Don’t take aid freeze lightly, JCTR advises govt

JESUIT Centre for Theological Reflection says government should not take lightly the cutting of bilateral aid to Zambia following reports of massive corruption.

Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) programme manager Geoffrey Chongo,  in an interview yesterday, said the truth was that the cutting of bilateral aid to Zambia would affect many lives.

“It’s a very unfortunate development that money is being withheld…even though the Minister of Finance is saying the donors have not frozen the aid, they have just withheld. I can’t see the difference. I think the issue to us is that money has stopped flowing in. They can term it whatever they want…I mean, this is the problem we are having, we are using semantics to lighten the problem that is there. Whether aid has been frozen, withheld, as long as money has stopped coming here, it’s a problem. If you look at the issue of debt, the government is saying ‘no, no, no, Zambia is not in a debt crisis; Zambia is not in a debt crisis’. It’s because of the way they define the problem in economics. They say a country is in debt distress if it fails to repay loans. Of course the government hasn’t defaulted,” Chongo said.

“But we know that the government is prioritising loan repayment over civil servants’ salaries. There are some workers who have not been paid for two, three months. If the government didn’t have challenges, it should be able to meet loan repayment as well as other commitments. To me, as an ordinary person, then I will know that Zambia doesn’t have problems. But when the government prioritises loan repayments and doesn’t meet local commitment then to me it’s a problem whether they say there is no debt crisis, to me there is a problem. The way they are defining the problem doesn’t matter. Whether aid has just been withheld or frozen, it is an indication that there is a problem and we need to confront the problem. Why is this a problem? This money that has been withheld, millions of kwacha targets the most vulnerable people in society.”

He said the Social Cash Transfer programme was meant to cushion the suffering of the people.

Chongo said if the money was meant for ministers’ salaries and was withheld, citizens would not mind because the government would find an alternative.

“…but this money we are talking about is meant for ordinary people in society. The last time they got was in June for January and February. The money meant to go to the health sector is the money that we are touching on, it’s very unfortunate. The money meant to go to education, that is the money that has been withheld. I think it will have very adverse effects on ordinary people who cannot afford private services. People with money can go to a private school, private hospital…it’s fine. But for an ordinary person, that money wasn’t supposed to be withheld. It’s time for introspection. This is not the first time money is being withheld by donors. We saw this in the Ministry of Health, one would have thought this would have been dealt with effectively,” Chongo said.

“The other concern is that we have been too reluctant to deal with the problem. Hearing from the report, the President said he heard about this issue four months ago. If he heard about it four months ago, why would he react now? Why would he only react four months later and why only react after donors have withheld aid? We should have done damage control because the withholding of aid doesn’t send a goof signal to the donors, investors; it may affect our kwacha and our economy. The President should have taken these measures he is taking now, then when he heard about it. He would have suspended some people, not that they are guilty but suspend them to pave way for investigations. But you don’t take actions after people have withheld aid. What message are you sending?”

He said it was shocking that President Lungu, during his address to Parliament over a week ago,  pretended as though nothing had gone wrong with the Social Cash Transfer programme.

“Just a few days ago, he was addressing Parliament as though there was no problem. He was boasting about increasing the number of recipients for the Social Cash Transfer Programme when he knew that there was a crisis in terms of the way the money was being managed. He knew the problem but he was there painting a rosy picture. Can you imagine if the donors had not announced anything, we would still be thinking that things were okay. In terms of going forward, we need to find better ways of managing these funds we give to people otherwise, this is a conduit of corruption because there are a lot of people involved in delivering this money to beneficiaries,” said Chongo.

“If we can find electronic ways…I know some people live in far flung areas but we can start where we can manage. We can use anything, Zoona…people can have accounts. Let’s find a way of cutting down on the number of people managing the cash. We can’t go on like this. We cannot continue wasting resources like this. We hope that the government addresses the problem effectively and donors quickly restore the flow of aid otherwise our budget will be seriously affected. Corruption is what is taking us backwards.”

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