Mwenda: youth unemployment, poverty are a sign of development

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Uganda, like all African countries, has a big problem of youths unemployment. Some figures put it at 83%. Unemployed and underemployed youths are relegated to slums in towns where they live a life of poverty, misery and marginalization. This assessment makes a lot of moral sense and emotional appeal. It is also politically attractive. But it is actually filled with a lot of nonsense.

Unemployment and poverty are a big problem for Uganda. But this is only because we are looking at it simplistically. Strategically (from the perspective of political economy) growing unemployment and urban poverty are a sign that Uganda (and other nations of Africa) are beginning to transform; unemployment and urban poverty are a sign of Uganda’s (and Africa’s) resurgence, not degeneration.

Unemployment in a poor country is largely a sign of transformation from a rural agricultural economy to a modern industrial/service urban society. There is little or no unemployment in rural areas. Almost everyone has a job: they wake up every morning, pick their hoe and go to dig in their garden to produce their family food. Such a static agrarian society is characterized by the paradox of full employment alongside broad based poverty.

Transformation is characterized by the movement of people from rural to urban areas; from village tillage to urban industry and services. Separated from their subsistence on agriculture, migrants to cities and other urban centers can only survive by selling their labor to someone else. The world’s most important market is the labor market in which one person sells their human capital to another person with financial capital.

Why are many Ugandans leaving the villages for towns? Because towns offer better opportunities. So urban poverty is a sign of urban strength and vitality not weakness and stagnation. Kampala is full of many poor people including beggars and homeless people on its streets. But this is not because the city makes people poor. It is because its opportunities attract poor people who want to improve their lives. And they often succeed.

Staying in the village and depending on agriculture for a livelihood is a sign of stagnation and poverty. Coming to a city is a sign of inventiveness, initiative and progress. People in towns are richer, happier and healthier than in villages. Less than 6% of the people who live in Kampala and 7.5% of those living in the surrounding Wakiso District fall below the poverty line. In Acholi region, those living in poverty are 42%. In Kamuli, 40%. And 92% of the poor people of Uganda live in rural areas.

Here is a paradox: the Ugandans who hate President Yoweri Museveni intensely and are most critical of the performance of his government are equally those who have benefited from his administration. They have been educated to senior secondary level or even gone to university. They have graduated and cannot find jobs. Indeed those with jobs are even more frustrated because they don’t feel they earn enough.

This paradox has been confirmed by every opinion poll in Uganda: the higher you climb the education and income ladder and the closer you get to urban areas, the lower is Museveni’s support. The reverse also holds: the lower you climb down the income and education ladder and the deeper you go into rural areas, the higher is Museveni’s support. Rural agricultural poverty and urban indifference, not vote rigging, has been Museveni’s insurance against electoral defeat.

So if you are angry at Museveni, it is largely because his government’s policies have helped you get an education and lifted you out of the village to the city thereby giving you more exposure to what the world offers. This has made you aspirational. You expect a lot. The problem is that the rate of growth in your expectations is not (and cannot be) matched by the rate of growth in opportunities to satisfy them. Even a pedestrian economist will tell you why this is always so.

Hence the mismatch between your expectations and available opportunities is creating and driving your social frustrations. That is why you are on social media yelling at everyone and insulting this old man who is teaching you the basics of political economy. I don’t begrudge you your anger; when I was young and intelligent I used to behave like you. Now I am old and stupid (you would add “and bribed by Museveni”), I see things differently.

So I perfectly understand where you are coming from. But I owe you a responsibility to tell you that you are actually deluded. In real terms, Museveni’s government has made you better off. That is why you are angry with him. If you were still an illiterate peasant nursing jiggers in Kamuli or Amuru, it is very likely you would be his supporter. You wouldn’t be having a smart phone and hooked on Facebook and using it to insult him or me.

Happy New Year!

Andrew M. Mwenda is a senior journalist and founder of the Independent Magazine