By The Independent Team
As Uganda and Norway celebrate 50 years of development cooperation this year, the Norwegian Ambassador to Uganda, Thorbjørn Gaustadsæther, talked to Ronald Musoke about the current state of cooperation and what he envisages for the future. Excerpts
What are some of the highlights of this cooperation over the last 50 years?
Our cooperation started in the 1960s when young Norwegians travelled for three days on the plane to Uganda to work as volunteers. They started the whole engagement with Uganda and many Norwegians today still remember Uganda as the first place in Africa where these young people had a good time. What this history has meant is that there is some knowledge about Uganda in Norway. Our relationship with Uganda is of course cooperation and we are trying to contribute to the development of the country but it is also between people and institutions.
What have been some of the areas of interest for the Norwegian government in Uganda over the last five decades and why?
We have been able to work in areas where we feel there has been a good response from Uganda like the forestry sector in the past. Also most of the universities in Norway have had some cooperation with Makerere University. Recently we have had cooperation in the energy sector particularly focusing on reforms in the sector. The restructuring that you find in the energy sector today, part of this advice has been given by Norwegian consultancy. What is also important is our advice to Ugandan institutions when it comes to dealing with oil production that hopefully will start soon. But we have had investments in hydro power production (Bugoye) and the thermal plant at Namanve; in agriculture, particularly in chicken farming and we will probably see some investments in the supply industry for the oil sector. Several Norwegian companies are still interested in investing in many smaller hydro power plants. I foresee that the private sector will be one of the areas where we will see more engagement in the future.
And how would you describe the current trade relations between the two countries?
Trade between the two countries is still small today. There are very little exports from Uganda to Norway and there has been very little from Norway. I would like to see an increase in that. There has been some attempt to work with Uganda in the area of meat production. But we also have to bear in mind the fact that Norway is a small market; there are only five million people and you are 35 million people or even more. But I would like to see more Norwegian companies come to Uganda since it is part of the East African Community (EAC). Within Uganda and the EAC, there is a market of 150 million people so if you enter Uganda and do business; you have the possibility of entering a market that is substantial. And this is what I am seeing Norwegian companies do. I hope that we will also work now a little bit on direct support to people and find out those companies in Uganda, which need partnership with Norwegian companies.
Norway has been an integral part of Uganda’s oil story. How would you describe the journey so far?
It has been very good. The feedback I get from the Norwegians that are competent in this area is that Ugandans are doing very well especially at a technical level. When Norwegian institutions come here, they do appreciate that there is commitment at a technical level; they also have found out that the directorate of petroleum and the other institutions in Uganda are very competent and have been very serious and committed in trying to build up their own competence in order to deal with a sector that is very complicated and has very huge international actors. You have to walk straight in order to manage this sector. We come from an oil nation and we know that it can mean a lot if you do it right in terms of benefitting the people.
But the Ugandan public is getting agitated, saying government has dragged its feet so much and they keep comparing the sector with Ghana which discovered its petroleum resource at about the same time?
That is true but every country has to take its own course. I cannot judge that things are moving slowly or fast because I don’t have the insight into the discussions of Uganda. But I can try to understand them exercising caution because as I said Uganda is dealing with companies that have huge knowledge and their own interests, and Uganda is basically coming from ground zero. It took more than 20 years for Norway before we actually started making inroads in the sector. What was really important in our history is that we needed to build consensus around the resource. It was very important for every politician in Norway at that time to understand that we have to agree on the long term plans; that this is something that is going to benefit Norway in the long term. We had to downplay politics and build capacity and not try to do quick things. We had to gradually build the competence and ownership by the Norwegians because we didn’t have petroleum expertise and we had to buy from the UK and USA. You have to make people understand that we need an open debate. There are lots of differences and people agree or disagree with the government policy but the important thing is that you have to allow the discussion to take place and then the decisions are taken to the benefit of many but not necessarily to the benefit of everyone. But what I have noticed about Uganda is that the expectations might be too high too early on what you are going to get out of these resources.
How can the Ugandan government manage these expectations?
I think Ugandan institutions are increasingly seeing that you have to have a debate about the sector. There is a lot of engagement with civil society now; I didn’t say there could be more or less, but the important thing is that it is understood that you need to engage in discussions with civil society and the people who are supposed to be beneficiaries. I think Uganda is a country with a lively debate and no doubt you see that in this particular sector. But sometimes it is a challenge to have an informed and lively debate. Some of the critics are not probably well- informed and some of the context around things and sometimes the information is not always coming out at the right time. But I am not surprised that we have this kind of information because it is natural that people have this kind of discussion on an important resource like oil.
Clean energy is one of Norway’s main focus areas in Uganda. How satisfied are you with your government’s support and Uganda’s progress towards achieving its goals of increased access to modern, cheap and secure energy as a means of fighting poverty?
Uganda still needs a lot of clean energy and there are a lot of things to be done but I think we have contributed to increasing the potential of clean energy like hydro power by assisting the government in building transmission lines and to distribute clean energy into the rural areas because you need both in order to take it from the grid into the villages. We have made our small contribution to that happening but there is still a lot to be done in the future. There are still many Ugandans without access to energy and yet access to clean energy is important because you have massive deforestation in the country. Whatever anybody can do to help people shift from charcoal and burning trees to clean energy would be commendable.
Gender equality is the other area that your government considers as one of its priorities in Uganda. What have you been specifically focusing on and how satisfied are you with the results so far?
Indeed it is a broad approach in the sense that we are trying to have a dialogue on how we can sensitize gender equality such that when you build a hydro power station, you have enough female workers or; if not, then all possibilities should be explored to increase the participation of women. But in general, we are trying to support leadership programmes to encourage women to take up leadership positions. I would like to see more females in management positions in the private sector in Uganda. We are so far pleased with the female entrepreneurs and the women’s leadership programmes. I am also very happy that in government there are many women in senior positions but I also do acknowledge that in Ugandan culture, there is a lot to be done to fully appreciate the potential of women in society.
What is your take on the anti-homosexuality law, which a large proportion of the Ugandan population supports?
I have taken note of the Constitutional Court decision but we also see that this debate is going on and that is expected. My hope though is that Uganda will gradually move towards greater tolerance of sexual minorities.
The West tends to perceive the homosexuality issue as a human rights issue while Ugandans see it as a moral issue and this is where the debate tends to get lost. Is this something you have also come to appreciate over time?
I do appreciate that social change takes time and that people have a different opinion from my own but when it comes to human rights, it is very important that we respect the universal human rights that we have all agreed upon and that we should try to protect minorities against the big society. So I think in our discussions we should try to reach a common understanding. But I do appreciate that in many societies this is a sort of thing that has to evolve over time. Norway has had discussions about this particular issue in the past and it was definitely a difficult issue but we have tried to move forward.
Some observers argue that cutting or withholding and then resuming aid is not the best diplomatic approach to resolve disagreements. Why does Norway prefer this approach?
The money we try to assist Uganda with is Norwegian tax payers’ money and this money is subject to discussion in Parliament and politics in Norway and if the politicians in Norway feel that we have challenges with the way we spend our aid in some countries, they will also ask whether that money should be used for that particular purpose. That is why sometimes you get these discussions. We also live in a political world and however much you try to explain that money has come to good use, we also have experience that some money did not come to good use. Norwegians will come to Parliament and ask what is going on, let us have a closer look; and sometimes decisions are taken to hold on a little bit and see what is happening. Politicians are responsible to the Norwegian public.
As Uganda and Norway look forward to the next 50 years of cooperation, what is your message to Ugandans?
We have enjoyed the last 50 years of cooperation and I don’t see why we shouldn’t enjoy more 50 years of the same. I do hope that our cooperation develops into something that will be more focused on exchange of views, competences, building the private sector; engaging cultural cooperation; finding Ugandan officials coming to Norway to train on some of the technical issues while some Norwegians will come here and get experience on how you do things in Uganda.