Yesterday, I perused a friend’s blog post and was reminded of what I had promised my self to do when I was in Kampala; to write about the populist multi-media campaign that is taking place right now in Uganda. The campaign, Genext is about advocating for smaller families in Uganda, targeting the youthful population of 18-30 years. With all pomp, it has crafted some cool youthful messaging distributed through “high impact” billboards all clad with statistics, television commercials and social media campaigns. Uganda’s population is worrying, no doubt, and very few get it. But UHMG (Uganda Health Marketing Group), the brainchild of the campaign gets it when they say that the “fast growing population growth currently poses more challenges to the social, economic and political development than opportunities.” But there is quite a few things they do not get, which in my view, has led to the wastage, again, of our dear US tax dollars.

Population control needs a national policy framework. In such an environment, the messaging from different groups that have a stake in the future of Uganda would be congruent, understandable and not confusing. Without this, it makes the work of advocates such as UHMG very difficult; because on one hand they are advocating for small families, while on the other, the government of Uganda (read President) theorizes that a large population represents a cheap labor force, an incentive for a growing middle class. Should UHMG then sit and do nothing? Hardly, because there is USAID money to be spent. But there are smarter ways to spend this money. For example, UHMG or any other interested parties could lobby members of parliament, invest in authoring a bill and finding a sponsor/s of this bill in Parliament so that this issue can begin to get to the fore front. The debate that is likely to ensue could have an impact 10 times higher than your current campaign. Moreover, who knows that it would get adopted and then as a country we would have one direction.

Spending money on billboards and television in the english language clearly shows that they also either don’t get it or have a different agenda. By targeting the youth who are 18 – 30, they are right on the money; because this is the demographic that is either about to get married or has been married for a while. Urging this group to have smaller families is therefore a no brainer. In fact, I would take the target age group down to 15 or 14. Because in rural areas, kids are getting married and having children. While 18 is the age of consent in Uganda, so what? Children are getting married younger and no one is doing anything about it, so the campaign could as well include them.

But that’s where this campaign is not relevant to the population growth issue in Uganda. Crafting a massive media strategy that devotes probably more than 70% of the media dollars to the urban and english speaking demographic misses the mark – gapingly. This group already knows what you are saying. If they haven’t read it somewhere, they have heard it in school. That is why in Kampala, or in other urban centers, the number of children in a household, especially for those below 40 years is less. We need a scientific survey, but I would argue that the average is about 3, a far cry from a national average of 7 children. We therefore need to understand why such a huge disparity? And the answer is quite simple because we all know it (may be we don’t); it lies in the economics.

Families – all the way to the rural areas that earn a livelihood through meaningful monetary transactions also are compelled to budget, whether on paper or otherwise. They budget for food (land production), school tuition (private and better performing schools), and independent healthcare (not Mulago or affiliated hospitals). Because they barely make ends meet, they are forced to make sober choices. They consciously ask; if we want our children to inherit a piece of land, what’s a reasonable number we can produce? If we want our children to acquire a quality education since UPE is still crawling (roots for quantity and not quality), how many children can we manage? This internal self reflection and realty checks are imposed by economics; money! And so, here goes the question? How can we begin to reverse population growth in a country of 33.5 million people in which about 30 million are poor, where there are allures of free (substandard) education, free healthcare that doesn’t work, and free land (in the rural areas)? What’s the mindset of the poor person who’s got these attractive advantages? When his village is facing famine because of poor environmental practices, the UN and USAID at the begging of his government come to his rescue.

How can we begin to teach our people that while it’s true that “Children are a blessing (to us) from God”, we have just become a curse to them! We also need to become a blessing to our children. We need to be able to provide, period. That’s the whole duty of parenthood – whether it is providing love, security, education, protection, we must strive to provide. This calls for holistic approach, it calls for a National Security Strategy (which I still argue Uganda doesn’t have) in which we can all operate, with or without our hip messages. Almost two years ago when we did election messaging, I went to the deepest of the villages in Uganda. I realized then that the people of Uganda’s most immediate means were not elections; it was their survival. No wonder that our message would get eroded by the stacks of cash that made rounds in the villages on the eve of election day.

The poor have become the pawn in a chase game. Corrupt governments need them to keep ruling, NGOs and aid agencies cease to be relevant without them; but this gotta stop. Addressing poverty challenges and helping people out of that misery is the most logical way. People need to get integrated into the economy first. And lastly, learn from those who are doing things right. Ask the right questions; for example, how has Rwanda managed to reduce/drop the fertility rate from 6.1 to 4.6 in less than a decade?