Should the Government of Malawi increase the pay of Civil Servants?

President Lazarus Chakwera making a statement

Following the K6.2 Billion COVID19 funds scandal, in which 64 people have so far been arrested by the Malawi Police as being suspended to have been involved in the plunder of the COVID19 funds, various people have opined whether the real problem we have in Malawi is that the take home pay which Civil servants receive just isn’t enough to meet the cost of living in most parts of Malawi.

The argument goes that when you factor in the basic monthly salary most civil servants receive (below Senior posts & Director levels) and excluding benefits, it simply isn’t enough to live on considering all the expenses most people incur, including house rental, vehicle fuel, school fees and other educational commitments, food, electricity, water, mobile phone data and airtime costs and alms/ financial support to relatives. They say most Malawians struggle to keep up, and that it’s not their fault. Their pay is simply too low and has not increased proportionally with inflation levels over the years, and too little has been done to correct this anomally.

Personally, I’m sympathetic to this argument and have written about it before in the past. But considering what has been revealed in the audit report of the misappropriated K6.2 Billion, it’s necessary that tough Anti-corruption measures must first be adopted before we consider increasing the salaries of civil servants. Because the last thing we need is increasing the salaries of the very same people, who have for years been intentionally misappropriating government resources for their own self enrichment.

In a 2016 paper titled The challenge of per diem misuse: Training and travel as extra pay, Norwegian researchers Tina Søreide, Ingvild Aagedal Skage & Arne Tostensen wrote a paper for the CHR. Michelsen Institute in which they said:

‘The abuse of travel and training- related payments results in excessive expenditures and in a distortion of incentives that can frustrate development efforts. Three main factors contribute to facilitating this type of practice: insufficient controls, management (dis)incentives, and donors’ role and attitudes. Strengthening controls alone is unlikely to curb this kind of abuse, the culture of “per diem hunting” needs to be changed as part of a broader reform of the civil service. Coordination among development partners can also contribute to preventing per diem abuse.’

They went on to note that:

While per diem payments are supposed to be strictly compensatory, they can become a form of additional salary (Policy Forum 2009). In countries where salaries are generally low, these extra payments can amount to a significant proportion of civil servants’ total income. As a result, civil servants may be more interested in obtaining these allowances than in the content of the activities.’

One Oxford-based Malawian Political and Social commentator, Thandie Hara, commenting on the fallout from the K6.2 Billion allowances issue wrote on her Facebook wall:

How do you expect anyone to live on MK100,000 a month in Likuni or Ntandire, when half of that will be spent on transport? “

She suggests that a cost of living assessment needs to be done for the lowest paid civil servant, such that take home pay should be sufficient to cover the basics. As a starting point, the lowest paid civil servant, be it a cleaner or a messenger should be paid no less than MK500,000 a month. According to Hara, a review of the unrealistic pay structure is necessary because currently what civil servants are paid

does not accurately reflect the cost of living, and as a result may have inadvertently made people to believe that they are justified in stealing. “

The result, she says, is that such low pay has

“… created a looting culture with no ceiling. You will be surprised that many of the people we are calling thieves, but who see themselves as honest prayerful people. They don’t recognise theft in what they or their colleagues have been doing. It’s been normal practice for underpaid people trying to survive.

A different Malawian on twitter was less forgiving

However, we need to be sober in that side by side with the prosecutions, which the President of Malawi is fully behind and has been pushing for, some ground rules need to be laid down:

  1. Sitting allowances should be abolished in their entirety. Instead a fixed temporary salary increment should be calculated and introduced only to low pay grade civil servants – which I know begs a different question as to what are “low pay grade civil servants”.
  2. Financial controls should be introduced and undertaken rigorously, with a quarterly audit of each department by external auditors. IFMIS modules that are yet to be activated in Government departments need to be switched on, and if not switched on by a certain date, the managers of those departments need to be suspended, and asked to explain why.
  3. There should be a budget for the audit of each department 4 times a year.
  4. There should be stiffer penalties for any form of misappropriation of state funding, including confiscation of personal property, so that a strong deterrent is set to scare off would be offenders.

And after all this has been done, only then can the debate on increasing civil servant salaries begin.

It’s not a popular position when so many people have been conditioned to think allowances are the way to earn a living, and no doubt there will be loud protests from some corners regarding this. Others will also ask ‘Where will the money come from?” Ofcourse from the same allowances being milked, but if that’s not sufficient my next post will fully address that question.

But it is the right and honourable thing to do, if Malawi and the Tonse Alliance Government is really serious about fiscal discipline that protects the country’s finances.

Why Donors should halt all COVID-19 Aid to the government of Malawi until there is full accountability regarding the usage of funds

COVID-19 statistics for Malawi as of 12th February 2021. Source: PHIM
  • US$1 = MWK 780.22  – Source: xe.com (13th Feb 2021)
  • Officials in Malawi, including people at the Department of Disaster Management Affairs(DODMA), have misappropriated the majority of K6.2 Billion (US$7.948 million) of Government funds which were earmarked for fighting Covid-19 and issued to government appointed Covid-19 Cluster committees- which are made up of civil servants.
  • According to credible reports from several sources, in one instance out of K85 Million ($109,000) earmarked for the purchase of Personal Protective Equipment(PPE) for Blantyre district, only K10 million was used for PPE, with K59 million being used for allowances. In Machinga, K30 million was spent on allowances with nothing on PPE. In Chitipa K22 million was spent on allowances, and nothing on PPE. In Chikwawa district for example K16 million was spent on allowances, with a meagre K4 million being spent on PPE.
  • There were several instances where significantly more money was spent on fuel than on PPE.

If you were looking for the perfect excuse not to waste your country’s citizens’ taxes to help the citizens of some poor country in East Afriica, one where officials have the nerve to steal COVID19 funds, now you have the perfect excuse.

Officials in Malawi have been accused of misappropriating a significant chunk of K6.2 billion meant for fighting Covid-19. The scandal now informally named COVIDGATE has revealed just how rampant, insensitive and endemic corruption continues to be in Malawi, and how little accountability there is in Government spending.

Despite the rhetoric from the Tonse Alliance government that they are serious about fighting corruption, or “clearing the rubble” to use President Lazarus Chakwera’s own words, the scandal has revealed just how little in practical terms the government has actually achieved towards that end. And how a lot more needs to be done.

Commenting regarding the scandal, one Malawian I talked to noted:

“If they can steal billions while Malawians are dying of COVID19 every day in our hospitals, while the hospitals are ill-equipped and overwhelmed and struggling to cope, while we have an acute shortage of PPE, what else won’t they do? What does that tell you about the kind of rot that we have in the civil service in this country? I understand poverty but these people are heartless, their brothers and sisters are dying everyday and they’re still stealing?!! They don’t deserve any mercy. Every single one of them needs to be fired!”

These people are heartless they don’t deserve any mercy

One Malawian commenting about the K6.2 Billion scandal.

Another commenter said: “If you donate to the government, your donation will end up into a politician’s stomach.”

Malawians on social media are equally enraged:

Meanwhile the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Lilongwe has ordered the Inspector General of Malawi Police Service to commence criminal investigations into the scandal. How long that process will take remains to be seen. However, historically such type of corruption or embezzlement cases in Malawi tend to take a long time. And in previous adminstrations, there were allegations that the lack of urgency and speed in prosecuting people who have embezzled Government funds pointed to a lack of political will.

The leader of opposition in Malawi’s p
Parliament Kondwani Nankhumwa MP

The leader of opposition in parliament Kondwani Nankhumwa MP has called for a forensic audit to ascertain weather DODMA and other Government officials misappropriated the funds.

However, until all the culprits are brought to book, and until there is total transparency regarding expenditure of Government funds, and until allowances on matters such as healthcare emergency spending are banned (all of which may take some time), I believe donors and international agencies working in Malawi should with immediate effect route all COVID19 aid funds either via charities and NGOs or via the COVID19 Private Citizens Response initiative (which so far has had an excellent record of transparency and of accounting for each and every single penny that has been donated).

Such a drastic action will focus minds within the Government of Malawi to do something decisive and to do so urgently against the scourge of corruption in Malawi.

Malawians are tired of being abused and taken advantage of like this. They want to know who was responsible for the embezzlement, how much was stolen by each official, and to see those people not only prosecuted and jailed, but also named and shamed, and forced to return the stolen funds back to the Government. And if they can’t return the misappropriated funds, then assets of each guilty person equivalent to the misappropriated funds should be confiscated. There has to be a very strong deterrent to stop this kind of thing happening over and over again.

The Governments of Britain, Germany France, the US and the EU should take note of this sad case of embezzlement, and be firm with officials in Malawi. This is an opportunity to force through much needed accountability and transparency in public service.

President Chakwera has on numerous occasions said he wants his leadership style to be a servant leadership style. This wanton embezzlement of emergency healthcare funds unfortunately frustrates such noble sentiments, and must be met with a tough response.

Nkhalidwe wonunkha kwambiri uwu. This behaviour must end now.