In spite of continued growth, millions of Ugandans remain in long-term, extreme poverty. They are also likely to continue being by-passed by the opportunities that economic growth offers, mostly to the ‘active poor’. Recognising this, Government and other development actors are turning their attention to policy initiatives geared towards ‘social protection’. This paper posits that these initiatives might borrow much from elsewhere, in the process neglecting the local cultural context, and failing to build on existing indigenous protection mechanisms that are susceptible to being strengthened.
The paper presents findings from research conducted by the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda, a local NGO, on the interface between culture and ‘traditional’ social protection mechanisms for the very poor in Uganda. Research has focused on the prevalence and functioning of such mechanisms, the reasons for their survival (or withering), the benefits they provide and to whom, and opportunities for strengthening or revitalising them.
The paper goes on to suggest several policy implications and makes the point, for a start, that social protection initiatives could usefully take this cultural context into account. Secondly, policy could build on (rather than substitute) these traditional solidarity values and mechanisms. Some mechanisms have indeed shown resilience, adaptability and a degree of inclusiveness that can provide opportunities for future growth. If these today appear insufficient to address all the economic and social challenges that the very poor face, the latter can nevertheless (at least at times and for a time), turn to the opportunities such mechanisms offer, or at least invoke the values of solidarity that have (and do still) inform them, for support.
Research results also indicate that these mechanisms display several limitations, including the reciprocal nature of many collective benefits, at times excluding the very poor; another is the risk of ‘adverse incorporation’ and exploitative relationships. Supporting such mechanisms will therefore have to take these limitations into account, such as by incorporating different types of contributions by the poorest to groups, that are not necessarily monetary.
Should some of the conclusions and policy pointers presented here be considered, policy makers may feel daunted by the task of scaling-up what currently remain localised, if often beneficial, culturally-driven and sustained solidarity mechanisms. Rather than designing a completely externally-inspired social protection initiative, however, the findings indicate that much might be gained by strengthening existing mechanisms and building on existing values, rather than starting afresh. This would, however, require a re-examination of attitudes among policy makers and implementers towards cultural resources and values. It would also require ‘cultural mainstreaming’ in government ministries and agencies. This should foster a more sympathetic understanding of the potential that one’s cultural heritage affords in all aspects of life, including the value of solidarity towards the less fortunate in the community and the nation.
CPRC Working Paper No. 140, Chronic Poverty Research Centre, London, UK, ISBN: 978-1-906433-41-3, 28 pp.