Agency For Transformation

Foreign aid trap and National Farmers Federation’s struggle for legitimacy

The Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFFE) was founded in January, 1992 by farmers throughout Uganda in response to a need for better services for and exchanges between the farming communities that comprises over 70% of Uganda’s population. At the same time, it was to serve as an organized channel through which government or any other interested agency could extend services to farmers. The overriding objective was to mobilize the farming community into one independent umbrella organization. In its early years, UNFFE funded its activities using membership fees. From 1994, going forward, the Federation started receiving financial and technical support from Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). This enabled it to acquire broad logistics – office premises, transport, office furniture and equipment and pay up operational costs, till 2004. After 2004, DANIDA weaned off UNFFE from the breast by withdrawing direct financial support except for minimal technical support (through posting technical experts and advisors to UNFFE) – and shifted- opting to engage directly with UNFFE membership organizations (District Farmer Associations and Commodity specific associations).
With perhaps good intentions, DANIDA established Farmers Organizations Secretariat (FOS). FOS funded a number of DFA’s and in effect became an alternate and substantively a defacto headquarter for District Farmer Associations. DFA’s would now submit reports to FOS instead of reporting to the now relegated UNFFE. Officials at FOS had become more powerful to even influence who becomes a farmer leader with in the rubric of UNFFE. It became a case of ‘he who pays the piper controls the tune’ and the legitimate farmers’ voice for which UNFFE was formed to champion got shriller and increasingly mute at the National level.

UNFFE largely became a moribund organization with huge financial constraints. They could not even afford to hire competitively in the human resource market. The organization is largely run by part time volunteers in lower offices with a substantive Chief Executive Secretary. The only thriving platform for drip financing and voicing of farmer interest, remains the Source of the Nile National Agricultural Trade Show’ run by UNFFE. The Federation has become largely synonymous with Trade show. The Trade Show provides the single most visibility opportunity for UNFFE to present and voice out farmers concerns. It attracts agriculture stakeholders, students and political class in equal measure. Inversely, if harnessed – it provides hope for revival and financial sustainability of UNFFE. Should the DANIDA approach be blamed? The answer is No. The real and enduring solution to farmers’ emancipation will never depend on external support, but rather on a strong organic force of organized farmer groups with innate agenda to produce and market efficiently. Such organic farmer groups are established and built by informed farmers with ability to exercise agency in face of competing policy and market forces. UNFFE and its membership are in urgent need to engage in honest reflections about the future of small holder farmers in Uganda.

The Federation is still hamstrung with many questions about its legitimacy. Many rural small holder farmers in Uganda that I interacted with from Rukungiri, Masindi, Busia and Kumi don’t know UNFFE. Those that know about it don’t seem to fully fathom and appreciate the advocacy role that it flags. Small holder farmers seem to be interested in tangibles that can be provided by heavily capitalized agencies like the National Advisory services (NAADS) and donor agencies like VECO East Africa, Sesakawa Global etc. Yet in their advocacy role, UNFFE is yet to achieve substantially. From meager allocation in the national budget to surging interest rates, the policy regime remains adversarial to farmers. What contradicts this outlook is that, business associations like Uganda National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Uganda Manufacturers Association and Private Sector Foundation have a more effective voice at the national and regional level. Perhaps this is so because the membership of business associations constitute a number of business magnets with capability to both avoid and pay up taxes – and influence in the corridors of power in the Land. There is a need for government to appropriate resources to National Farmers Federation from the National Budget – to especially improve the trade show and other services.

Small holder farmers have never realized that their power is by and large in numbers they represent and the only sustainable stratagem is to organize in order to engage a cartel of entrenched interests. Small holders continue to look at themselves as victims’ economic and political environment. They don’t look at themselves as actors with equal rights in their country. Even when they are demanding for increased budget allocations for the agricultural sector, they posture as if seeking a favor and not a budget regime that increases their options and provides opportunity to revolutionalize their farm enterprises and govern markets. Can they make change happen? The tendency by government and development bureaucrats to view small holder farmers through victim spectacles must change. Farmers must be allowed to experiment at organizing. They must be allowed to engage markets and navigate them from their vantage view, formally and informally. Perhaps the biggest resource that farmers will need from governments and development actors today is – practical information -and not goodies (handouts and inputs). There is deepening technology revolution – 14 million mobile phone users and 3.2 million internet users in Uganda. Farmers and practitioners in the agriculture sector should piggyback on this to engender productivity and govern markets- if they can move from agonizing about their current situation to organizing for the future. Small holder farmers can take advantage of the micro and macroeconomic environment in East Africa to propel growth, employment and transformation.

Morrison Rwakakamba
Chief Executive Officer
Agency for Transformation (A think and do tank on agricultural and environment policy)