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COMMENTS & OPINIONS  

FINANCE MINISTRY, AGENCIES AND THEIR MONEY PALAVER
By Andrew Keili
May 9, 2013, 17:04
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Balancing the budget is not an easy task for the Finance Ministry as it scrounges around to squeeze something out of every conceivable revenue source.That the Ministry recently demanded that agencies, especially regulatory agencies pay all licence and other fees directly into the consolidated fund is therefore not surprising. Some agencies like NATCOM and the Sierra Leone Environmental Protection Agency(EPA-SL) do generate considerable revenue.

 

National regulatory agencies cover many sectors and  include NATCOM, EPA-SL, Sierra Leone Maritime Protection Agency (SLMA), Standards Bureau, National Minerals Agency (NMA) and many others. Some are in areas in which they may not be able to generate adequate funding easily. Others regulate sectors in which there are large and fairly well heeled players. The Finance Ministry seems to be particularly concerned about the bigger, well to do regulators who in their opinion generate considerable funds.

 

There is concern however from the regulators that this will limit their operations significantly and not allow them to carry out their basic functions of monitoring and enforcement efficiently. Regulatory agencies deal in the area of administrative law, codifying and enforcing rules and regulations and imposing supervision or oversight for the benefit of the public at large. They are commonly set up to enforce standards and safety, or to oversee use of public goods and regulate commerce.

 

For quality regulation, such agencies need to have adequate human and technical resources. Agencies like EPA-SL,NMA and NATCOM are charged with overseeing highly sophisticated, technologically driven industries.To do so effectively, they would have to compete for personnel and resources in the same market as the companies they regulate. They may require more flexibility in terms of both methods and amounts of payment for highly specialized products and services. The rules that apply to the civil service in general are often too restrictive for such agencies. I am well aware of how budgetary restrictions led to the poor performance of the Environmental Department which was part of the Lands Ministry before EPA-SL was set up as an independent Agency, even though licence fees were being collected. A study in which I was involved some years back concluded that even though the Mines Ministry collected some $7m in 2004 in terms of licence fees and other levies, the Ministry was short of funds for monitoring and could not even buy consumables for the Geological survey lab as everything went directly into the consolidated which, with other competing social demands could be a big black hole.

 

It is clearly for reasons of independence and efficiency that such agencies are set up. A recent study on removing the administrative barriers to doing business in Sierra Leone gave the following opinion on regulators in Sierra Leone:

 

A trend is visible to give licensing fees a bigger role in the budgetary considerations and increase them across the board........The primary purpose of a license should be to guarantee compliance with certain regulations that aim to protect the health, safety and/or the environment. The Main focus of a license should be consumer protection...................It should not be used for revenue purposes and the fee must go directly to the agency administering the license.

 

The system of making regulators keep funds collected could admittedly have its challenges. Regulators themselves could make fees inordinately high and be unduly concerned with revenue generation. Also, the regulator may be susceptible to Government interference and special government demands for donations or funding of pet projects. With proper governance of these agencies, these can be resisted.In cases where surpluses arise, the agency may retain the funds for its use, in which case licence fees could be reduced in future. Regulators should be well governed and kept in check. Despite their independence in substantive matters, regulatory agencies are like any other governmental bodies in regard to their obligations to be good stewards of public resources entrusted to them, to be accountable for their actions, and to operate on a reasonably efficient basis. They should be subject to a budget approval process and audit oversight. The performance of regulators must also be reviewed periodically.

 

The Finance Ministry should carefully consider its stance on this issue and grant some financial flexibility to agencies to build up their capacity and monitor and enforce the rules in their areas of operation. The NMA compromising on checking on mine dams that could potentially kill a considerable number of people if they fail or the EPA allowing some deleterious substance to contaminate public water supply for a community are inexcusable. Clearly our regulatory agencies must be well funded and run efficiently. Government should not relent on providing oversight but should not use these agencies as cash cows.

 

LIES, DAMN LIES, STATISTICS AND POLITICS

The wife of a man who had five children and wanted no additional child got pregnant, much to her husbands chagrin. Unfortunately  he read a report that said every sixth child born in Africa is a Nigerian. Perplexed, he ran straight home to his wife. You are going to have an abortion, he exclaimed. I am not going to have a Nigerian in this house!. Oh the folly of statistics!

 

I listened to an interesting interview on Radio Democracy in which Mahmoud Idriss of ITASCAP and Monica Timbo of Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) struggled to explain statistical information related to a survey they had undertaken to assess the perception of people on their living conditions. A random sample of 1900 Adults had been interviewed and their responses seemed to indicate that their lives were better than twelve months ago.47 % described the economic condition as much better or better and 46 pct as very bad or fairly bad. 51 % considered their living conditions much better or better and only 40% considered their living condition to be very bad or fairly bad.

 

The government was also  given pass marks in fighting corruption (54%), addressing educational concerns (52%), managing the economy (52%), providing water and sanitation services (51%) and reducing crime (51%). There were other fairly damning statistics given but listeners were too preoccupied with these statistics which seemed to indicate things were getting better-How can they interview only 1190 people to give their views for 6 million people? Did they interview more people from the North who were likely to be APC? Had not CGG tarnished its reputation by subscribing to such a report? Mamoud and Monica answered the questions well, mentioning statistical lingo like sample sizes, confidence intervals,  rejection of anomalous results etc. Mamoud did mention that perception is what was measured and that there was no attempt to tie the results in with current socio economic statistics. At the end I could sense you had a very sceptical public.

 

Scientific data are often used in political debates to show how one political position is better than another. Statistics however confuses people. The IRN results at election time merely provide transient figures at various polling stations with no accompanying explanation or summary. People find the concept of moving averages confusing. We were sitting at 55%. How come we are now at 45%?, they complain. Sometimes we are not sure whose statistics to believe. The Public Sector Reform Unit, the Ministry of Education and the Teachers Union could not agree on the number of ghost teachers- a maximum figure of 7000 has been proffered. But then ghosts are phantom beings!

 

The government sometimes uses statistics to its advantage but may often be too quick on the draw.The GDP growth rate for 2012 was initially projected at Fifty something % then to thirty something % and finally to a much lower figure. In the case of electricity, figures are put out with no attempt to classify the type of power. Usually figures are put out for installed capacity because they give the highest figures. Little attempt is made to explain to people that power from Bumbuna for example varies according to the season or that for power supply you will need to have standby units. Firm power (which can be guaranteed) could therefore be considerably lower.

 

I had a friend in Tongo who would always call for a quarter dozen bottles of STAR to impress people. Others belabour the point unnecessarily -52 % of the population are female, therefore 48% are male-of course there are no hermaphrodites!

 

Using statistics to distort is a worldwide phenomenon. Christopher Pollitt of Erasmus University, on a visit to Finland, was surprised to discover a category of prison - open prisons - with no escapes, ever. You never have anyone escape from an open prison? he asked an official. Oh no, but because they are open prisons we dont call it an escape, we classify them as absent without leave.

Back to the report! Even I could not understand how 51% of the population could be enthused about their living conditions when we have a poverty rate close to 70%. But then there could be lot of satisfied poor people!-Blessed are the poor.... I am also not certain how germane some questions may be for a rural person-like assessing governments fight against corruption or reducing crime. The report did suggest however that the next urgent steps for government were to narrow income gaps, create jobs and keep prices down. To me this is what is important. Lets forget all that statistics and take an object lesson from the little boy who was asked the question If you have ten sheep on one side of the road and five cross over when they see an approaching car, how many are left behind?. None he answered. He disputed his teachers answer of five by observing, You may know mathematics, Sir, but I know sheep better.


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