By Andrew M. Mwenda
How Uganda’s politics cannot create a government that delivers public goods and services efficiently
Last week, I proposed the need to rethink the role of the state to fix our education system. I argued that we should separate the financing of education from its provision. The state should retain a role in financing and wherever possible outsource provision to the private sector. I proposed that we do this by giving vouchers to poor parents to send their kids to good private schools.
There were many and legitimate criticisms to my proposals and I admired the insights offered. But there were no creative recommendations. The only suggestion was that the state should pull up its performance socks and eliminate corruption and incompetence. This is too banal. A better suggestion would have been to remove the current government in the hope that a new one may improve things. Yet I think the problems of our public sector have more to do with our politics than with President Yoweri Museveni personally and his NRM party organisationally. Many may suggest that I am creating an excuse for our president. But I think that finding a villain to blame for our problems may not be completely wrong but it is overly simplistic. In any case, what if regime change doesn’t happen?
Regime change is good and Uganda needs it. But that is not what is most likely going fix our education system and other problems that bedevil our public sector. Let us examine the specific reality of Uganda’s politics. To build a successful electoral coalition, political parties win over powerful elites from our different ethnic and religious groups. So Abdul Katuntu and Salam Musumba deliver Busoga to FDC while Hillary Onek and Jacob Oulanyah deliver Acholi to the NRM. So these elites act as the bridge between the party and their co-ethnics! The exchange relationship in this bargain is actually a trade in private goods, not promises of public policy. How?
These powerful ethnic and religious elites are rewarded with lucrative ministerial positions in expectation that they will make for themselves a good fortune (often through corruption) and use their influence to direct public resources (often as personal favours to individuals whose support they desire). This is not to say that they ignore public policy completely. Rather it is to underline the fact that public policy begins to serve a secondary function. And this behavior is perfectly rational. If a president or political party can win a large share of the ethnic block-vote of the Bakiga by appointing a few of its notables to its cabinet, that is a much more cost efficient and effective strategy than building a functioning healthcare or education system in Kigezi.
Many people assume that a democratic system that allows regular change of government leads to improvements in the ability of the state to deliver public goods and services. My faith in this belief was lost when I began studying India, a democracy for the last seventy years. With its free press, vibrant civil society and regular changes of government, India has witnessed consistent decline in the ability of the state to serve the ordinary citizen.
I have just finished reading Simon Denyer’s book, Rogue Elephant, a powerful tale of deeply entrenched corruption and incompetence in India’s public sector. Denyer shows how the more corrupt a politician the more heroic they are in their local community. I have read similar studies on Zambia, Kenya, Senegal, Malawi and Ghana where governments change hands from ruling to opposition parties. This is because political power in such countries is captured by elites who use their identity to secure the following of their co-ethnics. Regular change of government may constitute alternation of different elite factions in power, but not change in governance.
This is why, in making policy, we need to appreciate Uganda’s very specific political economy. The state of Uganda has built effective capacities for budget allocation to priority sectors, which I call “allocative efficiency.” Whenever a sector is prioritised, the government has proven able to allocate funds to it. For example, the budget for education has grown from Shs243 billion in 1997 to Shs1.6 trillion today, health from Shs57 billion to Shs1.3 billion and roads from Shs197 million to Shs1.8 billion over the same period. But many would agree that the results from this infusion of money into these sectors are not commensurate with the funds spent. This means the state of Uganda lacks implementation efficiency and effectiveness.
I hold the view that, to improve a system, one needs to leverage its strength more than seek to fix its weaknesses. Therefore it is more productive to try and leverage the government’s allocative efficiency than try to fix its implementation weaknesses. Vouchers are an allocative function. Running schools an implementation one. Therefore vouchers may offer a better solution to education especially in urban areas where private schools dominate. In any case the majority of parents especially in urban areas are already using private schools leaving a dysfunctional public education to the poor. With vouchers, the government will not be reforming the education system but accepting the choice better off parents have made.
My belief in privatisation and liberalisation is not ideological but pragmatic. In Rwanda where the state has proven its discipline and where the public sector functions even better than the private sector, I always argue for state-centered policies. In Uganda, I argue the reverse recognising that our state and its politics work best through the private sector. See how the privatisation of electricity generation and distribution has revolutionalized the electricity market and attracted investments in the energy sector. Look at how the banking and telecommunications sectors that were liberated from state control have led to innovations that are transforming our country. Of course the private sector is not perfect and neither does it answer all Uganda’s problems. But in education it offers a better alternative.
I admit the voucher system has many flaws as critics so eloquently showed in the stimulating debate on The Independent website (www.independent.co.ug). But they are also the most pragmatic solution in our circumstances. We shall not find a perfect solution. Each innovation we seek will have its shortcomings. We need reform not because it promises perfect or an end to all our education ills but because it will deliver an improved system of delivering a good education to the kids of the poor.