By Dr. Ian Clarke
There are many Ugandans living abroad who love their country and would like to do something to help its development. Some run successful businesses in Britain or the United States, visit Uganda on a regular basis, and send home money to support their family. Some have bought land, or built houses here, and many have business ideas, but that is often as far as it goes because when they understand the obstacles to be overcome they shy away. A business idea that looks good in the environment of the UK, seems difficult to implement in the context of Uganda. There are some Ugandan expatriates who have returned and set up successful businesses, but they will regale you with stories of the lack of interest or cooperation from government bureaucrats, the lack of infrastructure, the punitive tax regime, the rampant theft, and the poor work ethic.
I was recently in Addis Ababa attending a healthcare conference. Ethiopia is a country of 106 million people, with a population growth rate of 2.8% per year. The majority of the population is poor, and there were lots of street children and beggars on the streets of Addis. However, Addis has great infrastructure in terms of wide streets, dual carriageways and a rapid transit train. Ethiopia has been a divided country, with millions of Ethiopians living in the States and others locked up because of their political views, but several months ago a new Prime Minister was appointed who is making radical changes. I was told he started by releasing 80,000 political prisoners, then followed that by opening a dialogue with Eritrea, which has resulted in the two countries making peace. Previously, it was difficult for an Ethiopian Prime Minister to travel to the States because the large Ethiopian refugee population would organize demonstrations against him. However, this Prime Minister has already cemented a deal with
300 Ethiopian expatriate doctors to set up a state of the art hospital in Addis, and is going to America to meet them. He has declared to the Ethiopian people, ‘we are all one, there is no dominant tribe, and no section of the population is above the other’.
Ethiopia already had a high level of economic growth. Now, with Ethiopians abroad ready to lend a hand in the development of their country, and the government on a drive to attract foreign direct investment, there will be even more rapid development. While I was in Addis I met with the Minister of Science and Technology who wants to set up a medical technology hub; the government is also giving big incentives to attract drug manufacturers to set up shop in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda are all in competition for investment, because increased business will cause the development of these countries and lift the population out of poverty. Uganda is falling behind, not because the government does not care – the President travels the world inviting investors to Uganda, but he also has a whole pool of Ugandans living abroad who could invest in their country, if the conditions were right. The movie, ‘The Queen of Katwe’, was made by Disney, because of a Ugandan working for that organization.
The Prime Minister of Ethiopia has set the political tone, in terms of unity and reaching out to his own people, and below him there are many government officials, like the Minister of Science and Technology, who are walking the talk. Uganda has been rated highly by the guidebooks as a great place to visit, which should translate into a high rating in ease of doing business, but in this area we score badly, as evidenced by the difficulty that potential expatriate Ugandan investors find in setting up businesses in their own country.
The political environment also affects the spirit of patriotism and hope for any country. When I lived in Luweero, after the war, things were bad but there was hope because of the new government which was changing things. But now, thirty years later, it seems this hope has drained away and people have become divided and cynical. In the case of Ethiopia and Kenya, they are rekindling this hope through reaching out to their adversaries. Perhaps this is what we need to do in Uganda.