September 8, 2016         Education

Is decision-making in Uganda being done in the right direction? This is a key question that ensued from a recent meet between members of the Young Leaders Think Tank and key policy analysts from the Ugandan political parties.

Both experts and think tank members agreed on the fact that policy-making in Uganda is being done top-down – Henry Kasacca, presenting on the reality of policy-making within the opposition, even referred to Ugandan policy-making processes as a “one-man-show”. According to the professionals, policy ideas in Uganda are initiated at the party center, instead of originating from societal input. The whole policy process, from policy formulation to implementation, is turned upside down; bottom-up processes have long disappeared from Ugandan political reality.

From the perspective of a German, this appeared as a highly alarming observation. The German political system is rooted in the strong belief that a functioning democracy needs to be inclusive and participatory, with the civil society feeding political agendas and therefore translating itself into political parties, not the other way around. The German approach to policy suggests that it is a complex and dynamic process that compromises a multiplicity of actors involved, governmental and non-governmental. Each actor is relevant for the process, as he brings in a unique version of knowledge and perspective.

In an ideal political system – from a German perspective – the bottom-up approach is embedded in every policy-making process, because it recognizes that subordinate levels are very likely to play an active role in implementation and are therefore relevant actors in policy-formulation as well. This approach is rooted on the principal-agent theory, according to which each situation is characterized by the relationship between the principal (those who formulate and define a policy) and an agent (those who implement the policy).

Listening to the expert discussion on the Think Tank workshop, the impression became strong that this relationship has been reversed in Ugandan policy-making processes. Are political parties in Uganda really the agents of the society that underlie them? Are political parties in Uganda performing their task to translate societal views and needs into political agendas?

In Germany, these questions are central to the political system and are re-asked repeatedly to keep the democracy functioning. Germany is a so-called “Parteiendemokratie”, a party-democracy, as clearly stated in the German constitution, the “Grundgesetz”, which means that political parties play a central role. Parties have a specific set of functions, and the functioning as well as the stability of the German democracy significantly hinge on their fulfillment.

Parties in Germany not only provide the personnel for public positions and mandates and constitute one of the essential constitutional bodies, the “Bundestag” – most importantly, they function as hinges between the different arenas of policy making: their members make up a significant part of the political citizenry; their organizations are the most important part of the intermediary system of parties, associations, media and civil society. This way, political parties in Germany clearly constitute the channel for political will formation of the German population. This is true for every political level, from the “Kommune” to the “Bund”.

The German constitution seeks to secure the fulfilment of these functions by referring to the rights, but also the duties of every political party in the system in its so called “Parteiengesetz” (party law). Parties exist to express the political opinions, wishes and needs of its members and voters within the political discussion process, to articulate the civil society’s interests to the higher levels of policy-making. Due to their anchoring in the government system, parties are able to transfer political opinions from society directly into decision-making processes. Thereby, the parties function as lobbyists for civil interests within the political system. It’s a party’s task to present itself as a powerful and effective instrument for the political participation of the citizens. Hereby, parties guarantee the opportunity for specific societal groups to contribute to political decision-making processes.

Through the fulfillment of these manifold mediation tasks within the framework of political decision-making processes, the parties contribute significantly to the political socialization of the population. As a consequence, political parties ideally generate support for democratic values and thereby create legitimacy for the political system.

Naturally, nothing is perfect – even this system comes with certain shortcomings. To bundle and articulate civil interests can be an extremely difficult task for parties, especially when the society is a heterogeneous one. Moreover, even in a multiparty-system, certain societal groups are often underrepresented in the party-landscape, and party-membership is generally shrinking. However, the German bottom-up approach to policy-making remains the only way to optimize representation and to guarantee an inclusive and participatory type of democracy.

As it turned out, reality in Uganda unfortunately looks very different. Even historically, the process of policy formulation in Uganda has always been dominated by central government, with little or no input from stakeholders or civil society. When the National Resistance Movement (NRM) claimed power, there was some hope for more inclusiveness: the NRM tried to abandon the top-down approach, introducing the decentralization framework in 1997 in order to integrate and involve more relevant stakeholders into the processes. In theory, policies can now since be initiated at local level, they have become more consultative and the government has opened up policy debates to a certain degree. Thereby, the ruling party recognized that decentralization is a necessary condition for a strengthened democratic system. The government act intended to ensure grassroots involvement at every stage of policy-making – local people should feel that they have a stake in it.

However, despite the rather impressive legal, policy, institutional and to an extent normative framework for policy making, in practice the situation is a different one. Bottom-up policy-making has still not become reality. While the government sets the agenda and dominates policy formulation, stakeholder forcibly need to implement the resulting procedures. Civil society actors have been reluctant to engage directly in policy processes. Some government officials interpret “consultation” and “participation” in a manner in which it is enough that rural people have been involved in data collection – however, the people themselves rarely agree that they had been involved in the policy-formulation, nor do they really understand what opportunities or challenges a certain policy presents.

Policy-making within the Ugandan political system is characterized by several key areas of disconnection – between different actors who experience difficulties to communicate, between citizens and their representatives, between what should happen and what does happen.

What causes this discrepancy between theory and practice of policy-making in Uganda? Undoubtedly, a major difficulty that hampers actual bottom-up policy-making is a lack of information, which ensure that local communities can participate fully in the decision-making process. Most local people are not aware of their roles within the democratic system, or of the opportunities that active participation holds for them.

This reality presents huge challenges for successful and sustainable democratization of Ugandan politics. The disconnections impede a more responsive and accountable process for policy-making. Policies only adopt the perspective of those in higher levels of government, neglecting the role of other actors, most importantly the civil society. There is clearly a need to enable civil society to explore and understand the new prospects and responsibilities entrusted to them within policy-making in Uganda.

The writer is a student at the University of Twente and currently interning at KAS Uganda and South Sudan Office

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