The recent statement by the British High Commissioner- Fergus Cochrane- Dyet that all direct funding from
the UK government to Zambia, remains suspended following the allegations of misuse of funds for social cash transfer, is a matter of grave concern. Following the ZAMPOST Social Cash Transfer scandal of 2018, we expected and rightly so, that Government would work expeditiously not only to investigate all allegations of impropriety but to put in place remedial actions to win back the confidence of cooperating partners who were supporting the programme. We do recall that in September 2018, President Edgar Lungu, directed the then Secretary to the Cabinet Dr. Roland Msiska to take decisive action to curb all malpractices in the administration of the Social Cash Transfer Programme.
We are also aware that Government, through the Office of the Auditor General, did conduct a forensic audit investigation which in our opinion, should have been concluded by now. The lack of conclusion of this matter nearly half way into 2019, unfortunately signals a lack of seriousness by Government to urgently get to the bottom of this scandal. In the meantime, while this dithering is going on, the vulnerable persons, our own fellow poor Zambians, who should be benefitting from this programme, continue to be deprived of this valuable assistance. Transparency International wishes to raise a couple of issues and prod government to urgently address this matter- this is people’s lives we are talking about and while numerous meetings are held in the comfort of posh offices and board rooms-the suffering of the intended beneficiaries worsens.
1. Forensic audit – it was our understanding from the onset that Government, in full agreement with the cooperating partners, was going to undertake a comprehensive forensic audit whose scope would not be limited to a small and insignificant sample, but be broad based to determine the extent of any impropriety or malfeasance committed by those charged with the responsibility to manage the Social Cash Transfer under the aegis of ZAMPOST. We want to believe that the actions taken to suspend management officials at ZAMPOST and the Ministry of Community Development, were intended to ensure that investigative processes including the forensic audit were conducted in an independent manner. It therefore comes as a disappointment to us to learn that the forensic audit was limited to two districts of the Copperbelt and we want to urge Government to expand the coverage of this audit to include other districts that were intended to be serviced by ZAMPOST. The forensic audit and the subsequent response to this audit by Government, should go a long way in rebuilding confidence of not only the cooperating partners but the Zambian people as well. The forensic audit should additionally help government identify systems failures, weak internal controls and governance lapses which may have led to the misuse of the social cash transfer funds. Government should learn vital lessons from this audit and use its findings to revise and improve the model to ensure the delivery of efficient and timely services to the beneficiaries. It is unacceptable that a programme meant to provide some social relief to the poor has become embroiled in such controversy. We should be resolved as a people that such allegations or misconduct will never happen again. Therefore, a solid and comprehensive forensic audit will provide a strong basis for the necessary reforms.
2. Investigation of culprits – we want to reiterate our call that investigations into the conduct of those who were charged with the responsibility of managing the social cash transfer under ZAMPOST , should be thorough and there should be no sacred cows. Those who deprive the poor and vulnerable of the little assistance intended to ameliorate their suffering, should not be allowed to freely walk the street without facing the law. Government should not only undertake to be accountable to cooperating partners for their financial contributions to this programme, but Government should equally account for public funds mobilised locally through taxes which are part of the social cash transfer under ZAMPOST. And one way of accountability is to bring to book all culprits.
3. Outstanding arrears to beneficiaries – from our background research, we understand that most of the slightly over 170,000 households under the ZAMPOST run Social Cash Transfer programme are owed arrears of payment of transfers for about two years covering 2017 and 2018. We find this grossly unfair and unjust that the beneficiaries who are already economically disadvantaged are denied even the little on offer to slightly improve their well being. While we understand that investigations are ongoing, we strongly advocate that temporary measures should be put in place to ensure that beneficiaries are not adversely affected by the selfish actions of a few unscrupulous persons. Additionally, we call on government to relook its priorities and consider the plight of these compatriots. There is a lot of national wastage of resources, unjustifiably so and we cannot allow our own kith and kin to live on the margins of existence while public resources are frittered away on unnecessary foreign travel by Ministers and Government officials, bye elections, expensive jets and personal to holder vehicles, numerous and often meaningless workshops/seminars etc. It will be a betrayal of, if not an affront to human decency if the Minister of Finance fails to look for funds to pay off these arrears. We call upon Government to urgently communicate how it intends to make good these arrears to the affected households.
4. Alternative funding mechanisms – We do appreciate the rationale for the decision taken by Cooperating partners to temporarily suspend their contributions towards the Social Cash Transfer. However, we would like to appeal that the Cooperating partners should not completely withdraw from supporting a programme whose goals are noble and well intended. We propose that measures should be put in place to support government generally to strengthen its systems in providing social protection. We would earnestly appeal that instead of completely pulling out from this programme, Cooperating partners should consider alternative funding mechanisms which would guarantee timely payments of the transfers to the intended beneficiaries, even if this means using other structures outside the Ministry of Community Development or Government in general. We are aware of different other social protection programmes which could provide opportunities for ring fencing funding for social cash transfer and these options should be explored.
The poor and vulnerable people should not unduly suffer for the incompetence, crookedness, corruption of a few and the apparent lack of compassion for the less privileged . It is time that Government takes serious steps to address all allegations and bring back on track this important programme.
(The author is Transparency International Zambia Chapter president)