Uganda’s increasing divide between the haves and have-nots



Patricia Nakanwagi (not real names), aged 6 expressionlessly stares at a tiny piece of posho with a few scattered beans across the nearly empty plate of food. It is to be shared with her two younger siblings aged 4 and 3 respectively. Bitterness, pain and suffering are written candidly across the frail faces of these already fed up future adults. The little ones quickly devour the food with each swallowing as much as possible in the shortest space of time. Nakanwagi’s younger sibling runs her finger across the plate in an effort to get the last drop. In dismay they all look at each other obviously not satisfied with the meal, well aware that they will have to wait probably for another day to get a meal. This is usually the routine every meal time for as long as they can remember. Nakanwagi and her family have known no other life except dire poverty ever since their father and sole breadwinner Sekanwagi was killed in a Boda Boda accident two years ago.

Nakanwagi’s mother is illiterate, unemployed and performs odd jobs in the neighbourhood of washing clothes for as little as 2,000 shillings a day when she gets lucky –hardly enough to cater for a basic meal let alone shelter and an education for her children. For this family, the situation seems obscenely chronic and the future is bleak. They are amongst the startling number of Uganda’s population living in abject poverty.

         Kisenyi slum conditions

Just barely 4 kilometres from where Nakanwagi and her siblings live is the posh suburb of Lweza. 12 year old Mark Kawuma and his family have lived in this neighbourhood for close to 15 years. He is the last born among 5 siblings. Kawuma’s father, Solomon Kawuma is a successful engineer and business man. Over the years, he has made a name for himself and accumulated a lot of wealth as he owns hundreds of properties in prime locations from his real estate business. When he grows, Kawuma wants to be an engineer- just like his elder brother who is currently managing the family’s construction firm.   

Nakanwagi and Mark’s families portray a common picture across Uganda where the rich are extremely rich while the poor get poorer. Majority of Ugandans now share the view that there is a growing divide between the rich and the poor.

In his book the Haves and have-nots, Zoran Milanovic a World Bank economist and development specialist explains that more than 80% of one’s likely income is determined at birth by citizenship and the income class of one’s parents.


Though statistics of World Bank indicate that Uganda has surpassed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) target on halving poverty by 2015, there are still over 6.7 million people living below the poverty line.  Sadly, many of the poor are simply victims of societal settings and structures were many like Nakanwagi and her family find themselves on the wrong side of the divide. Crossing over to the other side of the rich, to many – would be a tall order.  According to Eunice Tumwebaze, the Assistant Commissioner for Family Affairs at Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MoGLSD) poverty in households can be defined as discrimination that brings inequality in society due to uneven distribution of resources and opportunities to all people. The Ministry looks at poverty in various ways. The percentage of population employed (female or male) and those deterred by poverty including the youth, children, men, women and the disadvantaged. Currently, 20% of Ugandan households are chronically poor and more than 10% have moved into poverty. Whereas Uganda Bureau of Statistics defines poverty as the inability for a household to afford basic requirements namely clothing, sugar, salt, blankets and meals. This means that a person’s consumption level is below the recommended average.


The Poverty Index report 2014 released by the European Union indicate that a significant number of Ugandans feel that there is an increasing divide along economic lines. Unfortunately, this view has been supported by national economic data where poverty levels are much lower among some sections of the public.

Regrettably, this divide has also manifested into regions across the country where reports have revealed that some regions are poorer than others.  The Uganda National Household survey 2012/2013 indicates that some regions are more impoverished than others. The report highlights the Eastern and Northern region in Uganda falling quarry to poverty compared to Western and Central residents. Godfrey Nabongo, Communications Manager for Uganda Bureau of Statistics states that some factors influence these outcomes namely natural disasters, production levels and political instability which greatly stimulate poverty especially in the Northern region which was fraught with LRA insurgence for many years.

Despite tremendous efforts made by the government and development partners, a section of the population does not seem to benefit from such interventions.  Ms. Shiela Gashishiri, the World Bank Communications Associate, says Uganda’s growth and development is constrained by the low levels of productivity of both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors; inappropriate urban development; the slow development of infrastructure; and the limited availability and accessibility of credit.  ‘Someone who is poor in most cases has no assets to access loans from banks that would have otherwise improved their household incomes; while on the other hand, the banks practically are after the haves to offer them loans,’ Ms Gashishiri explains noting that at the end of the day, the haves will have more while the poor will be even poorer as a result of these imbalances. 


Some people like Mukiibi John, a teacher at Muguluka primary attributes poverty to conservative cultures. “There is situational poverty and generational poverty,” says Mukiibi explaining that situational poverty is when people keep themselves under the poverty line even when projects to get them out of poverty are put in place. Some people thank and believe they inherit poverty from their fore fathers.

Kivula Andrew, a cyclist in Kisenyi, a slum worst hit with urban poor claimed that the Uganda government does not have the will to end poverty and the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots.  ‘The few rich Ugandans are getting richer while the majority Ugandans wail in abject poverty. High level of poverty has been manifested in poor health services, starvation of people in areas like Karamoja region, corruption and poor education services in the country,” he notes.

Over the past two decades, Uganda has experienced sustained economic growth. Despite this growth, almost one of every five people survives on less than US$ 1 per day. According to statistics released by the Global Finance Magazine, Uganda ranks 21st among the poorest countries in the world though the percentage of Ugandans living below the poverty level decreased significantly from 56.4% in 1992 to 19.7% in 2012 (GOU, 2014).  Although the proportion living below the poverty level generally declined, the absolute numbers increased due to the larger population size as well as income. Uganda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is $26.31 billion according to 2014 World Bank statistics, but over 19% of the population still lives under the poverty line.


 Impoverished children

Keith Muhakanizi, the Secretary to the Treasury reveals that Government has over the last decades implemented policies geared towards eradicating poverty among Ugandans. The Ministry of Gender, Labour & Social Development guided by the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) and the National Gender Policy has set up structures of employment where all people in society must benefit equally and equitably regardless of gender or ability. The structures are implemented in all districts and local governments. The disabled for instance are taken through the community rehabilitation activities so that they are able to be productive in their bid to fight poverty.

 “These policies have led to a substantial reduction in poverty levels from 56% in 1992 to 19.7% in 2013. Uganda has already surpassed the first MDG target of halving the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty by 2015.  Some parts of the country have even got better performance figures,” Muhakanizi said. 

Though painted a silver lining, the situation on the ground especially in rural areas seems to be grim. More needs to be done to ensure that all Ugandans stay out of poverty. “We still face a number of challenges, including; budget deficit, a small tax base, budget pressures, sustaining macroeconomic stability while at the same time making adequate investments for poverty eradication among others,” Muhakanizi  noted.

With the growing foreign debt, there is concern that the ordinary Ugandan will only become poorer.  Uganda’s public debt increased from US$ 6.4 billion at the end of June 2013 to US$ 7.5 billion as at the end of June 2014: of which US$ 4.3 billion or 57% was external; and US$ 3.2 billion or 43% was domestic. This burden is passed on to the ordinary Ugandan already grappling with huge taxes to finance the public debt, which further increased  this financial year 2015/2016 compared to past trends.

Uganda’s population currently stands at over 34 million with 60% below the age of 18, the percentage of Ugandans living on one and a half dollars a day is steadily rising and now at 19.5%. Ronald Seki, a resource center manager at National Planning Authority notes that after realizing that the economy was commanded by the private sector, World Bank set up the Planning Authority in 2002 under the NPA Act to transform Uganda’s peasant society into a modern prosperous society as envisaged by Vision 2040.  This was fast tracked by adoption of some policy frameworks like the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) and Economic Recovery Programmes (ERP). 

Over the years, African Development Bank has supported various sectors of Uganda’s economy to fight poverty to a tune of $980 million in the previous two years.  Rachel Sebudde, a Senior World Bank economist, says that Uganda, just like other African countries generally has an increase in poverty levels. This, she notes is orchestrated with the current inflation in Sub-Saharan Africa currently at an average of 3.7% from an earlier projected growth of 4.6%. Poverty has increased as a result of the falling global commodity prices and the volatile global financial conditions, commodity prices and stagnation of infrastructural development overall to enable access to markets. 

“Efforts need to be channeled into tackling of drought that has had an impact on agricultural production and development of roads and transportation,” noted  Sebudde.  In order for these strategies and interventions to have a better impact in Uganda, crucial sectors such as the energy and agriculture sectors that have high impact value on the common market and employ the bulk of Ugandans  need to be targeted.   Corruption in Uganda has frustrated the consistent use of funds for the planned fiscal purposes thus contributing to failure to substantially reduce poverty in the country.

Patrick Muinda, Assistant Commissioner Communications and Information Management at Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Sports shares the view that the youth should embrace the blue color jobs in the vast opportunities created by the vocation studies  rather than targeting the white collar jobs. He further says that government has prioritized funds for vocations to equip learners with hands on skills that churn out job creators rather than the seekers. This will not only reduce the high unemployment numbers but also reduce poverty.

The LC1 Chairperson of Makindye Zone II, Phillip Kakembo, asserts that a majority of the residents in the area live in poverty. He laments that poverty has contributed highly to criminality because the bulk of cases registered have a strong association to it. He recounts an incident when a woman reported her fiancée for failure to provide the family with food for five straight days even when the man disappeared daily in the wee hours of the morning to source for money. To him, most of the family conflicts arise from poverty-related issues. “Can you imagine a resident here narrowly survived death when his wife attacked him demanding Shs.70.000 he had received from the sale of a goat?” he lamented.

 Kisenyi slums…


Prof. Davidson Ssenka, a leading academic in the School of Economics at Makerere University, appreciated the slow growth of Uganda’s economy but cautioned that the poverty rate may rise even higher if the government and concerned international agencies do not do more given the steady high population growth of 3.2% annually.


He warned that the current poverty rate in the country was high and if more is not done in terms of finding ways to mitigate the economic gap and create more jobs for the unemployed, Ugandans can be sure that there is trouble ahead.  “The current poverty rate stands at 6.7% and most of those implicated are rural-based. The country-wide unemployment rate is 4.2% and these can increase further if government and relevant global agencies just stand and watch,” Prof. Ssenka predicted. 


Prof. Ssenka thinks the government and International organizations should focus more on poverty reduction which in his view is more feasible as compared to poverty eradication. He urges the government to create wealth and job opportunities so as to reduce poverty while advising Ugandans to embrace hard work and make for themselves jobs in case the government fails.  ‘the UN and other international developmental agencies should find ways to empower the local population to help them fight poverty and also encourage supporting local micro- businesses for young entrepreneurs”, he notes.


Florence Nabweteme

Locals from Buikwe district attend a health camp for free health services mobilesed by partners like CEHURD

, a Program Officer with Centre for Health Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) reveals that working with poor communities to improve service delivery presents challenges like low socioeconomic output, very low literacy levels hindering response to various initiatives brought by government and non-profit institutions. Nabweteme observes that poor communities often have high expectations which are hard to meet because of the free services expected at every level of implementation at the cost of the partners.  This, she laments is sometimes a challenge since the poor population in Uganda is the majority, and therefore cannot have enough resources to meet all their expectations to satisfy all their needs.


 “The economic cycle maintains people in poverty with illiterate parents which tend to keep their families out of school as they do not value education. As such, the cycle continues to the children, grandchildren and all generations.  This affects wealth elevation programs which create a certain class of Ugandans who live below the poverty line and cannot access basic necessities,” explains Anite Mugalu, the CERHURD spokesperson.  

There is no doubt Uganda has made tremendous strides in reducing poverty. A number of efforts have been made by government and development partners to address underlying causes of poverty such as the harsh economic conditions including falling global commodity prices, volatile financial conditions, commodity prices and stagnation of infrastructural development to enable access to markets and mostly the unstable Ugandan currency coupled with high levels of corruption and the inaccessible loans for the poor.

All these efforts will however be in vain if they don’t intervene on the escalating problem of the widening gap between the haves and have nots in Uganda. For poverty eradication to be realized must be all inclusive and not for only some sections of the public and regions or else people like Nakanwagi and her family will forever remain poor while Mark and his family will only become richer.

Just like Ms Anite Mugalu put it, it will be a vicious ‘cycle of poverty that continues to the children, grandchildren and all generations’ which will further deepen the divide along economic lines among Ugandans.