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What is the economic cost of NRM meetings?

Ramathan Ggoobi

What is the economic cost of NRM meetings?

This week, NRM MPs have been meeting

Have the NRM leaders become addicted to meetings to insulate them from the work they ought to be doing?

This week, and several other “independent” MPs, have been meeting at the National Leadership Institute (NALI) in Kyankwanzi. The agenda was diverse — to discuss literally everything and anything.

Before leaving for Kyankwanzi, the people speaking for the party told media that the eight-day long retreat had been convened to discuss “cohesion and the progress of the implementation of the party manifesto.”

In the space of four months, over 18 meetings of NRM leaders have taken place. The Central Executive Committee (CEC), for example, has met a record 8 times in two months. The National Executive Committee (NEC), a quite large group of leaders totaling over 800, has also regularly met in recent weeks. Then the delegates conference convened to defeat Mbabazi.

The caucus meets almost on a monthly basis to engage in some circular reasoning of the same agenda issues — putting in place measures for increasing the party’s fortunes in the forthcoming elections, to devise means of popularizing the Kyankwanzi resolution (calling for the sole candidate of their chairman), devising ways of fixing Mbabazi for once and for all etc.

Meet to redefine the problems

Officially, the participants in these meetings claim that they are meeting to solve national problems, such as poverty, low agriculture productivity, low levels of industrialization and value addition etc.

However, whenever we look at the outcomes of these meetings, we observe that rather than solving these issues that are affecting our country, these guys in yellow often meet to re-frame them. They meet to redefine the problems. They often invite a few “experts” and researchers to teach them or give them facts about these problems.

Then the participants line up to receive their allowances, often in the range of Shs. 5 millions and off they leave Kyankwanzi or State House Entebbe.   

Mr. President, in spite of the endless caviar and the altogether obnoxious loftiness, my research shows that your meetings for the 0.1% Ugandans are actually negatively impacting the rest of us.

These meetings are unproductive, and they waste the nation’s resources. Let me ask a simple question: would Shs.28 billion in cost savings or added productivity make a difference to our ailing economy? It certainly would. Now consider this: NRM Party has spent this money on meetings in the last 2 years.

Gossip: “Who’s in Mbabazi’s camp”?

I am not a member of CEC or NEC or Caucus, but I am sure many of its members often leave these endless meetings asking themselves: “What was the point of this meeting? Why was I invited? Will any actions come from this meeting?”

Conventionally, meetings are intended to be an engine of productivity; a way for people to get together to discuss ideas, debate issues, overcome obstacles and drive outcomes. The reality is many these NRM meetings end up being a place where people talk, eat, dose, gossip about who is Mbabazi’s camp, and then leave with no outcomes or follow up.

Psychologists often advise, “Cancel 50% of your meetings and you will get more work done.” I have a feeling that NRM leaders have become addicted to meetings that insulate them from the work they ought to be doing!
This is mainly because these meetings have now turned into convenience, formality and social meetings in which a false sense of urgency is unnecessarily created by those that convene them.

In economics they teach us a popular law; the Parkinson’s Law, which states, “Expenditures rise to meet income.” That is to say, whenever our income increases, expenditures also tend to rise in lockstep with it. When our incomes increase we get bigger homes, bigger cars, possibly consider having more children.

This is the reason people never cease to be in financial difficulties, no matter how much they earn. I have seen media reports how our MPs, who are the envy of other working Ugandans since they earn a relatively bigger salary, are usually in debts, money worries and financial frustration. No matter how much money they earn, they tend to spend the entire amount and a little bit more besides.

A variation of Parkinson’s Law applied to meetings goes like this: “Meeting activities expand to fill the time available.” Actually a renowned economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, once said, “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

Mr. President, it is fiscal indiscipline for your government to continue spending billions on not so important meetings when resources are badly needed to upgrade our infrastructure, modernize and industrialize agriculture, build schools and medical facilities for the people of Uganda.  

Your government picked this economy from the gutters of fiscal indiscipline. We define fiscal indiscipline as “a tendency by government to spend big proportions of its revenues on unproductive and non-developmental activities, thereby depriving the productive and development sectors of the country of resources.”

Following the reforms of 1987, we overcame many of economic challenges for one reason: the “old” NRM had made government learn to spend within its means, and strictly on productive activities.

Fiscal indiscipline

In 1992, you said, “We shall not allow [fiscal] indiscipline. If there is no money then we will close down some ministries and walk.” This was not mere rhetoric; this is the spirit of true patriotism and ‘good sense’ that your government had come with from the Luwero bushes.

You even merged ministries reduce expenditure and to ensure tight management of the budget. This is the kind of commitment to the national interest which put Uganda on the course to economic transformation in the years that followed.

Now, after expanding government to unbearable size, we hear reports that you are caucusing to create more districts and constituencies. Really? Are these the meetings that stopping government to take everyone to Kyankwanzi? Uganda deserves better.
Psychologists say we have a limited amount of cognitive resources. Once they get depleted, we make bad decisions or choices. These endless political meetings, many of which are stressful and boring (since they tend to discuss the same issues again and again), require people to commit, focus and make perfunctory decisions. So NRM is busy depleting the finite cognitive resources of its members yet Uganda needs those resources to circumvent the innumerable challenges we have.

Mr. President, in future let your party meet only on three principles: (1) to support a decision that has already been made but not to use the meetings to make decisions; (2) to produce a committed action plan; and (3) never to meet for informational purposes.

If you absolutely must have meetings, please endeavour to make them more productive, other than the standard criteria of caucusing to listen to “communication from the chair”, which communication is often recycling the old, tired, and thus boring stuff — value addition, giving farmers seedlings, fixing Mpigi-Kabulasoke-Maddu road, NRM ideology, cliques in the party, etc.     



Ramathan Ggoobi is Policy Analyst, and Researcher. He lecturers economics at Makerere University Business School (MUBS) and has co-authored several studies on Uganda's economy. For the past ten years, he has published a weekly column 'Are You Listening Mr. President' in The Sunrise Newspaper, Uganda's Leading Weekly

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