Confronting COVID: How Civil Society is Responding Across Countries | Uganda

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September 9, 2020

Ugandan Civil Society Builds Political Will for Funding Public Services
 
Guest blog by Angella Nabwowe Kasule, Programs Director at the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights
 
The Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) is an NGO that promotes the effective understanding, monitoring, implementation and realization of economic and social rights in Uganda. 
 
How are the impacts of the pandemic in your country evolving, and how are they diverging from those being seen in other contexts? 
 
   
Unlike many countries, Uganda has not been heavily impacted by COVID-19, in terms of infections. Until late July, Uganda had not registered any COVID-19 deaths. Strict lockdown measures imposed at the onset of the outbreak have been hailed for managing to contain the virus. In justifying this lockdown in March, President Yoweri Museveni (among others) noted that Uganda has 1.4 million people living with HIV/AIDs (one of the risk factors for contracting COVID-19) as well as masses of people gathered in groups that can easily spread the virus. “We must do everything possible to ensure that this enemy does not come here, does not find plenty of dry grass piled up and ready for flaming,” he urged.
 
But the strict lockdown measures have taken a heavy toll. Many people have lost jobs and livelihoods. The most affected group is the informal sector. Informal employment (outside agriculture) accounts for 85 percent of the workforce, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. With economic activities in towns put on hold, many people who live hand to mouth were unable to buy food.  Informal social safety nets, like women’s village savings groups, were also disrupted. This prompted the government to announce mass distribution of food (in the form of maize flour, beans and milk for pregnant and lactating mothers) at the end of March. 
 
Fast forward to today, and the number of infections is rising. As of September 1, 2020, Uganda had registered 32 deaths and 3,112 infections, according to Ministry of Health data. This can be attributed to the relaxation of lockdown measures, which saw the opening of public transport, markets and shopping arcades. These places gather large groups of people, with little or no adherence to the Stand Operating Procedures (SOPs) that were issued by the Ministry of Health to control the spread of the virus. 
 
How has the pandemic changed economic policy debates in your country?
 
The socioeconomic challenges triggered by the lockdown are sparking several debates about the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). One is whether to give savers mid-term access to at least 20 percent of their savings. Many people argue it does not make sense to wait for retirement to get this money when people cannot meet their basic needs—especially in a country without unemployment benefits or guaranteed social services like education and health. 
 
There have also been debates on the need for a stimulus package that prioritizes the informal sector, whose businesses came to a total standstill during the lockdown. The Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development announced the government’s commitment to supporting Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in the budget speech in June 2020—referring to them as the backbone of Uganda’s economy. He noted that the vast majority are operated by households that have low cash reserves and limited access to finance. Restoring their economic activity enhances household incomes, especially in urban areas. But research by ISER shows that the government stimulus package will not reach those who need it most. For example, the credit approval processes and high minimum lending thresholds are biased towards large corporate borrowers who provide better business plans, have credit ratings, more reliable financial information, better chances of success and higher profitability.
 
Debt financing has been another topic prompting much debate. For example, while the relaxed requirements for releasing money from International Finance Institutions for COVID-19 is a good thing when dealing with a pandemic, it creates accountability gaps regarding how resources are utilized. 
 
What are the priority economic/budgetary/resource measures you are advocating for in response to the pandemic?
 
ISER is advocating for strengthening the public health system. As COVID-19 has reinforced, this is often the first point of call for the poor. A 2019 assessment of Intensive Care Units (ICUs) in Uganda found 55 functional beds in the whole country—translating to 1.3 ICU beds, per million people. Out of the 12 functional ICUs in Uganda, over 80 percent are located in Kampala, the capital city. We’re also advocating for the introduction of a National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) that covers all people, particularly the poor and most vulnerable.
 
In addition, COVID-19 has increased momentum around a range of longstanding issues we work on, including: 
 
Strengthening public education: Research by ISER and partners shows there are more private schools than public at the secondary level. With the shocks experienced during COVID-19, many people will not be able afford the fees charged by private schools. The time is now for the government to increase funding for public education, to ensure all children can access quality public education, irrespective of social status. 
 
Promoting responsible business conduct: The impact COVID-19 has had on businesses is likely to be a justification for not complying with human rights standards. It’s more crucial than ever to prevent abuse of labor rights, environmental degradation and unethical acts in the chain of production.
 
Strengthening social protection: Uganda has only had piecemeal approaches to social protection. COVID-19 has shown how important it is to have a comprehensive legal and policy framework. 
 
Allocating resources to data collection and management: COVID-19 interventions experienced enormous challenges due to absence of quality data, especially regarding the vulnerable in society.
 
What have been the challenges and opportunities for bringing human rights into these debates? 
 
COVID-19 has heightened the need to recognize economic and social rights as fundamental human rights. People are realizing just how critical the State’s role is in delivering quality public services. During and after the lockdown, the Ugandan public made demands that the government provide food; protect tenants from evictions; not cut off water and electricity supply due to non-payment of bills etc. The government responded affirmatively. It also took on the role of testing and providing treatment for COVID-19, reaffirming its responsibility to fulfill the right to health. This has reinforced our arguments about why it’s important for the population to claim these rights and why the government must provide the funding needed for the public sector to thrive. 
 
Civil society has spoken with one voice about the need to put in place social protection measures that work for everyone, because COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of the majority of the population—many people who would ordinarily provide for their own basic needs turned to the government for support. This builds support for demanding social security as a right the government must fulfill. Additionally, unlikely allies have come to champion economic and social rights. The private sector and the so-called “corporate class” are getting into discussions about social protection, for instance.
 
The major challenge is that COVID-19 came close to election season—posing the danger of abandoning the issues related to COVID-19 and focusing on political campaigning instead. But an opportunity still exists to bring human rights issues into development discussions. Specifically, it’s a chance to build political will to allocate resources to public services.
 
 
ISER and CESR first teamed up in 2016, when Uganda appeared before the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, producing six Visualizing Rights factsheets on pressing economic and social rights concerns facing people in the country. The factsheets showed how failures to invest in key social sectors had led to chronic human rights deprivations and highlighted a number of ways the government could raise the public resources needed. The Council’s recommendations set out a comprehensive agenda for policy reform, which ISER continues to advocate for.
 
The Confronting COVID series profiles how our civil society partners in various countries are responding to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the role that human rights norms, tools and strategies are playing in economic policy debates at the national level. 
 
Photo courtesy of ISER depicts Lady Justine Asenge, a proprietor of a private nursery and primary school in Mukono District. She hoped to benefit from an economic stimulus package for private school teachers but those hopes faded after she learned the money had been misappropriated. 
 
 
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