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No way out for Uganda’s ‘chronically poor’?

Emerging from years of civil war, Uganda is often praised for its poverty reduction plan. But the poorest of the poor, especially landless women, remain untouched and ignored.

At 31 years of age, Florence Nnali has a prominent stoop that makes her look older than her years. A resident of Mutukula village in Kamuli district, some 90 miles from the Ugandan capital Kampala, Nnali is a landless farm worker.

Unknown to her, the Ugandan government has just unveiled a new budget that accords agriculture a key role in boosting economic growth.

Nnali is a typical example of what the World Bank and other international donors describe as people living in "absolute poverty" – those who earn less than a dollar a day. Along with her six children, Nnali survives by collecting wild cassava.

"Land in Uganda is wealth," she says. "You cannot have land and starve. If you have land you can plant crops on it, sell it and be buried on it."

For many Ugandans, "absolute poverty" is not a new word – and it's not about to go away.

Blandina Namusa, 43, also from Mutukula, says: "I dig on hired land to earn some money for survival. When the children fall sick, I go to the government hospital."

But Namasagali Health Centre, the nearest clinic where Namusa gets free medication, sometimes runs out of drugs and patients are given prescriptions to go and buy from unlicensed pharmacies. Namusa cannot afford to buy the drugs and is forced to scour the bush to look for medicinal herbs.

The poverty of people like Nnali and Namusa is so deep, some experts call them the "chronically poor". They form as much as 20 per cent of Uganda's population – people whose living standards have not improved despite economic reforms launched in the early 1990s. They include not only rural landless women, who make up one of the largest of the chronically poor group, but also children, the elderly and people displaced by conflict.

The main instrument before the Ugandan government to address poverty is its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), drafted in consultation with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in 2000. PRSPs are supposed to help heavily indebted countries cut poverty through extensive domestic consultation, but the Ugandan strategy paper has been widely criticised for excluding marginalised groups such as poor women.

The Ugandan PRSP aims to cut the number of poor to 10 per cent of the population by 2017 – through agricultural modernisation, private investment and economic growth, better governance and security, improved rural infrastructure and access to safe water, sanitation, education and health services.

If agriculture is modernised and agricultural industries develop, says the Finance Ministry in a May report, "the poor must be able to participate in this growth."

Unveiling the new budget on June 12, Finance Minister Gerlad Sendaula told Parliament that agriculture will be key to meeting the goal of increasing economic growth from 4.9 per cent last year to 5.6 per cent this year.

There is little doubt that Uganda made some impressive gains in restoring a functioning economy after the chaos left by a prolonged civil war that ended in 1986.

When the government began re-building the economy in 1992, 56 per cent of Ugandans were unable to meet their basic needs. Today, that figure has dropped to 35 per cent, according to the Uganda National Household Survey and World Bank.

Says Dr John Okidi from the Economic Policy Research Centre based at Makerere University in Kampala: "Given that over half of Ugandans were poor in the early 1990s, it was prudent that poverty reduction policies at that time focussed on the poverty of the majority of the population."

But the PRSP should now focus on specifically addressing the chronically poor.

His research shows that between 1992 and 1996 – a period during which poverty was falling – inequality rose. "The impressive decline in poverty (from 56 per cent in 1992 to 44 per cent in 1997) was largely due to growth rather than a distribution of welfare," – benefiting urban areas and certain sections of Ugandans such as coffee exporters and businessmen.

According to Okidi's study, women like Nnali and Namusa are chronically poor because the main poverty cutting strategy, agricultural modernisation, ignores the landless.

Under the Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA) the government provides loans and technical advice for small-scale farmers – who make up 75-80 per cent of farmers in Uganda, according to the National Agricultural Advisory Services.

"Targeted at small-scale producers, the PMA should increase farmers' incomes but is unlikely to alleviate the poverty of the landless, many of whom are women. Most agricultural support initiatives target already well-off farmers, suggesting that modernisation of agriculture is not necessarily a way out of chronic poverty," says Okidi.

"Women do not own assets like land and are therefore not economically empowered."

The plight of landless women worsened in 1998, when the government passed a law introducing private land ownership, replacing the traditional system of land rights which gave clans access rights to village land. The change means women no longer have access to communal land, since they do not own it.

Esther Banyenzaki, Media Advocacy Officer at the Uganda Debt Network, a coalition of non-government organisations, thinks PRSP is a "raw deal for poor Ugandans".

"The Ugandan government is praised for its poverty reduction. They have introduced the PMA, built roads, improved water hygiene, but people will remain poor because they have no sense of ownership over projects," she says.

She cites an example from her visit to Mbale, an eastern town where the government had tarmacked the road to open up access to the local market. The village women used the roads to dry cassava instead, saying they needed food rather than roads.

The PRSP is revised every three years – and a second consultation process is due to be completed in December. Notably, the chronic poor are not part of this exercise.

Sharon Lamwaka is a Ugandan freelance journalist who writes on gender issues.

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