Aid suspension: A clarion call for soul searching and action on Malawi gov’t

We, at CHRR and CEDEP, are deeply distressed by news that donors under the Common Approach to Budgetary Support (Cabs) have withheld aid estimated at K60 billion to Malawi for the October to December quarter. Donors contribute about 40 percent of the country’s national budget, including almost 80 percent of the development budget which finances various projects in the sectors of transport, water, health and education.

Our distress at the news is largely reminiscent of the dire economic repercussions that befell a majority of poor Malawians when the donors and other development partners took a similar stance in the twilight of the late President Bingu wa Mutharika regime.

Surely, memories are still fresh of the horror of life Malawians went though between 2010 and 2012, thanks to the late Mutharika-led fiscally imprudent government, among other ills.

The Perennial Failure by Government to Acknowledge the Status quo: The case of “Crisis” Versus “Breakthrough” saga

However, just as during Democratic Progress Party (DPP) administration, we at CHRR and CEDEP are not in the least surprised by the decision arrived at by donors under Cabs during the ruling Peoples Party’s (PP) government. We saw it coming especially when considering the recent developments that have characterized the public arena since the shooting of government’s budget director Paul Mphwiyo.  For no doubt, a government that operates on mismanaged financial system exacerbated by plunder of public resources, and oiled by superficial damage- control measures deserves nothing short of what the Cabs Group have done to Malawi.

Timothy and Trapence

From the very onset of the cash-gata saga, the current regime has not helped matters either in as far as addressing the crisis at hand. Instead of demonstrating complete political will towards ensuring that justice prevail on the matter by amongst other things acknowledging that there is a “crisis”, President Joyce Banda and her party zealots have gone flat out in their propaganda-tailored campaigns on the matter describing the so far registered “positive” steps like the arrests of some “small fish” as a breakthrough on the part of the government.

So deeply rooted has been this “executive arrogance” that even the civil society and media attempts to persuade it to acknowledge and declare that we are in a crisis have often proved futile. Even in scenarios where the arrests of  some “small fish” have been widely viewed as reactive moves to the emerging public pressures following the shooting of the budget director Paul Mphwiyo, the government has viewed such “successes” as being products of her proactive measures to address the existing loopholes characterizing the IFMI prior to Mphwiyo’s shooting and Cashgate Scandal.

President Banda’s Missed Opportunity to Reclaim Public Trust: The Case of “PP dominated” Press Conference during President Banda’s return from USA

Apart from constructively granting immunity to some big fish implicated in the cash gate scandal, this casual approach in addressing the crisis at hand has also been clearly evident in how the President franked by her party’s sympathizers handled the press conference upon her return from United States of America. While the general public was anticipating concrete answers and steps taken by the government to address the emerging concerns relating to the shooting of budget director and looting of government coffers,  President Banda and  her party followers reduced the press conference to a verbal and psychological war vented against the journalists present who were seen as not being grateful enough to the President and her government for the “remarkable” measures it had taken by amongst other things arresting some small fish in order to bring sanity on the matter.

As may have been rightly observed in our joint analytical statement of Banda’s speech and the mood that accompanied the function, President Joyce Banda missed the rare opportunity to reclaim public trust by amongst other things unveiling her action plan to deal with the problem at hand, instead of being defensive. This is where we, at CHRR and CEDEP, strongly believe the President lost the plot, and the recent lost of public and donor confidence in government finance management systems and those in the “ruling elite” leading to the withholding of k60 billion has not come as a surprise to us.

By subjecting our esteemed journalists to embarrassment and intimidation, President Joyce Banda and her party zealots present at the press conference thought they had silenced the voice of reason. Little did they know that her defensive approach in response to the questions posed by our media would not only succeed in sowing seeds of public suspicion of her government’s possible role in the cashgate saga but also gradually erode public and donor trust and confidence in her government. It is such “executive arrogance” manifested in such tendencies like calling the prevailing crisis a “breakthrough” that has cost us big time in the face of this suspension of donor funds.

Lack of a Holistic Approach to addressing the Cash-gate Scandal as partly behind the Suspension of Donor Budgetary support: The Case of “Selective” Arrests

We at CHRR and CEDEP further bemoan the manner in which the arrests relating to the cash gate saga have all along been handled since the inception of the issue, a scenario that may have to some greater extent contributed to public and donor loss of confidence and trust in the government. Instead of witnessing big heads roll in key offices such as the Treasury, the Ministry of Finance, the Accountant General, and the Reserve Bank of Malawi, Malawians have noted with disbelief and anger at government’s focus on arresting mostly those holding small positions. We, at CHRR and CEDEP feel the circumvention on the crisis by government through such insignificantly selective arrests has the potential to further erode the trust among Malawians towards government. Window-dressing exercises in a crisis of this scale are just an insult to the injury.

The Veil of Secrecy over IFMIS Regrettable

CHRR and CEDEP would also wish to pick issues with the veil of secrecy government has portrayed on the Integrated Finance Management Information Systems (IFMIS). Malawians are told that IFMIS has been re-installed without having full and official information of the loopholes that were in the porous system and what has been done to strengthen it to avoid a repeat of another crisis in future.

Moreover, in a context where principles of accountability and transparency reign supreme, we at CHRR and CEDEP expected government to conduct a consultative exercise on the possibility of doing away with the IFIMS and replace it with an alternative and a more efficient public finance management system. In this case, there could be an opportunity for Malawi to learn from other countries’ public finance management style and see if it could be replicated here. Otherwise, it will take a little longer for the IFIMS to regain the trust of Malawians.

Recommendations

However, there is an opportunity in every crisis, they say. The crisis Malawi finds herself in has a silver lining. It’s time for government to conduct an honest soul searching and do the needful to regain the trust of Malawians and donors.  This appears an uphill task but it’s doable. Here is how.

Firstly, the Joyce Banda administration must swallow its pride by acknowledging that we are in a crisis that requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders. The “breakthrough talk” as of now must hence be aborted.

Secondly, Government must start walking the talk on issues of national importance. One such an issue where government must match talk with action is the austerity policy underlying the Economic Recovery Plan (EPR) and the current fiscal year. We, at CHRR and CEDEP have time and again heard President Joyce Banda talk highly of austerity yet she has done little on her frequent foreign and domestic travels which drain a lot of public resources. CHRR and CEDEP thus, would like to appeal to the President to seriously look into this now that government has been told to revise its budget in light of aid suspension by Cabs.

Thirdly, the President and senior government officials must start championing accountability and transparency. To this end, Malawians deserve to know how, within a short period of time, PP has become the richest party in the country, with a fleet of vehicles bought for fun. What is the source of all these resources? Does the PP government draw a line between government and party functions in the use of public resources? These questions might sound like platitudes but could prove strong indicators if Malawi is to open a new page on finance management system.

Fourthly, the President, as a bonafide citizen of this country, must collaborate with the Malawi Police Service by amongst other things rendering relevant information pertaining to the shooting of Budget Director Paul Mphwiyo. The President is on record to have publicly said to have some knowledge of the attempted assailant(s) to the shooting of Mr Mphwiyo. Almost one month and weeks have passed but there is no clear evidence that the President has done such a human right and constitutional obligation. The shooting of Mphwiyo remains the issue of national interest, and all those who have expressed to have some knowledge of those behind the attempted murder ought to bring such evidence to the relevant authorities.

Lastly, CHRR and CEDEP promise to continue rendering support to government through thick and thin for the betterment of Malawians. It is also CHRR and CEDEP’s hope that the Cabs Group will be monitoring government’s action(s) to spruce up public finance management image and resume  aid to the country for the good of majority Malawians currently living on less than a dollar a day.

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