Decide for yourself

Decide for yourself

The Minister of finance presented the 2017/18 budget proposal estimates to the National Assembly yesterday.
I cannot help but wonder how many of my country folk appreciate and understand the significance of presenting to parliament budget proposal estimates.
In my view, sadly not very many. Most people “doesn’t care”.

Those who care, do so only because they just want to know by how much salaries (government employees) will go up in the new financial year and not because they are concerned about how the government proposes to manage this country’s revenues, expenditures and debt.
This indifference arises mainly because budgetary decisions are made behind closed doors with little expectation for input from the public. Information is often presented in ways that most citizens (regardless of their level of education) cannot understand what Government is saying – technical budget speak and financial jargon is liberally used.

How many people for instance understand the jargon used by the Minister when explaining the economic assumptions underlying the budget i.e. expectations about economic growth and inflation?

What about the predicted budget deficit? How many people understand the impact on current and future growth that this will have?
How many people understand the impact of revenue collection targets to sustain current programmes, introduce new programmes, meet financial obligations to international financiers etc?
How many people fully understand the impact of sizable increases or decreases in revenue or spending?
What do these things mean? What do they mean to each one of us sitting at home in our villages?
Perhaps except for a few enlightened ones, many of us have no idea what the Minister was saying let alone how the proposed numbers are intended to bring about lasting socio-economic advancement in Lesotho.

Most of us are unlikely to have an independent view as to whether what was presented yesterday was good or bad. We need some professor or some clever analyst somewhere to first proffer their opinion. Without them telling us what to think, we are incapable of formulating our own independent assessment of what was presented.
And it’s not because we are stupid – it’s just how the system is. It’s designed to keep us ignorant. Politicians like it that way. The less clued up we are about these things, the less we are to ask probing and challenging questions. This needs to change.
I am also not entirely convinced our Members of Parliament (MPs) are any better even though they tend to speak as if they are authorities on budget matters. We need to take what they say with a pinch of salt.
Notice for example how members of parties in government always give an automatic thumbs-up regardless of any shortfalls a budget may have. Whereas those in the opposition, will almost always criticise the proposed budget without any critical analysis.
We cannot therefore outsource our responsibility for independent thought. As a bare minimum, we need to be able to independently:
l See the linkage between the policies of the Government and the proposed budget,

l Determine if the cost of what the government intends to borrow is good or bad now and in the future,
l Ascertain if the fiscal policy position (if you do not know what fiscal policy is, you need to educate yourself) that the government has adopted is sufficient to stimulate the much-needed economic growth that will eliminate our high unemployment levels,

l Debate the extent to which new initiatives included in the budget will boost employment and economic growth,
l Assess the effectiveness and suitability of strategies presented in the budget to respond to economic developments in the domestic and international economies,
l Understand the rationale of choices made to finance the budget proposal – domestic and external financing of the deficit,

l Understand the detailed information on the level and composition of public debt, debt servicing, and how the debt is being managed;
l Understand budget policies – who will pay what taxes, how much money will go to specific programs and understand how our most pressing challenges will be addressed.
Unless we have some basic understanding of some of these things, we will remain intellectually captured by a handful of individuals who are not afraid to use their heads to think for themselves and by inference to think for the rest of us.

And because we allow someone else to think on our behalf, we are unlikely to push government to effectively manage scarce public resources. This is clearly not good for Lesotho.
My point is that we need to be more engaged in the budget process. We need to engage as informed and critical stakeholders, and not as thoughtless mouthpieces of a few people who have their own partisan and vested interests.

The onus is on each one of us to educate ourselves on how budgets are proposed, debated, implemented, and evaluated.
We need to understand our role and responsibilities in this process, so that we have a firm understanding of the many ways budgets affect our lives.
All the technical budget speak and financial jargon should not deter us.

It should instead motivate us to urge the powers that be to work hard to make budgets more accessible e.g. when key information is articulated using visualizations and illustrations, there is wider dissemination of the budget throughout the country using different forms of media etc.
So, before you say, “yay or nay” to the budget speech yesterday, first think for yourself. You are not a robot.

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