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How do you govern a poor country?

Museveni discusses the economy with IMF's Antoinette Sayeh. FILE PHOTO
What are Africa’s problems? Museveni discusses the economy with IMF’s Antoinette Sayeh. FILE PHOTO

COMMENT: By Moses Khisa

A response to Mwenda’s article that blames bad governance in Africa on small national budgets 

The Independent’s Strategy and Editorial Director, Andrew Mwenda, is pushing back against the scrutiny placed on African leaders and the blame put at their doorsteps for the continent’s disheartening state of affairs. See: “Weapons of the poor; how per capita revenues and per capita spending influence governance strategies of nations” (The Independent Aug.12-18).

Mwenda’s argument is rather tautological; that African countries are poorly governed because they are economically poor. This is fatalistic. It is also misleading and can only shield those in charge of public affairs against due accountability.

In characteristic fashion, Mwenda ably, albeit selectively, deploys figures and facts to make a compelling case. There is one crucial statistic he picked on to drive his point home: the per capita budget, or what the government of Uganda plans to spend on one citizen for the whole financial year, is a paltry $150.

Compare that with $22,000 for the United States of America, or any other developed Western country, and you realise that African governments are hugely constrained financially to undertake the sorts of tasks expected of a modern government and state.

There is no gainsaying the poverty trap that afflicts African states. In fact this is the very reason precious space and time is spent poring over possible solutions out of the endemic social backwardness and economic underdevelopment that pervade the continent.

Mwenda asserts that Uganda is a poor country, so the government should scale down its attempts at operating like a rich country; we must live within the means of our poverty. Fair enough. Only that Mwenda is employing a sleight of hand here.

He wants government to scale down its involvement in ambitious projects of providing critical public goods and services because it lacks the budgetary resources. Even education, healthcare, clean water, etc. should be left to private players, both profitseeking and non-profit.

The sleight of hand is in the fact that Mwenda wants to highlight poverty but downplay prudence. What if the presidential motorcade was smaller, the cabinet half its current size, and parliament one third of its current utterly outrageous number?

What we have with General Museveni and his African peers is that they excel at the rhetoric but falter on frugal implementation for real structural transformation.

It appears that for Ndugu Mwenda, the problem is the size and not the spending logic of the resource envelop. This is as bewildering as it sounds disingenuous. Having made a career criticising foreign aid, Mwenda knows that the solution to Africa’s economic underdevelopment cannot be found in throwing more money at the problem.

The size of the resource envelope can grow in tandem with inefficiency. In fact, this has been the case in Uganda in the past couple of decades. The budget allocations for health, education, and roads have exponentially grown along with a rise in malfeasance and official corruption among the different agencies under the three ministries.

Let’s grant that Uganda lands a jackpot and the per capita budget expands several times to $1,000. This is in fact possible with the prospects of oil revenue coming on board soon. Would that in and of itself mean the government can accomplish many of the tasks it currently cannot? Hardly.

The widely debated resource-curse argument is blamed for economic stagnation and recurring violent conflict in many African countries: Angola, Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo, Gabon, South Sudan, etc. The foremost exception has been Botswana where mineral wealth and agricultural production have been impressively harnessed for national economic transformation.

As Mwenda aptly pointed out, there is a glaring example of Equatorial Guinea, with official per capita GDP of a developed country, courtesy of oil windfalls. But it has as depressing and deplorable an education and healthcare system as you find anywhere else on the continent. Increase in a country’s budget outlays without corresponding growth of robust institutional pillars and prudent governance ethos only opens up avenues for elite rent-seeking, incompetence, and official corruption. Mwenda knows this all too well!

Uganda’s record under the NRM administration is instructive. In the early years, driven by an idealism borne of Leftist thinking, the new crop of rulers governed Uganda under a lean budget with impressive progress in re-establishing basic social and political order. They were frugal and less profligate. Until the onset of sweeping privatisation of state owned companies starting the early 1990s, official corruption was less prevalent.

But as externally funded economic reforms programs took root, divestiture and donor budgetary support supplied a new flow of economic rents. It was payback time for those in charge of state coffers and the state’s coercive arsenal. The more the Defence Ministry’s budget grew, the more ghost soldiers we had and junk fighter aircrafts we bought.

The phenomenal growth in the health ministry budget produced a quantitative expansion in medical infrastructure but a deplorable stagnation in actual healthcare access. With trillions available to the roads sector, we have had an impressive growth in the total quantity of the road network, but the unit cost and time taken to finish road works not to mention the overall quality leave a lot to be desired.

To govern a poor country perforce requires a highly rationalised use of the limited resources. The leaders must be rugged and pursue a politically riskier path but one that delivers long term change. Focus must be on accomplishing specific programmatic tasks in a systematic and time-bound manner.

What we have with General Museveni and his African peers is that they excel at the rhetoric but falter on frugal implementation for real structural transformation. Presently, Museveni has given himself away with the mantra of this term of office being one of “not business as usual.”

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One comment

  1. I think M7 is too old to read this now. he should go and spend time with his grandchildren.. the German grandchildren that is.

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