The issue of allowances payable to workers in the public service has come to the fore in the past few days. This time the donor commuity added its voice to the call for sanity in the civil service.
I wrote about this issue in 2015 while I was on contract in Government. Coming from the private sector I had a culture shock when I joined the civil service. Some of the claims that were coming to my desk were so ridiculous that I had to throw them out outright, much to the chagrin of the officers involved.
My view on allowances is that they ought to be paid where an individual has a legitimate reason for such an allowance to be paid. If someone travels, for example, they will obviously need money for lodging and for food. In such a case, it would be inhumane to deny that individual an allowance.
The problem comes when people claim illegitimate allowances. A number of scenarios give rise to what I call illegitimate allowances and this article will discuss at least three of such scenarios.
The overarching problem covering the majority of cases is that the allowances are claimed on false information. Falsehood has become so rampant that any semblance to legitimacy, insofar as disbursement of allowances is concerned, has all but evaporated. I will give a few examples to illustrate this point.
When I was a Director in a Government Department in 2015 it once became necessary to engage the services of plumbers from another Department to attend to a water problem we had. Both Departments were in Lilongwe. The plumbers came and worked for about an hour to fix the problem. Afterwards, a claim for three night’s allowances for each of the three plumbers landed on my desk. I just could not take it, and immediately called their supervisor, with whom I exchanged a few hostile words, an exchange that was totally unnecessary.
In another case two officers went on a business trip to Zomba. They collected their three night’s allowances each before departure. As it turned out I also needed to travel to Zomba on an emergency. They left one morning and I the following morning. When I got to Zomba, I enquired about them and was told that they had made a brief appearance the previous afternoon and had since left to travel back to Lilongwe. My foot!
Then there were numerous occasions where officers demanded that the only way they could complete certain tasks was if they withdrew to places like Mponela for some days and come back with the completed work. In the private sector, where I had worked up until that time, people worked at their stations, sometimes working overnight to complete tasks, but in Government everybody wanted to take work to resorts outside town. It was more of income generation than a legitamate way of completing work.
Much of the development that has taken place at Mponela is owed to civil service patronage. At one point Numbuma and Mponela, both trading centres in Dowa, were at the same level of development. When the road between Lilongwe and Mzuzu got paved it became easier to access Mponela than Nambuma, and business people took advantage of this to develop resorts at the former, spurred on by the burgeoning demand in the civil service for hospitality services.
Today Nambuma is a ghost town and Mponela a sprouting metropolis, courtesy of the ever balooning demand in the civil service for hospitality services.
Civil servants attending workshops organised by donor organisations have been collecting allowances in lieu of full board at a resort of the donor’s choice. This arrangement has been heavily abused too. Many will collect the allowances, attend for a day or two then disappear. In numerous cases, an office will enlist every officer to attend such workshops just to take advantage of the allowances.
What the donors are saying now is that they will only run workshops whose attendees will be on a full board arrangement. This, obviously, will not please most civil servants as they will not access the extra income they were able to access previously. But it is the widespread abuse that has forced the donors to take this hard decision.
Let those in the civil service search within themselves and take an honest assessment of the manner in which allowances have been disbursed. It is time now to engage the civil service management, the union and the donors to discuss this huge problem and forge an acceptable way forward. Whatever the outcome of the discussions will be, it is my hope that falsehood will be banished once and for all.