Everyone seems to have an opinion. In Uganda at least – no singular topic is off limits, and everyone seems to have an opinion. My sample space, I must admit, is rather small. I have and continue to listen to Ugandans in taxis, in bars and on the streets talking – with a certain semblance of authority, I must add, about the significant topics of our time. Anything from Uganda’s place on the world stage, robbery, nuclear technology and sports – everyone has an opinion.
This article is a discussion on dialogue, and explores the importance and opportunity to bring fact-based policy discussions to the ‘streets’. The streets, in this regard, is a euphemism for the ‘common man’. There is no reason that policy discussions should be confined to the walls of the Parliament. After all, policy affects us all. The representative and democratic nature of Uganda’s parliament does not do a good job at overlaying the rather obvious research inadequacies of our elected representatives. Listening to these discussions by Ugandans, including the elected Members of Parliament (MPs) reveals the critical lack of in-depth research, and by extension – knowledge about all these topics and more.
It is important to qualify my statement. Many people speak, fundamentally, from a position of opinion. They therefore, to an extent, expect their elected political representatives to have access to more knowledge and facts than they would. However, this does not dispel from the fact that, for most of us – there is an inert need to hear our ‘thoughts’ directly or indirectly from our politicians. We feel more connected to them, we resonate more with their ideals; regardless of fact and we even begin to believe that because they purport to think like us, they are therefore correct in their assessment of the question of the moment.
Facts, however, are neither based on feeling nor emotion. We cannot simply assume that something, or someone is correct and factual, because they resonate with our ideals and opinions. The ‘streets’ are fodder for such opinion. Sitting in a taxi and commencing a conversation, for example, about the refugee policies of Uganda would elicit a myriad of opinion, disguised as fact. People do have a way they feel about something, and it is not upon us as policy analysts to extinguish such feeling. Instead, we are rightly placed to bring policy discussions to the streets, not in the form of highly coded and language-heavy essays and white papers, but rather, as daily discourse.
More importantly, we must recognise that people are attached, quite strongly, to their opinions and inertly want to believe that, if it is their feeling and opinion, then it ought to be fact. Again, we are not called to rubbish these ideas and opinions. Our work in policy analysis is reliant on extensive research, data analysis, and in-depth reading into any particular topic. It seems lost on us, therefore, that there is limited trust in our elected MPs and in our government to deliver policy alternatives that are key to the economic and social improvement of the ‘common man’s’ life. How then do we transition policy discussions, to be more inclusive, and to ensure that they are present in the spheres of the ‘streets’?
There is also the apparent need to decongest the policy space and open it up, much more, to the public. Access to information, in all languages and all media is important. We need to leverage the peoples’ opinions to foster wider public policy discussions that are not fundamentally founded upon what politicians feel. This would require a fundamental change in the politics of patronage, to a form of political discussion that presents ‘facts over feelings’ to the public.
Uganda’s expansive media has a critical role to play, primarily in furnishing the public with the ‘uncomfortable’ facts against fostering a culture of discussion that is fuelled by passionate feeling which does not care for research or facts. The people, indeed should drive policy and policy discussions. The people, however, should be empowered, with knowledge, fact and sound research fully participate in determining their policy positions.
Written by Benjamin Mugema
Y4P Fellow 2019