Chinamasa should take Victoria Falls pre-budget seminar recommendations seriously

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Members of Parliament, ministers and senior government officials gathered in Victoria Falls from Saturday to Monday for the annual pre-budget seminar. The objective of the seminar was to afford legislators an opportunity to contribute to the formulation of the 2016 National Budget. In a significant departure from previous years, this year’s seminar was characterised by a well-structured programme and robust debate on some of the pertinent issues plaguing the economy.

In the House by John Makamure

Finance and Economic Development minister Patrick Chinamasa, was present throughout and participated actively in the deliberations. One hopes that after spending such large sums of money flying and accommodating over 250 Members of Parliaments in Victoria Falls, the minister will seriously consider the issues that arose from the deliberations and craft a budget that is developmental, people-centered, inclusive and rights-based. Failure to do so, then the Victoria Falls gathering will be remembered as just another academic exercise, and a sheer waste of already scarce public resources.

Speaker of the National Assembly, Jacob Mudenda, set the ball rolling by challenging MPs to “think outside the box” and come up with robust recommendations to the executive and innovative ideas on how to bake the national cake. I fully concur with the Speaker’s sentiments. Our MPs have always decried inadequate budgetary allocations to various programmes, without proffering concrete suggestions on how the country can boost revenue inflows in order to finance those expenditures.

The Speaker’s remarks were echoed by Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who challenged the legislators to assist in crafting a budget that was responsive to national needs and priorities. He pointed out the eradication of poverty as one of the national priorities.

The starting point in the eradication of poverty is the involvement of the people in the formulation of policies and development programmes that affect them. This is a requirement under section 13 of the Constitution. While the Finance and Economic Development Portfolio Committee made an attempt this year to conduct hearings to hear the views of the people on the 2016 Budget, there are still inadequate mechanisms to ensure that many more people are meaningfully consulted in the public policy processes.

It was refreshing to hear Chinamasa for a change advising legislators not to always blame sanctions for all the country’s economic woes. There are many issues of our own-making that we have to address if we are to entertain any hopes of the economy recovering. One of the issues is to do with inconsistent messages coming from different ministers. Failure to speak with one voice is a major deterrent on investment inflows. The other issue is massive corruption and plunder of public resources by ministries and public enterprises. The abuse of public resources has been confirmed by the Auditor General year-in and year-out. It is disheartening to see minimal concrete action on the findings and recommendations.

The minister informed participants that he had set up a new unit under the Accountant General’s department to implement the Auditor General’s recommendations in order to stem abuse of public resources. One hopes this unit is adequately resourced and supported to do its work. The same applies to the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission that should be resourced to execute its constitutional mandate to investigate and combat corruption in the public and private sectors.

Chinamasa told participants he was projecting the economy to grow by 2,7% in 2016, up from a projected 1,5% this year. I, however, think the projections are on the optimistic side given predictions of a poor 2015/16 rainfall season and continued depressed commodity prices. Failure to realise projected growth rates will negatively impact on revenue inflows, thereby, throwing the budget offline.

Issues that came out strongly from the Lands and Agriculture Portfolio Committee’s report included agricultural financing, late payment of farmers by the Grain Marketing Board, climate change and droughts and access to markets. The committee recommended that given the limited fiscal space, government should seriously consider adopting contract farming as the model for agricultural financing and put in place a legal framework to ensure mutual benefit to farmers and financiers. These are pertinent issues that minister Chinamasa and his cabinet colleagues must take seriously.

As expected, the diamond sector came under scrutiny at the seminar. Mines and Mining Development minister Walter Chidakwa, blamed diamond firms in Chiadzwa for the troubles afflicting the sector. However, such a blame game will not take the country forward. What we need is a new diamond and mining sector policy regime that is transparent and beneficial to the fiscus and future generations. The government continues to talk about such a policy which never comes to fruition.

Poor service delivery by local authorities came under the spotlight, especially water and sanitation, housing and street lighting. While the minister assured delegates he was “cleaning the mess” in local authorities, my own view is that as long as such decisions continue to be made on political grounds, the rot will continue.

Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister Priscilla Mupfumira faced tough questioning from legislators who are not happy about the issue of ghost workers and developments at Premier Medical Aid Society and National Social Security Authority. I hope the promises that the labour ministers made to table before Parliament and a report on the recent audit of the civil service will be honoured. This is crucial if the country is going to address the huge salary and wage bill, consuming 80% of total expenditure.

Another annual pre-budget seminar is now out of the way. Deliberations were fairly substantive in nature this time around. We now wait to see what Chinamasa brings to Parliament later this month. He assured delegates that he would consider some of the recommendations. Hope he will stick to his word.

John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com