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Uganda’s new ‘parish’ model tries development from the grassroots

Supports celebrate Museveni's win
Supporters celebrate President Museveni’s win after the recent presidential polls. On Feb 26, President Museveni launched the bottom-up ‘parish development model’. Luke Dray/ Getty Images

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who captured power in 1986, has set himself an ambitious development target. Through the Parish Development Model launched recently, he is seeking to lift the country’s annual GDP growth rate to at least 7% by 2040 – up from 5.1% projected for 2022. Madina Guloba, a development economist, unpacks the new planning model.

What’s the parish development model about?

It’s a bottom-up approach to budgeting, aimed at moving national development planning to the grassroots. Article 176 of Uganda’s constitution provides for decentralisation “to ensure people’s participation and democratic control in decision making”. Uganda’s Local Government Act recognises two types of administrative units at sub-county level: parishes and villages. Uganda has a total of 10,694 parishes, each with a population size ranging from 450 to 30,000 people.

Under the parish development model, the government has recently set up structures and frameworks for planning, budgeting and delivery of public services. People at the parish level are to decide development priorities under the policies formulated at the national level.

The assumption is that by getting citizens at the lowest administrative levels to identify and assign resources for their own social needs, development can tilt in favour of the poor. The overall aim, according to the plan, is to deepen the decentralisation process, improve household incomes, and increase accountability at local levels.

How has Uganda been planning its development?

Currently, planning is done centrally by the government through the finance, planning and economic development ministry and National Planning Authority. The national development plans guide match to the Vision 2040 aspirations.

Uganda is implementing its third national development plan. There are three more such plans to roll out so as to complete the 2040 vision cycle.

Uganda has used development models similar to the parish one, before and after independence. They were used as a basis for local government administration, and were reinforced by village chiefs. Parishes maintained a registry of all community members. They enforced national programmes on health, education and people’s welfare in terms of food security, household incomes and public health.

This information would regularly be shared through the sub-counties to the national registry. Central government has over years used this information to design poverty alleviation programmes.

But poverty has been worsening, according to the latest National Household Survey. Uganda’s monetary poverty level (proportion of the population earning below US$1.04 per day) has deteriorated in the last nine years, from 19.7% in 2012/13 to 21.4% in 2016/17. The number of poor reached 8.7 million people in 2019/20, from 6.6 million in 2012/13. This, despite economic growth averaging 4.7% over the period.

Income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, has also remained stagnant at 0.41 over the nine years. The Gini coefficient uses a scale of 0 to 1; zero being an equal income distribution and 1 denoting perfect income inequality. Uganda’s measure shows a wide income gap between the poor and the rich.

The parish model is being touted as the path to bringing the poverty level down to the third national development plan’s target of 18.5%, and income inequality to 0.37.

How does the new model work?

The parish model has seven pillars, all aligned to the third national development plan. They are:

  • production, storage, processing and marketing. Among other interventions, the government plans to roll out digital platforms for provision of farm inputs (e-vouchers), extension services (e-extension) and quality certification (e-certification), at the parish level.

  • infrastructure and economic services. Here, public and private sector institutions are to be mobilised to provide services at the parish level. Examples include community access roads, safe water, produce markets, power connection and free internet to the community.

  • financial inclusion – improving access to financial services among informal economy players

  • social services like primary health care, education, access to clean water, transport and communication

  • mindset change and cross-cutting issues like gender, environment and disability

  • an integrated system to support community profiling, data collection, analysis, tabulation, storage and dissemination, at the parish level

  • the model’s governance and administration.

The president recently emphasised that out of the seven pillars – production, storage, processing and marketing as well as financial inclusion – require immediate focus.

Is this Uganda’s silver bullet?

If well executed, the model could remedy Uganda’s many ills. But it remains to be seen whether the parish model will be implemented effectively. Uganda has a long history of conceiving good programmes but failing to implement them.

Past plans like the structural adjustment programmes, poverty eradication action plan, plan for modernisation of agriculture, Northern Uganda social action plan and the post recovery development plan have not achieved much.

The same could also be said of the national development plans. Usually, the government starts its full-scale roll-out of these plans without first piloting them for evaluation in a few districts. Had government piloted the model in a few districts, it would have identified problems and adjusted the model before the national roll-out.

One of the key elements of the parish model is the expectation that parish leaders will drive implementation. But their capacity to handle budget issues has not been tested. Each parish is headed by a parish chief whose minimum qualifications are a diploma in administration and management, “or any other qualification considered appropriate for the position”.

Secondly, the reporting lines are clear on paper but the level of bureaucracy is likely to cloud accountability and reporting. Similarly, power has been brought to the people but the centre still remains in control, especially on decision making, budgeting and accountability for funds. Also overlooked is monitoring at the district level.

The parish model addresses the five critical elements of livelihood enhancement: human, natural resources, social, finance and physical assets. But the missing link is the sustainability aspect. This must be built sequentially.

The government should not rush into releasing parish model implementation funds to groups. Probably that is the reason for the failure of the likes of Emyooga (an enterprises funding intiative) and Operation Wealth Creation (a farm input distribution drive).

The critical element is to build a clear, functional database of all Ugandans irrespective of employment status or age. The database should have clear identifiers such as numbers assigned at birth and recorded into the system. This will ease intervention targeting, monitoring and implementation. The database will also boost transparency and accountability for “value for money”, a key outcome of any model.

This will ease short, medium and long-term planning for the country, both at local and national levels. That way, the parish model could be the silver bullet that Uganda is yearning for.

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