June 1st 2015
On Friday morning all I managed to eat before rushing off to work was two bites of toast with nutella. At the time it seemed insignificant, but I would soon come to regret my flippant disregard of the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. Little did I know that those bites of toast were the only food I would eat for the better part of the day.
For our second week at work Jeremy and I had been tasked with helping our boss facilitate a five day training session for an NGO called the Central Archdiocesan Province Caritas Association (CAPCA). The aim was to help them develop an advocacy results framework, a behavioral change tool, and a monitoring and evaluation framework. This work was punctuated by regular breaks for tea, snacks, and large lunches that kept me full until bedtime. So when I ran out the door on Friday morning leaving my breakfast half finished, I assumed I would be happily full within the hour. Unfortunately for my stomach – but fortunately for my personal development – at about 10am we received a call from Shelby telling us that her boss had asked if we could represent our organization, Food Rights Alliance, at parliament for a meeting with the Parliamentary Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs to propose constitutional amendments.
That was a lot of information in one sentence, so let me slow down a bit. As Jeremy explains in his blog post (link here: https://jeremyryant.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/entry-10-sunday-may-31st-2015-let-them-eat-cake/), constitutional amendments happen very rarely. Even in Uganda where they are somewhat frequent, the chance only comes around every ten years or so. So the fact that they are making amendments now is big. Very, very big . As green, wide-eyed Political Science students, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Luckily, our presence at the meeting would benefit everyone since no one else from the office was able to attend, so within an hour we had hopped on a boda boda and were speeding towards parliament along with Shelby and her boss. Two rounds of semi-thorough security screenings later, we found ourselves mounting a flight of winding stairs lined with faded pictures of the Queen playing croquette, and the leader of the opposition standing in front of a class of uniformed children. After correcting several wrong turns, we arrived outside a crowded conference room, our hearts in our throats. Since the meetings were running over two hours late and there was no waiting area, we were squeezed onto a row of chairs framing the room. There we waited and listened as numerous stakeholder groups presented their proposed amendments to a row of five or so MPs who weren’t holed up in budgetary meetings somewhere else in the building. Since the meetings were running late the chairman of the meeting announced that they would be working through lunch. Jokingly he explained how we would all be “fasting for the constitution”.
Let me pause here and give you a bit more context. I already mentioned that the purpose of the meetings was to get input from interest groups regarding what constitutional amendments they want to see. These amendments will specifically focus on social, economic, and cultural rights. Without getting into too much detail, on January 3rd 1976 the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights came into force as one of nine similar agreements created by the United Nations to govern the global enforcement of human rights (along with political and civil rights, the rights of the child, the elimination of racial discrimination, etc.). This particular covenant enshrines the right to safe employment, access to adequate healthcare, the right to housing, sanitation, food, etc. Uganda ratified it in 1987, meaning in theory it should be working towards the full realization of these rights. However since 1987 Uganda has not submitted a single report to the United Nations – something which they are required to do every five years. Furthermore, despite having ratified this international covenant, these rights are not protected under the Ugandan constitution. Therefore the fact that they are now taking steps to include these rights in their constitution – again, in theory – is both very exciting and long overdue. And as an NGO that advocates for the right to safe and accessible food, Food Rights Alliance has a vested interest in ensuring this happens (hence our presence at the meeting).
So, back to the story. As we sat in that crowded, sweaty room, our stomachs growled but we were listening raptly to the conversations between the other NGOs and the members of parliament. Each organization made valuable suggestions, often very much in line with the ones we were hoping to propose. The MPs seemed receptive, although how receptive they actually were remains to be seen. At one point however a discussion started around budgetting. One NGO had suggested included the right to food in the constitution, to which the chairman of the meeting replied that Uganda does not have the funds to make such a promise.
What did he just say?
That was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. My blood started to boil.
Ok, calm down. Let’s think this through.
He said Uganda doesn’t have the funds to promise its people the right to food. True, it is the third poorest country in the world. Although culturally and geographically rich, 37.7% of Uganda’s people live in extreme poverty (i.e. less than $1.25 USD/day). With a GDP of 21.49 USD in 2013, it is true that the government here has very little money.
That being said, since arriving in Kampala I’ve seen more police officers and military personnel than I’ve seen in the rest of my lifetime. They flood the streets like a colony of ants. In 2013 Uganda spent 1.9% of it’s GDP on the military – that’s almost double the percentage of what Canada spends. Moreover, in 2005 the World Bank estimated that Uganda is losing $300 million per year through corruption – much of it at the highest levels of government. This is such a problem that countries like the UK, Denmark, Ireland and Norway have all suspended aid to the office of the prime minister.
So in this context, is the issue actually that Uganda doesn’t have enough funds to promise to feed its people, or is it that the funds are being improperly allocated?
It blows my mind that sitting in the Ugandan parliament a well-educated constitutional lawyer would seriously say that Uganda can’t find money to feed its people, and not a single MP would speak up to disagree with him. Isn’t food the most important right of all? Moreover, isn’t Uganda called the food basket of East Africa? Food Rights Alliance lives by the slogan “food first, everything later”. Sitting in that meeting I could barely think because I was so hungry, and I had eaten a mere six hours before. Yet only a few kilometers away there were people who hadn’t eaten in days. In his casual dismissal of the right to food due to budgetary restrictions, the chairman was saying that these people’s needs aren’t even a priority. In Uganda’s Vision 2040 the aim is for the country to go from a low to middle income country by 2040. But how do they expect to meet this goal if they won’t give people the right to food? How can they expect people to survive – let alone contribute to the economy – if they are starving? And moreover, how can a panel of presumably smart, compassionate people seriously refuse to even TRY to feed the country they took responsibility for?
Even though my hunger that day was eventually abated by a few much needed veggie samosas, it seems unlikely that the people of Uganda will have the same luck. At the beginning of the meeting the chairman joked that because we were skipping lunch we were fasting for the constitution. But in the context of his dismissal of the Ugandan people’s right to food, I doubt he understood the irony of his words.
NOTE: Although what I’ve described in my post is shocking, it is not uncommon for countries to fail to allocate enough of the budget to the direct benefit of its people. So called “developed” countries are often equally at fault for similarly harmful decisions.