Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Our cabinet ministers have developed a workshop or foreign trips mentality to maximize per diems and live high on the hog!

It has become customary to recess Parliament on account that Cabinet Ministers did not show up to answer pre-noticed questions and respond to motions presented by Members of Parliament. In most occasions Cabinet Ministers would either be outside the country on official business or would have undertaken some field trips to the serene countryside that offers opportunities for leisure. MPs from across the political divide have strongly expressed their displeasure with the truant Ministers but they are always told that the Cabinet Ministers are away on government business.

Experts on birds document that the Arctic tern fly about 40,000 KM each year, a distance almost equal to the distance around the earth. This is what globetrotting means in literal sense and whenever we accuse public officers for globetrotting we need to compare them with the Arctic tern bird. While our Cabinet Ministers and the Arctic tern may compare favourably, it has to be recognized that the birds use their own resources to fly about in search of food and that is none of our business. On the other hand, Cabinet Ministers gobble up public resources roaming around the earth while the economy cannot generate jobs for graduate mainly because government expenditure has contracted on account of limited revenues.

It is appreciated that Cabinet Ministers, in the course of their duty, may be required to travel outside the country to promote Botswana’s interests and attend conferences and other gatherings at regional and international levels. It is also acknowledged that Cabinet Ministers may, in the course of their duty, be required to undertake local trips pursuant to duties on behalf of the Government of Botswana.

However, this essay argues that although external and local travels are in some cases justified, the rate at which Cabinet Ministers are always on the road suggests that abuse of international trips perhaps to accumulate per diems has become the main motivation for globetrotting. It is also argued that the unending local trips may be used by Cabinet Ministers to save their personal incomes and/or supplement their salaries through numerous allowances, free meals and expensive gifts and this warrant urgent attention.

Cabinet Ministers’ appetite for travelling begs the question of whether these countless international and local trips do realize tangible benefits to the nation in relation to the magnitude of the amount spent on per diems and other allowances related to travels. This is even more pertinent because such expensive trips are never accounted for by way of submitting reports on the achievements and follow-up matters consequent of foreign travels on duty.

It has to be recalled that at the height of the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis that many economists suggest have been the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, government duly introduced austerity measures to reduce waste, promote efficiency and contain expenditure. Such measures included public sector wage freeze for a solid 3 years that was only followed by a meagre 3% inflationary adjustment awarded in October 2011. There were many other stringent measures taken by the government that combined to make life miserable for public sector employees largely due to a sharp decline in their purchasing power. The situation has not really abated and salaries of civil servants and those whose pays are pegged to public sector salaries have remained unbelievably low.

Whereas civil servants are struggling to make ends meet with many having their property seized and auctioned for bad debt, Cabinet Ministers enjoy a life of luxury wherein they, at the tax payers’ expense, undertake bizarre trips that take them to dance festivals, culture carnivals and such other events that will have you scratch your head to figure out how these trips serve public interests. It has to be noted that the Cabinet Ministers would often be with an entourage of family and special guests.

Owing to weak regulatory system pertaining to per diems, Cabinet Ministers have become prone to travel endlessly and have made it a habit to prioritize work-related activities that guarantee financial rewards and/or some form of saving such as free meals and for possibilities of receiving expensive gifts that can be sold as antique.

This phenomenon has become so prevalent that it has morphed into what is popularly known as workshop mentality wherein Cabinet Ministers show preference for work activities that offer opportunities for extra cash or some other form of benefit. This would include unimportant foreign travels to attend the official opening stores that sell sex dolls and lingerie or undertaking local field trips to officiate a Sunday soccer game or grace the annual Khawa Dune Challenge and Cultural Festival for selfies with slay queens. In many instances, Cabinet Ministers would choose to attend external events that have nothing to do with their portfolio responsibilities or which have no the remotest benefit for the country or which could have been attended by an idle intern. Our Cabinet Ministers cannot pass up an opportunity to travel abroad no matter how useless the trip could be and are crowding out diplomatic service personnel in the execution of their duties.

Essentially, foreign and local rips for the purpose of pocketing extra cash in per diems and other allowances are a powerful tool that takes Cabinet Ministers away from their core responsibilities which require time at their desks. Recently Honourable Minister Eric Molale who was the Acting Minister of Finance and Economic Development had to authorize the transfer of an amount of P430 MILLION from the Road Levy Collections Fund to the National Petroleum Fund that is prone to looting. It was reported that at the time the substantive Minister Honourable Kenneth Matambo was somewhere in Asia, perhaps counting down for a mouth-watering per diem pay-out upon return from a successful trip. Many Cabinet Ministers cannot dedicate their energy and time to attend to the core business of government.

At every workplace, core duties must take precedence but the pressure to maintain the momentum on per diems and other allowances does entice Cabinet Ministers to fake trips or better still collude with their counterparts in other countries to organize imaginary high level events to which they will be invited for the sole purpose of making extra cash through per diems which they later share with their rogue hosts. The amount of productive work time the government loses annually to irrelevant external and local trips and repetitive workshops is so huge and someone has to intervene for the sake of the economic health of our republic.

Given Botswana’s bloated Cabinet with Ministers and their deputies tripping over each other for the most lucrative trips and taking cognisant of rapidly declining revenues, it is only appropriate to urgently pay particular attention to the possibility for abuse of per diems and allowances. This will require government to improve the efficiency of the management of per diems and other allowances essentially because the current practice is unsustainable and offers incentives for fraud. There is a need to develop robust mechanisms and control systems for the efficient management of per diems and other allowances without necessarily compromising the public interest that is served by foreign and local trips.

It is proposed that the Government of Botswana develop a policy (if there is none at the moment) with the objective of communicating clear and standardized procedures to public officers travelling on duty to foreign countries. The objective of the proposed policy would be to curb excessive spending by Cabinet Ministers and other officials of the government and enable government to achieve a return to its investments. The policy should have a component for cost-sharing for foreign trips

Specifically, the policy is necessary to minimize opportunities for the abuse of per diems and other allowances and ensure that the most effective use is made of government funds, so that ultimately members of the Executive arm of the state who wish to attend the annual Reed Dance, cultural festivals and strip dance shows wherever they are held do not do so on the public dime. In the meantime, His Excellency President Masisi would do well to place a moratorium on trips outside the country by Cabinet Ministers, their deputies, and Members of Parliament until such a policy is in force.

The local private media should also make it a habit to probe these frequent trips, past and present, because many of them are really personal travels for family vacations at the expense of the public purse. They must utilize annual reports of Auditor General and provide a summary of all official foreign trips undertaken by government officials in a given financial year. This will likely dissuade Cabinet Ministers and other government officials from behaving like commercial spacemen and migrant pimps.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.