Basic Education and the Elimination of Poverty

Jassy Kwesiga

Poverty in sub–Sahara Africa is now a well–recorded phenomenon. Uganda is no exception to its ravages. However, Uganda’s own past history complicates the situation. As Brett aptly described, "by 1986 twenty–five years of political repression and economic mismanagement had turned Uganda from a relatively prosperous and well–administered country to the land of ‘darkness and death’" (Brett, 1993:1).

Since 1986, when a new government led by President Museveni came into power, attempts have been made to heal the economic, social, political, and ethnic wounds, with some degree of success. Peace has been established in many areas, the economy liberalized, privatization encouraged, some of the roads repaired, the financial sector reformed, exports increased, and generally, more space has been created for ‘freedoms.’ Above all, a new constitution has just been put in place after lengthy debates in the Constituent Assembly.

As usual, the role of the IMF and World Bank has been central in these readjustments, restructuring, and rehabilitation. The debate about these institutions –and especially the effect of their ‘inspired’ policies on the living standards of the rural poor– continues unabated. Of course, government officials and some politicians always confront critics with ‘impressive’ figures about growth of the GDP, reduced inflation, and other quantities. As is such figures are indeed impressive. What is immediately at stake, at least for the poor, is not what the figures reveal but what they conceal. Recent research findings on poverty by the Community Development Resource Network (CDRN) point out that "for most respondents, government’s broader objective of bringing about social and economic development remains illusory" (CDRN, 19XX:74).

According to these researchers, one main reason for this illusion is that those who are in greatest need still remain objects to be planned for. But as CDRN correctly argues, "It is those most concerned by poverty who can provide the policymakers with the most reliable information, analysis, and indeed prescriptions to better their living conditions. Rarely (if ever) are they involved in such policy developments" (CDRN, 19XX:79).

There is sufficient statistical evidence to show that for quite a substantial section of the population, Uganda’s quality of life is still wretched. The mass media itself tells the story regularly. For example, people interviewed by newspapers at the end of 1995 mentioned poverty as the main government failure for the year. As one typical respondent put it, "What pains all of us most is poverty. This does not mean that people do not work, as politicians like to say. So when politicians tell us to work hard, we wonder what we should do" (The Crusader, December 29–January 5, 1996).

The government is aware of these contradictions between impressive GDP figures and the stories emerging from the grassroots. As Uganda’s Minister of Labour and Social Affairs expressed it at the UN Social Summit in Copenhagen, "Our greatest challenge has been to provide a safety net for those adversely affected by the reforms and also to increase labour productivity of all Ugandans".

But how does one reach the poor? According to President Museveni, the wretchedness of the poor will not be ended if the country continues to target them with particular projects, "without thought for overall strategy and failure to select a few priorities for public expenditure". To Museveni, this is confusing tactics with strategy. As he elaborated, "A strategic approach to poverty reduction must give weight to all those activities and policies which are necessary for sustained poverty reduction, regardless of whether they are directly or exclusively targeted at the poor."

Such activities and policies should concentrate on good governance, infrastructure (especially roads), investment (especially in agriculture–related activities), a healthy economic environment, and human resource development. He admits, however, that there is still room for short and medium–term measures aimed at directly increasing the incomes of the poor –the peasants– so that they can have money to spend on education and health. Such short–term measures have included government credit schemes, encouraging people to engage in domestic income–generating activities, and a program funded by the World Bank to "alleviate poverty and the social costs of adjustment" (PAPSCA). There is also a poverty–alleviation program originating from the Prime Minister’s office. As a correspondent from the East Africa newspaper commented, however, "AL0"oncerned that it is doing little to alleviate poverty... growth is not broadbased in terms of income, class, and geographical area. However, honest discussion of this issue has been hampered by the abuse of statistics by proponents and opponents of the structural adjustment program (SAP)." [AU: the beginning of this quote –"ALO"oncerned– is unclear.]

Issues in Basic Education in Uganda

The importance of basic education (BE) was reaffirmed at the World Conference on Education for All, held in March 1990 in Jomtein, Thailand. The conference adopted a world declaration and framework for action to meet basic learning needs for every person by the year 2000. Uganda’s government has stated its commitment to BE in many forums. As a minimum package of learning that enables every person to live as a good and useful citizen in society, the concept holds great vision for people struggling to get out of poverty. The faith in education can be adduced from a recent government statement in the October 16, 1995, edition of New Vision: that Uganda be "transformed from peasant to an entrepreneurial society: the two main elements in this process are the complete liberalization of the economy and the introduction of universal and compulsory education."

But how far has Uganda gone beyond the rhetoric of this affirmation? And who is supposed to be the beneficiary of BE? The first observationWto be made is that by and large, BE in "ganda tends to refer to primary education, that is, the first 7 years of schooling for children ranging from ages 6 to 12. This is not surprising, considering the current persuasion that primary education brings in greater returns than investment in higher education levels. The World Bank asserts that universal primary education contributes significantly to high growth rates and reduction in poverty –as exemplified by East Asia. There is therefore a government–stated intention to shift expenditure from other sectors of education to primary education. As it is now, there is a definite expansion at this level. The number of primary schools and teacher training colleges doubled between 1989 and 1994 (though secondary schools multiplied by 4). The share of GDP spent on primary education increased from 0.4 percent to 2 percent between FY 1989–90 and FY 1992–93. Enrollment also increased very noticeably, as these figures indicate:

Year      No. of pupils at schools      1970      719.0001980      1.302.3771990      2.400.0001995      2.600.000 (estimate)

Despite this expansion, Uganda is still far from attaining BE for all children between the ages of 6 and 12 (primary education) by the year 2000. This became obvious during the November National Forum on Education for All, held at Makerere University, Uganda. Papers presented during the forum and analysis by the Ministry of Education itself clearly confirm that education for all by the year 2000 is unachievable, for the following reasons:

* Not all the children who should be in primary school are attending. Nationally, only 70 percent of children ages 6 to 13 years are enrolled in school; net enrollment for girls is 67 percent and for boys, 73 percent (World Bank: 1995:63). Vulnerable groups fare even worse. For example, New Vision recently reported that 55 percent of persons with physical, mental, or sensory impairment get no formal education at all, and that only 33 percent of disabled people get primary education, the majority being boys (January 13, 1996). Furthermore, the national figures hide regional disparities of enrollment, which range from less than 10 percent in some of the northeastern districts to 80 percent in the central region around the capital. Enrollment is also affected by attitudes toward girls’ education and socioeconomic factors.

* The high dropout rate in the primary–school cycle (and beyond) leaves many children as good as illiterate, especially in poor rural schools where the academic standards are often very low. For example, of the children who began primary school in 1986, 70 percent had dropped out by 1992; only 30 percent of the group completed the primary cycle. And 75 percent of the girls did not complete primary school, as compared to 64 percent of the boys. Equally worrying, a smaller proportion of the population is completing primary school today than 20 years ago (Barton & Wamai, 1994:80).

* There are several interrelated reasons for dropping out, including high school fees; poor school facilities and teacher working conditions in rural schools; parent attitudes, especially about girls; poor distribution of schools; illiterate parents; insecurity in some areas; and pupils’ loss of interest. Nearly 49 percent of primary school teachers are untrained, contributing to the poor quality of education and possibly to the lack of pupil interest. Even at the end of the first cycle, only about 40 percent of those who sit the examination manage to move on to the secondary level, leaving the rest to go home without any employment skills.

* The type of education and the way it is offered may itself contribute to the lack of motivation. When parents spoke to Barton and Wamai, they were very clear about the value of education as an investment, though they could no longer afford it because of their own poverty. Of course there are also cases where parents argued that one does not need education to look after cows! However, they mostly blamed the government for "failure to invest adequately in education especially in rural areas". It is revealing to note that the primary school fee in the rural areas is about $30 per year, compared to $600 for a unsubsidized primary school in towns. Of course, schools in towns are also heavily supported by parent–teachers associations, which may contribute as much as 70 percent of the total costs. Rural parents can hardly contribute anything.

* According to the UNDP/ILO report, "Employment Generation and Poverty Reduction in Uganda, 1995", the severest constraints on the educational system is the gross underfunding.

It is for this reason that even after 32 years of political independence, the country is not yet in a position to provide free and compulsory education. The same factor also explains why the educational system is characterized by widespread pushouts or student "retrenchment" through the use of the public examination system. Thus only 40 percent of those who attend the first cycle proceed on to the secondary or second stage or education, and less than 1 percent to tertiary institutions." (p. 139)

Informal Education as a Special Problem of Basic Education

There is evidence that many people are not affected by the educational system as it currently exists. They include those who have never been to school at all, those who drop out during the early years of primary school (and relapse into illiteracy), and those who have been only marginally touched by education, that is, those who, though spending at least 5 years or more in a rural primary school, do not continue with further education at the end of the cycle. Some of these people do not even have an identifiable category: they do not know if they fit in among the ‘educated’ or the ‘uneducated.’ As CDRN summarized it, "Throughout Uganda, therefore, there is a growing generation of uneducated young men and women, some of whom, beside their low productivity, are turning to drinking alcohol and to other forms of abuse at very young ages" (CDRN, 19XX:68).

These people must be retrained to become more productive, to reduce their fatalism, and to give them the promise for a better future. The starting point for them is basic education: skills in literacy, job skills so they can earn a better living, and the ability to participate in decision–making processes at many levels. The historical role of churches in Uganda clearly shows that this is possible. The church has traditionally taught people reading, writing, arithmetic, hygiene, and practical skills in agriculture, woodwork, and handicrafts. There is also ample evidence that those who have been influenced by the church have easily provided leadership at many levels. The church, however, cannot be the savior of the present situation. The state must come in. Referring to illiteracy, in particular, the World Bank points out that in Uganda

Adult literacy correlates positively with low levels of poverty. On its own, adult literacy explains some 46 percent of the variation in the district poverty index. Accelerated growth in the next few years can only come from those who are now between 16 and 55 years of age, but of whom a large number are illiterate and therefore unable to effectively receive extension message, initiate local business development and on. (World Bank, 1995:65)

The World Bank advises governments to initiate outreach programs to attack illiteracy nationwide. Once again, there are regional and gender variations in the degree of literacy, as shown in Table 2. The lowest is 11 percent and the highest 88 percent, reflecting rural and urban biases, as well. It also shows that girls are more illiterate and are a greater proportion of the "children out of school." Table 2 gives an overall picture of the extent of informal educational needs. Table 3 shows that the population over age 16 years of age, which is expected to play a crucial role in development, at least in the "medium–term growth path", will be constrained by the high degree of illiteracy. The importance of wiping out illiteracy is understood, and there have been many attempts to do so outside the formal education system. These have, however, been "FR" and lacked the political will to ‘dynamite’ the programs. Above all, they remained mechanical, rather than helping the participants to "read and understand" the world they live in. During the last 4 years, attempts have been made to revive such programs on a pilot basis, but as will be noted from Table 1, a great deal depends on outside money.

When the question of informal education is raised, we are told that what is needed is, first and foremost, vocational education that provides useful labor skills for those who leave school. There may not be many arguments about such a presupposition. But one should, as already mentioned above, realize that there is life beyond vocational skills, at least as they are currently defined. "Citizenship education" is very important in that it enables individuals to acquire the needed skills for being a productive member of the civil society. Those who are illiterate are particularly marginalized without such basic education. (We should remind ourselves of Freire’s argument that those who are illiterate are not marginalized, that is, they are not "beings outside of"; rather, they are "beings for another". They are not marginal to the structure but oppressed people within it. Literacy should bring them freedom.) They are cheated in elections, fail to challenge the leadership at several levels, and generally fail to realize that their economic, political, social, and cultural rights are tramped on every day, right under their noses.

In Uganda such education is useful, not for the illiterates alone but for everyone. It is the women who appear to suffer the most. As one woman, an activist and member of parliament, lamented: "Women still have no access to the law, and the law does not protect them" (New Vision, October 17, 1994).

Yoweri Museveni’s government has set up political education schools, though gradually they have earned disfavor with some sections of society who brand them as "Marxist prisons". In the government’s defense, it was explained that

The objective of political education courses is mainly to enlighten all Ugandans about the socioeconomic and historical realities of our country, what the causes of such conditions are, and using social tools of analysis discuss possible solutions to the problems which are mainly characteristic of all backward situations. (New Vision, October 14, 1995)

If these courses are to escape political stigma and offer real citizenship education, they would possibly do better if they were run by independent (nongovernmental) institutions, were very participatory, and discussed the real issues that face the people.

Implications for "Social Watch" Strategies

The information available needs to be adequate and well harmonized. For example, the large body of work that has been carried out by NGOs needs to be studied and used to assess the overall picture on informal educational needs. Therefore documentation must be improved. Second, policymakers and the general public must be sensitized at the various levels to understand and support informal education programs, especially those relating to literacy and education for citizenship. Those relating to vocational–skills acquisition appear to be easily understood. Third, indicators should be revisited, refined, and discussed with a select group, and strategies laid out for constant pressure and monitoring. There are many stakeholders involved, so the process must be continuous. One problem to settle is how to get the informal and the formal educators together to discuss a "harmonious" approach to the problem, since all the activities are about basic education.

Final Remarks

Basic education alone cannot be the answer to eliminating or even reducing poverty. It has to be a part of a broad strategy aimed at addressing the structural causes of poverty. The 1995 Oxfam report on poverty attempts to show the way. Measures for economic growth have to be instituted jointly with the provision of basic social services that benefit a wide cross–section of the population. As the Oxfam report points out:

The policy reforms needed to make genuine development a possibility will not be sustained without transparency and accountability on the part of the governments and genuine democratization. Democratic institutions and popular participation in decision making are therefore essential. (Watkins, 1995:41)

Of course, we will always be told that there are no resources. This excuse is proving to be progressively stale, however. A reorganization of priorities would make a big difference to the resource base. Even the resources that disappear as a result of corrupt practices would make a big contribution. So in the end, the political will coupled with pressure from social actors will be what makes the difference–hence the need for a strong civil society and good governance that will bring the necessary pressure to bear results. With decentralization of government services and finances now a reality in the country, we can hope that the chances to bring pressure at the local level might yield better results. These remarks have not touched on the role of NGOs in the field of informal education, especially literacy education. There is need to find out who does what in the country, for proper coordination and the rational use of resources. Fortunately some of the work by NGOs is recorded. As it is now, the government’s "Education for All" project is scheduled to start by the year 2010.


Source ofFunds, 1992 - 1995

* 1995/96 Govermentcontribution is subject to release by Ministry of Finance.


District Total literacy rate as % Female literacy rate as % Male literacy rate as % Total child. out of school as % Female child. out of school as % Male child. out of school as % Total child. in school as number Untrained teachers as % Pupils per train. teacher P1 enrol. ratio F/M P 7 enrol. ratio F/M 1992 PLE passes as %
Source of Data ** ** ** ** ** ** @@ @@ @@ @@ @@ @@
Apac 53 36 70 45 49 40 49,131 28 45 86 32 66
Arua 46 28 65 58 66 51 48,600 45 56 68 24 85
Bundibugyo 40 27 54 52 56 48 10,868 73 60 83 40 41
Bushenyi 54 46 63 41 41 40 87,175 46 56 88 65 84
Gulu 49 33 65 49 54 44 33,692 39 52 75 36 73
Hoima 56 49 63 33 34 32 25,099 62 56 90 86 80
Iganga 47 38 56 45 47 43 90,494 30 30 32 71 74
Jinja 67 60 75 31 32 30 35,412 19 34 97 90 80
Kahale 51 42 62 46 47 44 44,847 35 34 83 55 74
Kabarole 49 40 58 47 49 46 76,178 50 0 86 73 73
Kalangala 72 72 72 23 21 26 1,462 63 31 99 125 76
Kampala 88 86 91 19 20 19 93,513 2 32 106 110 95
Kamuli 41 34 49 50 51 49 41,425 47 38 86 61 72
Kapchorwa 54 41 68 33 36 31 15,934 27 37 88 56 73
Kasese 50 39 61 45 48 42 38,981 59 41 84 53 83
Kibale 51 42 59 45 47 43 23,730 76 91 .. .. 46
Kjuoga 55 50 60 34 35 34 17,753 68 50 .. .. 67
Kisoro 33 21 68 63 71 55 13,754 50 57 .. .. 73
Kitgum 39 22 59 53 60 45 32,753 49 72 68 22 74
Kotido 12 6 20 92 94 90 3,358 57 84 63 39 88
Kumi 42 31 54 45 49 40 24,377 28 45 81 47 82
Lira 50 32 69 46 51 40 31,971 28 32 82 31 65
Luwero 59 55 64 27 27 28 62,315 62 54 96 85 ..
Masaka 62 59 66 36 35 36 110,106 63 74 102 109 79
Masindi 52 40 63 42 45 38 24,858 58 58 88 67 84
Mbale 56 49 63 36 36 36 87,459 42 45 94 78 68
Mbarara 52 43 61 43 44 42 101,214 36 43 88 68 76
Moroto 11 6 18 93 94 92 2,483 26 30 71 63 96
Moyo 45 30 62 55 63 48 15,149 50 44 77 29 65
Mpigi 73 71 75 24 23 26 133,269 36 35 103 119 87
Mubende 58 54 63 36 35 36 62,026 63 73 93 91 76
Mukono 61 57 66 29 29 29 111,860 48 52 97 93 87
Nebbi 47 29 67 58 65 51 24,683 62 73 72 32 74
Ntumgamo .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 56
Pallisa 47 36 59 48 51 45 32,234 30 32 .. .. 78
Rakai 54 49 59 39 39 40 46,913 72 88 100 106 78
Rukungiri 57 50 64 40 40 40 47,086 32 20 95 68 74
Soroti 47 34 62 38 42 34 51,829 44 48 83 29 73
Tororo 53 42 64 45 49 42 54,223 32 33 .. .. 72
Uganda 54 45 65 42 44 40 1,829,114 46 49 86 61 0.09

Source of data: **MoFEP, Population and Housing Census, 1991.
@@ MoEs, Planning unit Statistical Abstracis, 1993.
.. Missing data.

EducationAttainment - Percentaje of Population Over 16 Years of Age

Source: Calculationsfrom the 1992/93 Integrated Household Survey.
Note: Literacy means reading and writing.


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