By Situmbeko Musokotwane
When canvasing for power, the Patriotic Front party (PF) declared to the electorates that it was going to be a party for poor people. Sadly, it has abandoned poor people.
This is in spite of the fact that few governments since independence have had so much money to spend in a short period of time as the PF; thanks to their appetite for borrowing big.
The other week I pointed out that Zambia’s public debt could be anywhere between US$17 billion to US$20 billion. If the loan funds had been allocated evenly across the country, anything between US$113 million to US$133 million would have been invested in each constituency.
By now most rural problems to do with school infrastructure, teachers’ houses, health centres, water boreholes, simple irrigation systems, etc. would have been history.
Of course not all borrowed money can be “shared” to constituencies since some national projects not directly linked to any constituency must also be funded. That not withstanding, we have under the PF witnessed an extreme situation whereby most rural constituencies can hardly point to any development which has been financed by Zambia’s ballooned debt.
The biggest beneficiaries of the loans have been urban areas.
Yet in repaying the country’s loans, the victims are the rural dwellers who see funding for development in their areas reduced or stopped so that the government can save money to repay debts. To illustrate my statement, lets look at the case of Constituency Development Fund (CDF) and the fight against poverty.
CDF was introduced in the mid 1990s. It refers to the pot of money that Parliament appropriates to each constituency to finance development needs that the residents identify through their CDF Committee.
It is a noble idea intended to empower local people with financial resources to attend to issues that higher levels of government may not easily appreciate. The legal status of CDF has now been strengthened because it is a constitutional requirement to make it available.
The CDF is a critical tool in the development process, especially for rural constituencies. Here is why this is so.
Firstly, CDF is the only Treasury pot that is intended to ensure that each and every constituency does receive some funding for development every year. Of course development funding in a constituency can also come from line ministries. For example, the Ministry of Health may establish a rural health centre. Another example is when the Ministry of Education builds a teacher’s house in a constituency.
Secondly, CDF is a development equiliser. There is no guarantee that in a given financial year, line ministries will undertake any development in every constituency. In fact, especially in the recent years, people in constituencies have almost forgotten about any developments from line ministries because district offices are not adequately funded.
Further, many ministers when asked in Parliament as to when a particular development issue in a given constituency will be attended to by that relevant ministry, have often replied that the concerned Member of Parliament must utilise CDF.
That is because that ministry has no money. In this regard, CDF becomes useful because if no line ministry does anything in the constituency, then at least there will be CDF to fall back on every year. Since every constituency is meant to receive some funding, it follows that CDF plays the role of a development equiliser.
Thirdly and lastly, CDF often finances projects that ordinarily cannot be managed by the central government. Examples include construction of latrines for schools, repairing blown up classroom roofs, funding womens’ clubs, etc.
Indeed all MPs, both from the rulling party and from the opposition will readily confirm that CDF has undertaken many useful community projects. CDF funds have been used to construct classroom blocks, teachers’ houses, rural health centers, boreholes for water.
The CDF has also been used to repair rural public infrastructure, especially blown up roofs of classrooms and health centres. In many constituencies, CDF is the main driver of development without which very little or nothing happens in that constituency.
Further, District Councils, which are the administors of CDF, become busy undertaking development work only upon CDF being released. In the absence of CDF, District Councils staff have little to do.
I have respect for the sincerity of the Minister of Local Government. Sadly, however, the PF government has not appreciated the importance of CDF.
For two consecutive years namely 2015 and 2016 they never released CDF. For the financial year 2017, they released only half of the appropriated K1, 400, 000 per constituency, with the promise that the remaining half would be released before end of 2017. This has not happened although a few constituencies are understood to have received the full amount of K1, 400, 000.
In the absence of the full 2017 CDF, the backlog of development programs accumulated over the past three years will not be fully attended to. Rural teachers will continue to sleep in makeshift structures unfit for human habitation. Rural children will continue to learn in classrooms without roofs over their heads such as at Kalumbu School in Liuwa.
Rural communities will continue to drink water unfit for human consumption. In Liuwa CDF, we had budged more than K50, 000 in counter part funding to an African Development Fund loan to sink more than 40 boreholes. By not releasing the 2017 CDF, the government is perpetuating rural poverty because not all projects we had budgeted for on the assumption that the full amount will be released in accordance with government’s promise.
This is true for other constituencies except the few that got full funding.
In the first week of January 2018 an announcement was made by the government to the effect that the second half of the 2017 CDF would not be released at all because the funds have been diverted to fighting cholera which was ravaging Lusaka. This is unfortunate and unacceptable.
In the first instance, it is hard to accept the government explanation for not releasing 2017 CDF in full; i.e. that the money has been diverted to fighting cholera. The fight against cholera only intensified in December 2017 and January 2018.
The government had plenty of time between January 2017 and December 2017 to release CDF in full after Parliament appropriated the money way back in December 2016. Why didn’t they release it over all this long time period? Was the money mearnt for CDF used to service the expensive debts instead?
Under the circumstances, we are more inclined to believe that the cholera story is just a convenient excuse. Bear in mind that this government already showed no commitment to CDF since 2015.
Having skipped CDF since 2015, one would have expected that in 2017 the government could have diverted money from other budget lines other than CDF to fight cholera.
This would have opened the way for pending issues under CDF to be attended to also. This could have eased the burden on poor rural folks in terms of being neglected.
More painfull still is that rural constituencies have nothing to do with the Lusaka cholera. They did not cause it. Unfortunately, through the diversion of CDF, they are being made to suffer for urban areas.
We urge the government to take steps to reimburse the 2017 CDF in full. Further, all MPs and in particular the rural ones and irespective of party affiliation should push for this on behalf of their electorates.
The government must bring forth a supplementary budget in 2018 so that constituencies that did not receive the full CDF in 2017 will receive the half that remained plus the full amount of 2018.
We wish to remind the government that if they do not take this course, then they will have discriminated against those constituencies that did not receive the full amount in 2017 when others received.
This unfair treatment implies that in the eyes of the PF some constituencies and therefore some citizens are more important than others.
The Author is a Former Finance Minister during the reign of the MMD Government and is now opposition UPND Liuwa Member of Parliament