May 20, 2013

Making informed decisions


The government of Zambia recently made the decision to remove fuel, fertiliser and maize subsidies because they’re costly, and divert a lot of money that could otherwise be spent on social programs. In the words of the Finance minister, “whether it’s fuel, whether it’s electricity, whether it’s anything; no subsidies…it’s not good for the Zambian people. Government is not here to preside over fiscal irresponsibility. We have so many huge tasks before us but the resources are very limited.”  

The immediate effect of the fuel subsidy removal was a price increase at the fuel pump, which led to an outcry from consumers and the executive sent out of team of cabinet ministers to various media houses, in particular radio stations, to quiet the storm. They reiterated the burden of subsidies on the treasury, which is true, but then followed it up by bizarre claims that increased fuel costs only affect a small percentage of Zambians who actually own cars.

While those talking points were being parroted ad nauseam bus and taxi fares were being hiked across the country, thus affecting a large percentage of people who use public transport. Oh, and no one touched on the issue of rising commodity prices due to the increase in transportation costs – I guess this will only be borne by a small percentage of Zambians as well?

Anyway, last week students at the two major universities in Lusaka and Kitwe protested these moves, claiming these actions would cause them needless hardship. Unfortunately the protests in Lusaka turned violent. Police and student were engaged in running battles, and at the end of the day thirty-one students were reported to be behind bars, hundreds of others choked by tear gas, and a dorm room scorched.

The student bodies have been roundly criticized for their protests and the president explicitly said the students have been bought off by opposition parties trying to discredit the government, and it was he who ordered the arrest of the students along with the directive for expulsions.

These criticisms have been echoed in the state-run media: 
There is no justification whatsoever for the kind of behaviour the students have exhibited in the last 48 hours. Even an average Grade 12 pupil can easily understand that the government cannot continue pouring resources into the subsidies, which have not served their initial purpose.
University students occupy a special place in our society. What makes them different from the rest of the citizens is the fact that they are future leaders and experts who are expected to provide evidence-based answers to the numerous challenges the country is facing.
But we are deeply disappointed that the [UNZA] students and their Copperbelt University (CBU) counterparts have not taken time to look at the abundantly available information on which the government has based its laudable decisions. President Sata and Minister of Agriculture Robert Sichinga have explained in plain language that the new measures will enable the government to channel critical resources to poor citizens of our society, and that for real economic and well-distributed growth to occur these changes are necessary.


Now what I find curious about this stance is the fact that these media houses who are all on board with the subsidies removal have done little to augment government’s laudable decision (as they put it). Most of what we’ve seen are regurgitations of press statements without any analysis of the facts or even better, asking questions about which specific programs will be funded by the subsidy savings.

Why do we have a media that only reacts to news? Do they not have a responsibility to ask tough questions and seek the truth? Why were they not championing the removal of expensive subsidies months, if not years beforehand? In what ways did they help present information of these programs to better inform the public on their wasteful nature?

On the issue of the university students, yes, we do expect them to exercise more deliberate and critical thinking on such issues but I have to ask, how can this be a realistic expectation in institutions whose quality is constantly found wanting. We place no priority in providing quality education or an environment that acts as a hive of intellectual growth. Their actions are a result of our own neglect and ignorance that’s endemic in various institutions.

This also extends to the greater populace. We cannot continually keep a population ignorant then expect them to behave as learned economists at the snap of a finger. We have a serious messaging problem here, and we cannot afford to ignore real hardships that people will endure in the short run in pursuit of long-term fiscal health. And it’s incredibly insulting to dismiss these claims as cries from people bought off by an embittered opposition.

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