Ever since the launch of the government budgets’ website, I have spent many hours scrolling up and down its pages, musing at what the numbers say about government’s priorities. I have noticed that districts and the smaller local governments below them have really weird budgets. Invariably, they allocate laughably small amounts of money towards the running of schools and health centres but then turn around and budget to spend tens of millions on boreholes, pit latrines, district headquarters etc. For instance, Muduuma sub county in Mpigi district will this financial year spend Shs20 million on constructing a borehole at a place called Gavu but allocated only Shs2.3 million to the running of Katuulo primary school for the whole financial year. I am not arguing against the construction of boreholes but really, who decides that in the same sub county where it costs Shs 20m to sink one, a school can be run for nearly 10 times less?I have asked the above question of everybody related to local government that I have run into but often people draw a blank. However last week, I finally got an answer from Igara West MP, Raphael Magyezi who was giving a lecture at ACME. “Government [central government] increasingly uses conditional grants to take away the discretionary powers of local governments,” he said. “And now, you have found the real problem with conditional grants.”
To fully understand that answer, let’s back up a little bit for a short history on decentralisation in Uganda.Once, Uganda and NRM had a dream. It went something like, “we shall return power to the people by decentralising government. We shall take our technocrats as close to the grassroots as possible. It will be at that level that we shall offer most of our public services and if we screw up, we will be within stoning distance from the people. They will hold us accountable.” So we wrote chapter 11 of the constitution of Uganda. We followed it up with the 1993 local government act and set the good times rolling. When we started off, we were sending about 35% of our national budget to the districts to deliver on our dream. But people power can turn out to inconvenient as you know. It is a lot harder to be autocratic if people in 112 corners of the country are empowered to drive their own development. Also, which self-respecting thief sends the bounty as far as Arua. What? Now they would have to travel that far just to steal public funds?
So, soon enough, it occurred to the establishment that this decentralisation thing had to be rolled back. But what a political nightmare it would be if we were to officially call the whole thing off. So, like people with some aptitude for tact, the government decided to starve the cow. Today, we send only about 15% of our national budget money to local governments. Never mind that central government consciously tripled the number of districts. Graduated tax which used to fetch about sh110b for the local governments was replaced it with local service tax and local hotel tax which collectively fetch about sh16b a year. That effectively choked the districts’ local revenue stream. Most effectively however, when central government sends our national budget money to the local governments, it commands them on exactly what they can use that money for. And for reasons that aren’t too hard to guess at, it doesn’t prioritise people empowering services like education at that level.
For instance, this below is the revenue that 3 completely unrelated districts had to work with last year (Tororo, Abim and Adjumani).
You could pick any other random district and the size and proportions of those circles would still look very similar. Our national money is sent to district with strings. And what do these strings look like? Well, like central government’s crappy and cynical priorities. I randomly selected a subcountry in Abim and visualised its budget to illustrate these priorities. Below is a map of the 2013/14 budget that Lotuke Subcounty is working with given that most of its revenue is conditional government transfers.Again, you can go to that budget website and pick any other subcounty. There is nothing special about the one below.
Oh but of course, public sector management should cost more than all the other concerns put together! See then, what power those uneducated people, unhealthy people will have over our much better funded administrators.