Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube yesterday presented a ZW$421.6 billion 2021 National Budget which had its positives and negatives—as such policy documents go—but his prescriptions failed to convince long-suffering Zimbabweans that the macro-economic “stability” he repeatedly boasts about is of any real benefit to the toiling masses.
The Treasury chief has continued waxing lyrical about what he sees as the magnificent attainment of “fiscal surplus”—even as teachers are on strike, the health delivery system has collapsed, more than half the population is facing starvation, and poverty is on the rise. A national budget is the single most important policy instrument of any government. For that reason and more, a budget has to be inclusive, well-thought-out and grounded in reality. In a country where people’s patience has been stretched to the limit, a budget must, of necessity, play another crucial role: galvanise national action.
Although some of the policy interventions in the 2021 budget appear designed to provide flickers of hope and seem to be have been crafted in the spirit of broad consultation, there are other aspects of the document which must be questioned without fear or favour and in the national interest.
We must, of course, be alive to the realisation that there is realistically no way in which an entire nation of 16 million people can always agree, in unison, on what the priorities are. People approach life from differing perspectives. However, what is important is to ensure that we are on the same page insofar as the priorities are concerned.
The priorities are fairly easy to define. Whether the policymakers and bureaucrats share this view is another story. Healthcare, education, infrastructure, agriculture, mining and tourism, for instance, should surely be considered among the most important areas.
A government exists primarily to safeguard the wellbeing of citizens. This wellbeing is multi-faceted: physical security, food security, social service delivery, economic stability, provision of equal opportunity, and so forth. Without these crucial ingredients, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to propel forward the socio-economic development agenda.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently launched a new economic blueprint, the National Development Strategy (One). Yesterday’s announcement of the 2021 National Budget has given Zimbabweans useful insights into official thinking—not only on the economic trajectory going forward, but also on essentially every facet of life in the republic.
Economists often have the luxury of deploying high-sounding words, models and concepts to dazzle the masses. Theirs, after all, is not an exact science; it is a field of knowledge focused on human behaviour, which is notoriously unpredictable. What the toiling Zimbabweans need are not fancy philosophical postulations couched in economic sophistry, but practical solutions to livelihoods that have been decimated by a ruinous combination of economic mismanagement, corruption and Covid-19.
The budget lacks a human face; it projects a lack of empathy. When it suits them, the authorities do not hesitate to levy taxes in US dollars but when it comes to expenditure, the Zimbabwean dollar conveniently kicks in. Currency deception is unsustainable, as history has repeatedly shown.
It has also not gone unnoticed that the government is increasing the tax burden on poverty-stricken citizens — even to the extent of mugging street vendors and hairdressers — yet taxpayers are not getting anything useful in return by way of improved service delivery, better infrastructure or governance reform. A budget must have a human face.
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