As Malawi continues feeling the pinch of economic imbalance, with austerity measures encouraged across the board, the Central Medical Stores Trust (CMST) splashed K18.1 million in Christmas shopping vouchers for its 181 employees.
Each employee got a K100,000 shopping voucher, which was apparently meant to motivate them, just a few days after we had reported that then minister of Information and Communications Technology, Malison Ndau, had confirmed that the 2010 13th cheque freeze remains in force.
In 2010, former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, introduced austerity measures with an aim of partly cushioning the yawning budget gap even at a time when donors had not completely pulled out their direct budgetary support.
Now, while other public departments and agencies are adhering to the 13th cheque freeze imposition, CMST—which is entrusted with the responsibility of making sure the country has enough drugs—parried the obligation away and went ahead to splash the K18.1 million.
In a response to our questionnaire, the trust’s Board Chairperson, Evelyn Itimu, confirmed the arrangement which she said has been taking place since the 2014/15 financial year “as part of staff motivation”.
“Since [the] 2014/2015 financial year, CMST does budget for and provide Christmas gift vouchers to staff in December as part of staff motivation. Like with previous two years, the board approved the 2016 gift voucher as part of the Budget Estimates for [the] 2016/2017 financial year.
“The latest vouchers were valued at K18.1 million for a staff establishment of 181,” said Itimu in an emailed response, adding that the funds were taken from the personnel costs budget line.
But the Parliamentary Committee on Health has described the arrangement as unfortunate.
Asked what the justification for the arrangement is when there is a moratorium for public institutions not to give out bonuses and shopping vouchers as part of austerity measures, Itimu said the trust was not aware of a moratorium not to give out shopping vouchers.
She said: “Currently CMST does not pay bonuses to staff and was not aware of the moratorium not to give out shopping vouchers. The Christmas vouchers are part of incentives for staff motivation as stated above.”
However, the ban of the 13th cheque by government encompassed everything that may in the end mean that extra money has been spent on staff, be it bonuses and shopping vouchers.
Chairperson of the Parliamentary Health Committee, Juliana Lunguzi, said it is absurd for CMST to claim that they did not know that there is a moratorium on the 13th cheque when everyone who reads newspapers, listens to the radio or watches television has heard about this.
“But then they could simply be trying to communicate that that those statements are just policies on paper like is the case with most austerity measures that the government purports to issue and people are just paying lip-service to them.
“Otherwise, we would be worried as Parliament about the breakdown of communication between public institutions and their parent ministries,” said Lunguzi.
Asked whether Treasury was aware of the shopping vouchers arrangement, Itimu referred us to the ministry on the same.
“However, you may also want to be aware that CMST’s financing model is one where it does not get direct funding from Treasury, but rather generates funds through sales of medicines and medical supplies to public health facilities whose funds come from Treasury,” she said.
Treasury spokesperson, Alfred Kutengule, said in a brief response to our questionnaire that government austerity measures are being applied across the board “and therefore Central Medical Stores Trust is not an exception”.
Lunguzi said it is disheartening that at a time when different stakeholders are struggling to make things work in the health sector, CMST officials have decided to serve “their own interests”.
“This is the type of leadership that Malawi does not need. We have to move from serving personal interests to focusing on creating a better Malawi. K18 million currently funds a whole district hospital for a month. K18 million can buy two ambulances and save a lot of lives,” she said.
President Peter Mutharika’s reduction of cabinet Ministers from over 30 to 20 was apparently aimed at reducing government costs. He also directed that the ministers should travel outside the country not more than three times a year while also using economy class.