Simango’s Thinking Aloud on K9bn loan for toilets: Malawi govt bill

Government has asked Parliament to authorise a K9 billion loan to be used for the construction of construct toilets and drill boreholes. By the time of writing this article the matter had not been resolved so I am not sure of the outcome as of now. Not that there is anything wrong with borrowing and certainly nothing wrong with building toilets or drilling boreholes. What has irked me is whether we need to borrow to build toilets.

According to social media posts, K9 billion will be required to drill and build – wait for it – a measly 450 boreholes and 166 toilets. Now, according to my Chicken Mathematics (don’t ask if you do not know what that means), constructing 450 boreholes at the high market rate of K3 million per borehole will require only K1.35 billion. Constructing 166 toilets at the estimated rate of K5 million per toilet (assuming it is a communal toilet with multiple cubicles for both male and female users) will need a total of K830 million. The whole project will therefore require only K2.18 billion.toil

Even if we decided, for argument’s sake, to peg the toilets at K10 million each on the assumption that they will be ultra-modern toilets, complete with self-flushing sensors, self-cleaning, gold plated seats and glass fish tanks for water tanks, the total for the 166 toilets will be K1.66 billion, bringing the combined total for the two project outputs to K3.1 billion. This means that approximately K6 billion, which is accounting for two thirds of the projects is not used in the actual construction of the facilities.

Unless the quantities that are circulating on our social media are not correct I find it difficult to understand why a prudent government would front a prudent economist like Goodall Gondwe to present a bill whose administrative costs account for two thirds of the total project costs.

But figures aside, the very element of borrowing to construct a toilet just does not sit right with me. Even in out villages, I have never heard of a household that borrows money in order to build a toilet, nor have I seen a bank giving out loans for toilet construction. Granted, clean water and good sanitation, in general, are essential for reducing our massive health bill, as fewer people will fall sick from preventable diseases thereby enabling the government to save on costs of buying drugs. But that does not mean we should be borrowing billions in the name of building toilets.

Logically, if we can borrow, it is assumed we have the capacity to repay and if we are able to repay we can as well borrow only for urgent and essential projects for which lump-sum requirements may be beyond our immediate means. Certainly, not to subsidize ablution.

At 50 years, I believe Malawi needs to move to a stage where we are able to build our own toilets and drill our own boreholes. As far as I am concerned, Malawi has more than enough financial resources to afford such amenities except for the fact that most of our money goes uncollected simply because our revenue collection system is skewed.

How many people pay city or town rates in our towns and cities? My guess is less than 10%. Yet, simply outsourcing city rates collection would see out towns and cities collecting billions per year, which would be enough to build good toilets.

In the same vein, hundreds, if not thousands of motorists jump red lights and drive above the limit everyday. Yet with just a simple, unmanned camera technology, the state would be collecting millions of kwachas every week in traffic violations alone. Of course, we would need to outsource the service otherwise the system would collapse in no time due to corruption, lack of maintenance and even theft of the cameras. My point remains that we would somehow afford to pay for our own toilets.

And why does government want to get involved in constructing toilets for the assemblies, anyway? The assemblies are more than capable of doing it themselves if they can put their houses in order. And why are we still talking about drilling boreholes when the country has a water body running almost its entire length? If we are still talking boreholes 50 years after independence, when are we going to extend out piped water networks? In another 50 years?

As for the training centres that require these boreholes, how were they built with no water facilities, in the first place? Do not tell me water was not factored in the technical plans. Someone, somewhere did not do their job – let them fix it or face the consequences. Understandably the institutions will still need waters, regardless, but whatever the solution may be, let it not be boreholes but rather use the opportunity to bring pipes water to the surrounding communities with the institution acting as catalyst projects.

They are a lot of smart people in the ruling party who have far better ideas than these. Why they decided to go ahead and push for something this naïve as one of their first bills is beyond me. I know that in America, one of the first assignments for every new government is to bring a bill that asks the government go to war – or extend an existing one. It could be war against terrorism or war against drugs, there is always a bill on war. And it always gets passed and young people are sent to their death. Reason? So that politicians –on both sides – can repay campaign favours they received from big military contractors and big oil companies. And war brings big business to these cartels that make billions in manufacturing and supplying guns, bombs, warplanes, and the lot.

Well Malawi cannot afford war. Let alone after every election. But we can be smart and think about something else. The first multiparty president, Bakili Muluzi, brought us boreholes and I know of a few companies that were attached to his party that made a killing with very few or no boreholes to show for. There is still no borehole in Mbalachanda, Mzimba, for example.

His successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, brought us subsidized fertilizer. There is no denying the fact that many Malawians have benefited from this programme but that does not change the fact that the biggest winners of the farm input subsidy programme remains the suppliers and transport contractors attached to the ruling party then. Now, Peter Mutharika’s government has brought toilets.

What hope is there for Malawi?

 

 

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