Help me think of an appropriate title for this week’s column. How about ‘African’s have porridge for brains?’ That wouldn’t go down very well but because I am one of them, I can get away with ridiculing my kin; a thing that some racial groups tend to do in private anyway because it is not politically incorrect. Or I could have titled it ‘Its official, African’s are meant to be poor’. Again that is a stereotype but its fine with me.
I chose to go with the bell curve because it is a more constructive way to deal with what I have been thinking about this week. What is this bell-curve thing all about anyway? A bell curve is the most common type of distribution for a variable (say income), and due to this fact, it is known as a ‘normal distribution’. The term “bell-curve” comes from the fact that the graph used to depict a normal distribution consists of a bell-shaped line. The curve has two slopes on either side (referred to as tails) of a fat middle. The ‘fat middle’ looks like a mountain peak before falling away to either side.
If the bell-curve were a depiction of society, most people (say in Uganda) would be on the extreme left of that curve. That is because they are poor. At the extreme right of the bell-curve you would find a few people who would probably be lucky Ugandan elites, Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Americans. In economics we would say that our particular (Ugandan) bell-curve is skewed to the left. Note that there would not be many people in the ‘fat middle’ of our (Ugandan) curve. The few people you would find at the extreme right of the curve are the ones you usually refer to as well off or ‘rich’.
That is why our government has been pushing for sometime to move more of the people from the left into the middle. Hence the reference to ‘getting to middle income’ by 2020. This is because if you have more people in your society being described as ‘middle income’ they have more disposable income, and consume more goods. That means you collect more taxes for investment and your society resembles more of a ‘normal’ distribution as it grows faster. In such a society there are some poor people, some rich people but most people are fairly well off. They lie in the ‘fat middle’. That is a nicely balanced society and it usually is more stable.
Unfortunately the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What does our government do to move most of its people to middle income? It borrows from the Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Americans. It then uses the money it has borrowed to give the same lenders contracts to supply us with lots of things that we need like bridges, dams, roads and technical assistance. The foreigners also build factories and we go to work for them mostly as indentured labour. So the foreigners grow richer while we fall more into debt, which our children must pay one day. The leaders get photo opportunities to open the bridges, dams factories and roads.
While the foreigners move onto the right hand side of the bell curve, we continue crowding in the left hand corner. When our leaders give speeches at these occasions, they harangue us for being lazy and stupid. The foreigners nod like wise sages and privately admit ‘African’s have porridge for brains’. Or if they are angry with the Africans, they pay off a few journalists (who also happen to be Africans) to write shitty stories about how some Africans have managed to make some money and buy a few houses in Kololo and Buloba despite it being official policy for African’s to be poor. Thank God, not all foreigners think we have porridge for brains. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Samuel Sejjaaka is Country Team Leader at Abacus Business School. Twitter @samuelsejjaaka