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How best to spend K8.1 billion

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Joyce Chitsulo
In a move they themselves understand, MPs want the already increased State Residences budget pushed up by a further K8.1 billion – favouring a department that is rarely audited while skinning citizen-centred institutions to the bone…

By Deogratias Mmana

At the time members of Parliament are pushing for increased funding to State Residences, several governance institutions are facing hard times as they have been allocated miserable budgets, details show.

Now there are calls that the extra money — K8.1 billion — be directed to these governance bodies instead “as they serve people directly and better”.

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Strengthening such a cause is the fact that State Residences are irregularly audited, we have established, meaning that Malawians do not know how Plot Number One spends people’s money.

On Tuesday, the parliamentary cluster comprising the Public Appointments and Commissions, Statutory Corporations and State Enterprises recommended that an additional K8.1 billion be allocated to State Residences for capital expenditure.

In the 2022-2023 financial year, the draft estimate for State Residences is at K14.5 billion.

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We examined allocations to the Law Commission, Legal Aid Bureau, Office of the Ombudsman and the Anti-Corruption (ACB), four of the key institutions that protect citizens’ interests.

Details in Document 4 of the budget shows that Legal Aid Bureau has been allocated K1.8 billion — against its submitted budget of K6.3 billion.

The ACB is being given K6.3 billion against the submitted budget of K8.1 billion.

The Law Commission has been allocated K954 million while the Office of the Ombudsman has received K1.2 billion against the submitted budget of K1.5 billion.

Executive Secretary for the Office of the Ombudsman, Alinafe Malunga, said the deficit of K320 million means the institution will not be able to handle all the 500 individual complaints on its desk.

It also means they will not be able to train 150 people that are performing the role of hospital ombudsman in 150 hospital facilities.

“And at least 500,000 people living in hard-to-reach areas will not have access to timely services of the office,” Malunga said.

According to Malunga, K50 million of the K320 million deficit was allocated to complaints resolution activities, K30 million for the operationalisation of hospital ombudsman and K240 million for procurement of vehicles for taking services of the Ombudsman to hard-to-reach areas.

On its part, the ACB says the K2 billion cut in its budget will affect the plan.

ACB spokesperson Egrita Ndala said under Other Recurrent Transactions (ORT) the bureau has received K3.6 billion instead of K4.4 billion.

“This will also affect rent of offices in Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu.

“The Bureau planned to procure five vehicles to ease transport challenges caused by an old fleet and increase in number of officers,” Ndala said.

For the construction of the new offices, the bureau has been allocated only K200 million instead of K642 million needed.

At Legal Aid Bureau, Director Masauko Chamkakala said the funds his organisation has been allocated are “as good as closing the office”.

He said the actual figure for operations from the K1.8 billion they have been allocated is K699 million – with the remainder to go to salaries.

He said it does not add up for the Bureau to get K699 million against 41 lawyers and 17 offices across the country when the same office received K734 million in the nine-month 2021-22 budget.

“We are aware that we cannot get everything because of other issues like Covid-19 and floods. But to get K699 million which is 11 percent of what we asked for is totally unacceptable,” Chamkakala said.

He said his office has 26,561 cases to handle.

Yet, despite the allocations to it, State Residences’ track record on audit is poor, we have established.

National Audit Office spokesperson Rabson Kagwamminga admitted that audits at State Residences have been irregular.

Currently, audits from June 2016 to June 2020 are underway and the reports are not yet available for the public, he said.

“State Residences have taken time to be audited. Because of other issues, we did not conduct the audits consistently. I am not sure of audits from 2015 backwards,” Kagwamminga said.

With such a record, it is unreasonable to give State Residence extra budget of as much as K8.1 billion, according to Reverend Master Nkhoma, Executive Director for Church and Society of the Blantyre Synod of the Church of Central African Presbyterian.

“And it is not fair for State Residences to be asking for an extra K8.1 billion when a lot of institutions’ budgets have been reduced,” he said.

Director for Centre for Research and Consultancy Milwad Tobias said the leadership of the country needs to demonstrate a spirit of collective sacrifice.

“Austerity must start with the leadership,” Tobias said.

Tobias further observed:

“The budget document shows that State Residences had a K6.9 billion allocation which was later revised to K15.5 billion in the nine months budget of 2021- 2022.

“If they were able to live within K15.5 billion in nine months, the rise from K14.5 billion to K22.6 billion is surprising unless they provide convincing justification.”

But Chairperson for the parliamentary cluster that is pushing for the raise, Joyce Chitsulo, defended the move.

She said it was the cluster’s role to lobby for institutions under its mandate.

“And we could not go and lobby for others that were not assigned to us,” Chitsulo said.

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