OPINION: Ugandan government blind to cost of losing tech race

Never has a government’s total blindness to the opportunities offered by a vibrant tech sector been so perfectly demonstrated as in Uganda on Monday, when only five of 74 government ministers bothered to turn up on time for an Information Communication Technology sensitisation and training workshop hosted by the Prime Minister.

Visibly irked, PM Amama Mbabazi checked his watch at 10.30 a.m. and expressed his disappointment at ministers who had been required to arrive an hour and a half earlier. “Leaders must lead by example,” he told the committed five. “Most ministers are not here today because they are ignorant. We must find a way of bringing them on board and they must change their method of work.”

“It is imperative we run like Kiprotich (Olympic gold-medalist) and Jamaican Usain Bolt if we are to move from the pre-industrial to industrial,” he said.

But Uganda has been lagging behind in the ICT race for some time now, with its government unable or unwilling to get with the times. Missing an ICT sensitisation workshop may not sound like the worst thing in the world, but it is just the latest case of Uganda’s political class proving itself ignorant of the possibilities technological advancement offers the country.

In June, Uganda broke with its neighbours by reducing the sector’s budgetary allocation for the next year, in spite of growing capabilities in technology and innovation within the country. Though it had previously promised an increase in funding, the government actually cut the ICT budget, allocating it a mere 0.1 per cent of the country’s Sh11.1 trillion ($4.5 billion) budget. This came despite criticism that the 0.2 per cent of funds spent on the sector in previous budgets — making it one of the most underfunded sectors — was too low.

The move was in sharp contrast to policy elsewhere in the region, with Kenya and Rwanda in particular taking steps to aid their booming ICT sectors. Kenya has put technological growth at the centre of its Vision 2030 and heavily funds the sector, while Rwanda’s 2012-2013 National Budget Framework Paper boosted ICT by awarding the infrastructure sector, which includes telecommunications, a mighty 23.3 per cent of the total budget.

The cut in funding was a blow that Ugandan technological development scarcely deserved, and makes it seem even more nonsensical. A study by the Martin Prosperity Institute in the United States placed Uganda second in a list of African countries with advanced technological and innovation capabilities, only after South Africa.

ICT stakeholders in Uganda were justifiably furious by the cut in funding. “It is contradictory that ICT is the main driver of growth and yet all the revenues IT generates are taken away,” said Geoffrey Mutabazi, executive director of the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC). “How do you expect the industry to grow when you are not investing back?”

Minister for Information and Communications Technology Ruhakana Rugunda rather ironically defended the government’s ICT policy, saying: “Government’s policy towards ICT is good. Accessing internet is at low cost. The ministry is trying increase more infrastructure in this sector.” Yet the annual budget clearly suggests otherwise.

The private sector could yet act where the Ugandan government refuses to. But if it does not, Uganda will fall behind in a race it has the potential to win and cannot afford to lose.

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