Thursday, August 01, 2013

Opposing 'good' and supporting 'bad'
By Editor
Tue 16 July 2013, 14:00 CAT

It is difficult to understand why the Non-Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council should be supporting a private member's bill to compel the government to reinstate the maize and fuel subsidies.

There is no analysis, economic, social, political or otherwise, that has been able to justify why such subsidies should be continued. In the absence of well reasoned arguments, one can simply conclude that those seeking to have those subsidies continued are motivated by something else. We say this because it is very clear that the subsidies that have been removed were not really benefiting the poor and were simply holding back the improvement of their lives.

There is no way Zambia could have continued to pay such low rates for fuel when a country like South Africa, with all its ports and refinery facilities, is charging more for fuel. Even the rates in Europe, especially the United Kingdom, are not that low compared to what is being charged here. Zambia is not an oil producing country. We are also not a country whose electricity comes from burning hydrocarbons like West African countries and others. The cost of electricity in this country is not much affected by the fuel prices because we use hydropower. And moreover, even in agriculture, on which most of our poor people are dependent, the animals they use to plough are not propelled by petrol or diesel. Of course, to transport their produce to the market, fuel is needed and its cost affects this.

The fuel that the government was subsidising was benefiting much more the well-to-do than the poor. Equally, the removal of the subsidy of the consumption side of maize does not really affect the poor. The greatest beneficiaries from all that were not the poor. The poor don't buy maize from the Food Reserve Agency.

And moreover, the poor are not left helpless in the light of the removal of these subsidies. If there is any group of the poor that is truly affected by the removal of these subsidies, the remedy is not to reinstate these inefficient subsidies but to find other ways of cushioning them from the hardships that may arise.

We have many food crops that cost very little to grow, which the poor can be taught to use. And this is where the work of Non-Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council should be directed. Instead of spending time and money pursuing sterile private member's bills, Non-Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council would do better focusing on educating our people, especially the poor on how to rely on crops like cassava, rice, sorghum, finger millet, sweet potatoes and others which they can grow without applying expensive fertilisers as compared to maize.

As things stand today, the cost of growing maize and turning it into mealie-meal is beyond us. Our people are no longer growing maize on cow dung fertilised soil. And they are no longer getting the seed from the previous harvest. Today, all sorts of fertilisers have to be applied for them to get some reasonable harvest. And seed has to be bought. The Zambian government has been spending over US$300 million every year subsidising maize production in addition to the removed consumption subsidy on maize. This money can be spent in a better way for the benefit of the poor. It is not even necessary to take this money to other sectors of our economy; it can still be spent in agriculture research and extension services to improve the production and marketing of cassava, rice, sorghum, millet, sweet potatoes and even fish farming. Some of the money can even be spent on research to try and bring down the cost of producing maize, which has become too high.

But it seems all this doesn't make sense to Non-Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council and their partners in the opposition. Why? Is it politics they are pursuing? We know that Non-Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council doesn't make money, is mainly donor-funded, so the question of cost or where money is coming from might not be so much an issue for them. But money doesn't fall from trees. And probably this explains even why their funding from donors is dwindling. Free things don't last forever. A time comes when one has to pay the true price for what one is consuming or using. In saying this, we are not in any way advocating a view that nothing should be subsidised in our country. We still need massive subsidies in education and health. The great majority of our people cannot afford to pay the real price for these services. The necessary things of life that our people cannot afford to pay for, society should take a collective responsibility for that. What our people can afford to do away with should be done away with to pave way for that which truly needs to be subsidised. There are many things that need government subsidies and which the government is subsidising. Let subsidies be channeled to where they are most needed and are most beneficial.

What Non-Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council and their opposition partners should be seeking is not the reinstatement of those subsidies, but the efficient, effective and orderly utilisation of every ngwee or kwacha that has been saved in the interest of the poor and the most disadvantaged of our people. Government should be compelled to take practical measures on how to ensure that these savings are put to good use and are not wasted on increasing remuneration and allowances of bureaucrats and politicians.

The approach taken by Non-Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council simply serves to project themselves as an extension of the opposition, who seem to be there to oppose and oppose everything that the government does, no matter how well-intentioned or how good it is. This is not a recipe for a respected civil society. We are not saying that they should not challenge challengeable government policies and actions. If something is wrong, it deserves to be opposed and challenged. If something is right, it deserves to be supported and praised. There is a problem when good is condemned and bad is embraced and supported.

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