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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Minister appears to advocate corruption

Something of a hoohah in yesterday's papers. The Daily Monitor's headline was Minister says it's okay to inflate govt tenders while the UGpulse website announced Minister makes shocking statement about corruption.

Yesterday, the State Minister for Planning proposed that public servants should be allowed to add 10% onto government contracts as a personal payment to themselves. The Minister said this was not a bribe but 'a commission after facilitating a service'. At 10%, that means that a contract for Shs 100,000 (£25) would yield a 'tip' of Shs10,000 (£2.50) to the civil servant concerned. If we extrapolate, a contract for Shs10 million (£2550) would yield Shs1,000,000  (£255) and one for Shs100 million.... and so on. My guess is that there are more government contracts for Shs100 million than there are for Shs100,000. Nice work if you can get it....

It's that word 'facilitation' again, a weasel word if ever there was one. In Uganda, the word usually means 'additional payment to people for carrying out the core tasks for which they are already receiving a salary'. 'Facilitation' is big business here. In fact, it is quite possible for people to earn more from facilitation than they do from their official salaries. It sometimes appears as if no one does anything with getting some sort of kickback. Let me stress, 'facilitation' is not an illegal bribe; however, neither does it just mean travel expenses. These are 'per diem' payments simply for being in a room where something is going on.

There's no embarrassment about this. Despite the civil service code stating quite clearly that public servants should not take any payment in addition to their salary, civil servants routinely claim - indeed, expect -  facilitation for attending meetings which are part of their day-to-day job. We were stunned when a civil servant from a partner directorate was paid money for contributing to a training session in our own.

It is our impression that many public servants spend more time at meetings and working for other organisations (in our case the national curriculum body, the examinations board and the various universities) than they do in their substantive posts. Each of these bodies gives additional personal payments for this work. In a Scottish context, this would be rather like the Scottish Qualifications Authority giving personal handouts (in the form of well-thumbed bank notes) to HM Inspectors who attend their working groups. Let me stress, in Uganda these are not payments to the employer for agreeing to lend a key member of staff. This money actually goes into the employee's pocket in addition to the salary he or she is already receiving for that day's work. And this business of doing other people's work to add to one's own salary is quite common. To our surprise, we have found civil servants from other directorates actually 'inspecting' schools, despite no training or experience in inspection. Why? Could it be something to do with the facilitation?

And it is not just national bodies which engage in the facilitation game. So do the donors and NGOs. Why? Because otherwise no one would attend any of their meetings. Given that the donors and NGOs often appear to provide more services to the population than the government does, their meetings matter. The biggest organisations provide the largest handouts, which makes it very difficult for smaller charities and NGOs. And no one seems to be embarrassed about taking money from charitable organisations to add to their salary. A nice little earner.

We once watched while district officials walked 20 yards from their offices to a meeting organised by an NGO and then claimed the flat rate 'facilitation' payment. The meeting was actually about the abysmally low standards of education and rampant child abuse in their district, both the responsibility of those same district officials.

When you look more closely, however, it all gets much more complicated. Most of the people we work with are good, able, well-educated and committed people. Only two days ago, however,  newspapers carried an extract from the government's 2011/2012 semi-annual report on budget performance which showed that virtually no inspections had been carried out this year. It is very difficult for a Scottish ex-civil servant to understand this. For example, the Daily Monitor stated, accurately, that of the nearly 3,000 planned secondary inspections only 560 had taken place. None of the inspections of vocational institutions or training colleges had been carried out. And it is not just inspection. None of the 64 projected classrooms have been built and, none of the 150 public toilets. How can this be? Why is no one up in arms?

Well, unlike in the UK where government departments are given a certain amount of money at the beginning of the financial year to cover their projected activities, here in Uganda, money for individual activities is transferred from the finance ministry to the receiving directorate a day or so in advance and not necessarily for the planned dates. In fact, it almost certainly won't be for the planned dates. It is then all hands on deck to get people out in the field. Most of the time, the money just doesn't come in time or, indeed, at all. Or it may arrive a week before the schools close, after inspectors have sat idle in their offices or at home for weeks and when there are still several inspection programmes to complete before the end of term.

Advance funding is essential for programmes to run. For example, it pays for inspectors to stay overnight in remote locations and for transport to get there. They cannot risk and can't afford to pay for travel and subsistence themselves and claim later. The money has been planned for but it just doesn't appear, or it may appear for some people but not for others, so inspections have to be carried out by fewer people than planned. We don't know why this is, though we can speculate that it is caused by a mixture of administrative incompetence and corruption. Bureaucracy in government departments at both local and national level to ensure 'accountability' results in paperwork going backwards and forwards several times, ironically leaving ample opportunity for individuals to shave off a bit for themselves each time.

For example, districts receive money direct from the government for local inspections of primary schools. Money, however, may be redirected by the Chief Administrative Officer into other areas of the district's work or, worse, into the pockets of other district officials who then announce that they are going to 'inspect' the schools instead of the substantive district inspectors. What they often seem to mean by this kind of 'inspection' is a pop-in visit of an hour confined to the headteacher's office. Why should senior officers be bothered to do such 'inspections'? One might guess or a cynic might say, because they can then claim the facilitation. One can also speculate that it is unlikely that such senior officers will write a report on their visit. Not only does lack of properly organised and reliable inspection mean that schools do not receive the support they need, it also means that the necessary inspection reports are not produced and hence central government does not have the intelligence or data which it needs to engage in strategic planning.

Secondary schools providing universal secondary education under the government's scheme have only just received the money they should have got at the beginning of the year. Ironically, this late payment is seen as an achievement. 'We have managed to release 92% of the required funds and we don't expect any complaints from schools this time round,' said an official in Thursday's Daily Monitor. A spokesman from the National Association of Private Universal Secondary Education Schools responded that the 'the money only covers last year's arrears and the first part of the first term capitation'. (Ugandan schools have just started the second term of session.)

One estimate was that across the country schools may often receive no more than a third of their projected finance. Much of the time schools may operate with no money at all while staff go without salaries for several months at a time. There is no system of payment in arrears either. National inspectors carry out checks on payments and report back to central government, but who knows what happens then?

So, why do teachers go to training courses when their average attendance rate at their schools is only 50%? To collect the facilitation, of course. How else are they going to eat and pay the rent? How else are they going to pay school fees for their own children in order to keep them out of government schools like those in which they work themselves? School fees are a major contributing factor to the facilitation business and to Uganda's blatant corruption.

One aspect of corruption is the practice of having two 'full-time' jobs while only working part-time on each.  Many doctors and nurses run private clinics during time taken from their substantive jobs - hidden corruption. Teachers in government schools may run private schools, manage retail businesses or drive motorcycle taxis during the working day. Why do these professionals do second jobs? To pay school fees, of course. School fees are probably the single most influential factor in the prevalence of corruption among the professional classes.

And so it goes on. As in the Ministry of Planning, every public body appears to think it is quite acceptable to transfer large chunks of public money to the pockets of individual employees. Individual employees appear to consider it perfectly all right to neglect their core work in order to earn a bit on the side, or to insist on additional payments for the work for which they are already being paid. Today's Monitor reports that workers in the National Social Security Fund are demanding bribes from people trying to claim their pensions. The bribes amount to 10% of the sum being claimed. If you don't pay, the staff don't process your case. There are stories of people waiting 10 or 20 years for their pensions to come through. Some never get them at all.

Last month a report by the Auditor General indicated that taxpayers lost more than Shs trillion to fraudulent practices in one year. The losses covered everything from the procurement of bicycles for village chairpersons (Shs 5 billion, forged documents, no bicycles) to overpayments to roads contractors (inaccurate measurements, unexecuted works, 'irregular payments'), to microfinance for market vendors (Shs10 billion unaccounted for) to Shs54.7 billion unaccounted for across various ministries (fraudulent payments, lack of documentation, diversion of funds, inaccurate use of formulae). Uganda Aids Commission was unable to account for more than Shs50 million, Mulago National Referral Hospital for Shs48 million, Makerere University for Shs 3-4 billion and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for more than Shs 3 billion.

Besides these figures, 10% bribes seem quite paltry. So, you could argue that the Minister of Planning was simply suggesting that what was standard practice should be built into the system. In many respects, this is commendable honesty.

It is also important to realise that the Minister's comments were shouted down by other MPs, and that a top manager of the NSSF was sacked for bribery. The existence of corruption within Ugandan public services is, fortunately, not yet universally accepted as acceptable or inevitable.

Now, corruption is not unknown in the UK, of course. On the contrary. A couple of years ago MPs' expense claims rightly came under scrutiny (though the amounts of money involved were chicken feed compared with the amounts salted away by MPs over here). We have had 'cash for questions' scandals in Parliament. The Leveson enquiry is uncovering a whole range of unsavoury events. However, in Britain we are used to the idea that while private businesses and a handful of local government housing and planning departments may engage in corrupt practices, civil servants working for central government are incorruptible. They may be lazy or incompetent but they are not corrupt. Indeed, the public service ethic is fundamental to the way almost all British public servants perceive their job, in a way it certainly is not here.

Why is that? British civil servants may be badly paid relative to employees of private businesses (and no, the pensions of the top-earning 10% of civil servants do not compensate for the poorly-rewarded 90%), but in our country, even now, we always have a safety net. Although public services have been significantly eroded since the current Westminster government came to power, at the end of the day Britons still have some level of social benefits. Health and education services are free at the point of access. Most of us take it for granted that we belong to a social grouping and that it is our duty to support the weaker and more vulnerable through our taxes. In Britain, people do not die because they can't afford medical care, nor do they have to bribe doctors to treat them. Schooling is compulsory and no child will be turned away, even if the quality of individual schools may vary.

In Uganda, however, losing one's job is a disaster. Incompetent administrative arrangements which result in underfunded hospitals and schools and inconsistently paid salaries spell disaster for individual families. So, the temptation is to make money when and where you can, just in case. 'Facilitation' is at one end of this process while bribery and corruption are at the other. Hence, money is leached from the system and public services get worse.

At least the Minister of Planning has opened the debate.




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