In a recent Cabinet retreat, President Museveni complained about poor and inadequate public service delivery. He specifically mentioned failures in education and health service delivery in spite of the huge finances injected into them. He said apart from the successes in tackling immunisation the Health ministry had failed to address basic ailments such as typhoid which had hit the city and other districts.
The President was simply saying government policies were failing. And he is right. However, why the gaping failures? The starting point is the understanding that state-craft is complex that we cannot rely on politicians or a particular group of individuals to dispense public services.
The President, therefore, needs to open up his mind to that reality. Secondly, policy being an action to be taken so as to deliver a public good, there is some modelling on how it can be done.
But for a long time, we have borrowed policy models which are out of touch with the local policy environment. And many times, we have adopted policy options that best serve external interests. At international arena, President Museveni is credited for his philosophy of African solutions to African problems. That is a great philosophy. But its greatness remains in summits sadly.
In Uganda, the government, like most African countries facing a myriad of development challenges, announced the Universal Primary Education (UPE), a decade ago. Free education has also been extended to secondary level. These are undoubtedly very noble policy options. No wonder the donors, usually called development partners, heaped praises on these programmes.
The programmes also brought in political dividends to the ruling NRM government as it become foolhardy for any Opposition politician to fault these programmes even when their implementation was chaotic.
But they came at a cost. The government looked to the opposite direction when higher education beckoned in need of support. The donors allied with the government to put emphasis on primary education. Postgraduate education was literally abandoned by the State as it was left to the market forces.
This is where the government demonstrated inadequacy in policy analysis. The fact that UPE is a good product did not necessitate the State to abandon higher education, especially doctoral studies. It should not have been treating UPE as more important than PhD or Masters Studies but striking a balance. The success of public policies largely depend on getting right the policy assumptions.
And these assumptions are got by understanding the context. And that is a research driven process which is a higher academic call. While the State abandoned the education of experts, it allowed the donors to hijack higher education and in effect, hijack the country’s thinking class.
Postgraduate studies being expensive, many Ugandans shop for sponsors mainly foreign. While this would be seen as opportunity for the individuals and the country, we should be reminded that there is no free lunch in a capital driven world.
The unsaid implication is that the country’s intellectual class is socialised to the ways and interests of their sponsors. Should the interests of the sponsor clash with the interests of the country, the latter would most likely lose.
It’s my considered view that while we needed UPE, that need should have been balanced with the need for researchers, teachers and thinkers. PhD training should have remained the core responsibility of the State never to be delegated to external sponsors.
Change development models
The other challenge is the development approaches we undertake. Some of the critical aspects in service delivery include: the cost, the quality, the reach, sustainability, time and the benefits, among others.
No country has had enough resources to deliver expected services to her citizens, therefore countries keep muddling through policy options. However, Uganda continues to follow formulas prescribed by the international players without adequate attention to the local context.
They call it international best practices. This has tended to be costly.
Let us, for instance, examine how traditional African societies handled development projects.
Most of our communities are action oriented, for instance, when there is work to be done for the common good, the community leaders’ summoned people to share the problem. Work was then distributed to each member of the community depending on their strengths.
For instance, if the community needed to clean a village well, a date is set for that work and each able-bodied person was given a role. In one day, the well would be cleaned. Those who absconded without plausible explanation would be punished as decided by the community.
Today, to protect a water spring in the village, technocrats have to meet in Kampala and at the district and sub-county levels. These meetings mean spending. Then there is procurement. An aertisement is made for bidders. Bids are opened and evaluated. The best bidder is selected and tender awarded. This process alone consumes time and money before the actual water spring is protected.
And in spite of the government employing procurement officers, the procurement firm is often outsourced. Money is spent. For illustration purposes, let us use the NSSF case. I was recently baffled to learn that NSSF spent Shs500 million in recruiting its managing director (MD).
The person who was chosen, Richard Byarugaba, was the NSSF’s immediate past MD. NSSF has a fully functioning human resources department but due to the so called best practices, the function was outsourced.
Did NSSF need to spend Shs500 million to procure Mr Byarugaba—a person whose performance was already known—to run NSSF? If human resources departments in government cannot procure staffs, of what use are they to the public? Do we now see how public resources are used in non-productive ventures? Is it a surprise that public services are not reaching the wider public?
While we cannot ignore all the best practices, context matters. A format developed by intellectuals in New York, whose understanding of Moroto or Kabale in Uganda is only in text books, should not be applied without harnessing the existing conditions.
The best option is collaborative governance which is closer to the African systems. For instance, construction of school classrooms or health centres is not a sophisticated venture. But the current arrangement of procuring contractors is not just wasteful but also distances the communities from such development projects.
The most important thing the government should do is to have its authority system right up to the village level to ensure supervision. But the decision on which project should be done in a particular locality, should be the decision of the people in that community.
If the people decide they want a school, for instance, the role of the government should not be to provide the school but to work with the community to build the school.
The government could provide iron sheets and cement and ask the community to mobilise other inputs. In most villages today, there are different competences in construction. The masons and carpenters are in the village. If mobilised, they can offer their service to the community at no cost because it’s their school.
This approach comes with many dividends. It’s less costly. The delivery is quick and immediate as it’s not bogged down by procurement procedures. In terms of democracy and development, it’s an empowering model.
Ordinary citizens have ownership of the projects because they participate in the conception and implementation. Accountability is easy to track because the citizens get to know all the inputs the government provided and they decide who keeps them.
The monitoring and evaluation function is done right at the village level. The people get to know who has done what? If the custodian of what central government provided, steals the inputs, the villagers get to know the thief.
And they can deal with the thief appropriately.
In the current arrangement, the citizens have no idea of how projects are conceived and why. They don’t know what it costs to have a project as the information is a preserve of the bureaucrats.
Projects are thrown at the people as government donations. If an accountant or permanent secretary steals what was meant for a village project, how will the villagers know? And how will they punish the culprits who are capable of compromising the State machinery? The issue is that there is a big distance between the ordinary citizens and the State bureaucracy because planning and implementation has been made a preserve of the bureaucrats. The result is failed or inadequate service delivery.
How State operates
And yet by using the locals to initiate and participate in project design and implementation, it bridges the distance between the citizen and the State. This comes with an increased understanding, by the citizens, on how the State operates. Decision making is so empowering that it makes ordinary citizens appreciate how difficult it is to run the State.
This model is also politically liberating, especially for MPs. The citizens get to know the main role of the MP is not service delivery but to set the rules for the distribution of the benefits and costs.
In this case, the government would mainly be emphasising on quality through supervision and setting the standards. The citizens would be empowered to know that it takes more than political pledges to deliver services. Only then will power truly belong to the people.
Political opponents not the problem
As the country’s policy principal, the President should not see his political opponents as the main problem to the country’s leap forward. He should be alert to the fact that economics is essentially the study of scarcity of resources and that each nation does what it does, to benefit their citizens first.
The President should never have ignored conditions necessary for policy successes or failures. Such conditions include the impacts from foreign countries and international political economy, and the influences of institutions or political regimes. If another country socialises your elites to their ways, you have a bigger problem than the local political opposition.
We need to invest in our intelligentsia and socialise them into the “African solutions to the African problems” philosophy. Policy success is often dependent on the competence and commitment of the cadres at all layers of formulation and implementation. At the technical level, the State took it for granted thus failed to build that commitment.
As a result, we are building the literati that are no different from the Semei Kakungulus who were mere vessels for the subjugation of their own people by external forces.
Postgraduate education. The donors allied with the government to put emphasis on primary education. Postgraduate education was literally abandoned by the State as it was left to the market forces.
Development models. Uganda continues to follow formulas prescribed by the international players without adequate attention to the local context. They call it international best practices.
The writer is a journalist and a public policy analyst.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor