Sometimes overlooked, but essential: Why citizen empowerment is significant to improve public service delivery in Uganda
Poor service delivery remains an eyesore in Uganda’s impressive attempt to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite ostensible efforts by the government through its democratic decentralisation programmes, that brought a number of institutional and policy reforms, public service delivery still faces several challenges in Uganda. The service delivery gaps manifest themselves in forms of drug stock-out in health centres, shoddy construction of roads and classrooms, low level of learning in rural schools, high maternal and infant mortality rates, and inadequate and poor infrastructure among others. Certainly, over thirty years since the international community and local advocacy groups began actively promoting and advocating for institutional reforms and good governance in Uganda, the prevailing arrangements still fail to address the shortfalls in the provision of basic public services. As a result, development is needlessly slow and inequitable, especially in comparison with what has been achieved elsewhere in other developing countries.
Notably, Uganda’s decentralisation programme led to the devolution of powers, functions and services from the central government to the local government. The challenge is that the central government gave away a lot of powers to the district which in turn gave away power to the sub-county. This kind of establishment did not only create power centres, but also increased the number of actors in each category, whereby each actor enjoys a level of micro-hegemony which they are bound to exercise where policy decisions are concerned. The atmosphere is often characterised by power struggles, arbitrary use of power, patronage networks, and concentration of power among a few people. And yet, most of the public goods and services that are essential for economic growth and poverty reduction are provided at the local government level. Therefore, despite the international community’s 30-year love affair with democratic decentralisation – still often regarded as the key to better governance at local government levels – in most cases, this is the level at which public good and service provision are least adequate.
Findings further show that many African countries are losing billions of dollars to corruption due to weak administration at local government levels. In Uganda, for instance, numerous corruption cases at the districts and lower local governments are attributed to the low level of citizen participation in the planning, budgeting and monitoring of public service delivery. In fact, the US-based Human Rights Watch 2018 report describes corruption in Uganda as “severe, well-known” and something that “cuts across many sectors.” The Global Integrity 2018 Report on Uganda further estimates that more than half the government’s annual budget is lost to corruption. Perhaps this may not only explain why Uganda is struggling to achieve Vision 2020 of becoming a middle-income country but also show how some people have lost their morale as corruption has invaded all public institutions.
The challenge in fighting corruption and poor service delivery in local governments in Uganda is the fact that the affected community is weak, timid and reluctant to demand accountability from their leaders and also monitor budgets and public service delivery effectively. In fact, the 2018 Global Integrity Report noted that more than 60% of Ugandans are not even aware that they make direct financial contributions through paying taxes to run public affairs. Perhaps this may not only explain why some people are not willing to participate in the planning, budgeting, and decision-making, but also their reluctance to fulfil constitutional duties to demand better social services and safeguard public resources from abuses. Yet, the 1995 Constitution of Uganda Article 17(i) provides that “It is the duty of every citizen of Uganda to combat corruption and misuse or wastage of public property.” Such a provision, however, given to a weak civic community, calls for strenuous efforts by all stakeholders to mobilise, inform and sensitise the community to be active in order to undo the apathy.
In order to empower citizens, therefore, development actors need to build the weak civic capacity of the local people to enable them to consciously and proactively participate in local governance. This can be done by giving the necessary information to the citizens, by mobilising and by providing leadership to enable citizens to become more aware of their constitutional rights to demand accountability and transparency in service delivery from the leaders entrusted with power. The civil society organisations and all other advocacy organisations could adopt the Capability Approach advanced by the 1998 Nobel Prize winner for economics Amartya Sen. Sen’s capability approach focuses on achieving social justice through building individual capabilities that a person has. This gives them independence and freedom to enjoy the kind of life they value. The approach would build the capabilities and empower citizens, especially those in rural areas to demand better public services, hence, addressing the problem of poor service delivery in Uganda.
Written by Tonny Okwir, Youth4Policy fellow 2019