Batswana are still reeling under a catalogue of shocks contained in Finance Minister, Thapelo Matsheka’s recent budget speech.
All told, the budget contains several tax and levy increases, a new tax and plans for other new ones as well as streamlining of subsidies and subventions. It also wields the dreaded axe of unemployment over a large section of civil servants as well as parastatal employees. While many were expecting a difficult budget, Batswana are naturally shocked and taken aback by the developments.
A frank assessment of the situation, however, demands we acknowledge that the shocks in the budget have long been coming and have been repeatedly articulated by various authorities including the BURS, Bank of Botswana and others. The simple fact of the matter is that government revenues have been shaky since the 2009 and 2015 recessions, with the National Development Plan 11, which began in April 2017, running successive deficits each financial year. Government spending, meanwhile, has failed to be adequately constrained due to public service necessities, the tradition of universal health and education access, resistance within government and the public to cost recovery and increases in the public service wage bill. Wastage and corruption at various levels of the public finance management system have not helped, particularly when culprits appear to behave with impunity. The buck was due to stop somewhere and unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands of households struggling in the economic downturn, this has happened in a year blighted by COVID-19.
It is critical, therefore, to appreciate that while Matsheka was right to tackle the budget’s hard truths with frankness, one way
Years ago, the Finance Ministry committed to the recommendations of the Open Budget Initiative, the world’s only independent, comparative and fact-based research instrument that uses internationally accepted criteria to assess public access to central government budget information. This commitment led to initiatives such as the annual Budget Pitso, Budget Strategy Paper and even a timetable for the budget process that it is uploaded onto the Ministry’s website. However, as can be seen from the Open Budget Index score of nine out of 100 for public participation in the budget for 2019, there is a long way to go for Batswana to input, assess and critique the budget before its presentation in Parliament and after. South Africa, which scored 24 out of 100 in 2019 under the same indicator, last year initiated an online public input platform, also open to social media, for ordinary citizens to participate in the process leading up to the February 24 budget speech. Clearly, there can only be benefits from taking on citizens’ views about the budget and their feedback after the speech, given particularly that their representatives at local government and Parliament cannot be everywhere at once.
“Government budget decisions – what taxes to levy, what services to provide, and how much debt to take on – affect how equal a society is and the well-being of its people”
– Open Budget Initiative