Friday, 24 August 2007

What we have in common...

Still no power this morning at the bungalow where I’m staying so I braved the freezing cold water and then headed into work. I was offered a VSO driver when I started but prefer to walk, as it’s the only way to really feel part of ordinary life here. My journey is about a mile or so, walking along the roadside up a short steep hill and then down a long steep hill. It’s reversed on the way back, but it’s cooler in the evening so I can handle the long climb. I get stopped every now and then by motorcyclists on what are known as “boda-bodas”, offering a taxi service, but haven’t taken them up on it yet.

What’s striking about life and politics here in Kampala is that in some respects it’s so similar to the UK, yet in others, so different. They introduced a ban on smoking in public places in 2005, beating England to it by two years, which somewhat surprised me when I heard. And they introduced a freedom of information law recently too. But one of the biggest public awareness campaigns being run here is about what they call “cross-generational sex”, which warns young girls of the dangers of being seduced by “sugar daddies”, and older men of the public humiliation they will face if they’re caught. There are also posters warning against child marriages, and others urging men to be faithful, so as to protect themselves and their partners against being infected with the HIV virus. The issues are linked, in that when HIV and AIDS became more prevalent here, men increasingly turned to young girls for sex because they thought it was safer; this led to the age of consent being raised from 14 to 18 in 1993 and, until recently, sex with a girl who was under 18 carried the death penalty. I met the other day with an organization which successfully campaigned for changes to this law, as in effect this stopped many young girls from coming forward with stories of abuse, particularly where a relative was involved.

Something which is an issue in both countries, however, is the question of MPs’ expenses! MPs here get to vote on their own remuneration packages, as we do – unfortunately – in the UK, and this causes a great deal of controversy. I have a little sympathy with them in that it seems that here, as in the UK, MPs salaries are frequently conflated with their expenses when it comes to reporting their incomes in the press, so it looks as if they’re pocketing a lot more than they are. But in Uganda MPs are paid a lot – considerably more than doctors and lawyers. Most recently they awarded themselves a Constituency Development Fund of 10 million shillings a year each, to be spent on good causes in their constituencies. (Which I think is between £2500-3000 but it goes a lot further here). I met yesterday with a campaign group which has successfully highlighted the way this Fund has been abused. They found that many MPs were letting constituents think they were funding projects through their own generosity, rather than revealing it was taxpayers’ money; 80% of constituents had no idea where the money had come from. The money was paid straight into MPs’ bank accounts, and there was no obligation on them to account for how it had been spent: leading to headlines declaring: “MPs spend Constituency Development Fund money on booze!” (Echoes of the UK again?!) I think there was once some talk of introducing something similar in the UK; I think we’d probably better steer well clear.

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