As Uganda continues to grapple with ailing public systems, questions abound as to what steps the private sector can take to alleviate the situation of children in the country. The underlying drive for this question is simple – we all owe it to our little ones; and rather frankly, children also represent a major market block for the private sector.
More centrally, the top five general concerns that drive the discussion of the relevance of the private sector in bolstering public initiatives include issues of efficiency and cost effectiveness, availability of resources considering that private sector commands a huge base of resources, accountability concerns in terms of delivering results, private sectors efficiency in using available resources compared to religious inefficient administration of resources by public entities, and equity in terms of providing diversity to address commonplace inequitable access to public services in addition to the overall skills trainings which prepare individuals to demand for rights and have the abilities to challenge inequality in society.
For purposes of this piece, I have clustered the private sector into three dimensions namely business entities, social bodies, and the private individuals. Briefly, the first category includes large corporate organisations, medium/small scale industries and any other profit-oriented businesses. Second category includes NGOs, churches, philanthropies, community groups and any other not-for-profit entities. Thirdly, private individuals of course, include you, and me.
In view of this classification, what can the private sector do, in this context, to ensure that we attain the targeted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – combat child poverty, end violence against children, guarantee access to healthcare, and perhaps most crucially, address inequality – to leave no child behind?
A closer review of the SDGs reveals that unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs are much more business-oriented.
What can private medical centers and other groups working in the health care services do better to save over 438 lives lost in every 100,000 live births?
In ante-natal and post-natal care, 43% of births in Uganda do not take place in health facilities, 29% of health centers do not offer ante-natal care and only 2% of women receive a post-natal check-up within an hour after giving birth. What can the private sector do to extend these care services to expectant mothers and tailor them to be affordable?
As a result of this pathetic state of care, in every 1,000 births registered, at least 13 children die on their first day and over 90 of the 1,000 will die before their fifth birthday. Preventable diseases like malaria and diarrhea continue to ravage our little ones as they account for 70% of under-five deaths in Uganda even as the government boasts of rural health facilities and a national drug distribution chain. How can this be? We cannot continue to have Uganda ranking among the top 10 countries in the world for high maternal, new-born and child mortality rates!
On sanitation, what can the National Water and Sewarage Corporation and other groups working in water and sanitation do to provide safe water and hygiene to vulnerable, poor, and marginalised children in the country? Forget about water facilities in top and middle class households. Today, 30% of children in Uganda do not have access to safe water while 60% live more than a 30 minutes trip from the nearest water source.
Private entities working in this sector need to take deliberate steps to increase investment on children’s health needs through child-sensitive rural/slam clean water connections, eliminate informal user fees, and implement other social protection systems.
With regard to the right to education, the private sector has incontrovertibly done a lot to establish schools that essentially define Uganda’s education system. But they can do a lot more. It is a national shame to learn that only 10% of Ugandan children enroll to pre-primary school – a critical foundation stage for any child. 33% of children who dare to dream to have an education are forced to drop out before completing the primary cycle.
The few who stick in class are served with a cocktail of deplorable quality of education accentuated by the fact that only 1 in 5 teachers are qualified to teach English and Mathematics. And even then, of the teachers in school, 60% are not teaching. No doubt at all, most of these statistics reflect the situation in government-aided schools.
As we demand for provision of quality education by the government, private schools should endeavor to make school fees affordable, cut down on extortionate demands for material items in addition to the fees, offer bursaries to needy pupils, offer scholarships, conduct pupil exchange programs with public schools, open up their libraries to public schools and take deliberate steps that are sensitive to children’s needs to avoid the profit motive from clouding their judgment on areas that they would benefit the disadvantaged, poor, and marginalised children.
Child labour is generally cheap, easy to manage, and exploit. Because of these reasons, vile as they may, Uganda’s private sector insensitively employs over 2.4 million children in exploitative labour. This simply has to stop. We cannot have children who belong in a classroom being held in workplaces. We must respect our labour laws and give the children a right to be, well, children.
Private sector players can also still do more to register birth of children and share these details with government structures. This will inform planning processes and avert preposterous debates about age of children when it is in issue. It is defeating to note that in the last five years, Uganda failed to register at least 40% births that actually took place. This translates to approximately 3 million children who are simply unaccounted for on our national records. How then do you design, plan, and execute social protection programs?
More to this, Uganda has at least 2.5 million children living with a disability. Of these, 2 out of 3 do not receive any form of support and only 5% of children with disabilities in public schools are getting specialised education. How can this be when we have a good number of registered charities and groups working with persons with disabilities?
If we are to achieve the SDGs from a child rights perspective, the private sector must find better ways to use a percentage of their profits in an altruistic way to support not-for-profit undertakings like those being championed by UNICEF Uganda, 40 Days Over 40 Smiles Foundation, Hearty Souls Uganda, and Sanyu Babies Home.
The investment in supporting child-centered community development programs, strengthening the capacity of social institutions which work with children and families, and advocating for better legislation and better policies for children will provide a window to bridge the inequality gap.
In the context of the broader social good, private sector players should continue paying taxes to support government social programs and establishing philanthropies that devote funds to support possible initiatives towards child development. Private sector has to play a critical role of innovation and setting the pace for change.
Banks could offer more competitive small loan facilities towards child development initiatives and media houses could offer more free or subsidized communication packages towards publicizing children programs. The partnership between UNICEF Uganda and NTV Uganda and the CNN’s agreement with UNICEF to promote children rights are instructive examples.
The point is, we can all do something to make our environment a more child-friendly place. Beyond the MDGs, we need to collectively create an environment that does not only support the survival of children but one that ensures that they have an equal opportunity to achieve their best potential in life.