About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, June 1, 2020

Free COVID facemasks? Give me a break

How democratic politics has placed Uganda on a perilous road of an irresponsible and lazy citizenry

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | A dangerous, pervasive and malignant sense of entitlement has grown, spread and consolidated in Uganda. Many Ugandans believe they are entitled to various welfare benefits from the state in complete disregard to the resources available. Yet, at the same time, they have no corresponding sense of responsibility, for instance to pay taxes regularly and adequately to fund these welfare expectations. To make matters worse, our democratic process actively promotes this dysfunctional mentality. Elected politicians from President Yoweri Museveni downwards promise a nanny state in a country with hardly the requisite resources to pay for it.

Take the example of COVID. The government of Uganda has promised to pay Shs35 billion to buy 35 million facemasks for nearly all citizens. This is crazy. According to its own admission, a facemask cost only Shs1,000. I do not know of any Ugandan who cannot afford this for their health and safety and that of their immediate family. Giving facemasks for free is likely to even undermine incentives for people to wear them as many will think they are useless. If people take their health seriously, they will buy the facemasks by themselves. Once they have spent their money on the masks, the incentive to use them will be very high.

There will always be recalcitrant individuals who will refuse to buy and wear masks. Government can and should make use of facemasks compulsory and then instruct police, soldiers and local defense units to ruthlessly enforce the rule – even by whipping those members of the public who refuse to abide by the rules.

Back to affordability: I have visited many of the poorest parts of rural Uganda and the poorest slums in Kampala. There is MTN and Airtel, beers like President, Eagle Larger, Senator, Chairman, (each at about Shs 2,000), Pepsi and Coca Cola and an assortment of many other industry products. How do these private companies reach the far-flung remote corners and poor parts of Uganda selling products priced higher than Shs1,000 per unit? Indeed the presence of these products in these remote parts of Uganda is evidence of income among our poorest citizens.

Why then does government of Uganda, which has failed to provide adequate protective gear to health workers in hospitals, decide to spend large amounts purchasing facemasks to those who can pay for them? This is where democratic politics has prostituted policy in favour of populist gestures that are injurious to the economy. To win votes, politicians in Uganda have actively created an expectation among the public of a large basket of entitlements. Thus today, everywhere many Ugandans sit idly asking that “gavumenti etuyambe” (let government come and help us).

The danger to our country is this mentality of entitlement. It has eroded any sense of personal responsibility. Many Ugandans do not believe that their exaggerated expectations of the state have made them lazy and complacent. Instead of getting off their seats and finding something productive to do, many Ugandans want the state to find them jobs or create profitable trading opportunities for them. Meanwhile immigrant communities from Eritrea, Ethiopia, China, India, Pakistan etc. come to our country and make a fortune because they do not have this sense of entitlement.

Indeed, there is a belief in our country that one is entitled to a well paying job if they get a university degree. In my many unhappy encounters with multitudes of young Ugandans online, I am always shocked, but certainly not surprised, by their lack of understanding of the keys to success. A university degree is not enough to get you a job. You need to possess marketable skills demanded by employers. Companies in Uganda lack skilled people to do work, and our country is importing large numbers of these skills from Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, China and other places.

The intellectual class and the mass media in Uganda have not helped matters. On a daily basis, they join politicians in the lexicon of pumping young Ugandans with this dysfunctional sense of entitlement that they are owed a living by the state; and sense of grievance that there are social enemies holding them down. Entitlement is combined with grievance to create a toxic political atmosphere in our country, thereby creating opportunities for demagogues like Bobi Wine and Kizza Besigye to rally followers.

Uganda is a very poor country. Its per capita income is about $850 in nominal dollars, $2,700 in purchasing power parity (PPP). This low per capita income predicts very low per capita revenue $122 or Shs450,000 and per capita spending of $195 (or Shs750,000). This money is grossly insufficient to pay for a large basket of public goods and services to the quality and quantity we desire and demand.

Thus, even if Uganda eliminated both corruption and wastage to zero, and poorly paid public officials starved themselves and their families to death in an altruistic effort at public service, we would still have less nurses, doctors, medicines and equipment in hospitals, fewer textbooks in schools, bad roads, thin policing etc. The fundamental problem of Uganda is not lack of political will to serve citizens. It is simply a problem of lack of requisite resources to fund a large basket of these public goods and services.

Yet on social media, Ugandans fret about how public officials are “stealing our taxes.” This ignorance is blinding. Ugandans simply do not pay taxes. Taxes are imposed on income directly when earning it as source (like Pay As You Earn – PAYE), or indirectly when spending it (consumption taxes). Only 620,000 Ugandans pay PAYE, of these the top 10% pay 80% of the tax in a country of 43 million. Agriculture, which employs 70% of the population, is not taxed.

Essentially the government promises to serve citizens with free goodies while taxing only a few rich people, often foreigners. Someone recently told me that Indians who make only 0.1% of our population pay 64% of taxes. If this is true, it underlines my point. This is the cause of our persistent budget deficits and growing public debt. We prefer to borrow domestically and from abroad in order to avoid antagonising citizens via taxation. We need to stop this dysfunctional policy and get our people off their seats to work.


No comments: