Uganda’s soaring population a factor in poverty, deadly riots

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KAMPALA, Uganda — Politicians and protesters have blamed rising inflation for recent riots that have claimed 10 lives here, but officials and policymakers are beginning to focus on how the country’s rapidly growing population is contributing to the unrest.

Uganda registered its highest annual inflation rate in 17 years in May, when it hit 16 percent — a 2-percentage-point increase since April, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. The inflation rate for food crops topped more than 44 percent and for fuel more than 9 percent.

But the East African nation’s population growth rate is just as startling, if not more so.

With a fertility rate of 6.8 children per woman and a population growth rate of 3.2 percent, Uganda has the third-fastest-growing population in the world, behind Niger and Yemen, according to the Bureau of Statistics. Home to 34.6 million people, Uganda is expected to have 103 million by 2050.

Most of those births are occurring among Uganda’s poor and uneducated, which is weighing heavily on the country’s economic potential.

“The riots have a lot to do with our population-growth trends,” said Hannington Burunde of the Population Secretariat in the Ministry of Finance. “When you are not producing educated, skilled people, they have a lack of purchasing power and don’t contribute meaningfully to commercial development.”

Even those with skills are finding that life in Uganda can be bleak.

Among the 390,000 Ugandans who acquire a college degree each year, just 113,000 get jobs — and about 150 people apply for every job opening, according to the Bureau of Statistics.

Most of the demonstrators who have protested against rising inflation are unemployed, but not uneducated.

Uganda’s burgeoning population has begun wearing out the country’s roads and the government’s ability to provide services such as health care, deepening citizens’ frustration with President Yoweri Museveni’s 25-year rule.

The country’s health care system — once widely hailed as one of the most effective in sub-Saharan Africa — now faces shortages of doctors and nurses as well as medicines and facilities.

The population boom also is affecting education: Universal primary schooling, which Mr. Museveni instituted in the 1990s, is in jeopardy.

Primary schools cannot charge for tuition but can levy fees for uniforms, books, meals and other necessities. Most schools in May defied a government directive not to raise fees to offset rising administrative costs.

Oddly, Mr. Museveni has been a vocal advocate of a large population, equating more people with more economic opportunities.

But critics say he has failed to make the basic but vital distinction between quantity and quality in population growth. Mr. Burunde estimates that the economy needs to expand by 10 percent a year to absorb the country’s 3.4 percent population growth rate.

While Uganda’s overall poverty rate has fallen from 33 percent in 2000 to 24 percent today, the total number of poor people over that same period has declined by just 100,000, to 8.3 million.

What’s more, Uganda’s “formal” economy, which registers and taxes merchants, has provided fewer job opportunities than the “informal” economy, in which unlicensed sellers hawk wares on the streets and skirt taxation.

The result: The Health Ministry has reported that the country’s tax base is growing much more slowly than the population, and the government is missing out on tax revenue that could be used to repair roads, build schools, improve health care and provide jobs.

Labor Minister Emmanuel Otaala has noted that the majority of Uganda’s workers are in the informal sector and that most working Ugandans are classified as “underemployed.” According to the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, about 65 percent of Uganda’s 34 million people are perennially underemployed.

Moreover, Uganda will need about 500,000 jobs created each year to keep up with population growth trends, according to the National Organization of Trade Unions.

In May, the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development launched the National Population Policy Action Plan, which aims to unite politicians, officials, activists and advocates to help shape government policies on population trends.

A key component is family planning, which poses unique challenges to curtailing Uganda’s population:

• Currently, about 40 percent of married women of reproductive age who would like to limit births do not have access to contraceptives.

• Most large families live in rural areas that are difficult to reach because of poor roads, shortages of doctors and nurses, and a lack of media outlets, said Dr. Jennifer Wanyana, assistant commissioner for reproductive health in the Health Ministry.

• Most religious groups in this predominantly Christian nation have been silent on the subject of population control. About 42 percent of Ugandans practice Roman Catholicism, which historically has opposed the use of contraceptives.

• Culturally, a large number of children is associated with masculinity and a source of labor and wealth.

Parliament has approved spending $6 million a year on reproductive health, and about half of that sum will be spent on family planning.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which provided $341 million to Uganda last year, and other donor agencies have been working with local groups like Reproductive Health Uganda to curb population growth.

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