Government officials have kept a tight lid on the size and cost of the entourage that accompanied President Peter Mutharika to the United General Assembly (UNGA) but our calculations suggest that over K270 million may have been spent.
This is enough to fund Mzimba District Hospital for over two full months where over 20 children die every month before they reach the age of one due to lack of care and access to basic medical attention due to insufficient government funding.
The K270 million is based on a minimum of 45 people that are likely to travel with the President for such a trip and for a period of 15 days during which the group was in New York.
The figure excludes additional five days that Mutharika and other government officials who are still in the US have already stayed.
The officials, including Foreign Affairs Minister, Francis Kasaila, have not been forthcoming with information on the type of engagements the President is attending to or how many more days he will be in the US.
Sources at Foreign Affairs say Mutharika is entitled to $700 a day when he travels outside while the First Lady pockets $400 dollars.
On the other hand, senior officials like ministers and principal secretaries as well as directors also receive $400 a day. Junior officers get $300 a day for a foreign trip.
A former diplomat who did want to be named said even if government was to reduce the size of the entourage, the number of people on the trip could still not be less than 45.
He argued that during such times government officials take advantage of the summit to go for a vacation and do some shopping.
According to the source the UNGA summit should not be seen as an activity strategic for the nation.
Therefore if, for instance, 45 people were given $400 per day it would translate to $18,000 (K13.1 million). For a period of 15 days and that amounts to K197 million.
“During Dr Banda’s time ministers were being delegated to just go and read the speech and they could stay there for just a day or two. But now the impression that is given is that the country’s solutions will come out of the summit,” said the source.
The former diplomat also claimed that among the personal members of staff who travel with the President is an accountant from Office of President and Cabinet (OPC) who pays for meals and other bills despite the people already pocketing allowances.
“Maybe if it was Washington DC but New York is just a town and during this time the country is always busy promoting its tourism and life is expensive because prices of goods are doubled, it’s hard to imagine how much the tax payer is coughing for such a luxury,” he said.
Asked on whether the President is justified to prolong his stay to attend to other equally important post meetings, the former diplomat wondered as to which people in particular Mutharika was holding meetings with.
He said according to his experience most delegates leave earlier or after speeches by heads of state.
“You must understand that subcommittee meetings by government officials which include ministers and representatives from different NGOs take place before the speeches and such discussions form part of the agenda of the summit. What happens these days is as if the summit is a black box analogy and one doesn’t know what exactly happens there,” said the source.
Commentator Rafik Hajat echoed similar sentiments in a separate interview saying UNGA trips are extremely expensive looking at the allowances that people get.
“I hear the President gets not less than $500 dollars a day and if you add the cost of security and also factor in allowances by the entourage you would see that the cost does not match the economic conditions the country is going through following withdrawal of direct budgetary support by donors,” said Hajat.
Hajat however was quick to add that perhaps Mutharika is busy negotiating for better deals for the country adding that it’s important for him to come clean on what type of meetings he is still holding instead of keeping people guessing.
Mutharika left the country through Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) on September 15 on a private jet to Johannesburg for the summit which took place from September 19 -23.
He was expected back home by the 25th but he has prolonged his stay.
Kasaila last week challenged the media to use its expertise and capacity to establish as to how big the country’s delegation was and how much it cost the taxpayer.
Earlier Kasaila had pledged that government would disclose the details but backtracked arguing that the executive does not owe the media an explanation and that such information would be given to Parliament when need arises.
Last year 102 visas were issued by the US Embassy in Lilongwe for the Malawi delegation.
Our source at the US Embassy in Lilongwe said Malawi protested with the US on how the number of visas for the delegation was divulged to the public.
He said this year the embassy was extra careful as the US law does not allow it to reveal such information unless there is a court order.
“In this case the onus is on the Malawi government to reveal to Malawians the number of people who travelled to America for the UNGA if it so wishes,” said our source at the embassy.
Government spokesperson Mallison Ndau could not be reached on his phone for comment yesterday.