Elimination of Waste of Public Resources: Part 2 of End of Poverty in the Gambia

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There are three major causes of waste of public resources in the Gambia – oversized government, corruption, and non-essential expenditure.  These should therefore also form the frontlines in the battle against waste.

It is now commonly acknowledged, even at the highest levels of government, that there are far more personnel on the government’s payroll than necessary.  In recent years new government Departments, Agencies, Embassies and even Ministries have been created increasing the government wage bill in an unsustainable manner.

Many government departments, institutions and positions serve overlapping roles whose functions, in my opinion, could have been more efficiently carried out by just one of them.  Worse still, there exist public institutions that have proven to be counterproductive in that they not only pose as additional burden on the national budget but the very problems they are created to solve have worsened as a result of their existence. The people running these departments and institutions must be aware that their positions serve only to gratify their own elitist pomposity cravings rather than adding value towards the development of the country.  The wastage associated with such a situation does not stop with salaries and allowances paid to redundant employees but also huge costs of running offices such as computers, printers, scanners, furniture, stationery, vehicles, air conditioning, cleaning, travel expenses, even expensive mobile phones, etc.  Nowadays public offices are generally also furnished with television sets and satellite receivers.

There is clear need for public service overhaul in the Gambia. The truth that needs to be recognized is that government in underdeveloped economies cannot afford to exist as the main or first resort employer.  It should certainly not be made an employer for employment sake.  Rather it should be a facilitator of maximum employment in economically productive endeavors that accelerate economic growth.  Government in these circumstances should be regarded as only a necessary evil to be made as small and efficient as possible.

At the least all existing ministries, departments, agencies (MDAs) and public positions should be subjected to thorough reassessment for relevance to the country’s development.  I suggest the following relevance tests be applied to them:

  1. Functional dispensability – are they absolutely necessary or can the country’s development in fact be pursued even without them?
  2. Functional exclusivity – are they the only ones who can and do carry out their functions or are these shared with other MDAs or positions?
  3. Role value addition – do their functions add real economic value or not?

MDAs that are found to be unnecessary or adding no real value should be closed.  Those that have roles that overlap should have all but one closed.  The most qualified personnel in the public service should be retained to hold positions in the MDAs that remain.

Ideally, resort should be made to what I call smart government to solve the problem of oversized government once and for all.  In that case government would assess the development needs of the country every say three or five years.  Projects are developed to address these needs which are grouped into programs with each program including an indication of the exact personnel specifications required to implement it.  Personnel are then recruited accordingly on contract basis for the duration of the projects they are to implement which will be renewable depending on performance and the requirements of the succeeding strategic / development plan of government.  In this way only security, health and teaching personnel may need to be on permanent employment with government.  Messenger and office cleansing services could even be outsourced to specialized private enterprises.

Either way will necessitate retrenchment of personnel who should benefit from an enhanced early retirement package or from the Revolving Business Start-up Fund.  Henceforth a performance appraisal system for all public servants should be put in place and vigorously implemented.

One of the things that 18th February, 1965 seems to have given us Gambians is the independence to be corrupt.  Over the years Gambians have come to use the term ‘mochaat’ to beautify corruption and the saying ‘the cattle head feeds where it is tied’ to justify it.  Development oriented and otherwise viable public institutions like the Gambia Produce Marketing Board (GPMB), Gambia Commercial and Development Bank (GCDB), National Trading Corporation (NTC), Public Works Department (PWD), Gambia Cooperative Union (GCU), etc. all succumbed to corruption.  The president at the time made a famous radio broadcast in which he laid the blame for the problems of the GCU on what he called ‘unscrupulous elements’.  It has never been explained to Gambians how it came to be that three times the original budget was actually spent on the Banjul / Serrekunda highway.  And at no time during this period and despite all these scandals was anyone tried, convicted and jailed for corruption, a clear manifestation of a high level of tolerance for it.

There was a TV interview in which the former president explained how before he became president he was aided to import a car into the country after paying only a fraction of the relevant customs duty.  He explained that the official receipt he was given had an even lower amount on it than he paid out.  He insinuated that where the balance went was anybody’s guess.

The Gambia experienced the height of corruption during the Second Republic when State Owned Enterprises, the Central Bank and our forest and subsoil resources were virtually turned into personal properties of a dictator.  The people in denial have only to hear the testimonies at the Janneh Commission to appreciate this fact. It was astounding revelation that the office of the president, a high consumer of public funds, of the Second Republic was not audited for all the 22 years that that regime lasted!

The Public Procurement Authority was established with the goal of ensuring value for money in public procurement.  It requires multiple supplier sourcing for items of value higher than a given threshold.  But generally public procurement officers claim that they find it difficult to get quotations from original sources.  So they resort to using middlemen of their own choosing in almost every transaction and thus invariably subjecting public transactions to exaggerated prices at the whims of procurement officers and these middlemen who provide all the required quotations for every transaction involving them.

In the Standard newspaper issue of 4th January 2019 appeared the headline ‘HAS GOV’T LOST D17 MILLION IN POLICE NUMBER PRINTING CONTRACT?’  The story is actually about losses to government in abnormal contracts on vehicle registration plates printing and sale.  It points out the following anomalies:

  1. Single sourcing to a middleman instead of the manufacturer for items costing tens of millions of dalasis.
  2. Plates sold to new vehicle owners fetched government only 18% of their cost, a sign of overpricing by supplier.
  3. 57% of the registration plates contracted out were missing alleged to be obsolete due to printing errors but these plates could not be shown to internal auditors for verification.
  4. There were separate contracts for plates and accessories, and for holograms, which are in fact accessories, to the same middleman.
  5. Undue favor extended to middleman by making piecemeal payments to hide total contract value which exceeded GPPA threshold requirement for tendering of contracts.
  6. Inadequate record keeping by the registration plates issuing officers.
  7. Number of plates in contract disproportionate to demand by new vehicle owners for the period concerned.

Reading the Standard article gives the impression that an internal auditor leaked an internal audit findings report to the paper out of frustration that nearly eleven months after submitting such serious findings to the Minister of Finance, Ministry of Interior and the Gambia Police Force, no action has been taken on the matter.  If this is how we handle the work of our oversight institutions then we must rethink the rational for setting them up in the first place at so much cost to the public.

Corruption is destructive in that it not only takes resources away from development activities for which they are intended denying a section of the population of their potential benefit but also corruptly earned resources are spent on luxury imported commodities such as cars, household items or services such as maternity and education tourism in Europe and America all of which put strain on the country’s foreign exchange earnings and place undue pressure on the local currency.  Sometimes capital export is resorted to stashing away into foreign bank accounts the country’s hard earned foreign reserve.  Bribe seeking officials also drive away potential investors leading to loss of jobs and economic growth opportunities.    Heed also needs to be made to the negative psychological effects on community members of the unjust inequalities resulting from corruption.  We need hardly wonder how bestiality comes over some of our own!

It would appear that our country has no means of preventing corruption or willingness to do so and this destructive vice has been made into a virtue.  We see public servants living out of proportion to their known income and yet the state seems disinterested in making anyone accountable while our communities all but hold in high esteem and sometimes reverence such persons.  Today the common axiom is, only those who lack access to public funds complain about corruption.

For ourselves and for our posterity this trend must be halted.

First government needs to overhaul its current salary structure and ensure that public servants are paid at least a minimum living wage, an issue I will discuss in more depth in the next part of this write-up on equitable distribution of wealth.

I suggest that a permanent independent Public Accountability Commission be set up with powers of investigation, prosecution and arbitration which will be depository of all public audit reports, asset declarations of all public servants and complaints from the members of the public.  It should also have a whistle blower policy which every public servant should be made aware of.

There should be legal reform on corruption to make it and its concealment treason offences.  Two successful emerging economies, China and Iran, have recently executed men found guilty of corruption whiles two others, South Korea and Brazil, have handed long term jail terms to former national leaders found guilty of corruption. Only the other day it was in the news that China has handed down a life-time jail term to a high ranking army general for bribery.  On the other hand corruption is a major contributory factor to Venezuela’s current chaos with untold suffering of its population.

Finally, the Accountant General’s Department should be given the additional responsibility to gather regular market intelligence and make binding recommendations on prices of commodities for public procurement purposes.

Public servants are prone to inessential expenditures including expenditures for the sake of it to favor a vendor or to consume balances on budget lines especially towards the year end but more common items of inessential expenditures are on vehicles, travel expenses and celebrations of various events.  Recent budget allocations to these expenditure items have been drastically cut (eliminated for celebration of events) to force concerned MDAs to restrict their expenditure on them.  Additionally, government has always had committees to review travel requests and either approve or disapprove.  This can be effective in curtailing inessential travels though predisposed to errors of human judgment.  What government could also do is to remove the incentive for inessential travel by simply replacing travel per diems with travel advances. Government would in that case specify that travel advances can only be spent on accommodation, food, transport and communication whiles away on official mission.  Upon return officials will be required to retire the advance with receipts and any amounts not spent be retired in cash allowing for only 5% of the total amount to be exempt from receipting to cover incidental expenses.

Down-sized smart government, relentless safe guards against corruption and control over non-essential public expenditure are possible and necessary to substantially eliminate waste of public resources to maximize public wealth which when equitably distributed among the population will bring about the end of poverty in the Gambia in a very short time.  In the final part of this write up I will be looking at issues related to the equitable distribution of public wealth.  Stay tuned.

Habib Bah

Head of Accounts, Ministry of Agriculture

Banjul, The Gambia

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