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Uganda trails in world’s best country survey

By Henry Zakumumpa

If you were born today, which country would provide you the very best opportunity to live a healthy, safe, reasonably prosperous, and upwardly mobile life? This was the intriguing question posed in an unprecedented study by Newsweek, a leading American international magazine.

The study was conducted between 2008 and 2009 across the globe in search of the ‘best’ country in the world to live in.

Well, the results are in. Uganda is number 96 in the global world ranking according to the survey results. Most probably if you are reading this, you live in the 96th most desirable country in the world out of the 100 countries that were sampled.

Kenya (87th) and Tanzania (93rd) rank marginally better in the poll.

Going by the immigration queues and thousands of visa applications received in Kampala, many Ugandans would probably rate the US and the UK as the most desirable countries that would afford them the best shot at life.

But the study results are actually fascinating. The United States is rated 11th in the world. The United Kingdom is not far behind at 14th in the world and rising China comes in at a disappointing 59th (the world’s second largest economy also has 1.3 billion of its population living in poverty). Despite the economic and financial strides that China and India have made in recent years, their huge populations mean they still trail most western countries on per capita terms and overall development.

The most astonishing result of the study, perhaps, is that Finland is ranked top in the world followed by Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Luxembourg and Norway. The highest rated five African countries in order of merit were: Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Botswana and South Africa.

According to the researchers who conducted the study (including Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz); “the best countries tend to be small, rich, safe, and cold’.

You would legitimately ask, how did Uganda come to rank as number 96 in a 100-nation survey and what were the parameters? The criteria was based on five categories of national ‘well being’, namely; education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness and political environment (now you know why we didn’t fare well!).

According to the World Bank, Uganda has sustained economic growth rates of about 5% for over twenty years. Poverty reduction efforts have however had little success despite several interventions such as PEAP (Poverty Alleviation Action Plan) and PMA (Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture) and the embattled National Agricultural Advisory Services programme.

Many Ugandans often question why despite the impressive economic growth rates consistently announced by government, poverty levels seem unabated especially among the majority population in the countryside. Economic growth rates do not necessarily translate into improved national social welfare indicators.

In the Ugandan case, it is true that there has been a persistent increase in the volume of goods and services produced in the country in the past 12 years but social welfare in regard to parameters such as access to health care and quality of life indicators may not necessarily experience similar growth trends. For example, if Uganda (which is a small economy) had an injection into the economy of the investment value of twenty more Sudhir Ruparelias, economic growth rates would go up but we shall still have more or less the same enrollment levels in universal primary education and access to health care at government hospitals. Therefore economic growth may be attained but social welfare indicators may stagnate.

Uganda currently has one of the highest population growth rates in the world (the second in the world according to some reports) which waters down the gains made in economic growth over the past few years. Unless population growth rates are curbed in Uganda and continue to grow higher than economic growth rates, human development will stagnate or even experience a reversal in the next 25 years.

The use of political parameters in assessing national progress in combination with economic and social criteria is a ground-breaking introduction by the Newsweek study. Does Uganda score highly on this front? Do we have a free press? Do we have genuinely free and fair elections? Is our democracy functional and truly representative? Uganda’s 96th ranking out of 100 in the survey already suggests some answers.

Are there any drawbacks in the Newsweek survey? Clearly, many will question the comparability of the criteria used in the study considering that economists tend to favour quantitative indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) which are a lot easier to compare than indicators that include qualitative data that some may view as ‘soft’ data.

The survey brings out the distinction between economic fundamentals and other broader parameters. Though most countries of Western Europe and North America rate very highly based on economic data alone, their performance on more ‘social’ criteria such as access to healthcare, income distribution, trails Nordic countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark which consistently rate better on a broader socio-economic scale.

The emerging use of ‘happiness’ as a parameter in comparing countries beyond GDP figures is gaining currency. At the recent UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) summit in New York, a head of state suggested, earnestly, that ‘happiness’ be included as the eighth MDG.

Recent surveys though suggest that ‘happiness’ is a murky indicator. Many poor countries consistently fare better in ‘happiness’ compared to rich advanced countries. For instance Nigerians are consistently shown to be happier than many countries in Western Europe.

For Ugandan parents, the study has instructive pointers; ‘your chances of success in school and life depend more on your family circumstances than any other factor.’ Ugandan parents need to invest more in quality pre-school for their children. The survey found that ‘pre-schooling does more for a child’s chances in school and life than any other educational intervention.’ So, quit looking for that secondary school with last year’s best Senior Four or Senior Six examination results and pursue the best Kindergarten instead.

Zakumumpa Henry is a development analyst based at Makerere University

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