Monday, June 1, 2020

‘We can’t help everybody’ – Minister

When you are part of a government that has failed to cater for some 160 000 people in a country’s informal employment sector, the last thing you ever want to say is what the Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Peggy Serame, said in parliament on Wednesday morning.

“We can’t cater for everybody,” she said at another special session called to amend COVID-19 regulations.Put in stark human terms, Serame was basically saying that there is the option of not helping people in the villages of Molepolole, Mahalapye, Palapye and Gabane who, according the 2011 population and housing census, have a combined population of 160 000. In fairness to her though, that statement seems to have been a slip of the tongue but to the extent that it could have been a Freudian slip, she would have been describing how capitalism works. Whatever kind of slip of the tongue it was, the government has certainly been caught flat-footed and is not catering for everybody.

Slip of the tongue or not, the problem is bigger than Serame because even during this lockdown, capitalism is functioning the way it was designed to: support the well-off and let the less-fortunate slip through cracks.The main reason the government has not been able to cater for informal sector employees is because is that they are not on the Botswana Unified Revenue Services (BURS) database and why that is so is ironic. The formal employment sector doesn’t cater for everyone and rather than stay unemployed, some people chose to become self-employed in the informal sector.

With COVID-1 having forced a possibly unavoidable lockdown, the previously unemployed are now self-unemployed.During this lockdown, the government is subsidising the wages of those badly affected through BURS, which is conveying such wages through the formal banking system. Some people in the informal sector are unbanked and mostly use mobile financial services. While platforms on which these services are provided have been praised as a sign of progress, they actually reveal the extent of financial exclusion – which point the African Progress Panel has made. In one of its reports, the Panel cites the example of M-PESA, a mobile payment system in Kenya that has enabled more than 15 million unbanked people to send and receive money electronically.

A survey has found that 86 per cent of households in Kenya report using mobile phones to make payments, or send and receive money. Resultants, Kenya has one of the highest rates of mobile financial services use in the world. In its report, the Panel questions whether this can be considered to be any kind of real progress at all: “… the very success of M-PESA raises its own set of questions. Why is it that while three-quarters of Africans have access to a mobile phone, just one-quarter have a bank account?

Does being able to send and receive money using mobile phones equate to access to a country’s financial system?”Such lack of access notwithstanding, Serame told parliament on Wednesday that her ministry has set aside P10 million for Botswana’s informal sector. As some backbenchers pointed out after this revelation, that amount is not enough.COVID-19 has upended normal life and a view that has been expressed by some is that across the globe, response taskforces have been constituted with people who have no expertise in emergency planning and management. In the particular case of Botswana, there was no emergency planning for how a sector made up of more than 160 000 people would be catered for.

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