Why economic transformation might continue to elude Uganda. Can Singapore be emulated?

The passage of time has not diminished President Yoweri Museveni’s admiration for Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. And it’s easy to understand why.

Long retired from politics, the octogenarian was able to transform the Asian country – as Premier – from a veritable banana republic, to one of Asia’s enviable Economic Tigers with in a generation. He led his PAP party to eight victories from 1959 to 1990, and in 1965 oversaw the separation of Singapore from Malaysia.

Through a combination of military like discipline tailored to stumping out graft, developing the human resource through hands on holistic education system, realigning the mindset of citizens to the country’s development goals, and a monk-esque austere lifestyle aimed at weeding out profligacy typical of poor countries, Kuan Yew was able to drag  Singapore from the club of indigent countries hoping from one Western Capital to another, begging bowl at the ready.

This partly explains why the  Singapore development model has remained a staple of almost all Museveni’s economic policy directives and speeches, like last week’s state -of –the- nation- address.

Can Singapore be emulated?
But how feasible is the Kuan Yew inspired  Singapore development model applicable in Uganda today? Or, is it not one of those success stories that we should just be content reading about in history books?

For starters, Kuan Yew was able to stem wasteful expenditure of  Singapore’s meager resources through instituting leaner administrative structures, and stringent laws against corruption. 

Sad to say, however, Uganda seems to be losing the war on graft, which is causing ruinous economic hemorrhage.

In his new economic agenda tailored to anchoring Uganda’s economy on key infrastructure like roads and power dams, the president decried the current annual wage bill of sh1.8trillion.

Museveni said if sh800b was saved from the wage bill annually over five years, it would come to sh4trillion, enough war chest to build 29 roads. This was justification enough not to give civil servants a salary increment in the next financial year.

However, the country can still raise enough resources to finance core development projects without ‘sacrificing civil servants,’ if government can borrow a leaf from  Singapore and make corruption a very risky venture. 

Billions lost in procurement
Some seven years ago or so, Transparency International’s graft indices showed that Uganda was losing an estimated sh500b annually through flawed procurements. Despite government’s attempts to buttress the inspectorate of government, that figure could easily be touching the regions of sh1 trillion annually.

In five years, that would be a whooping sh5trillon – more than half of the current financial year’s total budget of sh9.8 trillion.

Then there is the lamentable expenditure on a bloated administration.  During the swearing in of the ninth parliament, I had an edifying ‘conversation’ with two historical NRM members – Jim Muwhezi and Dr. Crispus Kiyonga – about the relevance of a bloated parliament.

Strangely, both of them gave the turbulent waters Uganda has navigated as the reason for having all shades of opinion represented in parliament.

However, even with the economic windfall that will come with the development of the oil and gas sector, it will be a tall order to transform Uganda into a middle income country without sloughing off the albatross around the country’s neck in form of unnecessary overlapping layers of public administration.

The issue of districts
In a tacit admission that some back water new districts are unviable, save for creating parliamentary slots for the political elite, many of them have less than 50% required staff due to economic constraints.

The country can save trillions by reducing or putting a cap on the creation of districts, reducing the size of parliament, cabinet,  and doing away with a host of sinecure offices where people are posited to draw hefty salaries.

Uganda can also turn around its economic fortunes by tapping into its regional comparative advantage in the agriculture sector.

Agriculture untapped
Unlike any other country in the region, Uganda, as noted by the president, has 40 million acres of arable land.

With an ever expanding market for foodstuffs, sinking considerable resources in the sector, coupled with a revival of cooperative unions can drag millions of Ugandan peasants from poverty, in a manner reminiscent of South Korea’s much vaunted New Village Movement.

It’s a national scandal that the sector has grown at a measly 1.4% over the last five years despite employing more than 75% of Ugandans.

Despite repeated government promises to modernize agriculture, the country has failed to turn into a bread basket because the sector has remained largely subsistence.

Similarly, there is an outdated education system whose conveyor belt is annually churning out graduates beret of any skills required in the job market.

Type of Education 
To address the worrying unemployment level in the country, Uganda ought to both vocationalize education and also link it to key sectors like Agriculture and oil.

Kuan Yew noted Africa’s skewed education planning in his seminal autobiography- From Third World to First World.  During a state visit to Ghana, Kuan Yew was dumbstruck to hear from his host, Kwame Nkrumah that the country was sending its bright students abroad to study philosophy and Latin, instead of agriculture.

There is no silver bullet to socio-economic transformation, but countries that have pulled off this feat like Malaysia and South Korea, have adopted a tough holistic approach which entails both discipline and sacrifice.

Unless government unwaveringly walks this path, the vision of transforming Uganda into a middle income country will remain a distant dream, only well encapsulated in the National Development Plan and other policy documents .

Link : Why economic transformation might continue to elude Uganda

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