It is the kind of inefficiency that has become too expensive for Malawian taxpayers, half of whom live below the poverty line.
It seems no public sector project in the country has any regard for baselines—they never finish on time, are usually not done to requirements and almost always cost more money than they were budgeted or planned for.
You remember the mess that has surrounded the Reserve Bank of Malawi’s (RBM) Mzuzu Branch project?
It was originally scheduled to be completed within three years from November 2007.
That means by November 2010, that project should have been closed and handed over to client; yet it has missed its target by five years and counting—with extensions so multiple that even the client may have lost count by now.
The RBM Mzuzu branch project was supposed to cost around K5 billion to construct.
But by August 2013, the project cost had climbed to roughly K14 billion—180 percent more than planned, according to an investigative story, based on the project’s documents, that The Nation published in December 2014.
The chances are that between August 2013 and today, the cost must have jumped to God knows what—and the taxpayer is picking that tab!
Claims also abound that there are certain project requirements or specifications that have been altered from the original without a clear and structured change management process, which is a critical element in successful project management.
The RBM Mzuzu branch project fiasco is just an example of the country’s development projects that have been mismanaged.
In the health sector, for example, there are the new district hospitals in Nkhata Bay and Phalombe.
They are both marred in controversy, with the former missing both its completion date and delaying to open while the latter has struggled to take off the ground. There are several other projects in the health sector that have all the marks of failure.
As for road projects, they are also too numerous to mention. Across all the three administrative regions, there are road projects that commenced several years back and should have been completed by now, but have long been abandoned, with part of the infrastructure that started taking shape being vandalised.
You just have to drive from Zomba through Phalombe to Chitakale in Mulanje or take the Thyolo-Makwasa-Thekerani-Bangula Road just to see what I am talking about.
Did I hear someone mention the Jenda-Edingeni Road in Mzimba? Did I hear a hiss about the Lirangwe-Chingale-Machinga Road?
The cost of such poor project management to the taxpayer in terms of wasted money, interest charges and commitment fees (most use borrowed funds from international financial institutions) as well as opportunity costs, is huge.
Yet government does not seem to care when billions of scarce public funds are invested in these projects so that citizens can benefit in future and have their human welfare improved, but everything goes to waste.
The major problem I see in government could be the (deliberate) confusion of a project for a programme.
This sweeping statement may sound funny, given how supposedly well-trained people in government are when it comes to development analysis and planning (of course, not execution!).
But, as you all know, a project has a defined set of objectives as well as a specific start and end date, so why does the Government of Malawi projects appear to have infinite end dates and budgets?
Where does the problem lie? Is it in the lack of understanding of the policy environment or context at project identification phase?
Are our project identification and formulation too reliant on political imperatives at the expense of deriving the projects on national planning frameworks?
For example, is the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) still functional or it has been conveniently ignored over the years?
Are there problems at project preparation stage—that is during formulation and design or are our challenges with appraisal and selection?
What are the issues in execution that derail development projects? Should we be examining our project procurement and funding models more critically?
Are there fungibility issues on resource allocations for projects that we should be dealing with, especially on the part of external project financiers (donors)?
Someone, somewhere at Capital Hill and State House should answer these questions as candidly as possible and then begin to address the issues if government is to derive meaningful benefits for its citizens from development projects.