Not only the state will bleed

There wasn’t much for me to do when I first joined the Budget Division of Malawi’s Ministry of Finance back in 2006. My particular position had been vacant for almost a year, so it took a bit of time before the acting budget director grew accustomed enough to start diverting work my way. One of the very first things I worked on was an attempt to reconcile the difference between expenditure ceilings set by my department and actual reports of expenditure from the Accountant General’s department.

What complicated this process was the fact that the Accountant General had recently adopted an Integrated Financial Management System (IFMIS), essentially a comprehensive software platform for approving and tracking expenditure. A lot of promises came with IFMIS – the ability to track expenditure in real time and keep a tight leash on expenditure by line ministries. Yet, when I had arrived, the budget department had yet to fully adopt the platform, meaning that our (often fairly specific) budget ceilings had to be manually reconciled with IFMIS-generated expenditure reports.

I doubt that the budget director seriously believed that this greenhorn civil servant was really going to accomplish much with this work and probably saw the task as something to keep me busy while I grew more accustomed to my environment. Even so, I quickly noticed that IFMIS-generated reports seriously deviated from what was being approved by the Budget Division, sometimes even showing expenditure which was above and beyond what had been mandated by our department.

At my director’s prompting, I visited the relevant department at the Account General’s to request more detailed reports from IFMIS. The likely culprit was some of data problem, and I was curious to get to the bottom of it, seeing the whole exercise as a problem with some sort of technical solution. While the civil servants I spoke to at the AG were friendly enough and agreed to send me reports, upon my return to the Ministry of Finance it was later made clear to me that the AG wasn’t too fond of this unknown fresh-faced mzungu making random requests. Not long after, more pressing work diverted my attention, and this particular issue faded into the background.

Later, our own department grappled with the adoption of IFMIS. While technological solutions are frequently touted as solutions to institutional problems (this platform will eliminate corruption!), my experience was that without some basic level of capacity in place, even the most advanced platform was doomed to fail. Hence, if two government ministries can’t keep their budget tallies synchronised in Excel, they are unlikely to be able to get a more complex `black box’ system to work properly.  This is problematic, because when finance systems don’t work properly, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between corruption and incompetence.* My feeling at the time that the discrepancies between the AG’s expenditure records were due to the latter, even though I heard the occasional, unsubstantiated whisper that someone at the AG was stealing money.

This was surprising to me, as there had been a fairly visible crack down on corruption and leakage during the first term of then-president Bingu wa Mutharika. However, it was widely recognized that during his second, more tumultuous term (which began after I had left the country), government systems became more porous and corruption become more common.

One might have expected things to improve upon Mutharika’s sudden death and the ascension of the pragmatic Joyce Banda to the presidency. Yet despite wowing a lot of donors and even some skeptics – including yours truly – her government seems to have inherited many of its predecessors failings: a recent scandal has broken out over implications that there has been substantial theft by employees of the Accountant General’s department, who exploited loopholes in IFMIS to siphon off money.

We tend to lump all dodgy dealings into the broad category of corruption, but there is a clear difference between institutionalised corruption, where political leaders divert resources towards their own benefit, and the kind of rampant theft which goes on when you have a leader who either is unaware of or cannot control corrupt practices. Banda’s situation clearly falls in the latter – given that she has, until very recently, ruled over cabinet  of former members of Mutharika’s party as well as the opposition – she has always been in a precarious position and thus unable to fully keep everyone in her government in line.

The scandal hasn’t been completely bloodless. The recently-appointed director of the Budget Division, Paul Mphwiyo, was nearly shot to death following his attempts to close the loopholes leading to theft of public resources. I knew Paul during my time in Malawi: he was serving as an assistant budget director when I was working for the Ministry of Finance, although we didn’t often work closely together. Let’s hope he recovers quickly and his assailants are eventually apprehended, although I have my doubts about the latter.

For those wanting to keep tabs on the scandal, Kim Yi Dionne remains an excellent source for recent Malawi news and analysis.


*This confusion can be easily exploited.

Update: This post got a little more attention than I thought it would, so just wanted to add a little addendum.

I want to be cautious about drawing too many conclusions from my (very brief) interaction with the AG’s system – the Cashgate scandal is another animal entirely. In weighing the corruption or incompetence possibilities, it’s highly likely that my situation fell in the latter. I just felt it was worth noting that these things aren’t always clear, and that there was a bit of an administrative wall between the Account General’s Office and the Budget Division of the Ministry of Finance (they were, at least when I was there, separate `votes’ on the cabinet and in separate buildings.) Also, for the sake of my former department, I want to make it clear that this thing at least seems to be entirely of the AG’s making, and I saw nothing in the Budget Division during my time there that suggested any wrongdoing of this sort.