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The Politics of Staying Poor in Uganda

Samuel Hickey


This paper explores how political actors, processes, debates and institutions influence the reduction and reproduction of chronic poverty in Uganda. Uganda provides a particularly appropriate case study for such work, as the country's recent success in poverty reduction has been significantly related to 'getting the politics right'. However, findings here suggest that politics in contemporary Uganda holds as many threats as opportunities for reducing long-term poverty. The policy processes, debates and interventions that might challenge chronic poverty are steadily moving from the margins of the poverty agenda towards the mainstream. For example, the current review of the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (Uganda's home-grown PRSP) has identified social protection - likely to be a key policy response to chronic poverty - as one of the key cross-cutting themes. However, arguments for targeting the poorest groups and regions currently lack political persuasiveness, as such programmes have tended to become highly politicised and subject to both national clientelism and local elite capture. There is a 'politics of inclusion' in Uganda that stretches to most groups of the chronically poor, although this has yet to be transformed into a 'politics of justice', in part because the institutional representatives of Uganda's chronically poor are currently marginal in terms of command over resources and policy influence. On a broader note, little effort has been made amongst development actors in Uganda to articulate the type of 'pro-poor' or redistributive growth that is likely to be required to alleviate chronic poverty. It might be argued that this reflects a 'global' politics of staying poor in Uganda, with the neo-liberal policy hegemony playing an important role in shaping the possibility of reducing chronic poverty. Many amongst the political elite perceive the rising inequality in Uganda as a potential threat to them, although only over the long-run. Many also see the poverty reduction agenda as externally imposed and profligate with resources, suggesting that if poverty reduction is to stay on the political agenda in Uganda for long enough to impact on chronic poverty, national ownership of the poverty agenda must be broadened and deepened beyond the current 'champions'. Ongoing political conflict in northern Uganda and the perennial threat of regional instability remains the greatest threat to both the chronically poor and the poverty reduction agenda. In addition, the debate over presidential succession and the potential move towards multi-partyism appears to have triggered an intensification of neo-patrimonial political practice, posing a significant threat to the poverty reduction agenda. However, the paper also finds that the policies and programmes likely to challenge chronic poverty can be usefully aligned with the most progressive aspects of political actors and policies in Uganda. These include certain civil society actors, participatory poverty assessments, the local government development programme and social sector ministries. Finally, it is proposed that a number of shifts are required within the ways in which politics is understood within poverty analysis. One example, is that we might need to reconceptualise the long term politics of commitment to poverty reduction in terms of a 'contract' rather than in terms of 'ownership'.

Publication Type(s)

CPRC Working Paper


policy growth politics Uganda adverse incorporation social exclusion PRSP civil society

ISBN: 1-904049-36-2


The Politics of Staying Poor in Uganda PDF 388.4 KB

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