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Uganda’s Minister of Finance Discusses Infrastructure Development, Strategies for Combating the Global Financial Crisis and the Country’s Plan for Economic Transformation

KAMPALA, September 24, 2009—The Hon. Syda Bbumba, 57, Uganda’s Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development was appointed Uganda’s first woman  finance minister on February 16, 2009, but has served in various cabinet positions over the last 14 years. In the following interview  she shares her views about the Government of Uganda’s relationship with the World Bank the strategies she’s employing to keep the economy robust amidst the global economic crisis, and her expectations for the 2009 World Bank-International Monetary Fund Annual Meetings in Istanbul, Turkey, October 6-7.    

Honorable Minister, how would you describe the relationship between the World Bank and the Government of Uganda?

SB: I must say on the whole, for Uganda, the World Bank has been a very good partner. The Bank has come in at the time of need and they have given us the funds we need at that particular time. We may have had a few hitches here and there but these are normal in any relationship. On the whole, our relationship has been excellent and I pray that we continue with that excellent relationship.

In which areas do you see the World Bank having comparative advantage as a development partner where they should remain actively engaged in the coming years?

SB: Concessional funding, and IDA [International Development Association].

Could you say a little bit more about that in terms of infrastructure, and where else you see the Bank] being strong.

SB: Of course the Bank has been strong in quite a number of areas. But for purposes of emphasis or new focus, in view of what has happened in the economy globally, we would now like the Bank to refocus on agriculture. And this refocusing should be from two angles: One is enhancing support to increase productivity, agro-processing and export. The other angle is supporting commercialization of agriculture because for a long time this country has been looking at agriculture from the small holder point of view. But we have realized that the small holders can produce enough food but they will not produce the bulk we need to capture large markets, hence the need for commercial farms. And again the commercial farms will also help to complete the value chain because they’ve become the sources of technology for the small farmers, do the agro-processing, the bulking and they would be the ones to access the markets.

And of course there are quite a number of things needed by commercial farmers which the small holders don’t necessarily need. We have realized in the last eight months that we had a terrible drought and we realized that you cannot do agriculture in a sustainable way here without irrigation. So under the commercial farmers we want to promote irrigation.

And of course use of modern technology. Our small holders have been using the hand hoe but we need mechanization for the commercial farmers. We need storage –proper storage to hold buffer stock and in a way to control the price fluctuations.

The other area of focus, of refocus, of course is power. We still have a big deficit. We are in the process of developing what is going to be the biggest hydropower project in this region, the Karuma [Hydro] power project and we would like the Bank to come in and participate like they have participated in the earlier projects -- the Nalubaale [formerly Owen Falls Dam], the Kiira [Owen Falls Dam extension], and the Bujagali [Hydropower Project], which is on-going.

And also rural electrification, because if you are talking of agro-processing, agro-processing is best done at the source of production, and this is in the rural areas. We have received some money from the Bank for rural electrification but we would like to intensify rural electrification as a way of promoting agro-processing and also as a part of the modernization and transformation plan of our people. And also as a way of anchoring the ICT use which we are promoting in the rural areas.

And the area of human development is a very important area for us. The Bank has supported us in the area of Universal Primary Education and now [Universal] Secondary Education  and we are now focusing on skills training –vocational training. Out of Uganda’s population, 52 percent is [part of the] young generation under 30 years of age.  And at the same time the Universal Primary Education and the Universal Secondary Education are putting a lot of graduates on the market who are unemployable because they lack skills and because of that we’ve got a huge gap of youth who are unemployed. So for purposes of making our youth and other people employable, we want to promote vocational or skills training. This is somewhat new but the Bank supported it before and it’s an area for which we want support to be enhanced.

Uganda is seen as one of the countries that have so far weathered the adverse effects of the global economic crisis, while maintaining steady growth. What has been your strategy and what are the future growth prospects for Uganda?

SB: I think the diversified economy has been one of our biggest strengths. When our colleagues who are dealing in single commodities got a crash, for us we were able to survive it because we were dealing in a number of things. When the market for flowers collapsed we were able to export fish, we were able to export food products within the region.  In short, I will say the diversified market. And really it is our intention to continue with this diversification and that’s why we are now putting a lot of emphasis on agriculture because we think agriculture is one area where we have a competitive advantage over other partners in the region. And we think that if we promote agriculture first and foremost to cure food scarcity in the country and also secondly, [to supply] our main trading products within the regional markets, and for export beyond the region, we will be able to weather and get the rid of the effects of the global economic crisis within a short time.

As one of the governors of the Bank, you will be going to Istanbul for the Annual Meetings of the World Bank and IMF. What expectations do you have and what messages do you want to leave at the meeting?

SB: Of course my expectations are quite immense but not out of the ordinary. I would like to see the Bank put forward more funds to help us weather, survive the [global economic] crisis. Now that we have been told that the crisis has hit the bottom, how do we get recovery funds for us to come up, to go back to development? Because we wouldn’t want to stay in this recovery stage for a long time. We are no longer talking about stimuli but we want money for recovery and thereafter for development.

We want to see more concessional funding and since we are talking about development we would like to see more money [going] towards the private sector [through] the [International Finance Corporation].  Sensitive money, which is sensitive to an emerging  private sector in a developing country, because if we are rated the same as those developed countries [then] our private sector is non-existent. So we expect that.

And there is one pending issue which we have taken long to resolve as a region and this is the issue of the voice. I am looking forward to having that issue resolved in this meeting. And of course, I would also like to know how the developed world is weathering out of the crisis and what opportunities are there for us as developing countries to tap into their economies.

You are Uganda’s first woman minister of finance and as far as most analysis goes, you have risen to the challenge very well, especially considering the difficult time [of the global economic downturn] at which you became minister. What do you attribute to your success in this respect?

SB: I think first of all is experience. But most important is the guidance from my president because he’s been clear. He told me when I was taking the mantle of leadership that he didn’t want to hear me lament about the crisis. He told me to identify opportunities out of the crisis and that’s what I’ve been focusing on and I think that’s what has helped me. But of course I have also enjoyed very good partnership with the donors including the Bank and other donors and also my own staff they have been quite supportive. They have helped me to synthesize my ideas like on agriculture because they asked me the first question: ‘As minister of finance what are you going to do to weather the Ugandan economy out of the crisis?’ I told them agriculture one, agriculture two, agriculture three and four, infrastructure and human development.

Finally, your ministry is in the process of finalizing the National Development Plan for Uganda to replace the previous Poverty Eradication Action Plan. What is different about this new plan and when should we expect it?

SB: We are expecting to have this plan approved by the Cabinet by Christmas, this year. The Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) was more or less a recovery plan setting the foundation. But now that we have set the foundations and the pillars to anchor development we now want to move into development. That’s why we are not talking about PEAP anymore but talking about development.

And under this new plan we are trying to identify areas where government has got a comparative advantage and promote those. And we also are trying to identify facilitators because we have taken Uganda as a project in an egg-shape, with the yolk, with the facilitators and the beneficiaries around us. It is an all inclusive plan taking on board all the different players but this time with a focus to moving to greater heights. Not just theoretical but also going up to greater heights.

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