Officials wasting public resources on travel

FOR a nation whose Treasury is admittedly bankrupt, and whose transitional coalition government’s service delivery record is very poor, frugality should be the buzzword.

Candid Comment with Stewart Chabwinja

Or, to cite Finance minister Tendai Biti’s caveat, we should be eating what we gather.

Viewed in this context, government’s continued failure to live within its limited means is most worrying, amid revelations this week the country’s moribund economy shrunk by about 3% during the first four months of the year due to constrained business activity.

Yet the executive’s appetite for foreign travel remains undiminished, with President Robert Mugabe flying out to Yokohama, Japan, on Tuesday for the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, with a bloated entourage of about 60 officials.

The country’s limping economy simply cannot afford the profligacy of Treasury wholly funding the trip — it is certain to drain millions of scarce taxpayers’ money in airfares, accommodation and general upkeep in top hotels in Yokohama on Tokyo Bay. Tokyo is one of the world’s most expensive cities to stay in, and Yokohama is unlikely to be far behind.

What’s more, reports suggest Mugabe and his team would be in Tokyo until next Tuesday, followed by a two-day Singapore stop-over (for medical check-ups and shopping?) before flying back home.

The coalition government formed to rescue the country out of the socio-economic morass must prioritise provision of basic infrastructure and services including roads, electricity and potable water which unabatedly continue to deteriorate. While spiking the air miles, Mugabe’s office chewed up US$20 million in six months against an annual allocation of US$15 million.

It has been another hectic travel year for Mugabe thus far with destinations including Equatorial Guinea, The Vatican, AU meeting in Ethiopia, Kenya, Asia, and South Africa for the Nations Cup and a liberations movement meeting. No wonder government spent nearly US$50 million in foreign travel last year, far more than education (US$25 million), while energy projects got US$16 million.

Mugabe is by no means alone in globetrotting: Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Biti himself helped drain the travel budget through their own trips and other things.

Most of the trips are hardly worth it with the staple memoranda of understanding usually all government delegations bring back home.

To that you can add politically expedient spin, with the recent AU meeting a case in point as Mugabe and the state media served the public with an airbrushed version of events in Ethiopia to promote Zanu PF’s self-serving agenda, although Sadc has since set the record straight.

Thus, moves to curb waste, revealed this week, by clamping down on excessive spending on foreign travel deserve praise. We must spend every public penny prudently.

Historically, debt has often been considered a sin. Government would do well to take a leaf out of Germany and the Netherlands where schuld, the word for debt, also means guilt.