Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Talk to the people
By Editor
Mon 29 July 2013, 14:00 CAT

It requires a lot of effort, time and sometimes money for the government to explain things, what it is doing or intends to do.

There is a very high temptation for those in government to avoid explaining things to the people and just move on to implement their policies and programmes. In doing so, one may think this saves time and all that people are interested in are the results.

This is not correct because true democracy is a growth in the confidence in the power of ordinary people to transform their country, and thus transform themselves. It is a growth in the appreciation of people organising, deciding, creating together. It is not only about what government is doing for the people; it is also about what the people are doing with government.

Good policies and programmes on their own are not enough to develop a country. Meaningful development only comes when the people themselves are involved. The government has the authority to make final decisions, but the people themselves have the right and duty to share in that authority. Government is there as an authority to guide the energies of all towards the common good. The government is the instrument by which people cooperate together in order to achieve the common good.

Therefore, at all times, the people and the government need to work together. And to work together effectively and efficiently, there has to be very good communication between the government and the people.

Look at the issue of the removal of subsidies! The government was being harassed by all sorts of political hyenas, not knowing that what it was doing had the potential support of some key leaders in the Catholic Church. Bishop George Lungu, of the Chipata Diocese, says "We know that the idea is good but the way it is explained and also the question of time and place, but the whole idea is very, very good, it is something which can benefit everyone".

If this government does not quickly change its approach and start to communicate with the people more effectively, it will soon find itself isolated and having its good policies and programmes opposed unnecessarily. People can only support things they understand and things they are part of.

There was so much unjustified propaganda against the removal of subsidies. Some elements even went as far as pushing a motion in Parliament to try and bring back the subsidies that were removed. Of course, the motion was defeated. Things went that far because some opportunistic elements were given enough space to manoeuvre as a result of government's inability to effectively and clearly explain what it was doing. And where an attempt was made to explain things, the explanations were like someone reading a catechism. A few made sense but many didn't because they were merely regurgitating arguments they had swallowed without chewing.

As a result of these inadequate explanations, today we are hearing arguments like "…what might be helpful is for the government to put a more articulate programme of what is being realised from the subsidies and where they are being applied instead of talking in general".

This is coming from Bishop Lungu. And this argument is understandable because the government's argument has been that money will be saved and that money will be taken to development projects like building schools, hospitals, roads and so on and so forth. But is this the truth? The answer is a categorical no. There will be no money saved per se and an account opened where such money can be deposited and later used.

Our public expenditure already exceeds our revenues. This means that many of the things government is doing are being financed by borrowing. And this in itself is not a wrong thing to do. There is nothing wrong with borrowing. What is wrong is to borrow beyond your capacity to pay back. There is a limit to how much we can borrow.

The roads we are building, a large part of them, are being financed with borrowed money. We have to set our own priorities as a nation and choose what we should finance and what we shouldn't finance. We can't have everything we want; there is a financing constraint. We know that President Michael Sata wants to link as many parts of our country to each other by building the necessary roads. These are good wishes and very legitimate ones for that matter. But these projects have to be financed and the money has to come from somewhere. At our current public expenditure, we don't have adequate surpluses to help us realise these wonderful dreams. Some things in our public expenditure have to give way if we are to realise these dreams, or a good part of them.

The money we are borrowing for all these development projects has to be paid back. If we continue with some of this unnecessary expenditure like the subsidies on fuel and maize, we will soon get into a position where we start failing to meet our debt obligations. And it won't be long before we are back to where we were before seeking debt write-offs.

We are of the view that the issue of subsidies is not being explained well to the people. The explanations that are being given are creating unnecessary expectations which will not be fulfilled because there will be no such money saved or set aside. This is simply an issue of setting our priorities right and paying for what is more beneficial for the development and future of our country.

If this issue is not explained properly, in a year's time, the government will be having unnecessary problems explaining where the money that has been saved from the removal of subsidies has gone. And someone will be looking for money that is not there.

There are many things government needs to finance. And these roads are expensive. But we cannot do without them as a country if we have to move forward. Part of our economic stagnation as a country has been as a result of our failure to develop or expand our road infrastructure and improve our schools and hospitals. For many years we were stuck with the same institutions that were not expanding. It is this infrastructure that will provide the impetus for development. It is a prerequisite to development. The choice is ours. If we want to continue eating subsidised mealie-meal the way we have done over the decades and finish all our money on that, we should expect very little in terms of development. If we want to continue having subsidised fuel and spend a substantial part of our budget on that, we will not have enough money to do anything else and we will stagnate in terms of development the way we have been over the last three decades or so. Even in our households when we want to acquire certain things - a new car, a tractor, some new furniture, some cattle, build a house - a certain amount of consumption is sacrificed. Certain foodstuffs are made to disappear from our menu; sometimes even the number of meals is cut. This is a reality of life. It is a reality of life for the individual and for the nation as a whole. Again, the choice is ours. If we want to be living the way we have lived over the last three decades, let's continue spending our money the way we have been doing with subsidies on maize, fuel and other avoidable things.

There is an attempt by dishonest elements to paint those who are supporting the removal of these subsidies as uncaring people, people who are not concerned about the plight of the poor. Surely, can anyone in all honesty say Bishop Lungu does not care about the poor?

At the end of the day, the problem does not lie inherently in what the government has done - the removal of subsidies. It lies in its incompetence and inability to explain clearly to the masses of our people and other civic leaders what the government is doing.

This is a popular government. But this does not mean everything it does will be received that way. The Patriotic Front became popular because of the tireless efforts Michael and some of his key colleagues exerted in explaining what was happening in our country and what needed to be done. If this stops, everything else will stop with it. The signs of this are starting to appear and the time to take corrective action is now.

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