“Uganda stands out in Africa”
[ By Walter Wafula ]
Charles Mwanguhya, the political editor of the Daily Monitor, says there are good and useful statistics at UBOS, the Uganda Management Institute, the Economic Policy Research Centre and the World Bank. However, he says that it is difficult for journalists to access all data. Typically, state officials want to keep it secret. The government, Mwanguhya argues, has so far failed to establish a culture of open access to public information.
Nonetheless, there has been tremendous progress in the past decade. David Wangolo, a research analyst at Renaissance Capital, a fund manager, comments: “Government agencies have been encouraged to provide monthly and quarterly data, which makes the process of analysis more continuous.” However, the analyst is dissatisfied with the availability of data. In April, for instance, the most recent monthly report on the website of the Bank of Uganda, the central bank, was for January. To access more recent reports, Wangolo had to use other channels.
He is frustrated with the efforts he is forced to make: “We still have to go to libraries and visit offices to get data. That is a waste of time.” In his view, statistics should be more readily available. Extra effort should only be necessary for those who want to get a profound analysis, not the numbers. Access to quality business data in Uganda is particularly difficult, says Maurice Amogola, the chief executive officer of AON, the country’s leading insurance broker. “Everybody in this market wants to keep information confidential. We don’t have a policy where data is kept somewhere where you can go and buy it or get it without any challenges,” he says. The tendency of companies to keep information secret is rooted in the fear that competing firms will use their data to their own advantage, he explains.
For instance, Amogola says, it would seem simple to get the exact number of telecommunication subscribers. But in Uganda it is a complicated issue. Telecom providers don’t publish these figures which would help insurance companies understand potential markets. The only trusted source for telecommunication data is the Uganda Communication Commission, which releases figures on a quarterly basis.
Getting accurate business data is hard work anywhere in the world. Analysts have to rely on financial statements, interviews with managers and discussions with competitors. It is time consuming to get a complete picture. Complementary government statistics can be helpful. Insurance manager Amogola says AON gathers data and information from UBOS, government websites, the Bank of Uganda, the International Monetary Fund and the Uganda Communications Commission.
UBOS collects data on businesses and companies, but it does not reveal such data unless it has made certain items anonymous, as John B. Male-Mukasa, the executive director, points out. UBOS does not help other institutions understand an individual company, but the government agency does provide statistics on the state of a particular sector in the economy. Such data allow investors to get a better understanding of the state of industries and business sectors, and thus contribute to a sound investment climate.
Indeed, UBOS has reason to be proud of its economic statistics. Professor Ben Kiregyera, the former director of the African Centre for Statistics at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, is full of praise. He points out that UBOS has been able to develop and publish important indices, including the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the Producer Price Manufacturing Index, the Construction Sector Index, the Producer Price Hotel Index and figures on Gross Domestic Product (GDP). UBOS provides regular data on inflation rates and thus helps the Bank of Uganda keep track of the amount of money in circulation.
Professor Kiregyera admits that things are not perfect, however. One downside is that UBOS largely focuses on the formal sector. The informal sector hardly makes a dent in official statistics, even though it is a huge part of the Ugandan economy, as is true of Africa in general. But Kiregyera concedes that small business are started and closed down all the time and are also quite mobile, so it is difficult for UBOS to follow.
UBOS director Male-Mukasa welcomes Ugandans’ growing interest in statistics. “People are much more aware of statistics today than they were a decade ago,” he says. “You can see this taking root and we are thrilled to hear policymakers using statistics to spice up their speeches or justify policies.” He considers raising awareness an important duty of UBOS and admits that the process was “slow and painful”. Male-Mukasa hopes that up-to-date information and communication technologies will help to shore up the performance of his agency even more in future (see box).
Indeed, some users are demanding more and easier access to quality national statistics. Journalist Mwanguhya urges the government to make more use of websites to disseminate data fast. Others are calling for the creation of a central database where users would find statistics on many different aspects of their society.
Like other developing countries, Uganda still faces huge difficulties when it comes to communication and energy infrastructure. For instance, internet access cannot be taken for granted across the country. So far, less than three million Ugandans out of the nation’s estimated 32 million people are reckoned to make regular use of computers and the internet. As power supply is erratic, even the web-savvy few cannot always access the digital information network.
Moreover, telecom companies do not fully cover the country. In some areas, mobile phones cannot be used. There are other infrastructure and human-resource bottlenecks as well.
Obviously, UBOS needs funds to do its job. This is an uphill struggle, says Male-Mukasa, in spite of the government having gradually increased expenditure on statistics. To a large extent, UBOS depends on money granted for the purpose of the national census and specific surveys. Male-Mukasa says that, in many cases, it would be cheaper to use data from other government bodies than to generate them through UBOS. In this view, government-run health and education programmes should provide the data. But the UBOS manager admits that these programmes tend to be underdeveloped and, so far, cannot be relied upon to provide quality and timely statistics like birth and death rates.
To improve matters, Male-Kukasa is in favour of the government giving all its agencies a fixed budget earmarked only for statistical activities. Such funds could be allocated in a similar way as government salaries are.
In particular, civil registration needs to be addressed. Professor Ben Kiregyera says this is an urgent issue not only in Uganda, but all over Africa: “People are born and die, but there is no record about the deaths and births in the country even when required by law.” Without proper civil registration, he says, African nations will never keep count of the exact number of citizens. Among other things, this kind of uncertainty hampers elections. “We don’t know who is a citizen of this country and who is holding Ugandan passports,” the scholar says. “I believe there are many non-Ugandans who have the Ugandan passport.”
Uganda is one of the many countries in the world without a national identity card. However, initiatives have been taken to certify Ugandans’ identities. Most recently, the government contracted Mühlbauer AG, a German technology firm, to issue national voter cards. All those who are 18 and above who are entitled to vote will get such a card. The cards will not only serve electoral purposes but will become a kind of national identity card.
Despite the many challenges, Professor Kiregyera says: “Uganda stands out in Africa as a country that has done a lot to improve the quality of statistics.” The former head of the African Centre for Statistics considers the establishment of UBOS as an autonomous government agency twelve years ago an example. According to him, UBOS is one of the best sources of national statistics in Africa. Kiregyera emphasises that Uganda has even given technical assistance in related matters to South Africa and Nigeria, the continent’s economic giants that both have rather well-developed statistics systems.
Uganda is a signatory to the African Charter on Statistics. The charter was endorsed by African heads of state in January, but is yet to bear any significant fruit. The Charter is meant to assist African governments in recognising the importance of statistics for making policies, implementing them and monitoring processes. Of course, governments’ and donors’ evaluations of programme impacts also depend on solid data. Hopefully the Charter will help Uganda and other African nations to achieve top quality data.
UBOS director Male-Mukasa appreciates the African Charter on Statistics. In a similar vein, his agency is pushing for a new statistics law in Uganda. It would then become obligatory to make data that was collected at public expense available to users. Such a law would give UBOS the mandate to set up the kind of national data bank professional users are calling for already. Moreover, the law would help to mobilise the funds needed.