Monday, September 29, 2014

Of Uganda's 'arrested' development and vested interests

I was recently invited to Nairobi by Partnership for Governance Research (PASGAR) to attend a political economy analysis symposium which attracted thirty participants from across Africa, courtesy of the British government. Why do development programs and interventions in poor countries like Uganda not succeed? There has been tonnes and tonnes of studies on this very subject with explanations ranging from geography to work ethic.It turns out we were blind to the potency of political economy analysis tools. This has began to change among western donors who have wisened up over the past few decades. They now acknowledge that the best-laid development plans and programs in poor countries will not necessarily get a red-carpet welcome. In a word, 'politics matters'!. That a sophisticated understanding of the context and mechanisms that maintain poverty or some other status quo is instructive. To over simplify, some quarters of society benefit from the way things are and may not be too keen on new 'interventions' which may turn them into 'losers'. The symposium was ably facilitated by Dr Tim Kelsall, an ex-Oxford don and our own Dr Fred Golooba-Mutebi. It is early 2013. You work as Chief Technical Advisor for an aid agency, lets call it JICA. Your brief is to support Uganda construct the Mukono-Katosi Road.You base all your plans for succeeding on sound planning and technical expertise. We now all know how that ended and which determinants impacted on implementation. And the scenarios are numerous. Britain's DfID actually commissioned a political economy analysis of road works procurement in Uganda that makes compelling reading. Imagine here what interests are ranged against an efficient passenger railway network across Uganda. What economic interests would you displace? Or picture this. You want to distribute free bed-nets in a malaria-endemic district of Uganda but the District chairman owns the largest shop in that district selling bed-nets. A few years ago,I was part of a team evaluating a foreign-funded effort to support a local government in Uganda provide HIV treatment at its lower health centres. I was told that before the project could even get off the ground, some 'good will' fees were demanded before the local government could allow to be supported to provide HIV treatment! The British,Dutch and Swiss international development arms ,and even The World Bank, now conduct political economy analyses that seek to anticipate impediments to their sponsored development interventions. When I was an impressionable fresh graduate, I imagined that the best development intentions would deliver Africa from what Paul Collier calls 'the bottom billion'. But as one makes their way through the world, one begins to see how complex the world is and how 'arrested' development can be. I have witnessed first hand how vested interests fail or stall development. From Uganda passing a sub-optimal law impacting on access to generic HIV drugs to Uganda taking more than 5 years to legislate a tobacco control law when Kenya took less than half that time. Indeed,it is worthwhile to analyze the key actors, interests and 'institutions' that facilitate or impede development programs. We were also told that when engaging with public offices, we may need to to look beyond people in formal positions and that key actors may be 'outsiders' who are actually in the 'inner circle'.It reminded me of Charles Rwomushana when he commented on a recent squabble in a most pinnacle office in the land. He opined that people in that office were not taken seriously depending on their official titles but on their perceived closeness to the 'principal'. Political economy analysis is not an imperative for western donors alone but for government programs as well. Why, for instance, hasn't NAADS succeeded despite its clearly noble goals? It was an opportune moment to brush up on my mid-1990s undergraduate political economy 101 and revel in the new importance attached to a discipline which had long been stigmatized because of its 'incorrect' roots.

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