By Opiyo Oloya
This past weekend, when I called on the foreign affairs state minister, Oryem Okello, to wish him the best in the New Year, he told me he had just returned from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he spent part of the holidays.
He had travelled through Dubai many times while in transit but this was the first time he stopped to look at the development in the region.
"What I came out with was a sense of wonder, my brother Oloya," he told me.
"You cannot believe how far-thinking the UAE has been, turning what is mostly sand into prime real estate, using what they have got to make the country a huge tourist attraction."
"When God gives you lemon, you learn to make lemonade," I offered in support.
"That is precisely what I am telling you, the UAE is making real lemonade where there was none before, turning an impoverished environment into a rich one."
This was not the first time Okello had talked to me about development he had seen while on a foreign trip. Last year, after he returned from attending the World Cup in Russia, the minister described the progress and development he had seen in Vladimir Putin's country. The Western media, he observed then, had fed the world on a steady diet of information that characterised Russia as backward.
"Yet, off the beaten tracks, away from the world cameras, we found a country that is moving at a rapid pace with modernisation and progress, brand new infrastructures," he told me.
Okello's motivation to tell me these stories essentially comes down to this simple observation: We, in Africa generally and in Uganda specifically, do ourselves a disservice when we accept the characterisation that we are poor, a view mostly prevalent and pushed by the media in the West. For him, and I agree with his view, by focusing only on poverty, valuable opportunities are wasted that could have been better used to create development and progress.
"I had this delegation that came to see me and began talking about how our country is a dollar-a-day poor. I told the delegation that is nonsensical because the view does not account for real wealth, the resources we have," he recalled.
"Look, I told them, in Karamoja, on average, a cattle herder has more than 50 heads of cattle in the herd, but if you look at his circumstance with Western lenses, he is poor because he walks barefoot, his clothing is dirty. In reality, the man is worth over sh50m. And, so, I asked them, how can we call this man poor when he has over sh50m on hooves?"
Okello has a point worth thinking about this year, one that is straight forward, yet often neglected and skipped over. There cannot be progress if all we choose to see and comment on is poverty, a focus which narrows our thinking to what we do not have instead of looking at what we have.
In such a circumstance, we measure our successes or failures using the same yardstick as everyone else. We start thinking, if only God gave us snow, we could create high-paying ski-resorts to lure tourists the way they do in the Swiss Alps, Whistler in British Columbia, Mont Tremblant in Quebec and elsewhere where snow is abundant.
We forget our own resources and start thinking real wealth is only attainable when a country is blessed with the resources we see on Western television.
What is wrong with constantly seeing one as poverty-stricken, a dollar-a-day country is that the attitude seeps into national and international policies, defining how the country is treated. For instance, the International Monetary Funds (IMF) brought a programme in 2009 that allowed low income countries (LIC) like Uganda to borrow money at zero interest from its Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust (PRGT), payable in 10 years.
On the face of it, this sounds forward looking and, well, liberating for the borrowers. What is not so obvious is that the money meant for "poverty reduction" can only be used for certain activities which, may or may not make much of a difference in raising the level of prosperity in the borrowing country. In essence, the borrowing countries are stuck with money they cannot use for the things they really want to do and, instead, must follow the rules outlined by IMF.
Here is another way of seeing what Oryem Okello is talking about. God gave Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire a lot of cocoa, between the two countries producing more than 60% of the world's supply of the cocoa beans that feeds the $100b candy industry.
Yet both countries get barely 2% of the share of that huge cake and are so poor they are perennially listed among borrowers from the IMF and other international lenders.
But would we still be talking about Cote D'Ivoire and Ghana being so poor that they need money for poverty reduction if they have a monopoly on cocoa production and cocoa products? How liberating would it be if the IMF or anyone else were to loan money and other capital to the two countries to own their processing plants, build chocolate factories to international standards?
The reason Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire do not enjoy the profits from cocoa is simply this: The beans are processed somewhere else, and the final chocolate candies are made in developed economies. Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire would suddenly become resource rich nations able to convert their rich resources into wealth if they owned even half of these facilities. In other words, if the IMF is really serious about lifting up the lot of the people of these two countries, it must start by giving loans to start processing cocoa in house instead of sending it elsewhere for someone else to make money off it. That way, by keeping a good chunk of the cocoa profits, both nations will start to see improvement in wages for the workers and with it, generally, better standards of living for the citizens.
That is why Ugandans must take a moment to look closely at the resolutions made this past weekend by Forum for Democratic Change and the ruling National Resistance Movement leaders in Kasese district, who were united by the national chief co-ordinator for Operation Wealth Creation, Caleb Akandwanaho (Gen Salim Saleh), to focus on development.
Rather than spend time talking about how poor people in Kasese are, instead, the over 250 leaders looked at the abundant resources the district has — the water, minerals, rich soil and so on and vowed to lift the district to middle income status by 2021. Go ahead and sneeze at that goal as a pipe dream and watch as you are left behind.
Here is the thing, by focusing on what will grow their district rather than what is dragging down their district, Kasese leaders are breaking away from a mindset that says: "I cannot do this now because I do not have this and that." Instead, their starting point is what they already have and the next question is what to do with it.
In Uganda, we already have the resources for creating real wealth. What is needed is a different way of thinking about what we have. Rebrand the many tourist destinations to attract more tourists, put real marketing machinery to get worldwide attention, pour real capital to support production and processing of foods we have in abundance. The European and Middle East markets should be exploited to Uganda's benefit, not by sending our most able workforce to those countries, but by sending products that we know will sell.
Minister Oryem Okello is right — naming something is a big part of how society will see that thing. Poverty, as my sons say, sucks and we should not think it or act it or wear it like sackcloth from which there is no escape.
God gave the Arabs plenty of sand and oil and, instead of seeing themselves as poor because the grass is never green in the desert (there is none), they saw themselves as rich because they had all the resources they needed to create wealth. We have something the Arabs do not have — plenty of trees and green grass and the list is long. Now, let us see how we can make wealth out of these.
Opiyo.email@example.com | Twitter: @Opiyooloya