SDGs Series #4: SDGs prioritization in Uganda

By Charles Lwanga-Ntale 

In the last 15 years, Uganda’s development energies were mostly focused on the eradication of extreme poverty as the overarching goal for the country. Spurred on by the oomph of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed at the 2000 summit, the centrality of goal-oriented development emerged early on as a sine qua non for making strategic progress on a wide range of development trajectories. In more recent times, as signatory to the successor 15-year 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is good reason for confidence that the country is now poised for an even greater sense of achievement, building on the experience gained with the MDGs. First, the SDGs, also known as the Global Goals, recognised that the indignity of poverty necessitated that the root causes of this predicament be addressed from the very root of the challenge with the stated objective of “leaving no causes of poverty and the universal need for development that works for all people”. However, for the country, the goal of achieving zero-poverty by 2030 is going to be a lot more intractable than that of “halving” it – the goal for the last 15 years. Accordingly, priority setting for implementation of the SDGs will have to be more focused, tactical and innovative.

From my viewpoint, the first immediate priority for Uganda in the post-2015 era is focusing attention on the bottom 20 percent nearly all of who live in extreme and chronic poverty. An inclusive, equitable and sustainable approach that combines preventive, promotive, protective and transformative social protection with labour-based investments would be a useful start. Good data and other forms of information need to be adduced and analysis undertaken in order to ascertain who is comprised in this category, where they are, and what keeps them in poverty. Second, bottom-up planning and implementation ought to be the hallmark of the new development agenda. The priority here is to begin with national planning and to use the SDG framework as a sounding board for what more may need to be added. To put this differently, an agenda which begins with the global goals should be discouraged, replacing this with a country-owned process which is sensitive to global commitments. By building and strengthening local ownership of the development process the approach would also seek to emphasise that the starting point for promoting achievement of credible development outcomes is with local entities – sub-national and national structures and institutions. Third, given a fast integrating world, Uganda will need to build strategic and effective partnerships for financing. For such partnerships to bring about the needed change they will have to transcend the old aid-centred traditions and instead explore a mix of policies, practices, and financing for development. It is conceivable, for example, that even as the contribution of official development assistance (ODA) relative to other sources continues to diminish, the value which is obtained from such sources as private investments, non-traditional donors, private philanthropy, domestic revenue and  expatriate remittances is increased and the proceeds applied to implementation of the country’s development agenda. A key component of this will have to be the strategic alignment of private incentives with public goals.

The fourth priority for Uganda is effective leadership and participatory and just governance. One of the most visible shortcomings of the way development is handled (or not), particularly in the country’s rural areas is the sheer “absence of the state itself”. This often combines with practices which are far from being fair or just to deny the poorest opportunities for achieving progress. Land grabbing, excessive taxation of the poor, and poor quality health and education services are but a few of the challenges involved here. As pointed out in the foregoing section, the lack of data and information on services which are offered is one symptom of this, despite common knowledge that by increasing publicly available information on services, rights and obligations the poor would be better empowered and as a consequence the economy would work better for them. However, for such efforts to yield positive results, they would need to be augmented with better and more transparent public financial management and space for local communities to meaningfully participate in their own governance. One way of dealing with this challenge is by reversing state contraction. The nature, complexity and scope of vulnerability faced by most poor Ugandans cannot be sufficiently addressed by private sector interventions. In some instances private sector interventions actually serve to exacerbate poverty among the most vulnerable, thus necessitating a strong state both to regulate markets, protect the poorest, while at the same time promoting private sector innovations which serve the interests of the poor. 

Finally, it would seem that the slow uptake of globally agreed goals in Uganda is more to do with the notion that “development opportunities are offered as a privilege and not viewed as a right. Yet when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, at least six of the thirty-article document demonstrated the intrinsic link between human rights and people’s development. Therefore, if SDGs are to gain the importance and focus that they deserve, there must be a paradigm shift from “localising” (international) to “internationalising” (local) goals. Effective leadership and equitable and just institutions must also be in place, just as the need to focus on those on the bottom rung of poverty.

Charles Lwanga-Ntale is Academy Centre Director for Kenya/East Africa for the Humanitarian Leadership Academy. He is also Associate Director for East Africa for the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network. However, the views expressed in this article are personal.