Nick Mangwana View From The Diaspora
It is tough being a civil servant in Zimbabwe. The pay is certainly not commensurate with the cost of living. So civil servants have turned to hassling to augment their meagre earnings which fail to support a decent lifestyle. One of the ways that civil servants have been trying to get to push up their
salaries is to attend seminars, workshops, symposia and conference without an end.
They have simply turned themselves into per diem chasers much to the detriment of the already hamstrung economy. Per diems are in simple terms payments paid when someone attends a workshop or goes on a trip from home. They are therefore paid a daily allowance for their accommodation and other expenses including a very generous extra. These generous flat figures do not require invoices and expense receipts to be submitted or reports on how they were used.
The question on the mouths of those that have noticed this trend which clearly is not a new thing but just an escalating behaviour more so in the current economic context is whether there is any value in these conferences. For starters, if our civil servants and technocrats attend so many skilling up jaunts like they are currently doing, how come the economy is stuttering? Surely one cannot attend a seminar which is relevant to their job and come back thinking the very same way they were thinking before going for the seminar and behaving the very same way.
If anything has changed it will only be their financial affairs because they would have benefited from the per diem that they get for being away from home. This has turned into very expensive institutional time-wasting.
Maybe the courses are relevant but do these people who chase them pay enough attention, fully apply themselves and engage with the objectives of the seminar? You see there is always the argument that someone who is learned does not need to declare it themselves. They do not need to parade an appellation before their name such as Dr or Eng or whatever. Their conduct, their behaviour, their argument and articulation would normally distinguish them forcefully and those that need to notice will notice. So when someone is working with someone who is endlessly attending these progressively titled seminars then it should be very clear that the job has benefited a lot from them.
Every accounting officer has to ask themselves how much of Zimbabwe’s $4 billion is being spent on worthless per diem claims? Is there an effective control on this? Those in the Diaspora are very happy to be seeing all these good family members who come and stay in Central London or Manhattan hotels facing prime tourist attractions such as Central Park or Hyde Park. It is great. Why should we act poor? But then are we rich enough to be that wasteful? Can the civil servant be blamed or the blame lies where it was supposed to be controlled?
Possibly the blame lies in both places. Some of this mercenary behaviour borders on criminality to say the least. The role of sanctions in debilitating our economy cannot be underplayed but we have little control over that. What we can certainly control is this opportunistic behaviour in people that should serve our civic agenda. This problem is not only found in those that serve central Government. No, it is in local authorities that are failing to deliver a service to residents as well. Councillors are attending workshops meant for technical executives. How shameless!
Having said that there are trips that cannot be avoided. Well, what has to be got to be? But there are trips that are purely discretionary. Those ones it is incumbent upon those trusted with the public purse to prudently exercise that discretion with a lot of moral rectitude.
The low civil servant total emoluments have been acknowledged but can this manipulation be allowed to continue? A good comrade once remarked that when he was a civil servant, his boss would attend every seminar that was available as long as the destination was considered “prime”. He said she (the boss) would phone on her way from one seminar to another asking one of her subordinates to write a report for a seminar on her behalf. Yet the subordinate would have been nowhere near where the seminar would have taken place. It was actually one such request to this comrade that ended his job because he said no to this fraud and abuse of office. This is the type of abuse that should not be allowed to continue unabated.
It has been acknowledged again that continued professional development is key in any job therefore it is essential that one attends seminars and short courses. But when attending these has become a job in itself then effective control is overdue. There are many people in the civil service whose per diem take-homes are three fold their official salaries and allowances.
The African Development Bank (ADB) wrote a paper about this and concluded that the per diem payments have become a core instrument of the civil service incentive structure. That is all very well, but then the problem is that only those connected and those in certain positions benefit from these. These trips are now being used as leverage for different outcomes and in some cases there have been imputation of sexual favours being part of the mix.
How unfair is it for someone to benefit in that manner from money that does not belong to them. The same ADB said that a lot of African budgets are not going to infrastructural development and capitalisation but towards remunerations.
How Zimbabwean civil servants spend their time has a lot of impact on projects and efficiency of delivery of the service they are meant to deliver. It is sad that some of them are attending these seminars with the primary reason to buy that car, that house or send their child to that school. At this point the recent efficiency and modern ethos of the Zimbabwe Investment Authority (ZIA) needs to be acknowledged. The purpose of writing some of these things is not meant to just bash our good institutions.
Institutions are supposed to function the way they were meant to function in the first place. So when there is an improvement in one it should also be highlighted. So we give all kudos to the ZIA team before we go back to the per diem abusers.
When our civil servants are draining our fiscus in the name of capacity building workshops, there should be evidence that we are actually building that capacity. Rent-seeking behaviour should not be condoned just because civil service is low paying job. That may be so but it is also one of the sectors with a lot of job security. So those that choose to eat their cakes should not complain when they no longer have them.
In mentioning the ADB there was clear implication that this was not only a Zimbabwe problem. Even NGOs have the same malady. But hey, everything is contextual. Zimbabwe is faced with a very constrained fiscal space. The National Budget that was presented by Minister (Patrick) Chinamasa is an austerity budget in many a way. Therefore austerity measures should be seen implemented from top to bottom.
The state of the economy is clear indication that there is need for evaluation of the economic benefits derived from some of these workshops, seminars and conferences.