Budgeting. We can’t live with it; we can’t live without it. Whether we plan a trip to the grocery store, or head off to an unfamiliar country in sub-Saharan Africa, budgeting is something that follows us everywhere we go. Yep, this is going to be an exciting entry. I can feel it already. Budgeting, nice one, Jeremy.
The act of making a budget relies on the assumption that a set amount of ‘stuff’ needs to be divided up. ‘Stuff’ can be anything: time, money, energy… you get the point. Until a few hundred years ago, budgeting was pretty simple. If all the ‘stuff’ in the world was a Jeanne’s Cake (the best cake in the world), then the assumption was that the cake would be divided into pieces. If someone got a big piece of cake, then another person would have to accept a smaller piece. It turns out that Liz’s ancestors were BIG Jeanne’s Cake fans.
Adam Smith (the ‘invisible hand’ guy… not a magician, an economist) was the first person to challenge the zero sum assumption of budgeting. Smith believed that people were going about getting Jeanne’s Cake the wrong way. Instead of acquiescing to the assumption that some get more cake at the expense of others, Smith believed that everyone could have a big piece of cake. How, do you ask? Bake a bigger cake. Talk about having your cake and eating it… ha… ha. The act of baking bigger Jeanne’s Cakes is what we know today as free trade. Although some of Smith’s ideas have led to a lot of bad stuff – resource exploitation, inequality, poverty, Stephen Harper – it is evident that his heart was in the right place. All Smith wanted was a world where everybody had enough ‘stuff’; where budgeting was not the act of dividing up a set amount of resources, but rather finding a way for everybody to have, well… more.
So, why is budgeting important to my life here in Uganda? The answer to that question lies in the experiences I’ve had since my last entry.
These past three days have been a whirlwind. It all started on Friday morning with a call from my fellow Scholar, Shelby:
Me: Hey, what’s going on?
Shelby: My boss wants to know if you and Rachel can represent FRA at a presentation to the Parliamentary Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs on strengthening the constitutional protection of economic and social rights in Uganda?*
Me (to myself): Okay Jeremy, play it cool. Just history making constitutional amendments, no biggie.
Me (to Shelby): I just pooped myself.
Shelby: I guess that’s a yes?
*Our boss was supposed to attend the meeting, but she had other commitments and the rest of the office was busy. We got lucky, we are not important enough to be invited to this kind of stuff. That said, it was an absolute honour to have a front-row seat to a monumental piece of Uganda’s history.
Ninety minutes later me, Rachel and Shelby were sitting in a committee room in the East Block of the Ugandan Parliament Building, listening to stakeholders argue their cases to MPs for constitutional reform. Well, I was actually hovering; another holy crap moment. For a constitutional law nerd like me, a meeting about constitutional reform is better than Disney Land.
Let me back up a little bit here. The Ugandan government is in the process of amending its constitution. Although they don’t happen very often (usually every ten years or so) major constitutional amendments are much more frequent in Uganda than they are in Canada. Consequently, they present an important opportunity for major stakeholders and interest groups to pressure the government on a number of issues. Constitutional amendments sound complex, but they are quite simple in principle. Let me explain:
Constitutions are a lot like music playlists at Halifax nightclubs. Playlists contain a number of songs and the songs usually represent the interests and values of the people in the club. For example, you would never hear a country song in the Dome (Halifax’s classiest bar); in Halifax, if you want country, either go to Toothy Moose or take two pans and clang them together. I suggest the latter as it will sound much better and you won’t have to pay cover. Further, playlists dictate the overall mood of the night club. For instance, when you are at The Lower Deck you feel like you are in a Maritime pub because Signal Hill is blasting “The Night That Patty Murphy Died” on repeat.
Constitutions are quite similar. Instead of songs, they have sections. These sections contain laws that represent the interests and values of a given countries citizens. For example, in Canada, s.11(d) of the Constitution Act, 1982 says that all people are presumed innocent by the Crown until proven guilty. Some other countries (or nightclubs) also have s.11(d) on their playlists, while others do not. The great thing about playlists is that they change over time. When a new song comes out, if the night club thinks that its patrons will enjoy it, they simply amend their playlist to include that song.
You could say that I spent my Friday afternoon watching Ugandans trying to update their playlist. The tune that the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER – comprised of FRA and Her partner NGOs) are advocating for is a little ditty called Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ESCRs). As it stands, a significant number of Ugandans do not enjoy ESCRs such as: education, health care, social security, food, clean and safe water and housing – pretty popular songs in Canada. And while the aforementioned ESCRs are loosely reflected in Uganda’s legal and policy framework, they are not entrenched in the constitution. Therefore, ISER believes that the best way for Ugandans to enjoy ESCRs is for them to be added to the playlist where they can be heard on repeat for the indefinite future.
Unfortunately, the Ugandan government does not see ESCRs as a human right, but rather as a budgeting issue. It is sad, really. The government claims that the Jeanne’s Cake is only so big; that it is nearly impossible to fund expensive human rights like healthcare and housing. However, the same government that makes these claims also loses as much as US $300 million a year through corruption (World Bank, 2005) and spends more on its military than on feeding its people. It is funny how human rights are universal and inalienable so long as there is no financial cost to uphold them.
As a side, please do not think that Uganda is broken beyond repair. That is not the picture I want to paint. Canada is just as bad in a lot of ways. For example, our wise government has spent more on the post-911 wars than they have on education, healthcare, and social services combined. Canada might be a ‘developed’ country, but not in its ability to budget.
My fellow Scholar, Rachel does a fantastic job of explaining the meeting in greater detail. Please see her account of Friday afternoon at: https://rachelcjmorgan.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/fasting-for-the-constitution/
We ran from Parliament to the National Arts Centre for a TEDx event. Rachel and I befriended a journalist/TEDx organizer a few days prior to the event and before we knew it we had acquired a couple of tickets. Things happen quickly here. I can, and probably will, spend an entire blog entry writing about my experiences at TEDx, but for now I will just say… wow. My favorite speaker was a lady named Victoria Sekitoleko. Ms. Sekitoleko served as Uganda’s Minister of Agriculture for a number of years before heading off to represent East Africa at UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It was an honour to meet her. She even invited me, Rachel and Shelby to meet up with her and ‘chat’ in a couple of weeks!
Okay, back to budgeting. Adam Smith’s idea of “expanding the Cake” extends beyond politics/ economics and into the world of sports. Sports are all about budgeting. In swimming, for example, you have to budget your energy appropriately. If you fail to do so, the last 50 metres of a race feels like you are being squeezed through a wormhole into another dimension where all happiness is replaced by pain and misery. So, so, so much pain and misery. Similar to Smith, athletes reject the notion that one’s physical ability cannot expand. Athletes, of course, expand the cake by training. As it happens, a little less cake and a little more training probably would have been a good idea before running the 10k in the Airtel Africa Marathon this morning.
Shelby, the avid runner that she is, convinced Rachel and I to join her and her colleague to take on the 10k with them a couple days ago. How hard can it be, right? Wrong. Running sucks. My mentality was that the faster I ran the thing, the sooner I could be done running. Bad budgeting, Jeremy. At the end of km 1 I couldn’t feel my legs; by km 5 I started to see Usain (RIP) and Grecko’s tail (RIP); and at km 9 I’m pretty sure my heart entirely stopped for a couple of seconds. Thankfully, the ordeal only lasted for 42 minutes. Plus while waiting for my fellow Scholars to finish, I literally ran into the 2015 Kickboxing World Champion. His arms were bigger than my entire torso. Nice guy. All in all, I think that I’ll stick to swimming from now on; much easier to budget.
Man Kenyans are good marathoners,
Epilogue: If you don’t find God, then He will find you
I heard a heavenly chorus coming from above this afternoon while I was doing a few LSAT problems. At first I thought to myself, “Holy shit, I’ve actually died of boredom. I didn’t know that people could do that. I wonder if they will remember me as a martyr…” I looked down at the page and saw that I circled the wrong answer: “Nope, still alive… damn”. The music grew louder so I decided to do some investigating. I grabbed my keys and headed towards the door.
“OWWW MOTHER F*****” (I need some new swear words). My knee smashed into the coffee table with enough might to dislodge a Weightwatchers Twnkie from Oprah Winfrey’s windpipe. After doing the ‘ouch I just hit my knee really hard dance’, I dawned my flip flops and headed out the door. The music was definitely coming from inside the building, but where?
The architects of my apartment block thought it would be a great idea to design the building like the Senate from Star wars; apartments on the outside with a giant hole in the middle. As a result, everything echoes. Everything. I hope the baby on the fifth floor falls asleep soon.
Back to the story. I passed by a man walking up the stairs and asked him where the music was coming from. “7th floor” he said, and continued to ascend before I could get more information out of him. By now by knee was throbbing pretty badly and the rest of my body was paralyzed from the near-death 10k run a few hours earlier. Elevator it is! After a 4 minute, 6 floor long elevator ride I finally arrived on the 7th floor. There were only two apartments on each floor so I had a 50/50 shot of guessing the right door. My Holmes-like powers of deduction led me to choose the door where the music was coming from. It also had a handmade sign on it reading “WEL COME” – both in English and what looked like to be Mandarin.
I carefully opened the door and what I found on the other side was, well… unexpected? The apartment was filled with no less than 10 rows of lawn chairs. On each chair was a person and on each person was a bible. There were three pastors at the front of the room (two Chinese ladies and one American man) and a Chinese girl playing the keyboard off to the side. Three more pastors were situated in the back of the room, one with a video camera and the other two with bibles and song sheets. The walls were plastered with verses from the bible, maps of Uganda, and a few hand-painted pictures of religious figures.
I was immediately grabbed by one of the pastors and thrown into an open chair. The pastor then thrust a bible and a song sheet into my hands. “I’m not in Kansas anymore” I thought to myself. Before I knew it, the room erupted into song and dance; and there I was, in the thick of it. The person beside be grabbed my hand and we spent the next ten or fifteen minutes singing, praying, and reading versus from the bible. Better than LSAT studying I guess.
I later learned from one of the American pastors that he and a few missionaries from China run Christian education center. It turns out that the 7th floor of my apartment building is their hub. Who knew that I live in such a holy place!