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High prices, poverty, joblessness

By Melina Platas

Survey lists top Uganda economic problems

Most Ugandans think the economy is doing badly and getting worse, according to the findings of a latest survey on various sectors of the country.

The Afrobarometer, an independent, non-partisan research instrument that surveys 20 African countries, recently released their fourth survey on Uganda, and found major discontent on a broad range of issues, including economic well-being, democracy and performance of government.

The survey was based on face-to-face interviews with a nationally representative sample of 2,432 adult citizens, conducted from July 27 to September 3, 2008.

On the top of the list of problems, according to those surveyed, were unstable prices, the growing gap between the poor and the rich, lack of jobs, and food shortages.

The vast majority of respondents, 90%, said that government was doing ‘fairly badly’ or ‘very badly’ at keeping prices stable.

Those surveyed generally said that the government’s economic policies have hurt most people while benefiting only a few; 70% of respondents thought policies had hurt the majority of Ugandans, while only 23% thought they had helped most Ugandans.

The survey also asked respondents to rank, in their opinion, the most important problems facing the country that government should address. There were some issues that remained at the top of the list in both 2008 and 2005, but some also moved up or down the list of priorities. Priorities also differed by region.

Poverty was listed as the most important problem in both 2005 and 2008, but while education had been the second highest priority in 2005, by 2008, it had slipped to seventh place, while food shortage, water supply and infrastructure/roads jumped ahead.

Overall, poverty was the most common response ” 43% of respondents listed poverty/destitution as the most important problem. It was the most common answer in all regions except the North.

In the North, 49% of respondents listed food shortage/famine as the most important problem, followed by poverty/destitution with 45%. Unemployment was the next most common concern across the board ” 28% said that it was the most important problem Uganda faces. Just behind unemployment was health ” though this varied as a priority across regions. 32% of people in the Central region listed it as the most important problem, while only 17% thought so in the West. Among the least important problems to Ugandans in 2008 were drought (2%), political violence (2%), orphans/street children/homeless (2%), and, perhaps surprisingly to the international community, AIDS (5%).

Perhaps one of the most insidious findings from the poll is that the optimism of Ugandans is waning. For example, nearly half of Ugandans, 47%, feel that the country’s economic conditions today are ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’ than they were one year ago ” and this sentiment came even before the world financial markets crashed, which has had a major and negative impact on the Ugandan economy.

But if you flip though the statistics from the Ministry of Finance, the worn and torn Background to the Budgets since the 1980s, that is not what you will see. The government statistics show a generally positive trend once you sift through all the figures, tables and graphs.

If you bury your head in books at the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) library, you will probably get the idea that Uganda has performed pretty well, economically speaking, under President Yoweri Museveni’s NRM.

There have been a few hiccups along the way of course ” droughts, dips in the world market, conflict in the region etc.

But Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been growing, sometimes at truly impressive rates of 8-10% per year, foreign direct investment (FDI) and remittances from abroad have been increasing, and a lower percentage of people are living in poverty than when Museveni first took power in 1986.

If, however, you venture out to the homes of ordinary Ugandans, whether urban or rural, from the North, West, East or Central region, and ask what they think about their lives, the government and the future, the picture is far from rosy.

In the Afrobarometer survey, 53% of Ugandans in mid-2008 judged the country’s present economic condition as very bad or fairly bad. Both of these figures are up from the 2005 survey, which were then found to be 39% and 48% respectively.

Optimism also appears to be falling with regard to Ugandans’ future prospects for their own economic well-being and that of the country as a whole. While four years ago 48% of people were optimistic about future economic conditions in the country (stating conditions would be ‘better’ or ‘much better’ in the next 12 months), by last year, this percentage had dropped to 37%. Optimism about future living conditions also dropped between 2005 and 2008, from 51% to 42%.

On the issue of government’s failure to keep prices stable, it is important to note that this survey came around the time of the ‘global food crisis’, when Ugandans were feeling the pinch for certain food items, consumer goods and fuel, among other things. The crisis in Kenya following the Kenyan elections in early 2008 also had a major impact on prices of goods and fuel. These events could have partially accounted for some of the responses given. In 2005, by contrast, only 55% of respondents said that government was not effectively keeping prices stable.

Additionally, more people in 2008 than in 2005 believed government was not doing enough to narrow income gaps between the rich and poor. 82% of respondents in 2008 saw this as a major concern, whereas only 69% did in 2005.

Based on this survey, it appears that most Ugandans view economic conditions for themselves and for the country as bad and getting worse. They also do not think government is doing an effective job at improving the situation.

Trust in government institutions has dropped precipitously across the board since 2005. Trust in the president, parliament, electoral commission, NRM, police and courts of law has dropped by 20 percentage points or more in the past four years. Part of this is explained by the widely held perception that corruption is rampant in many government institutions. 70%, or more than two-thirds of respondents, thought that the Ugandan government was doing fairly badly or very badly at handling corruption. By contrast, in a similar survey of Nigerians, 57% thought that the Nigerian government was doing a poor job of fighting corruption.

Despite Uganda’s impressive economic growth under the leadership of the NRM, most Ugandans do not appear to believe that this economic growth has translated into a significant improvement in their own economic well-being.

This perception may be explained by any number of issues, such as corruption, income inequality, poor delivery of public services, inequality across regions, or others.

But no matter the explanation, whoever wants to make headway among voters leading up to the 2011 elections will have to convince the masses that they will ensure Uganda’s economic growth trickles down to the average citizen, and that they know how to deliver more than just the mere words Bonna Bagagawale.


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