I wish to caress the International Monetary Fund for what I see as a departure from the usual. Thinking blue, speaking grey. In what may appear as fun, or even funny, to those who can afford to chastise the Fund that is not new anyway the IMF has expressed concerns that are rarely said openly: Telling the truth to the face of the host government. And this is bound to ruffle some feathers if not already, as they have started influencing supposed public opinion moulders who have been at their usual the-sky-is-falling antic.
Diplomacy, some call it sycophancy, is the name of the game for many multilateral or international organisations. So much so that when the former Irish president Mary Robinson was made head of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights she fell out with many traditionalists who thought the world body should not be critical of member states. Mrs Robinson was vocal and downright down to earth. And it paid off over the former Yugoslavia.
When Kofi Annan wanted to effect a no-smoking ban at the UN headquarters in New York, the then Russian ambassador to the UN and now foreign minister Sergie Lavrov dismissed the idea of the UN boss at the time referring to him as a servant who should only carry out instructions given to him by his employers the member states.
You probably remember the spat between Nigeria’s president Olusegun Obasanjo and the then executive secretary of the African Union, Alpha Omar Konare over the latter’s appointment of Kenneth Kaunda, as envoy to resolve the political impasse in, I think, Togo. Many felt at the time that Chief Obasanjo bullied Mr Konare and overturned his appointment.
In late 1990s Sierra Leone, who does not know about the discomfort the then UN envoy to the country, Francis Okello caused in the corridors of power for being what many would call righteous and honest in dealing with the rebel RUF. Consequentially, he was attacked by some sections of our press with some calling him “rebel collaborator”, vilified and eventually he was recalled. Elizabeth Luanga, the then UNDP resident representative, etc. etc. were all victims of a similar disfavour with politicians.
Recently, I was having a chat with a European working with an international mission in Freetown. We were attempting to analyse the possible reasons for the defeat of the SLPP party or the win for the APC party at the polls last year “despite their sound fiscal policies and institutional build-ups” he said. We made some postulations. In the final analysis, he said that many of the ministers and other government officials at the time were corrupt hence the reason for many donors withholding funds at some point. By the way he doubts any such has vanished in the dispensation.
“Why did you people keep quiet?” I asked. “It is an internal affair and we have limitations,” was his defence. “But it is your tax payers’ money that you give to the country, never mind how much of it ends up with you” I said. Anyway the conversation continued. In the end, we agreed that the donor community are most times keeping too quiet about blunders by government. They seem to be changing.
My source at the International Monetary Fund tells me that the Fund and the Government of Sierra Leone were to have held a joint press conference early this week. It did not happen because the government would not attend. A source in government that I contacted said they would not attend because the president and the finance minister were both out of the country.
However, other sources credible even if not official tell me that the government felt uncomfortable to attend. The IMF has repeatedly objected to the payment of Le 75 billion to Wanza which was not planned for in a budget that is largely donor-driven. The IMF has also implacably opposed the contract awarded to the independent power providers, Income Electrix contract that is stationed at Blackhall Road. Both issues were to have come up at the press conference, I understand.
In any case the official line from the IMF was that they wanted to discuss the third review of the country’s poverty reduction strategy paper (PRSP) and to see how far we have come, or should I say gone. So in a somewhat radical departure from the diplomatic realm of niceties, the Fund issued a press release that laid bare certain things that make one to cringe. The release, however couched in diplomatic attire, had an outfit that was still a thin-clothed miniskirt that one could see through. Part of it reads thus: “Real GDP grew by 6.4 percent in 2007 and growth is expected to decelerate slightly in 2008 as a result of deterioration in the external economic environmentstill better than many other fragile sub-Saharan African countries.”
What that simply means is that our economic performance in the last year was at least unsatisfactory if not poor. Even if it cites the global fuel price hike, the release goes further to state that “Inflation has reverted to double digits since 2007” and that the international reserves at our central bank are declining.
IMF has warned that the Government is spending too much and needs to do more to increase its revenue base to match that. Rightly, I think, the Fund praises the strides being made at the National Revenue Authority to be more transparent, as well as the lifeblood that was recently injected into the Anti Corruption Commission with the new law and the new powers to stamp out corruption.
IMF also says that “domestic revenue and fiscal deficit targets for the first half of 2008 were breached” even if “progress on the structural front continued”. Even if peppered with diplomatic lingo, it scares and probably scars, when the Fund says that our fiscal deficit targets are faulty, coming almost immediately after the sentence that talks about too much spending by government.
One does not need a degree in economics to discern that if the current trend continues, the donors will shy away and stay away. IMF may not be mandated to be dishing out money, but is the veneer of respectability. Its recommendations are what donors go by in determining whether or not to give us badly-needed funds to implement the daring ambitions of the president and the expectant wishes and needs of the masses. The World Bank, the EU and the biggest bilateral donor Britain, go by the Fund’s observations and recommendations. And the youth and the children depend on those donors’ assistance.
If the otherwise subservient IMF can say it, it means it is of deep concern the way our fiscal policies and expenditure are going, or maybe sliding. By Umaru Fofana