JUNE 7, 2010: Public Service is Aged, Reform is Not an Option

Public Service is Aged, Reform is Not an Option
SOURCE: The Monitor
By Mohamed Matovu

Retirement is a scary thing. Add age limit in the mix and you will almost certainly get any civil servant on earth, be it Europe or Africa, develop chicken skin - the sort that involuntarily grows on the skin when confronted with extreme emotional fright.

Anxiety. Tension. Uncertainty. This is what public service friends have used to describe the mood in public offices. The debate about retirement age is bigger than 'fear of leisure' as the deputy Presidential Press Secretary, Linda Nabusayi Wamboka, put it in the New Vision of June 4.

It is a global problem and while in Uganda it has only caused chicken skin, in other countries (France, Greece etc) workers and labour unions have poured to the streets to vent their anger against their government. Unlike in Uganda where the government is seeking to reduce retirement age, Europe is going the opposite direction-extending retirement age from 60 to 63. And this means 'extended work' and 'extended contribution' for would-be retirees. A thought many workers dread.

Central to the retirement age debate is the need for economic and human development planning. In Europe for instance, they are facing a problem of a burgeoning aging population (which means increased government expenditure). This runaway expenditure can't be sustained due to a shrinking young population.

The puzzling question for European governments is who, with no supporting youth base, will support the increasing expenditure on retirees? Where will the money come from to close the funding deficits? To overcome this problem, some policy analysts have recommended extending retirement age, which has enraged many people.

And now back to Uganda. Unlike in Europe where their biggest problem is an ever expanding aging population, the age graphs in Uganda show something different. First, our life expectancy is still in the 50s bracket (in Europe it is 70s). Secondly, Uganda's biggest problem is the youth (0-15 years constitute about 50 per cent of Uganda's population. The over 60-year-olds comprise a marginal estimated 16 per cent.

Simple truth about pension schemes is that it is always the youth (actively employed youth) who will support those in old age. Looked at it from that sense, Uganda's youth, if gainfully employed, would be able to support retirees. The only snag is that in Uganda the youth have received the short end of the stick with biting unemployment.

Thirdly, it is time something drastic (I mean prudent transformation) took place within the public service. This permanent-and-pensionable-talk is where the change should start from. Change starts with attitude. There is a lot of resource waste -before you even jump to corruption - within the service. And if government is honest about this transformation, the executive should also wean off its influence peddling within the operations of civil service.

Retirement age reduction is a prudent policy, the only problem, as with a host of otherwise good policy initiatives, the government is using the wrong premise - patriotism and party ideology - to implement public policy, which smells of politicking.

Also, government needs to accompany any talk about retirement age with prudent investment in health care. The single most draining expenditure for retirees is health related costs - they literally diet on medication. Health care has to be made available and cheaply. Retirement is therefore not the problem, but it should be dignified and pleasurable and for this to happen the government has to meet its part of the bargain.