The problems of presidential patronage

Delegates networking at Acholi Inn, Gulu

Last night, I interviewed Maxwell Otim, UNCST’s deputy executive secretary, about his organisation’s role in helping science and technology advances to enter the marketplace in Uganda. The discussion revealed an interesting feature of Ugandan science support.

The country’s Millennium Science Initiative loan has resulted in a variety of user-friendly findings that will be incubated by the Ugandan Industrial Research Institute, he told me. But there is another source of support for clever science solutions in the country, namely presidential patronage.

Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, is keen on science and technology. What is more, he likes the personal touch. So when the president visits science expos and sees something that he likes, more often than not he will offer those responsible funding from his own office.

This has become such a trend that there is now a presidential science fund that doles out support to these hand-picked projects. For instance, it has backed the development of a technology to prolong the shelf life of the banana that is prepared as ‘matooke’, a glutinous mash and local favourite served with meat stews. The technology allows matooke to be exported to homesick Ugandans worldwide.

The good thing about the presidential support is that it shows a personal commitment to science. The bad thing, clearly, is the lack of transparency in the selection mechanisms. Otim told me that he is urging the president’s office to put the money in the presidential fund up for open competition. Another one to watch.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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