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Government must open up for ideas

By Morrison Rwakakamba

What does it tell you that Uganda is absent from the countries embracing ‘open’ government values?

On September 20th in New York, USA, President Barack Obama launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP, see www.opengovpartnership.org) – a powerful, new effort to make governments more open to their citizens. Not anyone can join; eligible countries need to meet a minimum set of transparency criteria. In Africa only six countries qualified, of which five (South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Liberia and Ghana) have joined the partnership. The eligible country that did not join? Uganda.

One wonders why. At the pre-launch meeting in July, Uganda was represented by no less than its Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Maria Kiwanuka. What happened? Could it be that the government failed to organize itself around the tight OGP deadline? Or does it have a more basic, philosophical objection to the key tenet of the OGP – openness?


In his closing remarks, President Obama emphasized: “the more open we are, the more willing we are to hear constructive criticism, the more effective we can be. And ultimately, governments are here to serve the people, not to serve those in power.”

Earlier, at the same occasion, Twaweza Head Rakesh Rajani stated: ‘Perhaps the most important reason we need open government … is because we acutely need to build trust. Openness can bring governments and citizens together, cultivate shared understandings, and help solve our practical problems’.

To be fair, Uganda has committed to openness in other ways. Of the East African countries, Uganda is the one with a freedom of information law and a whole slew of ethics laws.

More specifically, in her June 15, 2011, letter of Intent and Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Kiwanuka made a whole set of promises to be open, acknowledging Uganda’s fragile post-election economy, and expressing optimism for the economy’s future. The Minister even gave times, targets and deadlines for several key policy reform commitments. I was attracted by this businesslike approach with concrete, measureable commitments that make it easy for citizens to monitor government.

But how well does Uganda fare? Let’s review a few of the commitments to the IMF:

First, to enforce discipline in issuance of  tax exemptions, Uganda has promised that by September 30, 2011,  government will begin to gazette and publish on the internet, the names of beneficiaries (whether individual or corporation) of all tax expenditures (criteria for tax exemptions, tax holidays and tax rebates). I have checked the websites of MOFPED, Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), Bank of Uganda and Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), but the promised list is nowhere to be found. Secrecy 1, Openness 0.

Second, the Uganda government committed to budgetary discipline and fiscal transparency In the treatment of unspent budgetary funds. Specifically, the government committed to publish balances on all accounts in Bank of Uganda and commercial banks by July 31, 2011, and October 30, 2011, respectively. My protracted inquiry on this commitment also revealed this target had not been achieved. Secrecy 2, Openness 0.

Third, to strengthen revenue collection and combat money laundering and financial terrorism, the government committed to issue four million identity cards to Ugandans by June 30, 2012. Eight months remain. Citizens need to watch the score.

Fourth, the letter to IMF, beyond disclosure requirements, sets goals for economic performance. Perhaps the most ambitious one is to contain core inflation below 5% in the 2011/2012 financial year. The present reality points in the opposite direction. In spite of efforts by the Central Bank to tighten monetary policy, inflation accelerated from 5 percent in January 2011 to 28.3 percent in September 2011, pushing millions of families to hand-to-mouth livelihoods and near-starvation. Is Central Bank getting it right? Or is it afraid of admitting failure?  Could alternative ideas to get the country out of this bleak economic outlook, help?

Fifth, the specter of corruption and misuse of public funds haunts every corner of the fiscal landscape in Uganda. Transparency can help curtail the worst abuses. Are the oil contracts and projected oil revenues going to be made public? Will their management, much like Norway’s oil fund for example, be managed with any degree of public transparency? At the local level, can the ordinary citizen know of and follow every shilling spent for education, health and roads?

Will Uganda join the Open Government Partnership in the next round and commit to strengthening transparency? Will the above and other commitments in Kiwanuka’s letter to the IMF (see http://www.imf.org/external/np/loi/2011/uga/061511.pdf) be honored? Indeed, are Ugandan citizens monitoring these commitments?

For in the end what matters most are not commitments in New York or in letters to international institutions, but the practice on the ground, and what is open to the citizens of Uganda. And that may depend less on the munificence of Presidents and Ministers, and more on the tenacity of citizens.

Morrison Rwakakamba is the Uganda Program Manager of Twaweza East Africa (www.twaweza.org). Email mrwakakamba@twaweza.org

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