HomeOpinion & Analysis#HowFar: Window view in accountability

#HowFar: Window view in accountability

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By Janet Zhou

I FEEL lucky to have been part of the team that conceived the  Zimcodd #HowFar campaign and executing the campaign in the manner we did has been nothing short of amazing. There is a certain iota of pride that comes with a clear conscience enveloping your work-product, moreso when such work makes meaningful impact and pulls the right dares. I must admit I feel that, sometimes. I have always believed that truth must be told to power. The idea of running an accountability campaign using a very pithy question often used by Zimbabweans from across society when soliciting for a detailed update on an issue, just blew me off, the right way.

The campaign created a storm among the citizens triggering an avalanche of questions posed by citizens making it clear more has to be done to make information more public, open and accessible. It resonated with the citizens as it is a common street lingo harnessed to be an agency igniter.

The question How Far? sounded relevant to use in public affairs and easy to get traction from the citizens to ask the government questions regarding public finances accountability based on promises and mandate of the government as stewards of the public purse.

Zimbabwe suffers many accountability deficits from its leadership. History has exposed scandals and mismanagement of public funds. We have heard before of the missing US$15 billion from Marange diamonds — what a missed opportunity to transform the economy.

The Elias Mukonoweshuro public service audit exposed many ghost workers causing a ballooning public service wage bill. The Edward Chindori-Chininga diamond report and many others complemented by the annual audit reports by the auditor-general. These are basic contextual issues that have to be dealt with if we are to build the trust and confidence ruins.

The #HowFar campaign was inspired by the need to facilitate a multichannel communication platform focused on facilitating citizens’ involvement in making public finance management and policy more pro-people and pro-poor. The questions that need answers from the authorities in Zimbabwe are many and the campaign tackled some of them both online and offline, literally on the streets.

One billboard asked, how far with mega deals? This is a fundamental question for many Zimbabweans who are living in extreme poverty as 49% of the population in Zimbabwe lives in extreme poverty. Inequalities and lack of access to basic services are the lived realities of the majority of Zimbabweans. This reality is a dissonance to the government pronouncements of mega deals that amount to close to US$20,1 billion since 2017.

Zimbabweans are looking for transformational government projects that address their basic needs such as health, food, water, education, and decent jobs. Surely any mega deal for Zimbabweans has to be linked to addressing the triple burden of poverty, unemployment and inequalities. Anything that does not in real terms speak to their access and disposable incomes remains delusional.

Another question was how far with the implementation of the office of the auditor-general’s (OAG) recommendations? To date the auditor-general has made 356 recommendations and only 92 of them have been fully implemented representing 26% commitment to address the findings by the OAG. Of the 92 local authorities only 23 have submitted financial statements for 2019. These anomalies run in the face of the constitutional principles of transparency and accountability in public finance management under section 298(1)(a) and the oversight role of Parliament under section 299 of the Constitution. While Zimbabwe fails to finance its own development, bemoans sanctions and alienation from the international community and remains with a huge debt overhang of US$10,5 billion, it has enormous opportunities to build its own development financing agency if recommendations to plug leakages are implemented.

While at the implementation of the OAG’s recommendations one of the key asks under the #HowFar campaign has been the curbing of grand corruption. Corruption is a form of tax borne by the citizens and it is their right to ask that corrupt individuals be arrested, prosecuted, charged and the loot recovered. The question mentioned a few questions pertaining to the Draxgate, National Social Security Authority and Zimbabwe National Road Administration scandals. A quick scan of the corruption scandals in agriculture, energy, infrastructure, transport and telecoms shows that the government has lost at least US$5,8 billion.

The leakages are at procurement and execution stages where the government gets a raw deal due to lack of due diligence, violation of constitutional provisions requiring parliamentary approval for certain deals and inflated prices emanating from the opacity in contract awarding. For example, Kariba South Hydro Expansion was constructed by Sinohydro using a loan from Exim Bank of China to the tune of US$533 million for 300MW, Zambia just across the border paid US$278 million for 360MW- 60MW more.

Another example is of the NetOne Telecoms Infrastructure Upgrade, a mega deal of US$218 million. NetOne was prejudiced US$78 million from overcharging by Huawei, its infrastructure partner. The company was supposed to pay US$120 million or in the worst-case scenario, to pay a maximum of US$140 million. A number of the government projects could have cost less with more transparency, due diligence and negotiations.

The how far question, therefore, as a way of unravelling “tenderpreneurship” and bringing the government to account will be looking for answers that speak to improvement procurement, contracting of projects and getting the best deals that deliver on minimum costs given the tight fiscal space.

Many other questions have been asked under the #Howfar campaign on debt management, public service delivery, alignment of laws to the Constitution among other critical public interest questions.

While the “what” answer is important, the how far question can never be exhausted by just answering that part of the question. Transparency and accountability questions like how far require detailed answers and the pathway to answering the question goes through being answerable. The how was or is it being done, who did or is doing so and answer to timelines for specific projects.

Within a few days of splashing the Zimcodd facilitated #Howfar campaign billboards, unidentified people vandalised and defaced the one billboard asking for accountability over the Draxgate scandal. The government quickly responded to the campaign blandly saying, “So-far-so-good,” which is not comprehensive enough to answer to this critical citizens’ question. It is a response that perfectly fits within the mirror and window analogy. Answering the how far question cannot be done only using the mirror view which concentrates on the image in the mirror. The window view approach will give full range answers as it entails being answerable to processes, obstacles, storms in the utilisation of public funds and offices that the government has a mandate for prudent stewardship.

To build a culture of transparency and accountability, there is need for both a proactive citizenry and government. In the founding values and principles of the Constitution, section 3(2)(f) says there must be respect for the people of Zimbabwe from whom the authority to govern is derived. The hallmark of that respect is ensuring that there is transparency, justice, accountability and responsiveness to both private and public questions that seek to fosters the culture of accountability. While the government has enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) which the citizens must be proactive in making use of, the government must also be proactive in disposing and putting in the public domain public interest information as not all citizens have the capacity or capabilities to apply for information from government departments.

The government can achieve this by facilitating the following key principles of openness:

  • Effective participation — This entails informing, consulting, empowering citizens to be part of decision-making processes.

This is in line with section 13 of the Constitution which provides for the kind of national development that is empowering and agency giving. While Parliament plays its role of representation that is in no way a substitution of the people’s voice where it matters. The new dispensation must revisit the Chindori-Chininga 2013 report to Parliament which exposed the glaring gap when it comes to ministerial accountability to Parliament.

While that report was on the diamond sector, the overstepping of parliamentary role is similar across sectors and in key decision-making such as the management of the consolidated revenue fund, debt management, government agreements with foreign entities and contractual matters with fiscal obligations.

  • Transparency and accountability — Government must actively account for its actions and inactions and take public responsibility for its actions by commission or omission. Being answerable publicly and answering publicly to the how far question is a sign of a maturing democracy instead of condescending through the mirror image which belies the “new” in the dispensation.
  • Open data — This means government being active in providing open, complete, primary, timely, accessible, machine processable, non-discriminatory, non-proprietary, licence-free data must be made available and in accordance with international standards for publishing on the website.

This will reduce applications for information by citizens, simplify access to information protocols. This is easy to do as every government ministry has an information officer.

The information officer must be charged with consolidating all information and feeding it into an open data portal. This includes circulating the information in easy-to-understand language such that it reaches its intended beneficiaries through targeting the most marginalised in terms of receiving balanced information from different sources.

  • Promoting collaborations and complementarity — Zimbabwe has gone through many decades of binary narratives reducing accountability questions to toxic political questions. Being responsive to the how far question can be leveraged on both government and the citizens collaborating and co-creating policies and practices that build stronger social contract and responsibility for a more just and equitable Zimbabwe.

The government and the citizens alike have to embrace inclusion and diversity in policy matters.

Ordinary Zimbabweans from all walks of life should take the opportunity to join the #HowFar campaign and ask questions that demand for accountability at all levels of government.

The government can say all the right things by using the mirror but it is the citizens who can give the window view and assess government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.

True development does not build high walls around projects, it must allow public scrutiny and it is about empowering the citizens for self-sustenance and keeping those that govern in check. When we ask how far? We expect detailed responses from the government and clear steps to entrench accountability in public finances and governance, no less.

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