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True, demonstrations can bring rain

By Mwambustya Ndebesa

The 1999 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Amartya Sen asserts that there has never been food shortage in a functioning democracy.

There is an argument currently that demonstrations cannot bring rain.  It’s an argument to discount those who are demonstrating because of high food prices.  Those of you who come from banana producing areas in Uganda must be familiar with the case where two banana plantations side by side on a similar piece of land with similar weather and soil conditions and yet you find on one, the leaves look very green and fresh while on the other plot  they are yellow and miserable. In fact you hear passersby euphemistically remarking that farmer A must be a rain maker.  The reality however is that farmer A has better banana husbandry while farmer B has poor banana husbandry practices.  The former probably weeds regularly, prunes and mulches his plantation and these good crop husbandry practices turn him into a rain maker.

The 1999 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Amartya Sen asserts in his prize book, Development as Freedom that there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy. That there is a connection between democratic political rights and the absence of famines.  On the other hand Sen argues that famines in some countries such as Ethiopia were as a result of authoritarian political leadership. He argues that the existence of freedom of expression and media information spreads the possible penalty of famines to those in power and this threat is an incentive to those in power to prevent any threatening famine. Regime responsiveness is conditional to being democratic and patriotic.

The relevance of Sen’s argument here in Uganda would be that demonstrations as a form of expressing citizens’ concerns would wake up those in government to not only hear people’s voices but also to listen to them and come up with better intervention measures against food insecurity drought or no drought.  In this sense demonstrations will have brought rain or irrigation, as an intervention measure, will be embarked on rather than the latter remaining a song at every budget speech.

There have been numerous interventions by the government to increase agricultural productivity, but these have been poorly executed.  These include Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture and National Agricultural Advisory Services programmes. Agricultural productivity of major crops has declined by 60 percent in the last ten years which ironically is the era of NAADS. Generally, agriculture in Uganda has been growing at a declining rate in the last eight years.

Productivity as measured by the value of total crop output per hectare has been declining, according to the report of NAADS. Also according to the report of the Agricultural Sector Investment Plan 2009/2010-2013/2014, a comparative analysis of farm level and research station yields reveals a huge gap that should embarrass all those who claim to have been carrying out intervention measures to increase agricultural productivity in Uganda.

For example, on the peasant gardens, maize yields are 551 kg/ha while on the research station it is about 800kg/ha, coffee is 369kg/ha on the peasant farm while it is 3,500kg/ha  on the research station.  Beans yield 356 kg/ha while on the research station it is about 800 kg/ha, coffee is 369 kg/ha on the peasant farm while it is 3,500 kg/ha on the research station. Beans is 356 kg/ha on the peasant farms while on the research station  it is between 2,000-4,000 kg/ha. Banana yields stand at 1,872 kg/ha on peasant farms while on the research station it is 4,500 kg/ha. You can see the contrast between the actual productivity on peasant farms and the attainable potential if there were good practices like those on the experimental stations.

The huge gap as demonstrated above shows how Uganda’s potential to produce food for home consumption and remain with a surplus for export is extremely high. The missing element however is effective government intervention either through good food policies or effective policy implementation to improve agricultural productivity. These policies to increase land, labour and crop productivity can avert the persistent food shortages.  It is in this sense that demonstrations which wake up those in government and hold them politically accountable for food shortages is equated to “bringing rain”.

The picture in the fishing sector which is a potential source of food security is even worse than in crop husbandry.  According to the same report, production potential estimates indicate that Uganda can produce 800,000 metric tonnes of fish per annum but current production is a mere 380,000 metric tonnes due to the unsustainable and poor fish harvest practices.  And the above miserable picture can easily have a turnaround if government institutes effective interventions.

Therefore demonstrations as a political method of expressing citizens’ concerns is relevant to improve agricultural productivity and by extension food security.  I am assuming that those demonstrating have  similar motives and reasons as the ones I have enumerated above.  The demonstrators may be having other motives but that is beside the point here.  The point, as Amartya Sen argues, is that constantly holding those in power accountable for the public actions or inactions can avert man-made food shortages which the government normally explains away as purely a natural occurrence.

Agricultural productivity has also drastically declined due to disease outbreaks especially those of bananas and coffee.  Currently in some regions of Buganda and the West, some of these crops are almost completely wiped out.  So, can’t government come up with a viable policy to contain these diseases? If people demonstrate against lack of government intervention to contain these diseases, will government counter argue that demonstrations can’t stop the diseases?  Fish stocks are almost depleted from our lakes.  Is it an act of nature or man’s failure?   Fertilizer usage in Uganda is about one percent and is the lowest in the region.  Is this also an act of nature?  India used to have persistent famines but it has since had a green revolution through government’s effective intervention and this has made food shortages history in the country.  It is not because India’s climate and weather have suddenly changed. The ‘rain’ of India that has brought about food security is government’s effective intervention in agriculture.  Remember India is the biggest democracy in the world.

Mwambutsya Ndebesa is a senior lecturer of history at  Makerere University

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