By Paidamoyo Muzulu
NOVEMBER is a hectic month for Zimbabwe, particularly that it is an agro-based economy. It is the start of the rainy season and farmers are on the land cropping. Moreover, it is the period the annual national budget is presented. However, everything is done routinely and wrongly.
On Thursday, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube presented a trillion-dollar budget with a projected $76 billion deficit or 1,5% of the gross domestic product.
This sounds good from the academic side, but the reality is that by winter, the deficit would have widened to above 5%.
After the presentation, as we have known and become accustomed to, MPs will go for a post-budget breakfast seminar and committees will meet and review their allocations before budget debates commence in a week or two.
These events have become talkshops as evidenced by past events. Very few MPs across the political divide, if I may add, understand what budgeting is and how to make it a development policy tool.
There will be perfunctory debates and finally, a meeting of minds.
The meeting of minds in Zimbabwe is usually the agreement that Treasury did the best under the circumstances, following the post-Washington consensus.
There seems to be no alternative to this neo-liberal thinking.
These, among other things, include the curtailment of public expenditure, fewer taxes for business, privatisation of public services and an increase in value-added tax — a regressive tax to all intents and purposes.
It is interesting to question why Zimbabwe has adopted the January to December financial year.
There was no plausible argument why we moved from the practical July to June financial year practised during the Rhodesian era and a few years post-independence in 1980.
The change was arguably influenced by lazy accountants or the politicians need to fit into the then global fad.
No one seemed to question how this change would affect the base of the economy — agriculture.
A July to June financial year, for instance, allowed government to plan for the following agricultural season with certainty.
Harvesting for the prior season would have commenced and final estimates available.
This effectively made any farming planning to be pragmatic unlike the present.
Having a January to December budget means the final budget is approved in the middle of the summer season, long after farmers have finished planting and for dry land tobacco farmers, they would be in the middle of harvesting their crop.
In other words, when the budget is approved, the farmers would be in the middle of their season, hence the perennial shortages of fuel, fertilizer and seeds.
The Treasury on agriculture financing is simply muddling through. There is no formula or thought to the process.
We have had the talk about balancing the books and cutting back on social services for more than a decade.
The austerity measures have not made the general person’s life any better. It, therefore, becomes important to ask serious questions about what is wrong with our budgeting.
Treasury, over the years, has not admitted a simple truth that it is misleading the nation.
It budgets and allocates money it does not have. More often than not, it disburses less than 50% of allocated funds to ministries, except Finance and the Office of the President and Cabinet.
While in other countries like South Africa, Treasury complains of ministries or departments failing to utilise allocated votes, in Zimbabwe, it’s the ministries that complain of not receiving disbursements.
Unfortunately, not once has Ncube been asked in Parliament why he does not disburse allocated amounts to the ministries.
This gives him the chance to lie that there is a budget surplus to the nation.
The Treasury has, over the years, limited its funding to issues that drive the economy, that is education, water, health and agriculture.
The disbursements are always measly or non-existent.
How does a country wish to develop when it does not have qualified people (human resources)?
How does a country develop when its workers are ill and cannot afford medication?
How can a country develop when it has rolling power blackouts, sometimes lasting more than 12 hours?
Which investors could be attracted to invest in a country where potable water is available once or twice a week?
It is a surprise that the neo-liberal Ncube does not see something amiss when tertiary students drop out because they can’t pay for their studies?
It is shocking that he does not learn from neo-liberal United States that a country has to print money to spur economic growth.
He is fixated with the textbook economics of Milton Friedman.
It would be interesting to see how the opposition in Parliament will debate the 2022 Appropriation Bill.
What are the issues that the opposition wants to be funded? How much will they fight to allocate the few resources available to spur economic growth?
To be fair, what are the important issues the Zanu PF MPs, constituting two-thirds of Parliament, going to say?
Will they toe the party line and secure their chances of re-election in 2023 or will they side with the people and the country?
This draws me to ask a pertinent question: what is the calibre and competencies of the people we call our MPs? Are they fit for purpose? Do they understand what development is?
Do they have the will to implement it or are they in it for themselves and their families?
Time is nigh that we change the way we look at national budgets. The budgets should speak to the aspirations of the common person.
The budgets should be implemented meticulously and malfeasance flagged out at the earliest opportunity.
And finally, budgets are not there to please capital, but to improve the lives of the ordinary people and spur real economic growth.
This fixation with numbers, GDP and Western approval should end.
- Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist based in Harare. He writes here in his personal capacity.