What the Budget says is that based on a population of about 1, 365,000 citizens, for each one of us, the Government estimated income will be $30,300 and expenditure $36,315 per head. It will spend $6,015 more per person than it would earn. Surprisingly, it is cushioning our lives precisely as it had done during times when oil and gas revenues flooded its coffers although, by the force of circumstance, the real Carnival is over. We must now pay market prices for gas, and eat nutritious local fruits if we can’t afford the foreign ones. In a short time, we’ll have to pay more for electricity and water so start getting used to saving energy and the precious liquid.
For many citizens, there’s still free: transportation, health care, low-cost housing, education, and transportation. And the Government will continue to be the benefactor to the most vulnerable amongst us for nearly all their needs. Added to that, it has reduced income tax by $250 monthly for every working adult earning over $7,000 monthly. Below that income, workers pay none. That extra cash could buy a lot of flour and rice for the average family.
The Government has been very generous even though it stands between a rock and a hard place, with dwindling revenues and maintaining an efficient social safety net.
Over the years, political expediency drove a culture of dependency. Social welfare is, perhaps, the most significant barrier to self-sufficiency when not adequately targeted and implemented and therefore promotes social inequity. The time when subsidies and freeness sans a viable economic model to support such costs is upon us. The Government had done well in stabilising the economy over the past five years after the disastrous decline in energy prices from 2015 thereabouts, coupled with treasury raids. No one could have anticipated a flu pandemic.
While we could never set aside the grief of so many deaths, COVID may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise. It’s forcing us to buckle up and open our eyes to opportunities as it tumbles economies that were heading for crashes anyway, and it shows up inequities. That’s true in education, as access to learning is dependent on access to Wi-Fi and computers, which thousands of parents can’t afford. Education is a Government obligation, and the plan to ensure all children can benefit from online learning is a necessary intervention. Paraphrasing the Father of Our Nation: “The future of the nation is in children’s laptop bags.”
The Government is on the right track by divesting itself of ventures that are best served by private capital. It had created several state enterprises to escape the public service bureaucracy among other reasons. Still, many turned out to be extensions of the bureaucratic system. Public sector efficiency is critical to future prosperity. Will the Revenue Authority and the National Statistical Institute fall in the same cultural traps? The benefits of e-government without changes in culture and structure won’t be achieved.
It is appreciated that the Government can’t bring about a transformation of the sector without constitutional change. That requires the cooperation of all arms of governance—the State. If there’s a time for maturity, common-sense and hard decisions about non-performing Institutions it’s now. Crime, including public corruption, remains a significant risk to social and economic stability. The constitutional institution of the Director of Public Prosecution must be addressed if we are to deal efficiently with corruption. It’s time to stop hiding behind the facade of human resource gaps, but there is a manpower problem atop a choked pipeline that should be dealt with expeditiously otherwise the chances of successful prosecution of corruption are slim.
The moment calls for “native ingenuity,” imagination and collaboration across the spectrum. It places agriculture at the centre of the food supply chain, and the nation’s health. That’s inspiring. The measures for private sector participation in building low-cost housing, divestment of the Port, e-Government, and other initiatives augur well for private investments, freeing up frozen liquidity, and eventually creating sustainable jobs.
Striving toward new prosperity is a vein running through the Budget, which tries to balance the harsh economic realities with social needs. Yup, the Carnival is over.