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Fiscal discipline in moments of crisis

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PROBING COVID-19 FUNDS—Chizuma

The Office of the Ombudsman is investigating former Ministers of Health and Information, Jappie Mhango and Mark Botomani, respectively, over suspicion that they abused funds meant for national response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Around April 2020, the erstwhile governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led government launched a K157-billion preparedness and response plan to combat the spread of the pandemic.

Midway the fight, Mhango and Botomani came under heavy criticism and accusations from the public, which suspected that the duo was dipping their fingers into the National Covid-19 Response Plan Fund.

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That was after a leaked circular in April 2020 showed that the ministers in the then Special Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 were pocketing K450,000 in allowances while Members of Parliament (MPs) were taking K350,000 as risk allowances per day after every meeting.

But Mhango and Botomani swore by their creator, disparaging any information linking them to abuse of the funds. They remained steadfast in denying the allegations and claimed innocence until a photojournalist captured them on camera purportedly discussing their allocated allowances.

And courtesy of the social media, the unsolicited video clip went viral, prompting the Office of the Ombudsman to institute a probe into the matter.

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In her letter dated July 1 2020 and addressed to the then Principal Secretary of Ministry of Disaster Management Affairs and Public Events, Elvis Thodi, Ombudsman Martha Chizuma has said her office had learnt about allegations of lack of accountability, accessibility and responsiveness in implementation of the plan, hence, the investigation.

Chizuma said the seriousness of the impact of Covid-19 needs no emphasis and that any act of maladministration in the implementation of the response plan and management of the funds could result into loss of lives.

“In that regard, the Office will be monitoring the Covid-19 activities planned by the public institution, the activities actually carried out, effectiveness of those activities and observing any legal, policy or best practice gaps in the implementation of the same,” Chizuma said in the letter.

This was not the only case of suspected abuse of the Covid-19 resources. In April 2020, the National Anti-Corruption Alliance (Naca) also raised concern over lack of transparency and accountability in the allocation of K1 billion of Covid-19 funds to the then First Lady Gertrude Mutharika’s organisation, Beautify Malawi Trust (Beam).

These revelations forced poor taxpayers to doubt the sincerity of the Peter Mutharika-led administration on the Covid-19 outbreak in Malawi.

In fact, others suspected that Mutharika was using the pandemic to dodge the court-sanctioned fresh presidential election, particularly considering that voters had lost trust in his government.

But who could blame him?

In their research paper titled ‘Transparency during public health emergencies: From rhetoric to reality’, public health emergency communication experts, P O’Malley, J Rainford and A Thompson, argue that emergency response measures must be transparent, as hasty action opens up the risk of corruption, poor planning, or unintended consequences – leading to erosion of trust in government.

They say government officials need to observe strict adherence to financial management practices and fiscal discipline to gain or maintain public trust.

However, O’Malley, Rainford and Thompson emphasise the need for the civil society to assume a greater role in holding duty-bearers accountable in the administration of public health emergency funds.

“Lessons from the Sars [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] epidemic shows that one of the most important factors in the effectiveness of a government’s response to stop the spread of disease is the level of trust of its citizens.

“As Covid-19 puts even more pressure on the universality and quality of education systems – and on the capacity of governments to track and respond to those impacts – civil society can play an important role in ensuring that crisis response is targeted to the most vulnerable and sustained through the recovery phase,” the experts state.

To play this role, add O’Malley, Rainford and Thompson, it is vital that civil society be supported to advocate for measures to protect and prioritize the most vulnerable – including using their influence to inform government priorities in the emergency and recovery phases of the pandemic response.

“Budget monitoring, grassroots social mobilisation and tracking the quality and reach of service delivery will all be important elements of civic engagement to rebuild education during and after the crisis,” they state.

National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust national programmes manager, Gray Kalindekafe, says elsewhere in the world, emergency situations have offered a fertile ground for vested interests to use public funds for private gain, making it critical that vulnerabilities to corruption and misuse be recognised and mitigated.

Kalindekafe states that the misuse of funds during humanitarian crises such as Hurricane Katrina and the Ebola outbreak attest to such vulnerabilities.

He urges the incumbent government ‘to do what it takes’ in launching emergency measures to address the adverse impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people and firms, but ensure it keeps the receipts for the sake of transparency and accountability.

Kalindekafe believes the key to implementing a corruption-free public health emergency response lies in putting in place comprehensive and transparent reporting and public accountability procedures that oversight institutions such as the Parliament, the Auditor General’s Office, the Anti-Corruption Bureau, civil society organisations and the public at large are able to enforce while the support measures are being designed and implemented.

“Commensurate with the magnitude of the economic and health crisis, massive fiscal support packages may be adopted by the government, including a variety of revenue and expenditure measures such as additional expenditure on healthcare, cash transfers to households and businesses, loan guarantees, and equity injections.

“But I wish to appeal to the government to ensure it keeps the receipts as this is crucial in enabling citizens to hold their duty-bearers accountable,” he says.

On her part, Chizuma says her office is stressing the need for pro-activeness to prevent any loss of resources and ensure value for money.

She says to ensure timely interventions, her office will be providing real-time reports of its investigations, clearly highlighting the positives and, where necessary, also making directives and recommendations on any finding of maladministration.

Department of Disaster Management Affairs spokesperson Chipiliro Khamula told the media recently that the department had received the letter from the Ombudsman and that they were already preparing a financial report on the same.

“We realise that we are accountable to the public and all oversight institutions. We are going to honour the request made by the honourable Office of the Ombudsman,” Khamula said.

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