July 7, 2011

Millions meant for the poor stolen or missing

Every year the Zambia government allocates billions of Kwacha for poverty reduction, but much of the money has been stolen or misappropriated. The latest report from the Office of the Auditor General, and a study published by the Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR) in June 2011 shows that a number of multi-billion Kwacha projects funded by government failed to take off in 2009 and 2010 because of the misappropriation of funds. The report found that while the money was released for use by government, it was not used for the purpose for which it was intended. Money meant for poverty alleviation was used to buy cars for ministers, while in some cases there is just no record of where the funds were taken, leading officials to assume it had been stolen.

The audit report shows that the irregularities amount to more than 66 million dollars. While the government process of tracing the funds continues to drag, the poor are plunging deeper into poverty. "The biggest problem we have is that people in all these (government) institutions are 'eating'," said Kasote Singogo, a Lusaka based development activist and former civil servant.

When it comes to public resources, for ordinary Zambians 'eating' means stealing or diverting the resources into personal use. "The poverty in Zambia is not a result of floods and other calamities, but it is because of this mentality that 'it is our time to eat'. It is a chain of 'eating'," Singogo said.

The most affected sectors include food security, drainage and floods control, education and agriculture. The report shows that some of the biggest misappropriations were funds meant for school health and nutrition, educational materials, construction or rehabilitation of schools and rural health posts. Successive reports by the Office of the Auditor General have shown that every year there are huge expenditure irregularities, especially for money meant for the poor. This has also been confirmed by reviews by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC). "These irregularities are mostly due to the failure to adhere to regulations," states the Auditor General's report for the financial year ending 31 December 2009.

"Over the years, huge sums of money meant for development of the people of Zambia have been diverted into the pockets of greedy individuals and groups of people or misapplied on unplanned activities at the expense of the intended beneficiaries," said Patrick Mucheleka, executive director of anti-poverty organisation CSPR. The organisation released a report on the 'Impact and Implications of Public Expenditure Irregularities'. "The expenditure irregularities embarrass all of us, putting in question the reputation of Zambia, and damage the image of our country that we respect and want others to respect," said Mucheleka. Mucheleka added that the misappropriation of funds was also demoralising workers. "Expenditure irregularities discourage hardworking honest citizens," he said. "People seeking services at hospitals and clinics are most times told there are no drugs yet they are tax payers. Others may cooperate on local projects, and find out that they failed because an official pocketed the funds. Such an environment can and does reduce a commitment to work hard for the future of the country."

In 2009, the government allocated about 4.16 million dollars for the construction of drainage facilities in Kanyama high-density compound, which has since the 2008/2009 rainy season become one of the most affected areas by flooding in Lusaka. The Auditor General Report shows that from this amount, only 2 million dollars was given to the Lusaka City Council for the Kanyama drainage works while the remainder was retained by the ministry of local government. No reason for this has been provided to the Auditor General and the PAC.

The project was delayed for almost a year, despite the funds having been released. The Auditor General's report shows that only 36 percent of the work has been completed. And residents are getting impatient, because they know enough money was released to complete the project. "We continue to experience a lot of problems especially when there are floods," said a spokesperson of Kanyama residents, Boniface Chileshe. The floods have further plunged the residents into deep poverty and deprivation. The CSPR report says that the "floods did not only impose economic costs to the community. Public services that the community relies on were also inaccessible... the crime rate increased during the period of flooding as most of the areas became inaccessible for the Zambia police officers to effectively patrol and respond to distress calls." Schools, clinics and other public facilities also became inaccessible. The CSPR report says there was an "estimated total of 2,610 fatalities in the 2009/2010 flooding season."

Member of Parliament for Mbabala constituency, Emmanuel Hachipuka, who also chairs the PAC, said there was a need for stern measures against public officials who misappropriate funds. "We need to strengthen the system to control these finances, we have serious financial leakages in this country, even at household level," said Hachipuka. "As chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, I have seen cases where government officials share money in a province. I can give you the names of a number of ministers, civil servants who should not be in office for inefficiency as cited by the Auditor General's report. Unfortunately, they are either transferred or promoted," he said. Hachipuka added that the country does not have sufficient legislation on issues to do with budgeting. "There are cases where a person collects money and keeps it for more than 500 days, that is very sad. The seriousness of unvouched expenditure is that people literally hide vouchers because the money was not spent. In some cases, the money was outrightly stolen," he said. According to Hachipuka, Zambia could "do much better in terms of growth rate if budget allocations are used for the intended purpose." (IPS)

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