The Ministerial Policy Statement and Budget Estimates for the financial year 2017/2018 are out in the public domain. In them, the President, Yoweri Museveni is further delaying by another year the already stagnated roll-out of the Senior Citizens Grant (SCG) to the entire country.
But the parliamentarians are jittery after discovering the directive in the report of the Sectoral Committee of Gender, Labour and Social Development. Fearing from the constituencies, lawmaker after lawmaker in a plenary spoke of how the directive is difficult news to deliver to their expecting aging voters.
Museveni argues that the money to cover the activity in the forthcoming budget is not there but before voting to adopt the report, the MPs amended the presidential directive to roll-out the grant nationwide this new financial year. Nchi Moto takes a glance at the pilot project that saw both the Senior Citizens Grant and the Vulnerable Family Grant get launched in 2010 with latter phased out eventually.
Young and energetic, Pancras Ariong labours to justify why a man of his stature receives Direct Income Support from government. Tense, the 37-year-old explains while holding his little daughter, Lucy Atidot, who brought about inclusion of his name into the Vulnerable Family Grants (VFG) register.
“Personally, it was a surprise,” he acknowledges gradually finding his voice. “But, there was a team of officials that came here interviewing highly disadvantaged families.”
The ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development beneficiary identification team from Kampala sought the disabled, elderly, orphaned, HIV/Aids patient and any other vulnerable children. Helped by local authorities to ascertain bona fide grantees, Ariong recalls he was reluctant to disclose to the team the disease that had beset his little Atidot.
Prior, visiting eye-specialist doctors to Toroma Health Centre III in Katakwi district had diagnosed Atidot then four-month old with hydrocephalus and referred to Cure Children’s Hospital in Mbale for specialized treatment. Sadly, Ariong was penniless to think of the reputable facility that premises on treating children with hydrocephalus, spina bifida and neurosurgical care.
“I barely could raise transport or upkeep there yet the hospital needed at least sh1m to start treatment,” recalls Ariong. “Luckily, after a while of time, I got sh240, 000 said to be a VFG lump-sum enabling my feet to move such that Lucy today is healing.”
Similar testament to the wonder-works of the sh25, 000 monthly grants come from Stella Atim of Ocep Trading Centre in Omodoi sub-county. Stout, the 44-year old who owes the grant a piece of land qualified for payment from her HIV/Aids deathbed.
“I was homeless after my husband banished me for testing HIV positive,” says Atim. “I returned to my own blood relatives but they also threw me out when I got bedridden.”
Today though, Atim has transformed from a skeletal-scruffy-shadow to an obese. Independent, she has less to worry with the roof over her head and daily income generating activity thanks to the grant.
Significant real lives experiences indeed but resentments from persons eligible yet left out overshadow applauses. High poverty indices here make selection of the grant’s beneficiaries an uphill task for the architects to achieve.
“One wonders how children come to enjoy that money when we the old don’t get,” says Richard Omutia. “By Uganda’s Independence in 1962, I had already graduated from head tax twice to say that I am not old.”
Isolated widower without family support, Omutia struggles in squalid conditions. Moreover, one can say he’s far better than fellow widow, Winifred Aguti and Aestina Akellot, a centenarian reeling in pain by her caregiver daughter who equally could be a beneficiary.
Notwithstanding, ten years ago, the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development spearheaded efforts to promote social protection in Uganda. Key to policy and budgeting, social protection is an acceptable standard of living for the most vulnerable and the excluded.
The efforts galvanized to the Expanding Social Protection (ESP) Programme, which Cabinet approved mid 2010 for implementation. Mandated, the EPS Secretariat simultaneously began to pilot the Senior Citizens Grant (SAGE) and Vulnerable Family Grant in 14 districts to ascertain the best model for national roll-out.
“The core of social protection is Direct Income Support, which is regular small money transfer to individuals or households with minimum income security,” states an official communiqué from the ministry “Both pilot grants are classic examples.”
In other words, government was experimenting to pay impoverished households monthly stipends if they emerged from poverty. Both grants registered 123,153 needy households for a five-year trial.
Based on age, sex, illness, disability and orphan-hood, the VFGs beneficiaries were selected through scientific targeting system. Designed for households with extreme low labour capacity and high dependency, 13, 056 households in 24 sub counties of Apac, Kaberamaido, Katakwi, Kiboga, Kyenjojo and Nebbi districts were enrolled.
In proportion, those enrolled translated to 15% of total beneficiaries of both grants. Selected households cut across the sub counties of Aduku, Chawente, Chegere, Ibuje, Apac, Nambieso, Anyara, Kaberamaido Town Council and Sub County, Omodoi, Bukomero, Lwamata and Kiboga Town Council.
Benefiting the poorest, ESP embeds national social protection system. Other households were in Atego, Erussi, Kucwiny, Pakwach, Panyimur, Pakwach Town Council, Kitooke, Kyarusozi, Nyankwanzi, Kitooke Town Council and Kyenjojo Town Council.
On the other hand, SAGE signed up older persons above 65 years with special attention to Karamoja. The Karamoja eligibility age is down to 60 due to extreme poverty and insecurity in the region that have reduced life expectancy.
Unlike VFG with beneficiaries in only six districts, SAGE with 110, 097 majority payees operates in all the 14 study districts. Important to say, pensioners are not eligible due to the pensioners’ scheme that caters for them.
Time elapsed and VFG fell short of purpose. The vulnerability score criteria used to identify vulnerable households was confusing, costly and labourious.
It also excluded older persons in VFG households from SAGE causing disgruntlement. Accordingly, government dropped it and adopted the successful SAGE model for roll-out though it also stagnated shortly.
“The Ministry of Gender, Labour & Social Development has taken decision to phase out VFG with effect from November 2015,” wrote Pius Bigirimana, the Permanent Secretary to respective Chief Administrative Officers implementing it. “At the same time, Government has provided resources to scale-up SAGE to reach out more beneficiaries starting with 2015/16 financial year.”
Realistically, SAGE is easier to implement. Its beneficiaries are effortlessly identified, popular and understood.
“Protracted efforts from the grassroots to policy level to retain VFG failed,” says Charles Ocom, the Senior Assistant Secretary, Omodoi Sub County where the grant was piloted. “Comparatively, the ministry had to phase it out for little advantage.”
The minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development then, Wilson Muruli Mukasa thereafter declared SAGE national roll-out. The infinite programme he said commenced with sh149b for the next five years.
Immediately, sh9b was earmarked for the FY 2015/16. The other releases as broken-down; sh29.15b, sh40.34b, sh52.92b and sh17.59b were to come with the subsequent fiscal years.
Incidentally, the above is not part of the sh290.6b DFID and Irish Aid commitment. Ultimately, roll-out targets 226,085 beneficiaries in 55 districts in all.
Kaabong, Abim, Kotido, Koboko, Gulu, Pader, Agago, Lamwo, Amolatar, Pallisa, Amuria, Kween, Namayingo, Mayuge, Kamuli, Kayunga, Nakasongola, Kibaale, Kisoro and Bundibugyo districts are the latest beneficiaries. Kitgum, Nakaseke, Kabale, Bugiri, Amuru, Dokolo, Sembabule, Kasese, Sheema and Mubende will come aboard subsequently with Alebtong, Adjumani, Otuke, Moyo, Kumi, Nwoya, Arua, Mbale,Tororo and Kibuku.
Surprisingly, 2015/2016 came to an end without effective roll-out to the first 20 districts above. The Focal point contact persons in those districts though disclose that the action is well beyond memorandum of understanding.
“We were slated to train personnel and recruit beneficiaries when the general elections disrupted,” says Michael Oloit, the district community development officer, Amuria. “Now that the electoral process is over, we shall pick on and you will be informed.”
Direct Income Support is an affordable straightforward way to break economic imbalances. It’s a proven component of national development strategies worldwide key in achieving inclusive, pro-poor, equitable development.
Precisely, social protection directly reduces poverty; supports excluded citizens to access services, provides a foundation for productive livelihoods and enables beneficiaries live a secure dignified life. Encouraged, it will enable all Ugandans contribute to and benefit from the country’s socio- economic transformation.
But it’s a tall order unlikely to be achieved soon. The poorest and most vulnerable Ugandans currently have failed to benefit from or contribute to the national growth and development.
Chronic illnesses and old age disabilities exceed SAGE. Statistics show that 64.5% of Uganda’s older persons have some form of disability with 93% of them having no formal income security.
Besides, it comes at the backdrop of increasing inequality in Uganda. Though the overall poverty rate in the last twenty years has reduced from 56.4% to 24.5%, the poorest have seen almost no change in consumption.
Economic growth rate remains steadfast at an average 7% growth domestic product without the present 3% temporal decline due to drought and raving famine. But more than 7.5 million Ugandans remain living in extreme poverty in rural parts of Northern and Eastern Uganda posting 49% of the population there and 75% in Karamoja.
In general, more than 40% now of the households countrywide remain vulnerable to poverty and live just above poverty line. Specific, the poverty rate of households with senior citizen is 29% compared to 24.5% nationally.
Incidentally, older persons live in 15% of Ugandan households and are set to rise as the currently youthful majority population ages. The colossal government investments in health and education aside, the poorest and most vulnerable have failed to access basic services.
Less than seven out of every 10 children from the poorest households are enrolled in primary school compared to more than nine in every 10 children from the wealthiest households. The number of households citing financial constraints as main reason for child drop out of school by 2010 more than doubled.
Hopefully, by Vision 2040 deadline, government would have responded to the Constitutional obligation to welfare and maintenance of all elderly persons in the country. It goes alongside the pensions’ scheme.
So far though, several social protection instruments exist in Uganda with limited reach in numbers and people targeted. Direct Income Support, which is the core provision of many social protections systems, is very limited.
Indeed, the country currently lacks a clear national vision for building a comprehensive social protection system. Coordination alone is limited with potential gaps and duplications in coverage for the most vulnerable.
For Museveni to direct for a further year-long stay of roll-out is not coincidence but the country is undergoing rough economic slowdown. Budget estimates initially planned suddenly skyrocketed mid-fiscal year prompting cries for supplementary from nearly every government department and agency to complete activities.
Corruption remains the most glaring deep-rooted impediment that has left the government almost clueless with remedy. Frail, pensioners as already established social protection payees are a fatal perennial pitiful spectacle at the Ministry of Public Service and the districts’ headquarters trying to salvage gratuity and arrears from unending ghost beneficiaries.