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Dr. Ezra Suruma, the Economic advisor to the President of Uganda, has said his views on social protection have changed after listening to a discussion at the conference on ‘Financing Social Protection’ in East and Central Africa at Lake Victoria Serena Resort in Lweza organized by the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC).

The former minister of Finance told delegates from across Africa that when he was still minister, he had opposed the idea of cash transfers to poor people under the social protection programme.

“In 2005, one of the junior ministers in the Ministry of Finance traveled to a conference and came back with the idea of social protection. He wanted us to adopt the idea of some donors making cash payments to our vulnerable people. I had spent 20 years in government trying to bring about poverty alleviation and we had some degree of success. Having donors pay our people seemed unsustainable. I was not convinced. I thought it would involve donor dependence yet we were trying to be donor independent,” says Dr.Suruma.

He adds that his position on social protection today has changed mainly because of the prospects of oil revenue. One of the ways to use oil revenue is to follow Alaska and Norway which have a fund in which Ugandans are owners or chairs in the fund.

According to Dr. Suruma, currently, the policy is that all oil resources should go to infrastructure. It is good but it benefits foreigners especially those who build roads and railways.

“But I would like to see Ugandans benefiting directly especially for purposes of accountability. Oil will continue to be a big problem if some of the funds are not paid directly to the citizens,” he says.

In the 90s there was an issue concerning social security. The Vice President then Dr. Specioza Kazibwe approached me to write a paper on social security. I went to Germany and USA to look at their system and I came with one message- dignity.

The Ugandan government and the community are yet to grasp the essence of social protection and this is the main problem; it seems like it is an idea from the outside.

We have not yet reached a point where social protection is a widely and fully accepted program. WE need to create more awareness among the communities.

What are we trying to do in social protection? Everybody gets old and ill. So there should be a common ground on how to move together to deal with illness, old age, health, destitution, unemployment, poverty.

All this, in my view, we are still way down the line in terms of competing with other ideas, policies and programs for the government budget.

We need to convince and persuade government because potentially there is a constituency of people who will benefit from old age pension, medical institution and disability payments.

This is something that cuts across the whole country and I believe with the oil coming we can get a Norwegian type of funding where we get a cash transfer for old people benefiting from social protection.
We also need to politicize social protection because the issue of dignity is important in a person’s life. In German, it is not acceptable for a German citizen to fall into a sub-human state.

I wish this idea could come to my country so we can value human life to the point of it not being an individual responsibility but a social responsibility.

The debate in Uganda is if you are poor that is your problem and that you are not working hard enough. We need to recognize that some people through no fault of their own are poor. It is a social responsibility to ensure someone in that state gets adequate help.

We need to focus on a targeted continuous campaign on raising awareness on social protection. In 2005, I was not convinced on social protection but now I am on board.