Uganda’s (Africa’s) paradox: Why youth unemployment and urban poverty is a sign of progress
Andrew M. Mwenda | THE LAST WORD | Uganda, like all African countries, has a big problem of youth unemployment. Some figures put it at 83%. Unemployed and underemployed youths are relegated to slums in towns where they live a life of poverty, misery, and marginalisation. This assessment makes a lot of moral sense and emotional appeal. It is also politically attractive. But it is actually filled with a lot of nonsense.
Unemployment and poverty are a big problem for Uganda. But this is only because we are looking at it simplistically. Strategically (from the perspective of political economy) it is a sign that Uganda (and other nations of Africa) is beginning to transform from being a predominantly rural agrarian economy to towards a modern urban society.
There is little unemployment in rural areas. Almost everyone has a job: they wake up every morning, pick their hoe and go to dig in their garden to produce their family food. Such a static agrarian society is characterized by the paradox of full employment alongside broad based poverty.
Transformation is characterised by the movement of people from rural to urban areas, from village tillage to urban industry and services. Separated from their subsistence on agriculture, migrants to cities and other urban centers can only survive by selling their labour. The world’s most important market is the labour market. It is where one person sells their human capital to owners of financial capital.
Why are many Ugandans leaving the villages for towns? It is because towns offer better opportunities for employment. So urban poverty is a sign of urban strength and vitality not weakness and stagnation. Kampala is full of many poor people on its streets. But this is not because it makes people poor but because its opportunities attract poor people who want to improve their lives. And they often succeed.
Staying in the village and depending on agriculture for a livelihood is a sign of stagnation and poverty. Coming to a city is a sign of inventiveness, initiative, and progress. People in towns are richer, happier, and healthier than in villages. Less than 6% of the people who live in Kampala and 7.5% of those living in the surrounding Wakiso District fall below the poverty line. In Acholi region, those living in poverty are 32%; in Kamuli, 40%. And 92% of the poor people of Uganda live in rural areas.
Therefore, those who call upon Ugandans to remain in rural areas engaging in agriculture are asking them to remain in poverty. The good news is that in a society where people are free to move and live wherever they wish, people vote with their feet. In Uganda, they are doing so. Our country is one of the most rapidly urbanising societies in the world. The fact that 78% of our people still live in the countryside and still depend on agriculture or a livelihood is evidence that our progress has been slow. It will be a sign of progress when most of our people begin living in urban areas – even when they have no jobs.
Here is a paradox: the Ugandans who hate President Yoweri Museveni most intensely and are most critical of the performance of his government are those who have graduated and cannot find jobs. They miss the point that they have benefited a lot from Museveni rule. They have been educated. Indeed even those with jobs are frustrated because they feel they don’t earn enough.
This paradox has been confirmed by every opinion poll in Uganda: the higher you climb the education and income ladder and the closer you get to urban areas, the lower is Museveni’s support. The reverse also holds: the lower you climb down the income and education ladder and the deeper you go into rural areas, the higher is Museveni’s support. Rural agricultural poverty and urban indifference, not vote rigging, has been Museveni’s insurance against electoral defeat.
Karl Marx articulated this paradox over 150 years ago in what he called the “grave digger problem”. He argued that the bourgeoisie, in pushing to accumulate wealth, inevitably create a class of workers (the proletariat) whose interests are in conflict with those of capital. The more successful capital is; the more labour it creates. It turns rural peasants into urban industrial workers. Capital, Marx reasoned, digs its own grave as workers form the vanguard that would overthrow it.
Museveni faces a similar “grave-digger problem”. The more successful he is at developing Uganda, the more he is producing increasingly educated, urbanised and exposed Ugandans. These are the angry young men on social media calling for him to go. He has survived in power not because he has failed (Uganda has enjoyed an impressive rate of economic growth by geographic and historic standards) but because he has not been successful enough. Had Uganda urbanised more rapidly, Museveni would have had to mend his ways or stare electoral defeat in the eye.
So if you are angry with Museveni, it is largely because his government’s policies have helped you get an education and lifted you out of the village to the city; thereby giving you more exposure to what the world offers. This has made you aspirational. You expect a lot. The problem is that the rate of growth in your expectations is not (and cannot be) matched by the rate of growth in opportunities to satisfy them. Even a pedestrian economist will tell you why this is always so.
Hence the mismatch between your expectations and available opportunities is creating and driving your social frustrations. That is why you are on social media yelling at everyone and insulting this old man who is teaching you the basics of political economy. I don’t begrudge you your anger; when I was young and intelligent I used to behave like you. Now I am old and stupid (you would add “and bribed by Museveni”), I eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.
So I perfectly understand where you are coming from. But I owe you a responsibility to tell you that you are actually deluded. In real terms, Museveni’s government has made you better off. That is why you are angry with him. If you were still an illiterate peasant nursing jiggers in Kamuli or Amuru, it is very likely you would be his supporter. You wouldn’t be having a smart phone and hooked on Facebook and using it to insult him or me. Happy New Year!