The size of Uganda’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has raised our collective eyebrows - again.
In September 2022, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja faced public criticism for plans to lead a parallel delegation of twelve to UNGA in addition to the main delegation of six, led by Vice President Jessica Alupo.
This year, Uganda bumped up its delegation to 71 people, which the opposition has criticized as wasteful and misguided. Reports of the rotund daily allowances of the delegation’s officials added incendiary flames to public ire.
In 2012, New York journalists shadowed UNGA delegations from some of the world’s poorest countries like Togo, Swaziland, Gabon, Mali and Nigeria. The delegations splurged on New York’s most expensive hotels and waltzed in and out of glitzy shopping centers with heavy-laden bags of premium shopping.
In March, President Yoweri Museveni ordered a blanket ban on travel abroad for civil servants and parliamentarians and blamed the Finance ministry for poor prioritization. The Finance ministry argued a blanket ban on travel abroad was not practical as some overseas travels are essential (like begging for money and courting foreign investment) to national development.
If we must travel, we ought to make it count for Uganda. Our delegations abroad should be lean and mean fighting machines of excellence and Uganda’s interests.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP27 held in November 2022 in Egypt provides an excellent example of why size matters. Climate change and fossil fuels make a heady mix to the detriment of life on earth. African countries and indigenous communities face the worst effects of climate change thanks to the world’s thirst for fossil fuels.
The Guardian newspaper stated that delegations representing corporate interests dwarfed many African governments and indigenous communities highlighting the growing influence of the fossil fuel lobby. COP27 attracted the highest number of fossil fuel lobbyists in COP history.
Meanwhile, Mauritius, one the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, sent a delegation of seven - the least number of delegates. Notably, during COP26, Mauritius warned that climate action is “a matter of life and death.”
A Global Policy research paper published in March on the importance of delegation size at UNGA concludes that size does matter at UNGA. Global Policy underlines the importance of UNGA as the centre stage of world politics, where all UN member states get their deliberative 15 minutes of fame.
The research paper, which is based on UN data on country delegations to UNGA from 1993 to 2016, shows that countries seeking to maximize their participation in UNGA need to have sizeable representation.
Generally, countries with sizeable human and financial resources tend to send large delegations to UNGA compared to countries with small populations or low national incomes. Big is big - and must be seen as big.
Global Policy classifies large delegations into four categories. Firstly, human rights violators send more representatives to UNGA than human rights promoters because they want to control the discussions and thwart any resolutions against them or other human rights offenders.
Secondly, countries that are heavily involved in UN security and peacekeeping operations tend to send large delegations as they seek to maintain control of the missions. Thirdly, countries with an economic development agenda – countries that provide or receive development aid - send more representatives to UNGA.
The donors seek to maintain their soft power through aid while the sucklings of donor aid seek more funding. Everyone wins. Fourthly, the UN Security Council members send larger delegations seeking to maintain their exclusivity in the daily running of the UN. Big remains big.
With these categories in mind, 71 suddenly seems mild for Uganda. Global Policy notes that 100 members is the average size of a large delegation. Surely, 71 is not enough, considering the current position of Uganda. Following the international backlash from the anti-homosexuality legislation, Uganda needs more friends with more money. UNGA is our chance to razzle-dazzle the international community with the vibes of our delegation.
As we wait patiently for Uganda’s delegation to make a big splash at UNGA, our neighbours are showing off again. The Kenyan and Rwandan delegates led by their respective presidents are not doing us any favours. The East African newspaper revealed that Kenya scooped a deal with the American National Basketball Association (NBA) to help train local coaches.
The NBA will also open an office in Nairobi. Additionally, the Kenyan president signed a $60 million deal with an American development agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). The Rwandan president, on the sidelines of UNGA, met with the chairman and CEO of the global pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer.
President Museveni has stayed away from attending UNGA in person since 2017, notes The Independent Magazine. In 2018, State Minister for International Affairs Okello Oryem told the media, “The president told cabinet it was pointless to travel to New York when he was going to address the assembly for only 15 minutes. It is also costly; each time he travels, he is accompanied by a big delegation.”
At the time, former premier Ruhakana Rugunda led Uganda’s delegation of 15. It appears the issue is not if our delegation is 15 or 71 but the quality of our delegation. Will Alupo and Nabbanja’s 71 deliver where 15 or less did not?
The writer is a tayaad muzzukulu.