Policy Commitments: Is Uganda Serious?

Published on 30th October 2011

Uganda parliament in session                             Photo courtesy
On 20th September 2011 in New York, President Barack Obama launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP, see http://www.opengovpartnership.org/), a powerful, new effort that seeks to make governments more open to their citizens. Not anyone can join; eligible countries need to meet a minimum set of transparency criteria. In Africa only six countries qualified; of which five (South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Liberia and Ghana) have joined the partnership. The eligible country that did not join? Uganda.

One wonders why. At the pre-launch meeting of the partnership in July, Uganda was represented by no less than its Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development (MFPED), Hon. Maria Kiwanuka. So what happened? Could it be that the government was not able to organize itself around the tight OGP deadline? Or does it have a more basic, philosophical objection to the tenets of the OGP, with openness?

In his closing remarks at the OGP launch, President Obama emphasized: “the more open we are, the more willing we are to hear constructive criticism, the more effective we can be. And ultimately, governments are here to serve the people, not to serve those in power.” Earlier, at the same occasion, Twaweza Head Rakesh Rajani stated: ‘Perhaps the most important reason we need open government … is because we acutely need to build trust. Openness can bring governments and citizens together, cultivate shared understandings, and help solve our practical problems.’ 

To be fair, Uganda has committed to be open in other ways. Of the East African countries, Uganda is the one that has a freedom of information law, and a whole slew of ethics laws.

More specifically, in her June 15 2011, letter of Intent and Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Minister Kiwanuka made a whole set of promises to be open. Studying the letter and its annexes, one notes the government’s mindfulness of Uganda’s post election fragile economy and its optimism on what the country’s economic future holds. Hon. Kiwanuka made several policy reform commitments, each pegged with deadlines. I was attracted by this businesslike approach of clear targets and timelines. These concrete, measurable commitments also make it easy for citizens to monitor government progress.

So how well does Uganda fare? Let’s review a few of the commitments to the IMF

First, to enforce discipline in issuance of  tax exemptions, Uganda promised that by September 30, 2011  government would begin to gazette and publish on the internet the names of beneficiaries (whether individual or corporation) of all tax expenditures (criteria for tax exemptions, tax holidays and tax rebates). I have checked websites of MOFPED, Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), Bank of Uganda and Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), but the promised published list is nowhere to be found. Secrecy 1, Openness 0.

Second, the Uganda government commits to budgetary discipline and promoting fiscal transparency over treatment of unspent budgetary funds.  Specifically, the government committed to publish balances on all accounts in Bank of Uganda and commercial banks by July 31, 2011 and October 30, 2011 respectively. My protracted inquiry and check on this commitment also reveal this target has not been achieved. Secrecy 2, Openness 0.

Third, in order to strengthen revenue collection and combat money laundering and financial terrorism, the government committed to issue four million identity cards to Ugandans by June 30, 2012. Eight months remain. Citizens need to watch the score.

Fourth, the letter to IMF, beyond disclosure requirements, sets goals for economic performance. Perhaps the most ambitious one is to contain core inflation below 5% in the 2011/2012 financial year. The present reality points in the opposite direction. In spite of efforts by Bank of Uganda (BoU) to tighten monetary policy, consumer price index inflation accelerated from 5 per cent in January 2011 to 28.3 per cent in September 2011, pushing millions of families to hustling and subsistence livelihoods. Is Central Bank getting it right? Or is it afraid of accepting failure?  Could open government, admitting failure and inviting alternative ideas to get the country out of this bleak economic outlook, help?

Fifth, the specter of corruption and misuse of public funds haunts every corner of the fiscal landscape in Uganda. Here transparency can help curtail the worst abuses. Are the oil contracts and the projected oil revenues going to be made public? Will their management, much like Norway’s oil fund for example, bear a high degree of public transparency? At the local level, can the ordinary citizen know of and follow every shilling spent for education, health and roads?

Will Uganda join the Open Government Partnership in the next round and commit to strengthening transparency? Will the above mentioned and other commitments in Hon. Kiwanuka’s letter to the IMF (see http://www.imf.org/external/np/loi/2011/uga/061511.pdf) be honored? Indeed, are Ugandan citizens monitoring these commitments?

In the end, what matters more is not the commitments in New York or in letters to international institutions, but the practice on the ground, and what is open to the citizens of Uganda. This may depend less on the munificence of Presidents and Ministers, and more on the tenacity of citizens.

By Morrison Rwakakamba

Uganda Program Manager of Twaweza East Africa (http://www.twaweza.org/). Email [email protected]

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