In a desperate bid to stabilise the economy, President Lazarus Chakwera last week unveiled some measures aimed at saving public resources.
The measures include cutting by 20 percent fuel allowances for his Cabinet, restrictions on foreign travel to a maximum of three trips until the end of the year and restricted movement of government pool vehicles after 6pm. The measures also include public officers only flying economy class.
In his address, the President also ordered boards of directors of statutory corporations to confine themselves to quarterly meetings plus one extraordinary meeting per quarter for emergency situations subject to approval by the line minister. He also announced a freeze in purchase of new vehicles in the public service.
Through the measures, the President responded to popular concerns that it was business as usual for his administration despite the tough economic situation the country was going through.
In a bleeding economy where the cost of living is getting unbearable by the day, it was an insult to the populace to see their President flying chartered planes to some international destinations. Not that the President should take motorcycle taxis (kabaza), but surely some of the costs and perceptions so created could easily have been avoided.
Besides frequent foreign travel, domestic travel by the President is equally a drain of resources, especially for those trips that can easily be delegated to officers who can travel light and spend less from the public purse.
It is one thing to put in place austerity measures and a different ballgame altogether to make them work. For the record, this is not the first time the Malawi Government has put in place measures to cut down on expenditure and experience has shown that discipline is critical to the successful implementation.
Do we really need the measures? I would say yes, because they send a strong political message that the leadership is willing to do something to improve the situation. The savings may not be enough, but the gesture is good.
What will be critical at this stage is how the President and his team, especially the Cabinet, will walk the talk on cutting down costs. It is a tough one as within the ruling clique, there will be some who would attempt to derail implementation of the measures, but this is where leadership comes in.
Moving forward, the President should not take lightly utterances such as what Minister of Energy Ibrahim Matola made during the commissioning of the Golomoti Solar Power Plant which bordered on trivialising the need to cut down on both local and foreign travel.
If the President condemns such statements, he will send a strong message that he means business, but ignoring the same will give ammunition to the rank and file that it is the usual rhetoric with no action, “zongokamba zija, kwantele basi”.
To live within means demands one to spend based on the income they generate over a given period. If you spend K200 000 per month when your income is K100 000 you are surely living beyond your means and the deficit will likely be met by borrowing which, at the end of the day, may become unsustainable.
This is the situation our government has found itself in as the national budget is being financed through heavy borrowing from the domestic market, thereby crowding out the private sector which is supposed to stimulate economic growth.
For the measures to make a difference, the leadership, notably the President, the Vice-President and Cabinet ministers should lead by example by cutting down on even domestic travel. The President said fuel allocation be cut by 20 percent, but still more can be done here.
I do not think one needs 1 000 litres in a month to travel from Area 10 to Capital Hill or City Centre, less than five kilometres.
It is my prayer that the President and his team will dare to be different by making the measures work. It is not easy, it requires a strong will and mindset change, but it is doable.