CRM Journal


Cultural Heritage and Poverty Eradication in Uganda(1)

by Bernard Lubega Bakaye


The economist David Throsby has observed that "in an increasingly globalized world, economic and cultural imperatives can be seen as two of the most powerful forces shaping human behaviour."(2) Throsby alludes to the increasing recognition of the important role of culture in economic development. This author wishes to add his voice to the ongoing debate that seeks to show how preserving and promoting cultural heritage and cultural products is fundamental to the eradication of extreme poverty in developing countries like Uganda that are economically poor but endowed with a rich and diverse cultural heritage. Local communities in these countries can harness cultural heritage to stimulate sustainable economic growth and, thus, help meet some of their country's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).(3)

Uganda's current efforts to eradicate extreme poverty are similar to those of other developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. This author believes there to be a direct correlation between local participation in preserving and promoting cultural heritage and the success or failure of poverty reduction measures and the long-term sustainability of other poverty eradication interventions. Although Ugandan central government policy documents recognize the importance of community participation in implementing such measures, more must be done to address the practical challenges of empowering people to harness the economic potential of their cultural heritage for their material benefit.

Uganda the Poor and Rich Country

Over the past 20 years, Uganda has been grappling with the issue of mass poverty. The situation is extreme in rural areas where more than 85 percent of the population lives.(4) According to UNICEF and World Bank reports, Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world with a gross national income (GNI) per capita estimated at between $250 and $270 (US) per year in 2004.(5) Also in that year, life expectancy at birth was as low as 48 years, and infant and child mortality rates were estimated at 80 and 138 per 1,000 live births respectively.(6)

At the same time, it may be said that Uganda is one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to natural and cultural heritage. Situated at the geographical heart of the African plateau, Uganda has long been a cultural melting pot, as evidenced by the 56 ethnic groupings and over 40 different indigenous languages belonging to four distinct linguistic groups (the Bantu, Nilotic, Nilo-Hamites, and the Madi-Moru). The country's earliest inhabitants, confined to the hilly southwest, are the Batwa and Bambuti Pygmies, descendants of the hunter-gatherer cultures that once occupied much of East Africa and left behind a rich legacy of rock paintings.

In northeastern Uganda are the Karimojong, traditional pastoralists whose lifestyle and culture are reminiscent of the renowned Maasai.(7) The northwest is characterized by a patchwork of agricultural peoples whose Nilotic languages and cultures are rooted in what is now Sudan. The Rwenzori foothills are home to the hardy Bakonjo tribe, whose hunting shrines are dedicated to a one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed pipe-smoking spirit known as Kalisa, while the Bagisu of the Mount Elgon region are known for their colorful Imbalu ceremony, an initiation of young boys to manhood that peaks in activity in and around August of every even-numbered year.

At the cultural core of modern-day Uganda are the Bantu-speaking kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro, Ankole, and Toro, whose traditional monarchs—reinstated in 1993 after having been abolished by the former President of Uganda Milton Obote in 1967—are important cultural figureheads and symbols of a common cultural identity.(8) According to oral tradition, these centuries-old kingdoms are offshoots of the medieval kingdoms of Batembuzi and Bacwezi that lay in the vicinity of present-day Mubende and Ntusi, where archeological evidence suggests the existence of a strongly centralized polity by the 11th century.

Can Cultural Heritage Contribute To Poverty Eradication?

To address the question of whether cultural heritage activities can contribute to poverty eradication in Uganda and other countries, a clear understanding of the terminology is imperative. As used by this author, the term "cultural heritage" includes both the monumental and physical remains of cultures (the tangibles) and the traditional cultural practices of a people (the intangibles). Cultural resource management professionals now pay attention to the dramatic arts, languages, traditional music, and the spiritual and philosophical systems underlying those creations. Today's concept of cultural heritage also incorporates contemporary culture as much as that of the past.

In Uganda, no distinction is made between the intangible and tangible aspects of cultural heritage. Uganda's draft National Culture Policy defines cultural heritage as consisting of artistic and cultural expressions. Artistic expressions include "the various art forms and artifacts while cultural expressions include indigenous knowledge and skills, local languages, values, norms and traditions."(9) The forms of Uganda's cultural heritage include oral traditions, languages, historic sites, natural sacred sites, museums, handicrafts, rituals and festive events, rites and beliefs, music (vocal and instrumental), traditional knowledge and practices, performing arts, traditional medicine, literature, culinary traditions, and traditional sports and games. The country's revised Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) recognizes cultural heritage as "intrinsically valuable and an important dimension of identity" to all Ugandans.(10) Cultural heritage is also recognized as a "form of capital which when well harnessed can help to move people [especially the rural poor] out of income poverty."(11)

Turning to community participation, the term implies that people are directly involved in projects intended to improve their lives. Participation is especially important when it comes to cultural heritage projects because culture is a human activity first and foremost, and without people, cultural heritage is meaningless. Community participation helps keep the lines of communication between the government or development entity and the community open, which, in turn, makes a coordinated and integrated approach and conflict avoidance possible.

Community participation also helps decision makers utilize their limited resources to the best possible extent, address micro issues, and identify and understand what the community needs and feels about its cultural heritage as a whole. If the community is involved in the cultural heritage project planning process, it can help with decisions regarding the location of services, beneficiaries, and community leadership. Participation also ensures control over the allocation and mobilization of community resources and the sustainability and ownership of the projects.

For planning purposes, PEAP defines poverty as low income, limited human development, and powerlessness.(12) This author would add that poverty is the negative analogue of human development. If human development signifies the process of enlarging the scope of people's choices and opportunities that are most basic to human development, poverty signifies their denial. Poverty includes material deprivations of food, health, education and literacy, safe water and sanitation, and clothing and shelter; and deprivations of security on account of vulnerability to external events such as war, natural disaster, illness, and economic shock (that is to say, sharp declines in terms of trade) that reinforce material deprivation. To all these must be added the deprivation of human rights through discrimination, disempowerment, exclusion, and the loss of human dignity. In order for cultural heritage projects to have a positive impact, they must address these issues.

Different Schools of Thought

There are three different schools of thought with regard to whether cultural heritage can contribute in any meaningful way towards poverty eradication and national economic development in Uganda. The traditional economists, who have great influence on national economic policies and determine the allocation of resources in the country, generally view cultural heritage as a barrier to poverty eradication and economic development. A recent study of culture and media in Poverty Reduction Strategic Papers (PRSPs), of which Uganda's PEAP is one, noted that a number of countries, including Uganda prior to 2004, "make no reference to culture or only mention culture in a way that it implies a negative or lacking societal characteristic that needs to be addressed."(13)

The second school of thought is that of professional cultural workers and scholars. Because of the passion they have for culture, this group sees cultural heritage as an indispensable and vital force in fostering social and economic development. François Matarasso has called for rethinking the role of culture vis-à-vis development in view of the growing economic, environmental, and social challenges of the new millennium. Matarasso notes that—

  • cultural resources are replacing natural resources as the primary raw material of economic growth. Where timber, iron and oil once ruled, knowledge, creativity and design are establishing themselves as the crucial sources of added value;

  • cultural routes are often the most effective way of achieving non-cultural objectives, from health promotion or education to employment and economic growth; [and]

  • globalization offers benefits to humanity, but unless local cultural values are recognized and allowed to adapt new ways of doing things to local circumstances, it and its consequences will produce injustice, reaction and resistance.

He concludes that "culture shapes everything we try to do. If we fail to take account of it, we stumble around blindfolded; if we learn to see it as a resource and understand how it affects us all, we may be able to create a really sustainable approach to human development."(14)

The third school of thought belongs to the cultural practitioners and the majority of members of local communities. Due to the lack of vital information, they are uncertain whether cultural heritage has the potential to reduce poverty. Some of them are skeptical, while others just admit they do not know.

One need not look far into Uganda for proof of cultural heritage's potential as a significant factor in poverty eradication and development. Cultural heritage can directly contribute to poverty eradication by acting as a resource that cultural practitioners and local communities can use to generate income, create employment for themselves and others, and ultimately improve living conditions. Today, many young Ugandans are engaged in music—a cultural industry—and earning money from producing and selling recordings and performances. The handicraft industry employs many Ugandans in the commercial production and marketing of items such as baskets, mats, and decorations from which they earn an income to support their families. Uganda also has many traditional healers whose main source of income is the practice of medicine and the sale of medicinal herbs.

UNESCO affirms that in recent years cultural industries have become a significant source of social and economic development and are now recognized as a powerful driving force of world trade, offering great potential for developing economies rich in cultural heritage. Recent figures clearly illustrate the economic and job creation potential of cultural industries. In 2001 and 2002, the creative and copyright industries alone accounted for 3.3 percent, 5 percent, and 5.24 percent of the gross domestic products of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, respectively.(15)

Furthermore, cultural heritage can indirectly contribute to poverty eradication by cultivating environments in which other poverty reduction interventions can succeed. Cultural heritage influences how people make choices and respond to various development initiatives in their localities. If development initiatives ignore cultural considerations, they can easily fall short of achieving the desired impact on the lives of target communities. In the late 1990s, for example, the government of Uganda had initiated a project to facilitate the transport of goods for the Bakonjo people of the Kasese district in the southwest. The Bakonjo live in the Rwenzori Mountains and have to transport goods from Kasese Town at the foot of the mountains to their communities in the hills. Perhaps due to inadequate consultation and community involvement in the planning process, the government procured male donkeys for use as pack animals. The Bakonjo refused to use the donkeys because according to Bakonjo culture, the carrying of goods is the domain of females. Had cultural considerations been part of the planning process, this unfortunate misunderstanding might have been avoided.

Two Case Studies

The following two case studies show some of the ways in which cultural heritage and community participation can continue to play central roles in government efforts to eradicate extreme poverty in Uganda and elsewhere.

The Twekobe Reconstruction Project
A symbol of Buganda's cultural heritage, the Twekobe is the official residence of the Kabaka, or king, of Buganda, one of three extant structures within the palace grounds (the Lubiri) at Mengo.(16) In 1966, Obote's army, led at the time by Idi Amin, badly damaged the Lubiri and the Twekobe, turning what remained of the latter into an army barracks. In preparation for the Kabaka's royal wedding in 1999, the Katikkiro (the Prime Minister of Buganda), Joseph Semwogerere Mulwanyamuli, called on the Baganda (the people of Buganda) to help rebuild the palace. Semwogerere's successful appeal was a measure of the strength of the traditional cultural institution of the Kabaka and the tradition of bulungi bwansi—working for the common good—that is said to have inspired the construction of Makerere University, Namirembe Cathedral, Rubaga Cathedral, Kibuli Mosque, and the Bulange (Buganda Parliament Building). The project also showed the power of cultural heritage and identity as a driver of economic development.

The sociologist Charles Kleymeyer has observed that—

a strong sense of shared identity can energize people and inspire them to take collective action to improve their lives. When individuals see themselves as proud members of a culture, they are more likely to organize and work for change. Organizations built on the bedrock of cultural identity seem better able to single out common problems and collectively seek appropriate solutions.(17)

In the case of the Twekobe, the Baganda and other Ugandans believed in the importance of Bugandan cultural heritage and generously contributed materials, labor, and money towards the restoration effort. The project also provided employment opportunities for Bugandan and other Ugandan engineers, masons, laborers, and tour guides. Outside the cultural resource arena, local and national leaders have used Bugandan cultural heritage and identity to mobilize community support for government sponsored development programs in agriculture, immunization and disease prevention, and education.

The Handicrafts Industry
In 2005, Uganda developed a handicraft export strategy to tap the industry's latent economic potential to create wealth, generate income, and reduce poverty in rural and urban areas. Although clearly economic development-driven—the objective of the handicraft strategy is "to build the capacity of handicraft producers and exporters in order to meet international standards and to penetrate international markets"(18)—the strategy recognizes Uganda's wide array of traditional handicraft products ranging from basketry, mats, ceramics, beads, pottery, textiles, toys, jewelry, bags, ornaments, leather products, batiks, and wood craft. These items are produced in nearly all regions of Uganda using locally available raw materials, with product differentiation based on cultural traditions and skills handed down from generation to generation. Although these traditions have weakened over time, and the number of master craftsmen has diminished, traditional handicraft production is on the upswing thanks to a growing number of artisans, traders, and exporters who now view traditional handicrafts as an economically viable and sustainable business venture.

Handicrafts export in Uganda is still insignificant compared to raw materials export, but it has great growth potential.(19) In order to achieve that potential, however, Uganda must address a number of important issues. Currently, local artisans are neither well organized nor mobilized to produce quality goods for an international market, and they lack convenient access to external financing for investment to improve productivity. Uganda itself lacks a pro-artisan marketing strategy that protects handicraft makers against exploitation.(20) Furthermore, Uganda has no national permanent body or institution dedicated to coordinating and overseeing the handicrafts industry. The Uganda Export Promotion Board, Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Limited (UWEAL), the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Office, Uganda Small Scale Industries Association (USSIA), the National Organization of Women Associations in Uganda (NOWAU), the National Arts and Crafts Association of Uganda (NACAU), Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and other organizations help promote traditional handicrafts production, but they are not responsible for developing or promulgating a comprehensive national handicraft policy.

The Future

As Uganda works towards eradicating extreme poverty and realizing the United Nations' other Millennium Development Goals, policy makers have an unprecedented opportunity to create a favorable policy environment that will encourage active community participation in, as opposed to passive acceptance of, cultural heritage development projects. Although Uganda's revised Poverty Eradication Action Plan, Social Development Sector Strategic Investment Plan, draft National Culture Policy, National Tourism Policy, and other government policy documents take community participation into consideration, the central government must move beyond theory and into practice.(21) It must also address the existing operational and practical challenges that hinder participation at the local level. By involving local communities in planning and implementation processes, policy makers and other government officials may well discover that people are willing to work hard to make sure their cultural heritage development programs achieve the desired objectives.

Uganda's Local Governments Act of 1997 radically changed the nature of decision-making in the country by decentralizing many government functions.(22) It seems logical that the central government would adjust its cultural heritage policies so that they fall in line with the law and thereby strengthen cultural heritage decision-making at the local level. District local governments, municipalities, sub-counties, and town councils (the lowest government levels with executive powers) would be able to make resource allocation decisions for specific cultural heritage projects and programs in their jurisdictions. Cultural heritage policies that support decentralization would also empower community development workers to devise and implement appropriate strategies, foster positive attitudes towards cultural heritage, and improve community involvement in heritage development projects.

Uganda should also increase the role of traditional cultural institutions in cultural heritage projects. Experience has shown that projects that are either initiated or managed by traditional cultural institutions such as the Buganda Kingdom garner the popular support of their constituents, who want to see the projects through to completion. As the Twekobe reconstruction project has shown, that support may range from monetary support to labor and other resources. By virtue of their standing as cultural leaders, traditional cultural institutions are inherently interested in looking after and maintaining cultural heritage sites that are meaningful to them and that the central or local government might not be able to preserve on its own.

Although increased public sector investment in cultural heritage projects is desirable, experience has shown that this approach may not be feasible given that cultural heritage in Uganda is still competing with other funding priorities. The more pragmatic approach, at least for the near future, would be to utilize the resources of the communities themselves and supplement them with external support from development partners, nonprofits, and the private sector. An integrated funding strategy that emphasizes community participation would enhance community ownership while at the same time discourage donor dependency, which can subvert sustainability. The central government could create a public-private partnership for supporting the creation of handicrafts cooperatives and other cultural enterprises at the local level that would have poverty eradication and sustainability as their central focus.

Local communities must have access to specialized knowledge and skills for managing cultural heritage projects effectively. They will need to develop the creative capacity necessary for producing and marketing cultural goods and services that meet industry standards if Uganda is to participate in international trade. Demonstration projects would help tremendously in this regard, as would training—"learning by doing," essentially— in new technologies for improving productivity and the quality of cultural products.


Uganda—and Sub-Saharan Africa in general—is at a development crossroads. It must explore all possibilities for stimulating economic growth and eradicating extreme poverty. But concentrating development efforts in a few economic sectors, notably agriculture, which is extremely competitive on the international market, may not be the solution. Cultural heritage and the cultural industries it supports offer equally attractive opportunities for creating jobs, increasing incomes and export earnings, and improving lives. The country's national culture policy, tourism policy, and national handicraft export strategy all point in the right direction. The government must make a concerted effort to strengthen the role of traditional cultural institutions, invest in cultural heritage industries at the national and local level, and help the population, especially Uganda's youth, understand the value of their cultural heritage.

In 1990, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, the former president of the United Republic of Tanzania, told a group meeting in the town of Arusha that—

Our major resource is our people. We all recognize the inherent relationship between people and development. We are fully conscious of the fact that the primary objective of development is to improve the living conditions of our people. But we also know that it is the people who are the principal actors in the recovery and development process. It is obvious, therefore, that the success of the recovery and development process very much depends on the effective participation of the people in that process.(23)

The answer lies in integrating cultural heritage into Uganda's poverty eradication strategies but with the effective participation of those who own that heritage.


About the Author

Bernard Lubega Bakaye is a principal culture officer in the Department of Gender, Culture, and Community Development within the Uganda Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development. He was recently a Rockefeller Research Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC.



1. An earlier version of this essay was presented in April 2006 at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, at the end of the fellowship program.

2. David Throsby, Economics and Culture (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge UP, 2001), v.

3. At the United Nations Millennium Summit held in New York City in 2000, heads of state from more than 150 countries signed the Millennium Declaration, committing their nations "to raise the poor out of poverty and hunger, get every child into school, empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases…ensure environmental sustainability [and eradicate poverty worldwide]…through a global partnership for development" by 2015. Millennium Campaign,, accessed October 15, 2006.

4. As of Uganda's 2002 census, the population stood at 24.2 million people. UNICEF put Uganda's population at 27.8 million in 2004. Uganda Bureau of Statistics,, accessed October 15, 2006; UNICEF-Uganda-Statistics,, accessed October 17, 2006.

5. The United States' GNI per capita was $41,440 (US) in 2004.

6. UNICEF-Uganda-Statistics,, accessed October 17, 2006.

7. The Maasai are a semi-nomadic, East African ethnic group.

8. The 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda officially recognized Uganda's historic kingdoms as traditional cultural institutions. Chapter 16 of the constitution states that the "institution of traditional leader or cultural leader may exist in any area of Uganda in accordance with the culture, customs and traditions or wishes and aspirations of the people to whom it applies." By "traditional leader or cultural leader," the Constitution means a king or other leader "who derives allegiance from the fact of birth or descent in accordance with the customs, traditions, usage or consent of the people led by that traditional or cultural leader." The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995,, accessed October 17, 2006.

9. National Culture Policy, draft (Kampala: Uganda Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development, 2005), 5.

10. Poverty Eradication Action Plan, revised (Kampala: Uganda Ministry of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development, 2004), 178,, accessed October 31, 2006. The PEAP notes that "[t]raditional skills and indigenous materials are often accessible to poor and disadvantaged groups, and as such form a potentially viable avenue for poverty-reduction."

11. Ibid., 178. In Uganda, most poor people live in rural areas where communities are still largely homogeneous and closely attached to their cultures.

12. Ibid., 1.

13. Cecilia M. Ljungman, Helga Ronning, Tejeshwar Singh, Henrik Steen Pedersen, et. al., Sida's Work with Culture and Media, Annex 8 (Stockholm, Sweden: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency [Sida], 2004), 86. As defined by the International Monetary Fund, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), of which Uganda's Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) is one example, describe a country's "macroeconomic, structural and social policies and programs over a three year or longer horizon to promote broad-based growth and reduce poverty, as well as associated external financing needs and major sources of financing." International Monetary Fund, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP),, accessed October 31, 2006.

14. François Matarasso, ed. Recognizing Culture: A Series of Briefing Papers on Culture and Development (London, United Kingdom: 2001), 4.

15. Uganda's total export earnings in core cultural goods in 2002 was $206,800 (US) while that of the United Kingdom was $8.55 billion (US). International Flows of Selected Cultural Goods and Services, 1994-2003 (Montreal, PQ, Canada: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2005), 59,, accessed October 15, 2006.

16. The two other structures are the Bulange, or Buganda parliament, and the Kasubi Tombs.

17. Charles David Kleymeyer, ed., Cultural Expression and Grassroots Development: Cases from Latin America and the Caribbean (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994), 19.

18. Uganda Handicrafts Export Strategy (Kampala, Uganda: Uganda Export Promotion Board, 2005), 14,, accessed October 14, 2006.

19. According to the Uganda Export Promotion Board, coffee ranked as Uganda's leading export in 2005. Uganda Export Promotion Board, Statistics,, accessed October 14, 2006.

20. In Uganda, village artisans and producers typically sell their products locally to domestic craft traders or tourists. The domestic craft traders serve as intermediaries between the artisans and the local markets and exporters. Because of poor community organization and the lack of a proper marketing structure, local artisans work in a fragmented environment with little knowledge or consideration of market requirements, quality, design, or standards. Design innovations and product adaptations are limited due to the rudimentary skills and limited capacity of Uganda's artisans.

21. Social Development Sector Investment Plan (Kampala: Uganda Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social Development, 2005); National Tourism Policy (Kampala: Uganda Ministry of Tourism, Trade, and Industry, 2004).

22. Local Governments Act, 1997. See Uganda Ministry of Local Government website for more information:, accessed October 17, 2006.

23. Suleiman Ngware, "Empowerment of Local Institutions in Poverty Eradication in Tanzania" (paper presented to the members of Parliament's Committee on Environment, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, May 6-7, 1999).