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‘Austerity measures were meant to hoodwink us’

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Michael Kaiyatsa

By Deogratias Mmana:

As the year draws to the end, government cannot say what exactly it has achieved from the austerity measures it announced in February and May this year.

And commentators say the austerity measures which the government announced were not necessarily meant to achieve anything.

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Instead, they say, it was government’s response to public pressure to cut expenditure such that the measures were merely some political posturing to please the donor community and Malawians in general.

First was Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Sosten Gwengwe announcing six austerity measures when presenting his 2022-2023 national budget statement on February 18, 2022.

The measures included reviewing of benefits and entitlements for senior government officials including the Presidency and Cabinet ministers; reviewing the government motor vehicle policy with an aim of reducing expenditure in terms of number, types, and sizes of motor vehicles and continuing with the installation of pre-paid utility meters in all government institutions without exception.

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Other measures are procuring security equipment and fertiliser directly from manufacturers; recruiting competent graduates in accounting to fix challenges faced in processing of payment in IFMIS and government accounting and fast tracking the digitization drive to reduce paperwork and fraud.

Then President Lazarus Chakwera gave a catalogue of 15 austerity measures on May 31, 2022. These included cutting by 20 percent allocations of fuel allowance for all cabinet members; forbidding fuel allocation to public officers who are not entitled to it and restricting the movement of pool vehicles owned by the Government beyond 6pm .

The President also directed that all public officers who needed to travel outside the country on duty would do so not more than three times for the remainder of the year.

After these directives, Secretary to the President and Cabinet Colleen Zamba issued some circulars giving further guidance on the measures.

Despite the measures, the state of affairs in the government remains almost the same, according to our contacts.

Two officers from different ministries shared the same views.

“The measures were hurriedly announced without understanding the operations of the government. Some of the measures cannot work,” said one officer.

The other said: “Decisions about the government should not be made with emotions.”

When contacted, Gwengwe referred us to the spokesperson in his ministry Taurai Banda who insisted that government has gained from the austerity measures.

“We are still in the process of quantifying the nominal outcome for the austerity measures,” he said.

But some commentators have accused the government of hypocrisy on the austerity measures.

National coordinator for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace Boniface Chibwana said: “The Presidency and cabinet have shown little regard to the austerity measures. There are continued local and international trips both by the president and his cabinet when the economic situation of the country is at its lowest.”

Chibwana further said: “Living conditions for people are bad. Wastefulness continues to be a common recurrence. This wastefulness comes with the failure to do due diligence in assessing contractors as in the case of K750 million [fertiliser deal] and outright corruption.”

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation Executive Director Michael Kaiyatsa also trashed the measures saying they were announced to hoodwink donors and citizens.

“It appeared the measures were announced to hoodwink Malawians and donors into believing that the government was doing something to stabilise the economy but in reality there was no commitment, even from the highest office, to adhere to these measures.

“In our assessment, the government failed to walk the talk on austerity measures. We were told that among others, the government would reduce foreign trips to three for government officials including the President himself for the remainder of the year. But we all know what happened. Government officials, including the President himself, travelled even more, defying their own set measures.”

Consumers Association of Malawi Executive Director John Kapito said the austerity measures were just hypocrisy as the annual budgets for State Residences and Office of the President and Cabinet were almost finished before the fiscal year ended.

Parliament added a total of K12 billion to the two institutions.

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