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ZAMBIA: Holding Government Responsible for Spending

Kelvin Kachingwe

LUSAKA, Oct 20 2009 (IPS) - The recent change of the budget cycle to allow government to effectively spend money to develop the country is not good enough unless those in charge of the money are made accountable, say civil society.

Parliament this year enacted a law which changed the cycle so that the budget can be approved before the commencement of the new year on Jan. 1. Previously it would be approved before Apr. 1.

But the change of mere dates is not good enough to ensure that money will be spent in part of the country that need it the most. Civil society organisations have raised concerns on the effectiveness of the oversight role of Parliament and the Auditor-General (AG). They have said that unless the AG has the powers to prosecute or follow up on penal measures taken against those who have misappropriated money, this change in the budget will be ineffective.

Mulima Mbewe, the executive director for the Society for Poverty Reduction, an anti-poverty advocacy network of over 40 organisations working for pro-poor development in different parts Zambia, says in addition to the changes in the budget cycle, there is need to strengthen the oversight role of Parliament, particularly the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the AG.

"It’s not enough to just change the budget cycle, we want this budget to be effective, (with) resources reaching the intended areas. To ensure this, the role of the Auditor-General and the Public Accounts Committee is critical," she says.

The PAC is one of the select committees of Parliament responsible for keeping a close eye on public money.

Francis Simenda, former chairman of PAC, says the committee can only be effective if certain laws are changed, granting the AG greater autonomy and independence.

"It would be desirable if the AG reports directly to Parliament without alterations. Currently, the AG submits her report to the President who (in a way) is the one being investigated because he is the overseer of how money has been utilised. Depending on his goodwill, he could choose to suppress certain information from Parliament, though according to the law, the report has to be taken to Parliament," Simenda says.

Presently, the AG’s Office does not have the power to prosecute or follow up on penal measures taken against those who have misappropriated money. The PAC only has powers to recommend action and prosecution against those who have mis-spent money.

But Bob Sichinga, a political and economic consultant, says unless the rules governing the oversight of public money change, the PAC will always be limited in how far it can go in playing its watchdog role.

"You’ve got a Parliament of 158 people, 66 of whom are ministers. So, you basically have 96 people who are back benchers. Now in order to make a constitutional amendment, you need 106 people, which is two-thirds of 158. How are you going to get it considering that the 66 front benchers must vote for the government position? So, even if all the back benchers voted against a particular amendment, it won’t work," he says.

As a watchdog committee, the PAC starts its work once the AG’s Report is tabled before the National Assembly by the president. The committee then studies the report before calling officers from departments funded from the treasury to explain the concerns raised by the AG.

Thereafter, the committee makes its recommendations to the National Assembly on what action should be taken where public money has been misapplied or misappropriated. The Minister of Finance has the mandate to effect the recommendations.

But more times than not, no action is taken.

Simenda believes both the PAC and the Office of the AG should have powers to take corrective action against those who misappropriate and misapply public money.

Under the current system, the committee can only recommend what actions controlling officers can take in government ministries and departments but has no power to enforce them.

Sichinga, who also once chaired the PAC, wants the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Secretary to the Cabinet and the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) to be present whenever the committee sits.

"Some of the issues raised in the report are administrative, so the Secretary to the Cabinet can start taking administrative action. The DPP will be looking for issues that have to do with theft by public servants," he says.

However, Sacika Sitwala, who previously served as Secretary to the Cabinet, thinks this is not necessary because the responsibility to manage resources allocated to a ministry is vested in the Permanent Secretary.

Anna Chifungula, the current AG, admits that keeping tabs on public money and government spending is an onerous task that is even made more difficult due to inadequate funding. Lack of financial resources has meant the AG’s Office has failed to broaden the base of its audit staff.

However, the biggest challenge Chifungula’s office faces is getting the AG’s Report completed on time, which is by December 31. As things stand now, the report is always late, sometimes by two years.

"We get so many reports from so many divisions, and sometimes these reports are not on time. And when they come, most of the time the quality is poor, so we need to put them into shape by sitting for long hours to make them into the kind of reports we can publish," Chifungula says.

But Chama Mulenga, a former students’ union representative at the one of the colleges in Lusaka, says what is also disappointing is that no action is ever taken against those who misappropriate public money.

"What we would want to see is action against those who abuse our money. It is not enough to just publish these reports in the media, we need to start seeing some action of some sort from those charged with the responsibility of looking after our money," he says.

Currently, the Zambian Government is receiving financial support from institutions like the World Bank and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) in the area of public expenditure management.

Government is expected to receive a total of 74 million dollars over a five-year period to implement a computer-based integrated financial management information system to cover the whole country. The system is expected to make it possible to monitor how government ministries and departments spend money.

This system can hopefully help seal the loopholes that made it possible a decade ago for almost 16 million dollars worth of Basic Education Sub-Sector Investment Programme funds in the Ministry of Education to go missing from under government’s radar. The money was found three years later by the AG.

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