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Planning in the dark

By Ronald Musoke

Why does Uganda government fear to count its people?

The National Planning Authority offices on Plot 15B, Clement Hill Road, in Kampala is a bee-hive of activity. The elderly executive director of the authority, Dr Wilberforce Kisamba-Mugerwa, darts in and out of a meeting on the ground floor like a choir master putting his charges into perfect shape before a big concert.

The flurry seems to revolve around Uganda’s Vision 2040; a 30-year national development plan that NPA unfurled recently.


Although Kisamba-Mugerwa and his team appear satisfied with the outcome of their effort, critics are already tearing it apart.

“It’s weird,” says Western Uganda Youth MP Gerald Karuhanga, “Every year, they  are busy planning and budgeting for people, but there is no way you can plan for people you don’t know.”

Karuhanga who is a member of parliament’s Finance, Planning and Economic Development Committee is concerned that one year after the government failed to carry out a scheduled National Population and Housing Census; it has again been omitted from the budget.

Karuhanga thinks there could be a hidden agenda.

“Why are all projects that have to do with numbers of the country’s population frustrated or failing to take off?”

He names the Biometric Voters register and the National ID project.

Karuhanga possibly has a point. Uganda last carried out a census in 2002. At the time, Kisamba-Mugerwa was a youngish researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, USA; the NPA had just been formed, and only 5 percent of Ugandans had a mobile phone.

In the NPA office today, one finds dozens of young minds hunched onto computers. In 2002, the researchers did not consider it necessary to enumerate how many Ugandans had a computer let alone imagine the superb fly-overs, magnificent oil refinery, and the speed trains that Kisamba-Mugerwa’s Vision 2040 is planning.

Yet all the planning could be off the mark if the quantity and quality of the population are inaccurate.

Confusing blueprint

Most of the figures on which Uganda’s planning is done are estimates. Usually, the 2002 census, when Uganda had a population of 24 million are used as a basis for the estimates. But the results of the estimates can be confusing. At one point Vision 2040, for example, projects that Uganda’s population, which it says is 32 million this year, will be 61 million by 2040.

On another page, the same Vision 2040 says the population will be “93.4 million in 30 years”.  That is a difference of 30 million people over the same period. In the hands of a planner, that could be the equivalent of basing on the blueprint of a bungalow to make estimates for a skyscraper.

It gets more confused if, as happened recently, international agencies throw in their own estimates. According to the UN World Population Prospects released this June, Uganda’s population is 37.5 million this year, will be 40 million in two years’ time, and hit 82 million in 2040.

Prof. James Ntozi of the Department of Population Studies, School of Statistics and Applied Economics, at Makerere University says a national census is critical to providing crucial information for planners.

“Projections lose value as time goes on. 2002 is a long time ago and that data is out of date,” he warns, “although the delivery of services in the country is still done haphazardly, census information remains essential for planning.”

Dr. John Ssekamatte-Ssebuliba, the head of Social Sector Planning at the NPA agrees. He says “a census is the most robust planning tool.”

“It gives the population by sex, age, domicile, and the range of skills set,” he says.

So why has the government not carried out a census as required by the constitution?

No money?

Francis Mashate, the National Census Coordinator at the Uganda of Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) recently told The Independent that the government does not have money. Mashate says all across the so-called third world, governments have found it challenging to do censuses without any major help from development partners.

Recently, Uganda has run into trouble with donors who have cut budget-support over alleged corruption by public officials.

“Undertaking a census is a very expensive venture [since] it involves very many stakeholders,” Mashate says.

That is a surprise because Uganda has held censuses every 10 or 11 years since 1948. The 2002 census was the most comprehensive. In East Africa, Uganda’s peers have the most current data on their population. Burundi did her census in 2008, followed by Kenya in 2009, while both Rwanda and Tanzania did theirs in 2012.

Part of the census funding sluggishness could be a result of sporadic surveys that UBOS conducts. But this could be misleading. In 2009, for example, UBOS put the number of Ugandans living under absolute poverty at 31 percent, the majority of whom lived in northern and eastern Uganda.

However, one factor that perpetuated poverty in the North was due to the millions of people then living in Internally Displaced Camps (IDPs) with no economic activity. That has since changed.

Critics point out that an activity like the census, which is done every 10 years, should be doable if only the government has the political will.

“It is not lack of money but lack of political will,” Alice Alaso, the FDC secretary general and woman MP, Serere District says.

“How come when the government considers something urgent, they somehow find the money somewhere?” she asks.

“The government would rather spend more on the military and defence budget.”

“When they wanted the military jets, they did not come to Parliament for approval but when it is something to do with a programme that is supposed to benefit all Ugandans, they don’t have money.”

Alaso adds that Ugandans should not be surprised when the government persistently gets its priorities wrong.

“Since they don’t know how many pupils or teachers or extension workers are in which part of Uganda, the persistence of ghost pupils and teachers will continue,” Alaso adds, “they are a symptom of a lack of accurate data.”

Going slow

The government’s commitment to carrying out the census has been questioned because of its erratic announcements. The government had last year declared August this year to be the new period for the census. But just a month to the budget; in May, junior Finance minister Fred Omach announced that there would be no census this year “owing to financial difficulty”.

That pronouncement catapulted Uganda into the category of states whose census schedules are not known by the international planning community. Now the new date is August 2014. If it happens then, Uganda will still have met the UN’s 2010 Census round aspirations that sought member states to carry out censuses during the 2005-2014 period.

“The government may have failed to carry out the census during the stipulated time, but this does not mean that it does not consider the census important. It may not be the first or second priority but it remains a priority for the government,” Mashate says.

Mashate says UBOS, which is the implementing agency of the census had by April this year already spent about Shs 47.7 billion in preparation for the planned 2013 national census.

Of this Shs25 billion was sank in planning and demarcation of the country into manageable enumeration areas, while Shs22.7 billion went into procurement of crucial census materials like paper for printing questionnaires and aprons for the census enumerators.

Mashate says ever since the census was launched under the theme, ‘Together We Count,’ on December 18, 2009 by then-ICT minister, Aggrey Awori, many preparatory activities have been put in place by UBOS.

“So far everything is in order,” he says, “What has not happened is the enumeration itself.”

Mashate says, the country has already been demarcated into 80,000 enumeration areas and, a pilot census to test the census instruments was done in 2011.

According to Mashate, between now and August 2014, UBOS requires about Shs115 billion, of which Shs87 billion has been budgeted for the enumeration exercise. According to Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka, about Shs47 billion has been budgeted for the census exercise in the FY 2013/14 budget.

Mashate says the Finance ministry advised UBOS that “this activity should not stop but continue in a slowed manner”.

However, Dr Ssekamatte-Ssebuliba says it is high time the governments in the developing world adopted innovative ways of getting census data of their population.

He says a cutback on the dependence of censuses can be achieved if government invests in a civil registration system—a system which is able to continuously register births, deaths, immigrations emigrations and other vital data. If this system is put in place by the government, it would provide what demographers call ‘living statistics.’

“With the exception of the initial costs which may be quite high, the system can be cost-effective in the long run,” he says. If you have your base year, he says, you will be able to know how many people are living in the country at any given time whenever you require the data.

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