary age. Life skills, good attitudes and personal development is the responsibility of the parents, and should not be the primary focus of the education system. I remember my shock when a head teacher in a rural village tried to explain to me that the children were better off in boarding schools because of all the “bad influences” at home. Parents need to teach their children the basics to navigate in this capitalist and globalised economy, such as politeness, time keeping, planning skills and creativity. In short, we need to teach the parents to be responsible parents and role models, and you don’t need a university degree for that. If the homes can do their part, the burden on the education system will be manageable.
The task of reforming the education system is huge. Curricula need to be changed to include relevant subjects such as business and entrepreneurship, and practical subjects such as carpentry and cooking. Teaching methods need to change from lecturing to facilitation, where students are internalising the knowledge and able to apply it later. Students need to be able to formulate opinions and make analysis. They need to understand the basic concept of the capitalist economy, such as profit, investment, customer service and marketing. They need to be connected to the world and learn how to leverage technology to their advantage. To do all this in five years is an illusion. So to narrow down our priorities, why not focus on the area where we can get a big impact with limited funds; the teachers. Let’s make sure all the teachers that are educated in the next five years are exposed to these areas, and then they will start being our agents of change.
But for many of the young people today, these changes will come too late. Employers say they can’t find the right people with the right skills and attitudes, and the youth complain there are no jobs. How to bridge this gap? Several programmes run by education institutions and NGOs show it is possible. All have some common features, and many are very successful. They all have a strong focus on personal development, attitudes, leadership or character building. The youth discover what their talents are, how to express themselves, how to add value to an employer or how to be a good leader. All programmes also have a strong component of career guidance or mentoring. And in addition they teach some kind of skill, like a vocational skill, ICT or entrepreneurship. They also enforce and encourage basic manners such as time keeping, integrity and commitment. Many also help with placements, internships or access to credit to start a business. These programmes are necessary at all levels, both for youth who have not made it through secondary education, and for university degree holders. The government should scrap NAADS and the youth fund, and work together with these successful programmes to scale them up across the country. I the youth know more about how to be successful in business or a formal job, this will have positive benefits on so many other sectors, such as agriculture, microfinance or water supply management, since they now have the skills to exploit the opportunities that are already there.
Lastly, Uganda should work harder to create favourable conditions for investors. It will not be possible to create sufficient jobs locally for the booming population, so help from outside is needed. It is necessary to lower taxes (especially VAT, corporate tax and PAYE) to make Uganda competitive in a global context. It is necessary to lower visa an work permit fees for foreigners, and cut the red tape. But most importantly, government needs to embark on serious land reform. Most investments are in tourism an agriculture, and these sectors are dependent on transparent and enforceable land laws. This might be politically unpopular, but this is the right time to do it, with five years to the next election.
Imagine the potential in all the young people in this country! What if they had the skills and the attitudes to put their energies into productive work instead of protests and political rallies. The future of this country depends on its youth and children, so between all the pressing issues facing Uganda, let’s make the next five years about them.
Photos: Fontes Foundation