Uganda’s latest census indicates our population growth is slowing down, but also shows that we remain predominantly rural people, which suggests that despite our outstanding growth figures we still have a very long way to go before the benefits are evenly distributed.
The results issued by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) showed that annual population growth rate had slowed to 3.03% down from 3.3% recorded during the last head count a decade ago.
Uganda’s population growth rate, bested by only seven other countries in the world, has been a major cause for concern. If a country’s population grows too fast it will put strain on resources and the nation’s ability to ensure a good living for its people. Thankfully Uganda’s economy has grown faster than the population in all but four years in the last 28 years.
In theory, the economy chugging along at a faster rate than the increase in people is a good thing.
The challenge remains distribution of these economic benefits more equitably across the population.
Which brings us to our slow urbanisation rates.
According to the census about two in every ten Ugandans lives in the urban areas. An improvement from the last census when it was 1.5 for every ten people.
Observers of development notice that urbanisation is strongly related to rates of development. Urban areas concentrate people in small areas allowing for ease of provision of basic services. In addition they are an attractive market for industries and businesses, which in turn create jobs which in turn attract more people.
Invariably, in addition to higher economic growth, development statistics like access to health, clean water and opportunity are higher in urban areas.
In Uganda not only is more than half the economic activity generated in Kampala but important statistics such as, access to social services, clean water and electricity are way above anything anywhere in the country.
It is not by mistake that the most developed countries have at least eight in every ten of their populations living in the urban areas.
As it is Uganda is only more urbanised than Burundi in the region.
One can hazard that the structure of the Ugandan economy, which was planned by the colonialists as a small-holder farming economy, means there is little incentive to move away from our villages. This proved useful during the chaotic 1970s and 80s, because without this small holder farmer to keep us food sufficient, life would have been a lot more unbearable.
Across the border from us Kenya was developed to support a settler economy, so Africans were disposed of large swaths of land to accommodate huge agricultural concerns, a situation which remained little changed after independence.
"The nasty environment that are our towns aside, the benefits to the economy of concentrating people cannot be ignored, the question is how do we fast track the process? As it is our 4.4% annual rate of urbanisation does not cut it.
Rwanda is leading the way in this, facilitating population growth around economic activities, mostly agriculture, making it easier to provide roads, social services, electricity and markets for their produce. The project is still in early days but our southern neighbour has decided that is how they are going to fight poverty and keep the economy ticking along.
Clearly creating jobs by fostering an enabling environment for businesses is key to attracting populations. And it’s not the multi-billion projects that account for most job creation in any economy but the small to medium sized enterprises.
Recently in the World Bank’s annual Doing Business survey Uganda’s environment is not business friendly and a lot of the problem is to do with bureaucracy, its take Ugandan businesses ages to comply with the law on registration, filling taxes, getting justice through the courts and obtaining finance.
In addition and related, we need to improve education and health services, especially in our government health centers. Government services act as the standard, the better government services are, it then follows that private players will offer better services.
Of course the rate of urbanisation can outpace the local government’s capacity to provide services for its inhabitants, which can result in urban poor who are worse off than their rural cousins. That is an issue of the authorities need to keep in mind.
Uganda has averaged economic growth of about six percent for the last decade or so, but the trickle-down effect is not showing itself much in general improvements in the people’s wellbeing. If anything the income and wealth inequalities are widening threatening the progress made of the last three decades.
I believe if we get the economy correct population growth will sort itself out, through increased use of birth control and raising the age at which women give birth to their first children among other things.
Focussing on making the urban areas more attractive for people through facilitating job creation, improved infrastructure and social services will not only accelerate the economy’s growth but will ensure the benefits are enjoyed more widely.