Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"There’s no prettier sight than looking back on a town you’ve left behind…”

This week’s Ramble takes the theme of travel.

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Anyone who has ever worked in or with Government in Malawi will tell you that one of the most acute problems we have is the incentive structure in place that encourages civil servants to abandon their posts at any opportunity to travel for meetings outside of the office. I’ve already written about the poor pay available to most civil servants on standard contracts, the source of much discontent and the root of much of the poor motivation that plagues Government; travel is one of the outcomes of this.

Naturally, over time, various coping mechanisms have evolved to mitigate the effects of poor pay. The most prevalent of these coping mechanisms has been the exploitation of opportunities for travelling on official business. Whenever a civil servant travels outside of Lilongwe, he is entitled to an allowance, to cover costs of accommodation, food and the like (transportation is almost always covered separately). These allowances are high for internal travel within Malawi, much more than one actually needs to spend; when travelling abroad, they become astronomical, relative to the basic salary. As such they represent a rare opportunity to substantially augment the meagre income of a civil servant.

This has two obvious effects. Firstly, civil servants have an incentive to plan as many workshops outside of Lilongwe as possible. While many workshops are legitimate, though they don’t need necessarily to be outside of town, many are simply cobbled together, as an opportunity to get allowances. Donors are at least partly to blame here – it’s not too difficult to write up a decent proposal and get funding for a workshop where very little gets done, and nothing that couldn’t be done during routine work in the Ministry. My friend, Snowball (named not for any Clerks-related reasons, entirely down to the Simpsons), has been subject to a number of these frivolous workshops, in locations seemingly chosen primarily due to their proximity to popular drinking spots.

These completely pointless workshops are the exception; often, workshops are necessary for a particularly large piece of work, and in honesty, I’ve attended more useful away days here in the Ministry of Finance than I did in my previous incarnation as a UK civil servant. However, the decision to locate them outside of town is almost always purely driven by the desire to generate allowances. To make matters worse, in some cases some civil servants find themselves having to undertake important work as part of a specially organised retreat as the culture of allowances is so deep seated that the only way of guaranteeing attendance from a wide range of stakeholders is to ensure that there is a financial incentive.

What’s more, especially where international travel is concerned, there is competition within a Ministry for the rights to attend a workshop – so much importance is attached to getting the okay from senior management to attend workshops that the decision of whom to send depends more on who is in the right place at the right time, rather than who will benefit most from the training or who will contribute most to the work. A person may have spent months working on a project, only to find a colleague who has done very little similar work has been selected to attend a conference on the topic. It can be very frustrating, not just for the potential attendee, but also for a good manager who wants to get the most value from each of his or her employees.

So what’s the solution? The obvious way of dealing with this is to eliminate the concept of allowances altogether and build the average value that can be expected from allowances over a year into the basic salary of the civil servant. It’s not that simple, however, as resistance would be fierce from those individuals who have mastered the art of travelling. The system is also embedded; with so many civil servants looking to allowances for income, it is very difficult to get momentum behind any attempt to reduce or change them.

Large scale pay reform is already under way in the civil service here, but at a basic level, problems will crop up repeatedly until donors show a greater willingness to put support into the recurrent budget, and tie that support there; the complaint that donors have a comparative advantage in development and investment projects only holds water if we assume that Government will withdraw from this area as far as possible. For political reasons this will never happen, so donors need to act to support the areas that remain underfunded. Pay is one of the major ones.

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And on a second travelling note, this bumper edition of the Ramble will have to suffice for two weeks. I’ll have some friends visiting next week and have a packed schedule to show them around the southern part of Malawi. I’ll be away for a week, and can’t say I’m not looking forward to the break.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

“There’s a thin line between clever and stupid…”

Okay, this tardiness is getting ridiculous, so I’ll give you a brief rundown of the reasons:

  1. My car was smushed in an accident, and I’ve been dealing with the insurance company for about two weeks, sending stress levels sky-high. They should be taking the car away for repairs tomorrow. Yes, it took that long.
  2. I’ve had a minor iTunes disaster. Somehow, a friend of mine who was borrowing my laptop has managed to delete the folder (“My Music”) that seems necessary to run iTunes. If anyone knows how to resolve this, I will be extraordinarily grateful.
  3. Two of our major donors are preparing their assistance strategies for Malawi, requiring significant input from my division.
  4. At the same time, we’re completing two major documents, one of them being the strategy I’ve been banging on about incessantly, and the other being a report looking at donor activity over the last fiscal year.
  5. Malawi reached the HIPC completion point about two weeks ago.

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This last one is the big news. HIPC stands for Heavily Indebted Poor Country, and reaching the HIPC completion point was probably the most significant event in Malawi’s economic history since independence. This is not an exaggeration.

Basically, under the HIPC framework, the Government of Malawi agreed to a number of structural and economic reforms, and to keep to relatively strict standards of fiscal prudence. Our adherence to these conditions was closely monitored, and once we had met them, with the exception of a couple of conditions we were granted clemency from, we were rewarded with a massive amount of debt cancellation. The main point of the whole exercise was to ingrain fiscal prudence into the Ministry and, once this and a couple of other structural targets were achieved, to reward Government with a huge amount of debt cancellation.

With the completion point reached, our debt burden, unsustainable and the source of a large volume of interest payments, was rendered relatively manageable at a stroke. This is obviously an extremely good thing for a poor country. At the same time, it provides us with the ultimate test of the durability of our new-found prudence in matters of external borrowing: reaching the HIPC completion point has widened the range of loans we are eligible to contract, in terms of the creditor and in the terms of the conditions of the loan. In the words of one of my colleagues ‘this scares me. Deeply.’

You see, as Spinal Tap so memorably put it, ‘there’s a thin line between clever and stupid’. It’s one thing maintaining the discipline required to stop contracting new debt when you’re barely allowed to look suggestively at a potential creditor, but its quite another when those same creditors are banging on your door, queuing up to lend you money. What we need as a matter of urgency is a clearly articulated policy on the contracting of new debt, the drafting of which will fall to my division. One might legitimately ask why this hasn’t been done already. After all, completion point wasn’t a sudden occurrence. The answer, inevitably, is muddy. A policy was drafted about two years ago, since when politicking and staff turnover have conspired to keep it unimplemented. To avoid these problems this time around, we need to start the whole thing again. It’s going to be a long process, with much consultation, much drafting and redrafting and many, many arguments.

So don’t bet on a timely Ramble any time soon.