Why criticising MPs for demanding more benefits is misguided and what can be done about it
Our MPs want Shs200 million each to buy cars. They want their wages and allowances increased. They also want Shs68 million spent on their funeral when they die. The public is angry. What more evidence does one need to confirm that our MPs are indeed greedy?
Unfortunately, vilifying MPs over their unending financial demands shows how disarticulated our pundits are from the reality in our country. A better approach requires us to look into the structural incentives that drive MPs into behaviours that our `intellectuals’ describe as selfish and greedy. We need to look at the facts.
Fact One: The stories about MPs being paid too much money are almost always shortly followed by another series of stories of MPs being financially bankrupt or highly indebted. Some MPs have ended up in jail over debts and it gets worse with every new batch of MPs. The last parliament had nearly 50% of MPs not earning their salary because it was being deducted at source to pay their debts.
So how come being so highly paid has not made our MPs rich. It appears being a legislator in Uganda imposes onerous financial burdens on an MP, and eventually has serious implications on the independence of parliament. Financially distressed legislators cannot resist bribes from private and public officials who want to game the system. They even fail to exercise oversight over officials that misappropriate public funds.
Fact Two: Our nation is blessed (or cursed) by a very high anti-incumbency bias. In every election, more than 60% of MPs are not returned. In USA only 10% of legislators expect to lose their seats in an election. This high anti-incumbency could be because many MPs seeking reelection are financially distressed and cannot satisfy the high expectations from the electorate who think they are rich. Because every five years we have a near-new parliament, we cannot say we have an entrenched legislative group. Yet in spite of this, the demands for increased allowances remain.
Therefore, it should be obvious that this `greedy’ behavior of our MPs is not an individual’s choice, but rather a structure of incentives imposed by the nature of the electoral process in a poor agrarian society. The question for us should be: what happens when you have electoral competition in an ethnically diverse society where 70% of the population is made up of poor illiterate or semi-literate peasants?
Karl Marx argued that every society is built on an “economic base” – the hard reality of human beings who must clothe, feed and house themselves. How people organise to solve these basic existential problems will differ from society to society and from epoch to epoch. For instance, a society can be pastoral, built around hunting, or structured into an industrial whole.
Whatever form people use to solve their basic existential problems, they will need a superstructure of non-economic activity and thought; it would need to be bound together by customs or laws, supervised by the clan or government and inspired by religion or philosophy. This super-structure, Marx argued, cannot be selected randomly but must reflect the foundation on which it is raised. Hence no hunting community could evolve (or use) the legal framework of an industrial society; and no industrial society can use the conception of law, order, and government of a primitive hunting village.
Yet this is exactly what the postcolonial state inAfrica is doing i.e. superimposing institutional frameworks of an industrial society on an agrarian one.
Uganda’s specific context makes it a predominantly peasant society. Peasant agriculture is heavily reliant on nature, which is capricious. The vagaries of weather have across time and space fostered specific social adaptations. James Scott in `The Moral Economy of the Peasant’ calls this “the subsistence ethic.” Patterns of reciprocity, patron-client ties, extended family systems, etc. are social institutions developed to ensure the basic needs of the community are met.
For instance, when someone in the village has a problem, he goes to a better off neighbour, relative, in-law or friend for assistance. In doing this, the help seeker is not acting blindly. His upbringing has given him a fund of moral values and a pattern of expectations of how those from whom he seeks assistance will respond to him.
This, itself is based on how others in his community pursued similar goals before him. Equally the rich neighbour or family member has a clear understanding of his moral obligation to such a request. Not to help a relative in need attracts social sanctions in form of a bad reputation or negative gossip.
This moral economy has powerful implications on leadership in peasant societies. To win people’s trust and, therefore, be able to lead them, the better off person must cultivate a reputation of being a kind and generous person. Many rich people do this at private expense. Others with positions of state use the public purse. This generosity is what legitimises their wealth within the poor community. (In industrial societies it is social responsibility by rich companies and charitable institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).
The rich in poor agrarian societies who do not exhibit generosity regardless of the source of the money (private or public) lose the confidence of the community. Such people do not win elections.
In Uganda, therefore, peasants look at MPs as the source of solutions to their existential problems. They expect their MP to help them when they need medical care, to meet funeral expenses, to get them a job etc. This places a heavy financial burden on those who seek public office through elections – hence the financial insolvency of our MPs.
So why is such patronage resilient? It is because it is the most cost-efficient, cost effective, and (most critically) the only affordable currency of reproducing power. Our nations are too poor to afford a wide range of public goods and services delivered through impersonal institutions. Besides, within their peasant moral universe, our people do not see it as corruption when a politician extends personal generosity using public funds.
This is because they don’t have a conception of the separation of the private finances of the politician and the public finances of the state.
The solution is to create a distance between MPs and their constituents. Let political parties, not individuals, contest for elections. After elections parties can appoint MPs proportional to the votes they got.
This empowers the party bureaucracy (which selects the MPs) because it can be bribed. But it has less corrupting influence on individual MPs and parliament as an institution. Rwanda and South Africa have it. Let Uganda try it too.