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Yet another commission for development

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American business tycoon, Ross Perot, once said: “If you see a snake, just kill it-don’t appoint a committee on snakes.

Speaking at a retreat for top Nigerian civil servants, a former Nigerian Finance Minister Shamsuddeen Usman,  expounded Perot’s wisdom by saying: “If you see a snake in your office, kill it. Do not write a memo saying that you saw a very big snake and it will require certain poison to kill it and maybe at the end of the memo you say, please advise. Do not set up a committee to study the snake. By the time you are setting up the committee, the snake might have killed somebody”.
Usman then summed up his exhortation: “However, crafty civil servants would do lengthy memos on snakes, if the memos would afford them the highly celebrated authority to incur expenditure, a blank cheque that is manipulated to the fringes of due process. The civil service is brimming with hundreds of thousands of men and women, who layers of bureaucracy assist to do nothing, other than write tonnes of memos that say nothing”.

I recalled Perot’s advice on Tuesday when President Peter Mutharika announced that he had set up a ministerial committee on doing business because his administration is thinking business.

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It is encouraging to hear the President telling us that he has a dream. The problem is that our leaders have dreamt for long and most of them never woke up from their dreams to actualize them for us, the ordinary citizens to appreciate.

The father of our liberal democracy, Bakili Muluzi, told us some 22 years ago that he was determined to reduce poverty. We rolled out a number of white papers to help him translate his vision.  He mesmerized us even more when, five years later, he told us that he would eradicate our poverty and not just reducing it.

Yes, Muluzi laid the foundation by liberalizing a number of sectors but the dream remained what it was.

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Then came Bingu wa Mutharika. He actually said his dreams were in colour. He encouraged each one of us to have our little dreams and add motion to the colour dreams. Bingu developed the infrastructure and ensured food security. But his dreams went with him as we can not even maintain flood lights in our cities.

Then, in came Joyce Banda with a number of initiatives. She mainly targeted women to become entrepreneurs. She also whipped us into line around issues of women entrepreneurship (mzimayi adzitakata). Banda also distributed livestock and bicycle taxis besides building houses for the vulnerable.

But most of her initiatives ended with her exit from office.

The current President promised that he would continue from where his late brother, Bingu, left off. He is reforming the civil service which drains a lot of our resources, maintaining a lean cabinet and has tried to minimize foreign and domestic trips. But two years in office, we are yet to see his vision, clearly.

Our major problem is that we fail to build on what we have initiated as a nation. Like he-goats, we all want to hear our own bray.

Too many contradictions

But one would think that there are too many initiatives that Mutharika’s administration is attempting to implement. We saw the highly hyped investors’ forum which was held in grand style at the Bingu International Conference Centre. The government waxed lyrical how this forum was a tipping point in our quest to turn from an importing to an exporting economy.

But a few months down the lane, the government says it needs to review and narrow down on a few priorities if the forum is to yield anything. Did we mean it all along?

And some of the priorities remain questionable to date. For instance, why should we spend our energy in developing coal powered electricity when we know pretty well that the world is turning its back on coal? Have we not drawn enough lessons from the smoky business that is tobacco?

By the way, how do we attract investors when our national power supply is intermittent and so expensive. We are talking of fighting deforestation yet electricity tariffs continue to rise beyond the reach of the majority of our people. Just 12 months ago, K8,000 would earn a Malawian about 400 units of electricity. But today, the same amount brings in 166 units only, with quarter of the amount going to government as tax!

Then we are talking of trimming the civil service and making it efficient. The government was hesitant to hire graduating doctors, nurses and teachers on the basis of the reforms. Yet, cadets continue to be drafted into the civil service.

While we talk of creating a pool of highly qualified human resource, we are busy raising fees in our public universities from K250,000 to a million kwacha. And this raise is targeted at individuals who want to join the revival movement by sharpening their skills in order to contribute meaningfully to the development efforts. Yes, university education should not be cheap, but where does money from those punitive taxes go if we cannot finance our education system or hospitals?

As poor Malawians continue to faithfully meet their tax obligations, the system allows selfish civil servants to siphon the little resources from government coffers. They are killing snakes that stray into their offices and having them for dinner. The well-orchestrated fraud at our Ethiopian mission is a case in point. Money was remitted from Lilongwe, cashed in Ethiopia and returned to pockets of civil servants at Capital Hill. Does the right hand not know what the left hand is doing?

The Trade Fair

The private sector is not helping matters either. Just take the current trade fair that is being held in Blantyre, for instance. The trade exhibition has all the signs that we are not prepared for a giant leap, as a nation. As expected, some exhibitors were still putting up their structures on the day President Mutharika opened the fair. This has been an annual embarrassment. We behave as if we have been ambushed to hold the fair.

Close to three decades of holding this annual exhibition, we are failing to expand the trade fair ground. The Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) cannot even put up a durable fence around the fair grounds. Probably, someone at MCCCI has is happy to maintain this snake as his pet.

Where are the investment deals that we reportedly seal at the end of each fair? Have we taken stock as to why participation of foreign companies is dwindling? Why have we allowed the trade fair to turn into a flea market to sell mass produced goods?

The fair opened some three days earlier than scheduled as the organizers wanted to accommodate the President who was already in Blantyre attending celebrations at St Michaels and All Angels Church. But has someone considered the implications this sudden change had on foreign participants? What about budgetary constraints from participants who came from outside Blantyre? Maybe, politics and business are not the best of bed fellows.

These are some of the snakes that are swallowing our efforts to turn Malawi from a net import into a recognized exporter. Probably, we do not need another ministerial committee to look at how we can do business. What is it that the committee members will do differently this time around that they have failed to do, through cabinet, in the last two years?

Let’s look at the red-tape that investors face. Are our bank lending rates conducive to business development? Do our laws hedge Malawians from predatory foreign businesses?

So kill these snakes instead of discussing how and when to kill them.

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