BY AMOS MBENDERA – Contributor
Whatever the environment you and I are seen to be associated with and notwithstanding our different needs whether socially or economically, there is one thing that we cannot dispense with and that is information.
Information has become a very important if not a critical component of human life.
For example, a smallholder farmer will want to know when the planting season will start and whether sufficient rains are expected; a fertiliser dealer will want to know the volume of each type of fertilisers to be supplied to place orders with manufacturers; a tertiary institution will need the assurance that the programmes on offer are progressively in demand.
Various players in the economy will require information specific to their trades. In this regard, information needs of government cannot be overemphasised. Needless to say, conclusions are always made or drawn from available information. Garbage in garbage out, so they say.
Sources of information include literature such as general books, academic and reference books; periodicals, magazines, newspapers and newspaper clippings, microfilms, cd rom, you tube and others.
These sources of information can provide a wealth of information for different uses. However, in order to make such information accessible to the public, it is placed in libraries such as national library centres or other resource centres in institutions of higher learning, websites, you tube, Internet, or government information centres at ministry, department or district offices.
More specifically, one of the main sources of information is the National Statistical Office (NSO) under the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development.
Unprocessed information is of little utility value to any business manager or user unless it is analysed and evaluated for relevance. The same data collected can be used for different purposes provided one has a clear view as to possible alternative applications.
How reliable is this information
There is generally a caveat which protects the publisher of any information from liability where the user makes a decision in reliance of such information (without reference to the publisher) and suffers a loss on that account.
However, it is felt that such indemnity from liability should be relevant only where an error or omission is within reason rather than arising from carelessness.
Please consider this: In 2012, NSO published data regarding top 20 goods imported into this country from January to June 2011. From the look of it, there was nothing wrong until you begin to examine the nature of information provided.
It was noted that included in this group were “instruments and appliances used in medical, surgical, dental or veterinary” at a value of K16.6 billion, which were second to petroleum oils and oils obtained from bituminous minerals at K17 billion.
It is worth noting that the same products were not even in the top 20 imports in the previous year in 2010. The goods listed against number 20 in 2010 during the same period had a value of K1.3 billion, meaning that the import value for instruments and appliances used in medical was in fact less than this.
This significant increase in import values was in our view a serious anomaly which should have triggered a review by the relevant government agencies such as Malawi Revenue Authority and NSO.
The question that arose was whether this was an error of misclassification, wrong postings or deliberately done to achieve a preconceived benefit.
Deliberate misclassification was most likely the reason to benefit importers.
Please note that dutable goods when cleared as such would avoid duty completely as medical appliances and ancillary goods were wholly exempt. It should be noted that our public hospitals were during the same period seriously in need of such equipment and there was no evidence to suggest that government and the private sector had gone into a massive drive to procure new or additional equipment of such values.
We put forward a proposal indirectly to undertake a transaction audit on these imports. After two months or so we received feedback to the effect that we could not be so engaged because there were indications that politically-connected persons were involved.
Without the benefit of knowing the actual types of goods imported, one can easily estimate the extent of revenues prejudiced to not less than K8 billion. In a situation such as above, a number of people, including foreigners used this information from the established resource website. They believed that the information provided in that report was reasonably correct.
However remotely relevant this information might have been to interested parties, such errors should never have been allowed to take place.
Discovery of such errors has the effect of diminishing public trust and raises doubts on the quality of information available on that website.
As to whether there were other instances of similar nature that required revisiting is not known. In any case, one might still ask, how reliable is information on our public domain? n