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{UAH} It’s sad most can’t even use education to escape poverty

By Bernard Tabaire

In the Oxfam report on inequality in Uganda released this past week, there is a line that says that the "poor quality of public schools means that education is no longer seen as a realistic means of escaping poverty".

That is frightening. Most children in Uganda attend public (UPE) schools. It now means that going to school as a matter of course for the majority of Uganda's children may not do much for them. We knew this — the Uwezo reports have been warning us for the last few years — but it is sobering to read it yet again.

Education has tended to be some general equaliser, a way for children to eventually live better lives than their parents. Now, if your parents can't pay for your education at Greenhill, your future is virtually doomed. You may live a life that is worse than that of your parents and grandparents.

So from the report we learn that you need to choose the family you get borne into carefully. A family with means implies that you will be richer, better off. We are told that inequality cuts across generations. "The children of wealthier people have access to greater opportunities and will themselves be richer."

No matter that you may be borne into a family that obtains or obtained its riches through stealing public money. (This may well be the case if you were born in the last 25 years in Uganda). It is for your parents to deal with their thieving consciences, knowing that their riches, and yours, were acquired at the expense of the health or education of another child, another human being, like you.

We also learn that conflict is bad for you. Wars are bad. Geographically, "poverty levels remain highest in the northern and north-eastern parts of the country, which have suffered decades of conflict". Who fought these wars? Why?

No one wants to be poor when others are rich. Which means conflict may still be very much present in Uganda. The poor will sooner make life harder for the wealthy. Ask the South Africans. And the Brazilians. Crime. Or, worse, war could result.

We are told "Uganda has seen 'growth with exclusion', where relatively few have benefited from economic gains". Who are these few? Where are they? How did they get their wealth? "The richest 10 per cent of the population enjoy 35.7 per cent of national income; while … the poorest 20 per cent have only 5.8 per cent. Those at the bottom are on a downward poverty spiral while those at the top are on an upward trend."

As if that is not annoying enough, being a woman leaves you in an even more precarious condition. "Gender inequality is the most significant of all identity-based disadvantages, and women are invariably more marginalised than men ... Most are employed in the agricultural sector and other low-paying sectors such as mining and teaching. While they constitute more than 70 per cent of the agricultural workforce, they own only 7 per cent of the land." This is madness.

You read this report and there is not much that is new, except a few numbers here and there to underline how bad things are. We have experienced, read and heard about much of this stuff before. We continue to. Our sins are many and enduring. Why is there no significant movement to transform Uganda?

It is such a no-brainer, for example, that increasing agricultural productivity, adding value and connecting everything to markets would do wonders. "Agriculture," the report reminds us, "contributes about 25 per cent of GDP and employs around 70 per cent of the workforce". Women make up much of that workforce. Fixing agriculture means improving the lot of women, and generally the lot of the poor and the vulnerable.

Of course, the idea is to grow other sectors as well so that no single sector or product contributes more than 25 per cent of our exports or contributes to more than 25 per cent of export revenue.

You want to avoid dependence on such a sector or product so that if anything bad happens, you are not exposed. According to the report, the agricultural sector accounts for 80 per cent of Uganda's export earnings. That is too big. Where is manufacturing? Where is services? Where is tourism? Where is transport and logistics?

None of the challenges mentioned in the report is impossible to resolve by Ugandans. A large part of the problem is that there is more resolve to stay in power for decades, but no equal resolve to transform the lives of the governed.

Individual Ugandans can work as hard as they can, and many do. But as a country we are still so low on the development index that an effective and visionary government, doing just enough, can propel things in profound ways. That sort of government is still tragically missing in Uganda.

Whoever makes decisions that ultimately matter in this country ought to be embarrassed after reading such a damning report. Failed leadership is when you preside over increasing inequality in your society.

Mr Tabaire is the co-founder and director of programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala.


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