Uganda, explained by our Cultural Dimensions

16 Apr

By Stephen Twinoburyo

While reading the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, I came across reference to a study of national cultural dimensions that was conducted by Geert Hofstede. Further research into these dimensions revealed findings that could explain some of the behaviour of we Ugandans, and why we possibly find ourselves in the situation we are in.

The five cultural dimensions identified are:

Power Distance Index (PDI), Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long-Term Orientation. The highest score in any dimension so far is 118 (China for LTO).

So where does Uganda come in?

Power Distance Index is perhaps the most crucial for Ugandans. It measures the extent to which a society extols hierarchy. Under PDI, the less powerful members of society accept that power is distributed unequally and look up to authority (family, organization, institution e.t.c) more readily. Both the followers and the leaders endorse this power difference.

Most Arab countries average around 80 while Austria has a PDI of 11. There are no available figures for Uganda but a composite value of 64 is given for East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia). South Africa is midway at 49 while USA has a PDI of 40. Countries with a low PDI have a strong belief in equality for their citizens and the citizens have the opportunity to rise in society.

Ugandans, either out of colonialism or circumstances, have a strong belief in hierarchy. When one meets a Ugandan, they will usually ask where one works or what university degree they possess. Ugandans will address themselves as Engineer XX, Director XY, Architect XZ, Afande PQ e.t.c. This is not the case, for instance, in South Africa. One can socialize with a somebody for a long time and not know that he/she is a director of a large company or a top government official. Needless to say, nobody will ask what one studied unless it’s in a interview. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a workshop at Wits University in Johannesburg where different people from the finance industry were presenting papers on mathematical finance. The programme only showed their names and I was surprised later to find that half of them were professors and the rest PHD doctors, a number of them key players in the financial sector of the country.

How does this PDI play out politically in Uganda? In Uganda, political leaders are everything. Many Ugandans look up to the president unquestioningly and he will equally back down orders, in return. For instance, nobody in the NRM can question why the chairman’s position has never been contested. It is a given that only him must occupy it until he decides to give it to somebody else. The president, at a whim, summons anybody to wherever he is, and he can do as he pleases with any institution of the state. Why? Because he has authority and people have given him that space. To quote the Daily Monitor of Friday, April 02, 2010: “President Museveni has ordered the police to question Dr Kizza Besigye over comments he allegedly made…”. I can assure you this order will be carried out. The president orders police to question his political opponent. Why doesn’t the president then become a policeman instead? Throughout his time, the president promises roads and people feel very grateful often seeing this as a sign that he loves them, yet it is the government’s job to deliver.

Leaders in Uganda know how to exploit such positions. Idi Amin and Museveni have done this to their best. Almost everything in the country, however tiny, ends up with the president. A demonstration can not last more than two days because the president will bark down orders for it to stop, and with the help of the police or his army, it will. Such a thing can not happen in a country like S Africa or Germany or the US. All these things have their historical origins but we need to work towards lowering the PDI in Uganda.

Individualism measures how one defines the self against collectivism. On the individualism scale, USA scores 91 while Guatemala scores 6. East Africa scores 27. Out of our cultural roots, Ugandans are generally collective people. This in itself is good but there is some value lost in individualism. According to Geert Hofstede “The “American dream” is clearly a representation of this. This is the Americans’ hope for a better quality of life and a higher standard of living than their parents’. This belief is that anyone, regardless of their status can ‘pull up their boot straps’ and raise themselves from poverty”. When individuals like Kiiza Besigye, Nobert Mao or Mugisha Muntu come out, they are frowned upon. These people are however expressing their individualism.

Masculinity measure the trends among the genders. Studies at IBM showed that women’s values differ less among societies than men’s values. The ‘masculine’ group are generally assertive while ‘feminine’ are usually modest, caring pole. Assertiveness, power, strength, materialism/material success, self-centeredness and individual achievements are generally traits of the masculine group. Japan scores highest at 95 and the Nordic countries lowest, all below 20. East Africa has a score of 41 and I expect Uganda to fair well in a balance between masculinity and femininity. This may explain the large number of women politicians and activist in the country. The recent demonstration at the Electoral Commission offices is an indication of this.

Uncertainty avoidance looks at a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity and generally refers to the search for Truth. It gives an indication of how members of society feel comfortable or uncomfortable in unstructured situations. Uncertainty avoiding societies create and adhere to strict laws and rules. Germany avoids uncertainty (65) while life is completely uncertain in Singapore (8). With East Africa at 52, I don’t know what to make of Uganda. Maybe this explains why some people may not be keen on change.

Long-term orientation’s characteristics include persistence, ordering relationships by status and observing this order, being thrift and having a sense of shame. On the other hand, the characteristics of short-term orientation are personal steadiness and stability, protecting your ‘face’, and reciprocation of greetings, favors, and gifts. East Africa scores 25 but take heart, Sierra Leone scores 16. I, without any hesitation, place Uganda under short-term orientation.

These dimensions have been used by multi-national companies to study how values in the workplace are influenced by cultures. Companies have also used these studies in their multi-national expansions.

I hope this may help explain to Ugandans how our behaviour – and that of our leaders – is influenced by our culture.


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