By Onghwens Kisangala
Next month, the minister of Finance will engage in the annual ritual of reading the Budget to Parliament. The question, however, is whether this time round we will get our national priorities right. The Independents Onghwens Kisangala talked to Prof. Edward Kakonge, the Board Chairperson of Uganda Debt Network, about the issues, expectations and disappointments with governments budgeting process. Excerpts:-
Obote II government in the early 1980s was collecting a paltry Shs 84bn in revenue but was able to deliver social services like grants to schools, public hospitals, etc. Today Uganda’s revenue collections has increased by more than 30 times to Shs 4 trillion yet basic social services have nearly collapsed. How do you explain this contradiction?
The main contradiction is that there is no responsible expenditure in government. They make budgets and promise the amount of money they are going to give to each ministry, but very often, they do not actually give that money. Then sometimes when they have budgeted for various ministries, the money is arbitrarily diverted for other programmes. Now what is done with the money diverted, no body knows. This means the little money left for the affected ministry must be planned for afresh to cater or everything.
Are you suggesting that technocrats have the right competence and integrity but are let down by the political leadership?
No, our society is very rotten; there is no genuine care for the people. They talk a lot but without any intention to do what they say. They plan for this and that without letting people know how they need to participate. The different ministries donâ€™t even account for the money they are given. And because that is the norm, the government goes ahead and dishes out money for the following year. Some kind of accountability may be made to the Auditor General but itâ€™s all nothing. In Tanzania, if a minister does not account for the money he was given in that particular financial year, he is not given money for the next financial year. I wish we had such a system here in Uganda.
Government spends more money on security and State House than health and agriculture. How wise or unwise is this?
Yes, the problem is actually based on that: How does government assess the needs of a country? You know, what everyone else sees as the greatest need for the country is normally not the case for government. What is the logic of government spending a lot of money on say State House and less of it on the health sector? Then there are other departments that use up their money before the financial year is over then ask for supplementary budgets but very critical ministries that will have got very meagre allocation in the first place cannot be given the supplementary. Why is that? Yes, the ministerial managers might be ineffective, but their competence or the lack of it can only reflect the same of the appointing authority. It is very absurd.
Government always consults the civil society organisations such as Uganda Debt Network in the budget drafting process. How much of your advice is taken?
Very often, they welcome the recommendation we make but they have their own priorities upon which they make decisions to draw the budget. They do not listen to what some of us assessed as the real needs of the people, particularly the poor. That is why you find that the poorest have the least consideration in budget allocations and yet those with some capacity to help themselves are prioritised to be helped more. That is why government spends a lot of money on ministers, money that would do a world of difference on the needy. This is a distortion of priority which creates problems to the country.
What according to you are the key areas of public expenditure that need redress?
Majority of Ugandans are needy in the areas of health, education, agriculture and others, and I think government should put an extra effort to ensure that the needy are given priority. In the countryside, you find crowds and crowds of people who cannot afford to treat themselves. Then for a number of years we have been advocating for a bigger budget for the agricultural sector, but what do you see, three or less percent of the budget which can be re-allocated because State House has â€œrun out of funds.â€
Corruption is one of the most celebrated administrative vices in Museveni’s government, what are the implications of this on people’s welfare and service delivery?
Indeed, and one of the ways of aiding corruption is delayed release of money budgeted to ministries. Either deliberately, or there is a problem somewhere, but what happens is that money released late is largely misappropriated. This is where they organise quick workshops of ghosts and exorbitantly paid facilitators because they need to present their new bid for money soon. That is why I insist that if there was a firm hand about accountability, things would be different. So for me unless the president starts to appoint and disappoint almost instantly, this will not change.
Some have argued that the underlying problem in Uganda is over governance where there is a high duplication of responsibility leading to high administrative costs. Do you agree?
It is true government is so bloated and the administrative expenditures are excessively huge. Listen, Uganda just cannot afford this. The latest is a new set of RDCs to take charge of the so-called patriotism clubs. What patriotism! Please a nation without defined values cannot talk about patriotism. Where leaders steal elections, protect criminals, flout laws, disregard institutional authority and make corruption official; how does one talk about patriotism? The leaders are the ones who need to be patriotic and the rest will follow naturally. So, patriotism is being used to plunder the country once again. That is why I say to young people, you have a task in your hands; you have to fight to rescue this country.