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Lessons on poverty from COVID

The lockdown threatened the livelihoods of more urban than rural people. For instance, it stopped many of them from working, thereby losing their only source of livelihood – a salary or an income from trading. This meant they could not go to the market to buy the things they need to sustain life. Meanwhile the guys in rural areas live in their own homes, eat from their own gardens, fetch water from their well and collect firewood from the nearby forest or bush.Thus, even though their incomes may be higher than those of the people in Kotido, people in Kampala live from paycheck to paycheck. For many (taxi drivers, conductors and touts, hawkers and vendors, bar tenders, waiters and waitresses, prostitutes, luggage carriers etc.), it takes only one week of not earning for them to become destitute, homeless and without food. In terms of livelihood security, the fairly better off people in Kampala with higher incomes are much more vulnerable to shocks than the poorer ones in Kotido.

This is where measurement of wellbeing using income becomes misleading. One other measure we can use is wealth. A guy in Kotido may live in a grass thatched hut, but he owns his hut, owns cows, goats and chicken, owns land i.e. commands some wealth. The guy in Kampala who lives a seemingly better lifestyle may own almost no assets at all. In fact his net worth may be negative because he took a loan from a bank to finance his lifestyle. So repayments of the loan take a big chuck of his income at the end of every month.

UBOS’s mean consumption per capita studies the “flow” of income (indirectly using expenditure) at a specific moment in time. A study of wealth deals with the stock of assets a household has accumulated (or inherited) over time. If you do the household survey on poverty during a drought, as happened in 2016, you are likely find many people’s expenditure has significantly declined i.e. they have fallen into poverty. But this would really be misleading because this is a short-term shock that does not reflect their overall quality of life over a period of time.

However, if you do a study wealth i.e. the stock of assets that a household possesses, it does not fluctuate the way their incomes do – based on short-term shocks such as the vagaries of weather. Therefore, if the household has a motorcycle or bicycle, own land, have a house built out of permanent materials, own a television, a sofa set, a smart phone, solar power, good beds, blankets and mattresses, descent clothing, etc. – assets they have accumulated over time and which actually measure his actual wellbeing – you will realise that they will not have fallen into poverty.

This realisation came to me while I jogged through my village of Kanyandahi. As the seemingly better off people in Kampala were complaining of lack of food during the lockdown, people in my village were less bothered. Yes, they complained that prices of their food crops had dramatically declined and they were therefore earning much less. But they were not desperate and did not need external relief. This was a short-term economic shock to their money income but which did not fundamentally affect their lifestyle.

Back in Kampala, even people with a seemingly good middle class background were desperate. With their salaries frozen or cut into a half, bank loans chocking their necks, they found it difficult to survive. Some even sought to return to their villages for livelihood security. One may ask why people still choose to migrate to Kampala. That is a debate for another day. For now, I hope public officials who study poverty and wellbeing take this lesson seriously.

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amwenda@independent.co.ug

4 comments

  1. 1.Most Ugandans are too dense and not curious enough to search for what to do like Rajab…they simply wake up, watch movies and series, then get into bed and repeat the same process the following day.
    2.In America, the destitute can apply food stamps and not end up in precarious conditions.
    3.Covid has even caused most people to give up their religious beliefs for the sake of getting money so that they can survive e.g Judie Mutesasira

  2. Kudos Mr Mwenda! You’ve woken up to the reality, albeit after wasting a lot of time & resources heaping praises on useless statistics. In the recent past, M9 would bombard you with numbers of Uganda’s economic growth & development to the extent of getting tempted to believe him; until you pushed your hand in your pocket then realize that these statistics do not equal to cash. He would overwhelm you comparative figures and reach fallacious conclusions, for example he would tell you how Uganda’s economic growth rate is far better than any country in Sub-Sahara Africa, or even so-called Asian Tigers such as Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia which are now some of the most developed countries. In Mwenda’s theories you’d be forgiven to think that surely in the next five, ten years M7’s Uganda would be counted among the few countries having achieved that much-cherished middle-income status! Now Mr M9 having discovered that it’s not true to say that if you want to calculate Uganda’s per capita income you add M7’s number of cows plus Margaret Muhangi’s number of goats, (all in monetary values) and then divide that aggregate by 46 million Ugandans, do you realize that the so-called middle-class in Uganda is so insignificant? Those numbers couldn’t put even mere posho & beans on table for just three weeks in Uganda’s most richest two districts i.e Kampala & Wakiso! But your cult M7 is deluded that he’s taking this country to middle-income by 2020 (sorry, are we already in the year 2020?) I swear with this current runaway institutionalized looting (politely called corruption), M7 will go to his grave leaving Uganda a sad – slip of the tongue – third world country just like any of his predecessors did!

  3. @ The online editor;please differentiate between the two Winnies who contribute on this page i am the original and only contributor called Winnie so the first post was not written by me.(The lawyer)

    1.COVID 19 has exposed the fraud called capitalism i mean why can’t a company use part of its profits to pay workers rather than laying them off?
    2.COVID 19 has hit cities with the most big headed people for example Newyork,London,Paris,Nairobi and Kampala.
    3.COVID 19 in Uganda has showed the preparedness of the scientists in Uganda. we were for the first time just gaping at the systems M7 put in place incase of any eventualities and all over a sudden Ugandans understood English coz M7 would address the nation in English and everyone would understand what he was saying.
    4.The food that the people of Kampala and Wakiso were waiting for was a sign of embarassment and a message to those upcountry that its not a big deal to live in Kampala;Government was just shot of saying Kampala and Wakiso should belong to a certain class of people.

    • The first Winnie writes better Emglish than the second one. What appears to be common between them is that they both seem to be extremely dense!

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