By Andrew M. Mwenda
Critics of the government of Uganda accuse it of allocating less money to priority sectors like infrastructure, education and health. Although it is evident that the cost of political patronage and the presidency/first family has grown, it is not true that this has been at the price of budgets of the aforementioned priority sectors.
From 2000/01 to 2010/11, the budgets for key public goods and services sectors have grown as follows: roads from Shs315 billion to Shs1.2 trillion ‘ a 400 percent increase; education from Shs450 billion to Shs1.1 trillion; and health from Shs250 billion to Shs 800 billion. Even accounting for inflation, this is a remarkable achievement.
However, as most Ugandans would attest, our roads are full of potholes while our public schools and hospitals are collapsing under the weight of disrepair and congestion. There are shortages of drugs, equipment and basic things like gloves in hospital. Our schools lack textbooks and lab equipment. Public health and education systems are characterised by absenteeism and apathy among nurses, doctors, pupils and teachers.
A 2007 government study found that teachers are in class for only 18 percent of the time while 76 percent of those who enrol for the Universal Primary Education never finish Primary Seven. Infant mortality rates have not improved in ten years. Morbidity rates are almost as high in the southwest Uganda (where our rulers come from) as in Internally Displaced People’s camps in the north. Clearly, there is a big disjunction between money spent and the goods and services delivered.
Therefore, the problem is not that the government does not prioritise public goods and services. Rather, it is that we are not getting value for money. Why is this so? One obvious explanation is corruption. But this should be puzzling given that Uganda has many anti-corruption bodies that are active and activist in their work.
An outsider visiting Uganda would be impressed by the work of the Inspector General of Government, PPDA, parliament, a vigilant press and commissions of inquiry. Public officials are routinely humiliated before oversight committees of parliament and in the media. Arrests, detentions and prosecutions are commonplace except for the very powerful.
Critics argue that institutionalised corruption and incompetence in public service delivery is due to lack of â€œgenuineâ€ democracy (whatever this means). Yet Uganda punches above its weight in many indicators of democracy except for the length of tenure of the president. Our checks and balances are above what our per capita income would predict. For instance, Uganda has a strong anti-incumbency bias; in 2006, 63 percent of MPs lost their seats compared to the US where only 10% did.
But a section of the intellectual and political class in Uganda (and Africa generally) is too lazy to puzzle over this paradox: That there is high voter vigilance yet the performance of the public sector is extremely poor. In the West, democracy promotes public goods and services delivery. However, the peculiar way democracy has evolved under NRM seems to undermine the public good. Why?
Electoral competition is an important aspect of democracy; but it takes place in a specific context. Our politicians compete for votes in the context of a large peasantry (70 percent), a small private sector and a very small educated middleclass. What incentives does this context create on those who seek our votes?
Our politicians can win support by delivering public goods and services to ordinary people. This demands that they build political institutions that can ensure an impersonal application of public policy. But they can also win votes by distributing private goods and services (alcohol, sugar, soap, salt and pay school fees and pick medical bills) â€œpersonalisticallyâ€ to individuals and groups whose support they need.
Delivering public goods and services is costly; imagine the time it takes and the money it costs to build a road to Pader or a school in Kanungu. Giving voters sugar and soap is cheaper and can be done in two weeks. So politicians will be inclined to give voters alcohol than build for them hospitals. Yet politicians in the West promise and deliver public services? Why?
In western democracies, the average voter has completed secondary school, lives in a house with running water, electricity, a fridge, television, possibly owns a car etc. What would a voter with such a profile seek from a candidate? It seems obvious that she would demand better and accessible healthcare and education and better roads.
The average voter in Uganda possibly dropped out of school after Primary Four, lives in a mud and wattle house in a rural village, has no idea what a functioning public healthcare system looks like and does not know her rights. She has no access to clean water, gets two poor quality meals a day, has not eaten meat in two months, buys clothes once every four months, soap is a cumbersome expense on her budget and buys sugar only for Christmas and Easter.
Therefore, her most immediate and pressing needs are food and clothing. So when a politician running for office turns up with sugar, meat and a blanket, he is addressing her existential dilemma. The one who promises a functional healthcare system is addressing an important concern in her life. But it is at best secondary.
Politicians running for office face incentives that force them to behave in particular ways depending on the profile of the median voter. That is why politicians seeking to serve the common good have progressively been eliminated at every election. The reason is simple: In the battle between the crook that has sold his house in Kampala and used the proceeds to buy alcohol for voters, meat and sugar and the public spirited guy who promises roads and hospitals, the crook has an advantage.
Debate on the delivery of public goods and services therefore has to focus on how to change the structure of electoral competition in ways that minimise the incentives of politicians to prioritise private goods over public goods. I do not have all the answers. But that is where the debate should begin. However, so far the debate in Uganda is disarticulated from this reality of our politics.