Austerity measures must include foreign travel

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NOW that it appears to have finally dawned on government, there is no escaping cutting employment costs devouring more than 80% of its revenues, there are several quick wins — no brainers, really — that government can score while plotting the daunting, yet inevitable, retrenchment route.

Candid Comment by Stewart Chabwinja

As disclosed by Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa in his Fiscal Policy Review Statement, the country needs to slash the unwieldy wage bill down to below 40% of state revenues. This is certainly an onerous task but a must, for government has no choice in the face of dwindling revenues and empty coffers.

To send a clear message it’s no longer business as usual, what better place to kick-start a belt-tightening crusade than the President’s Office where most of more than US$25 million was frittered away on domestic and foreign travel in the first five months of the year. A target of only US$5,6 million as of May had been set for foreign travel expenses but US$22,8 million was blown away — almost four times the target.

There can be no justification for such profligacy, especially when such junkets appear to benefit the delegation more in the form of generous allowances, than the country at large. Frequent-traveller President Robert Mugabe must choose his foreign jaunts informed by a cost-benefit analysis, and also needs to trim his bloated entourage of hangers-on.

There is the matter of 75 000 ghost workers, more precisely unqualified Zanu PF militias and supporters unearthed in the civil service through a payroll and skills audit of 2011 whom, for political ends, government is reluctant to cut loose from. They should be belatedly weeded out as they are drawing salaries under false pretences.

Top-heavy management, not to mention corruption and mismanagement, continue to bleed parastatals. NRZ workers recently told parliament that despite perilously falling business, management had multiplied, not to mention “other hidden directors who are on secondment from government”.

Government is also losing funds due to weak, or rather deliberately weakened, internal control systems. This has resulted in ministries losing scarce money through fraudulent activities due to “failure to establish and maintain effective, efficient and transparent systems of financial and risk management and internal controls”, according to Comptroller and Auditor-General Mildred Chiri’s latest reports.

Her findings and recommendations should inform measures to stem the costly culture of poor corporate governance, mismanagement, and institutionalised corruption — which oils Mugabe’s patronage system — that led to the loss of more than US$180 million in public funds last year through dodgy accounting.

The profligacy extends to the regular purchase of top-of-the-range, high maintenance vehicles for ministers and the security sector, with government taking delivery of more spanking new military vehicles last week. There is bound to be a robust resistance to these and other austerity measures to cut expenditures as politics in the country has become a commercial enterprise; many join the public service for self-enrichment rather than to serve the people.

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