Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Unusual, not Khama’s ‘usual suspects’ will sabotage ESP

Launching the Economic Stimulus Package in Machaneng, President Ian Khama, used his turn on the floor to lampoon “the usual suspects” (private media and the political opposition) for badmouthing the programme and wanting to sabotage it by spreading the lie that it will fail.

 

It is still too early to say whether ESP will succeed or not but not too early to state that if a particular group of civil servants with plenty of experience in sabotaging citizen economic empowerment ÔÇô the unusual suspects, continues to conduct business as usual, ESP will most certainly fail. Of course it would be grossly incorrect to say that civil servants in finance departments intentionally devise ways of how they can sabotage the empowerment of citizens. However, the practical effect of indefinite delays in processing the payment of service providers has had the effect of sabotaging citizen economic empowerment. Common sense should dictate that those who authorise payment should never be far away from the office for long periods of time but that doesn’t happen. Unsigned cheques pile up in government offices as the signatories attend Vision 2016 meetings, workshops and conferences where in some cases, their contribution is limited to depleting the sweets and water supply.

 

Speaking at the launch ceremony, Khama said that in order to ensure the programme’s success, procurement processes will be fast-tracked. The one other announcement that the president made was that in order to fight the corruption that has been known to frustrate empowerment effort, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime will use a new “toolkit” to tighten all the loose screws in the graft-busting apparatus. However, the president made no mention of service providers getting their payment within the timeframe stipulated by the government itself. Therein lies the problem. The most critical element of empowerment is not winning a government tender or getting a purchase order but actually collecting a cheque or getting a text message from a bank that says so-much has been paid to cheque account so-and-so. In other words, empowerment simply means money in people’s hands.

 

Officially, it takes 10 working days to process payment within the government system but the reality is that (judging by the litany of complaints from those who do business with government) most payments are being done outside what is official. Some businesses ÔÇô included those funded under the government’s own Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency, have collapsed because they were paid late.

 

One CEDA beneficiary in Gaborone attributes the collapse of his manufacturing business to this late payment. At the start of this venture, he thought he would be doing roaring trade because of the many orders he was getting from government departments.

 

“I would get a purchase order to do a job and used my own money to buy materials. The payment was supposed to be made within 10 days but that didn’t happen. I could wait for up to two months during which period I had to use my own money to pay overhead costs. The government clients would also put me under a lot of pressure with very short turnaround times and often when payment for previous orders was still outstanding. When the going got really tough, CEDA wouldn’t refinance the business and I had to borrow money from elsewhere. Ultimately, the business collapsed,” he says almost a decade after the fact.

 

Many more can tell stories with similar plot outline. One is a lodge owner along a busy highway who was also a CEDA beneficiary. The design, location and newness of the lodge attracted what the owner thought was good business but actually turned out to be a mirage. Many government departments held retreats at this lodge, with the host paying for everything that the guests required – food, electricity, water and stationery. Payment took way too long to come and deeply indebted, the lodge closed down.

 

A couple of years ago, the issue of late payment came up in parliament. The explanation from the then Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Baledzi Gaolathe, was that if payment is not made within the stipulated timeframe, companies had the option of claiming a 2 percent surcharge. That should sound encouraging but for the fact that those who make such claim would be effectively blacklisting themselves out of a system that expects those it does business with to be inexhaustibly patient.

 

Botswana has a certain malady that should never have afflicted finance departments because of the critical role that they play in citizen economic empowerment. Generally and for too long now, the public service has just been floating around in timeless space with one too many officers (supervisors included) knuckling down to hard work only when they feel like it. Since the establishment of the Botswana National Productivity Centre, the government has introduced a suite of productivity intervention schemes but a University of Botswana study says that not a single one of them has produced the desired results. In his 2015/16 budget speech, the Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Kenneth Matambo, lamented the low levels of labour productivity in the country. Of Africa’s labour force surveyed in 2015 for a Rand Merchant Bank investment research report, Botswana’s stands out for its lack of appetite for work. The report cites labour productivity as the “most problematic factor for doing business” in the country. This attitude towards work will be standing between citizens and their economic empowerment as ESP gets underway.

 

With the ESP, Khama is going for broke and it is highly likely that the outcome of this programme will define his presidential legacy. If payment for ESP projects follows the business-as-usual route, the president would have been sabotaged. This would be sabotage not by the usual suspects in freedom squares and newsrooms but unusual suspects in government offices. That the president is more focused on the former than the latter portends disaster.

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