Finally, we have all bid farewell to 2021 with all its highs and lows in national development. If I were to blame 2021, I would do so for permitting the government to use covid-19 as a convenient (perhaps controversial) alibi for the not too impressive use of loans and other national resources over the past two years. Admittedly, the pandemic has created serious economic distortions globally, but we still could have done better with more prudent management of scarce resources.
A high point I love to recall was the National Science and Mathematics Quiz in the last quarter of 2021. The euphoria it generated, including the unfortunate sour grape syndrome exhibited by Prestigious Presec is etched in my diminishing memory.
Perhaps, of even greater importance to me was the recognition that a relatively less endowed school like Keta Secondary school could make such waves out of the blue. Producing for the first time, a smart unassuming, well- bred Pentecost trained Francesca Lamini for the competition up to the finals made every responsible parent proud.
Tons of gratitude go to all the dedicated teachers who, behind the scenes, have proven that potentials abound everywhere, if only we could distribute national resources equitably. At least, now my soul magnifies the Lord in the hope that Ejisuman Secondary school, representing the many less endowed schools, will one day become famous for scholarship, like Keta SHS, instead of the despicable and irresponsible student behaviour that have come to characterize them.
Politicians and their inexplicable fear of urban dwellers.
It is bewildering to note why politicians easily get alarmingly fidgety when urban dwellers embark on demonstrations over sometimes illegitimate issues. Politicians would quickly mobilise resources to respond to the needs of the urban populace but spurn similar agitations from rural dwellers. I thought votes are votes, irrespective of where they are accumulated? Or my naivety will never make me a “good politician”?
I was recently invited to a function at East Legon, a neighbourhood that sprung up less than 30 years ago. I marveled at the rapid rate of development in the area that used to be a swathe of grassland with wild rabbits having fun across the vegetation and teasing “teenage gbeila” hunters. How did that community spring up so fast to attract all the facilities that made me green with envy; fine houses, exquisite layouts, asphalted roads, street- lights, proper drainage and other utilities?
That brings me back to the thorny issue of inequitable distribution of national resources. Suddenly some remote streets across Accra suburbs are being asphalted; roads which in their previous conditions would even have been the envy of many rural dwellers, especially those who use the Odoben- Brakwa road in the Central region.
We forget that children in some rural areas are still studying under trees and dilapidated buildings, sometimes swimming across rivers just to attend schools in this 21st century. Yet, we are gleefully prepared to waste loans on a new conference centre with doubtful capacity to pay for itself. First, they wanted a new parliament house. Strong dissenting voices destroyed their appetite and the project was shelved. Now a new conference centre in this perilous public financial climate? Perhaps prioritization requires a new definition in public discourse.
Then, I am struck with incredulity to realise how even head porters (kayaye) in the cities develop strange entitlement mentality. They reserve the audacity to call for proper housing and the provision of social amenities simply because they live in cities where their demonstrations will be covered by television cameras. How their relatives continue to survive back home in the rural areas is no one’s concern.
They are now privileged to be city residents who must be allowed to construct kiosk city slums anywhere and everywhere within expensive suburbs in the cities, diminishing property values. Woe betides any public servant with the nerves to address squalid sanitation and other challenges which require that such squatters must be relocated. Suddenly they become a political force to be treated with soft white gloves!
This lopsided development paradigm that concentrates development in the urban centres must be addressed if the size of kenkey is to remain reasonable for the pockets of vociferous urban dwellers. Who should stay in the neglected rural areas to produce cheap food to feed some not too productive urban dwellers?
Which bold politician is going to make the rural areas more habitable as a conscious strategy to decongest the cities and rid them of the increasing insanitary and security problems?
It is incomprehensible to consider why some rural dwellers should pay higher for water usage than their city counterparts. My complaint in the village was only answered with the unreasonable explanation that the water systems are run by Community Water and Sanitation Agency which is supposed to be self- financing. Immediately, my finance background gave me the reason why this unit cannot be self-financing, however that objective is defined.
The first thing that strikes any analyst is the cost of constructing and maintaining their needlessly over -sized offices spread across the poor rural environment. I wonder who designed the offices and sincerely believed that such is the only way those bodies can run their operations. Examples of such ill-suited offices can be found in Jei- Krodua, Amanfopong, Breman Brakwa and Bontroase, all in the Central region.
Even banks are mindful of the cost of running rural branches. Why invest disproportionately in offices (fixed assets) when all this agency needs are resources to keep their pumps functioning and supplying water to their clients? Why load costs with the maintenance of those unfit for purpose offices which are hardly occupied by the skeleton staff who should be out in the field collecting charges. Why pass on the avoidable expenses to poor consumers through outrageous bills? Or they too have ghost names lurking on their payrolls?
Re- orienting public servants? A herculean task!
Whose task is it to make civil and public servants aware that the government is under serious challenges to introduce new taxes? With the myriad obligations, now coloured by hard to fulfil promises, there is little wonder that we are inundated with strikes and threats thereof by government workers. The recent upheaval generated after the attempt to introduce the E- levy should convince all and sundry that new taxes, however well-intentioned, will be hard to be implemented.
Ironically, there are still a multitude of existing taxes, which have the real potential to improve the budget deficit if agencies charged with their collection will live up to expectation. Not only that, what little we collect, must be used judiciously.
I was one of the many taxpayers who naively but sincerely thought that the introduction of the then Road Tax, would lead to improvement in our road network, perhaps new roads criss- crossing the length and breadth of even the Volta lake! But now, only St. Peter can tell us how the fund was dissipated while we patted ourselves with constructing a few high invoiced interchanges with borrowed funds in a few cities!
Poor road network is still a bane to rural development, particularly, agricultural growth and productivity.
Institutions charged with ensuring the appropriate use of resources must also lift their game. If we cannot increase the receipts side of public finances appreciably, at least, we can responsibly and equitably expend what comes into the consolidated fund. That includes punishing offenders who misappropriate funds to serve as deterrent to others. Otherwise, why should we maintain the Auditor Generals Department, and charge them to report to Parliament with findings and recommendations no one cares to enforce? Merely a constitutional requirement?
Recently, I paid nearly GHS.12,000.00 as building permit fee to the Ga South Municipal Assembly for a plot in undeveloped New Bortianor, notorious for unmotorable roads- jungle pathways, to be precise.
Then, it dawned on me what an assured source of income awaits the District and Municipal Assemblies if they will get out of their airconditioned offices to do the needful! Property rates are another easy target for the assemblies to pursue and stop whining about the inadequacy of resources to construct common drains and maintain them, among other basic responsibilities.
I went to the Ejisu Municipal Assembly to voluntarily pay property rate on my house in Kwamo. I was stunned by the reception I received and easily surmised why there are inadequate resources to redevelop my beloved Kwamo M/A JSS that has not seen any significant development over the last fifty years.
Who said devolution of power to local government functionaries without addressing their attitudes can be a panacea to sluggish development?
In this digital age, the Assembly has no database on what structures exist where and what their values are. Surprisingly, the Kwamo township is one of the few settlements in the country with a well-developed layout, dating back to the mid-1950s. With GPS technology, it should be no rocket science to identify properties in Kwamo, value them and identify the status of property rates payment.
I had diligently paid property rates through my cousins in Kwamo who could not locate the receipts post 2012. I would have expected the office to have digital records of houses within the catchment area to be able to check by the stroke of a button who has paid or not paid on which property.
After futile efforts, I was asked to rather pay from 2013 to date at values the office could not even determine immediately. They expected me to wait interminably when I had other obligations to settle at the Stool Lands Secretariat and return to my base in Accra.
I disagreed, insisting that I had made some payments after 2012. Maintaining records on individual properties does not require any cutting- edge technology for an institution with computers on their desks. I left the office out of frustration, wondering how much it will cost to develop appropriate software for such simple tasks. When they are ready, I will go back to discharge my obligations as a responsible citizen.
The problems with our public finance can be addressed if state institutions would begin to live up to expectation instead of passively sitting in their offices and engaging in perpetual whining. We need to emphasize the reality that the government’s options for revenue generation and even borrowing are becoming limited going forward; unless they revisit the tax exemptions recklessly granted in the past to undeserving firms.
Factors like the current high debt to GDP ratio, (the comparison with other countries’ ratios must be placed in the right context) the proportion of resources that annually go into servicing previous debts for which we collectively have very little to show, the yawning infrastructure deficit, the high public wage bill and the increasing youthful population, make it really onerous for current and successive governments to meet aspirations.
Like individual resolutions that we make at the end of each year, if we do not take steps to re-orient the psyche of our politicians and public servants to acknowledge the grim realities, we shall only wake up each year end to see that it is only the date that has changed and not our collective destiny. The blame game will not then inure to the benefit of any political party.
Our major problem, once again, cannot be just lack of resources. It is simply the discipline to prioritize our needs, duty consciousness, and the will to tackle the ubiquitous corruption without political lenses that is lacking.
The writer is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Bankers, an adjunct Lecturer at the National Banking College, a farmer and the author of “Risk Management in Banking” textbook. Email; [email protected] Tel. 0244 324181