Last week while in Dubai President Yoweri Museveni met up with state minister for happiness Ohood Al Roumi. My knee jerk reaction was to laugh, what does a ministry of happiness do, I wondered.
But it speaks to the ongoing discussion about how to convert wealth creation – GDP growth into general well-being.
"That it’s possible for a country to grow consistently for years even decades and the majority of its people do not enjoy the benefits of the progress...
There many reasons why this may happen but two leap to mind.
It is possible that the drivers of that growth do not affect the majority of the population. So for instance in Uganda’s case growth in the past came from services – financial, retail and telecommunications, construction and industry. Agriculture which provides a living for at least seven in every ten Ugandans has been suffering less than double digit growth forever.
So the gains were concentrated in the urban areas mostly with the rural areas feeding off the crumbs.
The second reason maybe and related to the first, is that the people may not be equipped to take advantage of this growth when it happens. This may be due to the fact that they may not be connected to the centers of power and therefore growth as happens in oil producers Angola and Equatorial Guinea or that they may not be educated and healthy enough to tap into the manna.
So take two men who while they share the same physical space their economic fortunes can be as different as night and day.
Jackson is a graduate of Makerere University, has ACCA accreditation and whose grounding in finance has seen him climb the ladder in the banking industry over the last 20 years of employment.
His salary broken down to an hourly rate, assuming he works eight hours a day, five days a week and 11 months in a year comes down to about sh250,000 – this is without his annual bonuses.
His gate man at home, Mujuni dropped out after his O-level. He has some basic proficiency with a rifle and close contact combat. While he has been employed for just as long as Jackson, he earns the relative pittance of sh1,875 an hour. Apart from the lower wages, he works double the number of hours that his boss does.
The difference in fortunes when you provide for luck, old boy networks and differing intelligence really comes down to the fact that Mujuni’s schooling was cut short. When you add it up Mujuni has barely seen half as many blackboards as Jackson.
It is also true that while guarding his master’s pad, Mujuni is more prone to malaria – at least thrice annually, than Jackson – who can’t recall his last attack.
Money and time spent treating malaria are additional drawbacks to his earning power – he gets paid per day not per month.
Meanwhile just like Jackson, Mujuni resides in Kololo – in a matter of speaking. Just like Jackson he works in Kampala, which accounts for more than half the country’s economic activity. And yet amidst all this abundance Mujuni struggles, no, fails dismally to reach out and snatch a share of all this wealth whizzing around him.
So redressing inequalities, which happen when economic growth is not equitably shared, starts with ensuring the activities in which the majority operate are supported to grow and at an individual level you do this by providing education, health and other services which will give everybody a fair shake at the game of life.
Sounds too simplistic?
Think about the generation that started life in the rural areas – their first classes conducted under trees with their first alphabet scrawled in the dust using a sharp stick who only broke free from the village because they stuck to school longer than their siblings and friends who stayed back in the village.
"It therefore follows that to determine a country’s prospects at widespread wellbeing for its people look at it education and health systems....
It is unrealistic to expect equality in society but a minimum standard of living for everyone where some people and their future generations are not condemned to sub-human existence is not much to ask, or is it?
But back to Dubai’s ministry of happiness. While material well being does not guarantee happiness, improved material well being where one is free from disease and can look to the future with hope, is a good starting place for happiness.
And if we set happiness – an intangible, as a national goal we may be better able to line up the tangible steps we need to take to attain this far off goal. And we are not talking about the momentary burst of happiness that come with being with or that person or come with a joke, but a sustained level of joy for everybody, every day, year after year.
So I am not laughing at the Dubai state minister of happiness anymore. She, Dubai may be onto a good thing.