By Ranga Mberi
THE list of people always lining up to spend public money never gets short.
There will always be a long queue of people lining up at Treasury, each of them convinced that they are more entitled than the next person to be next to dip their snouts into the national trough.
The list gets longer each day. Across Africa, hardly a day passes without word of some huge scam – tenders awarded to inept contractors, misuse of government funds, and just plain greed.
Yet, that is just the smaller part of the tragedy. The bigger tragedy is the number of us willing to cheer such mismanagement on, and our apathy in demanding greater accountability in the use of public funds.
It is a plague across the continent. Too much of our decision making is in the hands of individuals, and our systems are far too weak to guard against the temptations those we put in charge face daily.
We are far too ready to make excuses for those who fail in their stewardship of public finances. This is a plague that extends from government to our social circles, including the church.
Far too many people think they are entitled to public money, and far too few of us are prepared to call them out. In fact, far too many of us are willing to excuse their excesses.
In Zimbabwe, two recent events highlight the poverty of our attitudes to public spending. There is a debate on whether government should yield to demands from veterans of the liberation struggle for more benefits. The reaction has been fervent.
“They deserve it. They sacrificed a lot,” say those who support the 34,000 or so war veterans’ demands for gratuities, pensions and other benefits.
Many are strongly opposed to this, predictably. One’s past sacrifices should not make them feel forever entitled to tax money, they argued.
And then, Former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who lives in a government-funded mansion in one of Harare’s wealthiest suburbs, was reported to have received money from the tax payer for his medical bills.
The reaction was telling.
The same people who had argued, with good reason, that nobody should feel entitled to government money, suddenly began excusing entitlement. “He deserves the money,” his supporters screamed. “It is his pension,” they said. That there was no such evidence that he was entitled to the money was not enough to deter them.
The hypocrisy was galling. Our attitude to those who would spend government money is not determined by principle, but by the identity of those doing the spending.
We like to cheer while those we like take turns at the feeding trough. We hardly stop to take the trough away, out of principle, and demand that each of those in line justify to us why we should let them near our money.
In the end, we breed a culture of impunity and entitlement.
When a Zimbabwean businessman was awarded, under unclear circumstances, lucrative energy contracts and payments, one commentator wrote: “At least he is using some of the money to support the national football team.”
When the Harare Mayor posted on Facebook recently that he was entitled to a discounted residential stand, his followers cheered. When he mentioned that councillors’ allowances were too low, one follower agreed, begging him to get a raise.
Ask why a pastor is using tithes and offerings on big cars, nice Sandton suits and holidays, and it is likely to be the same church members who angrily tell you off. “Do you want our pastor to be poor?” they will retort.
We need to do better.
African economies lose far too much because of poor management of public funds. Those in charge get away with far too much, far too easily, because they know we the public will be waiting outside, cheering them on and excusing them as they carry on.
Citizen participation in the monitoring of public funds is changing everywhere. More and more governments are opening up on public spending to the public, as a means of promoting oversight and accountability.
A recent report on Forbes magazine reported the success of technology such as OpenGov, a cloud-based software that helps governments visualise and track budgets.
In South Africa, the government launched Municipal Money, a platform described as an “open local government budget data portal which provides citizens and other stakeholders with access to comparable, verified information on the financial performance of each municipality”.
The media is also playing a role, with one South African media organisation partnering with the Auditor General on a tool providing access to the public information on municipalities’ expenses.
All these are great steps that governments can take to improve accountability. But they will all come to naught unless we, the people, stand on principle. We cannot demand accountability only when it suits us, demanding answers from eaters that we do not like, and cheering on and excusing the eaters that we do like.