Opinions Mon, 11 Mar 2013

Reflections on Mahama’s “Opportunities for all” address

For a country currently facing water and energy crises, the President was brave to end his 2013 state of the nation address optimistically; “Our momentary difficulties must only serve in strengthening this collective resolve towards a future of limitless opportunities. Despair is not an option and we shall not make excuses.” Not bad.

Good the plans may be but relevant will continue to be the questions on their effective execution to achieve stated objectives. How for example will rotating cabinet meetings between Accra and the regional capitals ensure that “millions are participating in the process of decision making directly?” Will the venue affect the agenda and/or attendance or will the occasion stimulate some locally relevant policy interventions? Is this then an open invitation for citizens to attend and partake in Cabinet deliberations?

In health, while pledging an ongoing review of the NHIS among other useful interventions, the President failed to touch on the current most pressing issue facing most health facilities: the fact of their not being reimbursed for services rendered since September 2012 with many of them running into heavy deficits.

While acknowledging the critical role of the University for Health and Allied Sciences (UHAS) in addressing our health human resources deficits, I was concerned that in talking about transforming the Kintampo Rural Health Training Institute into a University College and scaling up the training of nurses and midwives as “a consolidation” of the former, the President appeared to position UHAS as already operating maximally. While training of health professionals has indeed commenced in UHAS as of 2012, I would have been much comforted by a stronger and less ambiguous pledge to support UHAS with more resources to make rapid expansion possible.

I found the President’s comments on sports to be lopsided in favor of football, unconvinced that the so called “lesser known” sports with medal winning prospects was going to receive half the attention that football continues to garner. Will the sorry fortunes of boxing, athletics, table tennis, tennis, weight lifting, taekwando, basketball, hockey and swimming etc. change? Given the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority’s (SADA) aim to smash poverty in Ghana’s savannah belt, it was commendable to hear his Excellency talk about the successful creation of three agro processing industries – “shea nut processing factory at Buipe, rice mill at Nyankpala near Tamale and a vegetable oil mill at Tamale” benefiting tens of thousands of poor women in addition to support extended to over 22, 000 farmers over the past two years, and the provision of a further 5000 jobs through a public private partnership that is expected to see the growth of 5 million trees over the next twelve months. Given what sounds like success, it shouldn’t be too surprising to hear government aspire to replicate the model elsewhere through the establishment of a Western Corridor Development Authority.

Commendable though the above may be, I have difficulty at two levels. First of all, SADA’s interventions are expected to cover the savannah belt of the Volta and Brong Ahafo regions too. Unless the President was only citing SADA’s best performances, I am very curious to find out the extent to which the achievements thus far extend across the entire geographic scope of SADA over four years. This also brings up the issue of targets and the proportion of targets achieved as opposed to the President’s reliance on absolute counts. While creating 5 000 jobs sounds very impressive, knowing for example that the original target was say 50, 000 jobs would have better enabled me to conclude that only 10% of targets have been achieved and with that, what remains undone. The reliance on absolute numbers, though highly favored by politicians, is not very helpful. Secondly, in the NDC’s 2008 manifesto, the party promised to commit Gh?200 million as “core and seed funding” for SADA. As I recall, fulfilling this pledge in budgetary allocations was akin to pulling hair out of one’s nostrils, and although government eventually accomplished this, the distinct impression left was that funding SADA sustainably was anything but smooth. It was my expectation therefore that in creating the Western Corridor Development Authority, that specific provisions for sustainable funding would be made. This for me was missing.

On fiscal challenges, it was very interesting to hear the President talk about “misalignment of expenditure categories in the budget” and further lament that with over 60.9% of total national revenue being dedicated to public sector salaries, Ghana “now faced the challenge of ensuring that the effect of the public sector pay reform does not constitute an unsustainable burden on public finances and on macroeconomic stability.” If as the President says, the rate of growth of the wage bill has reached a point where critical investments and capital expenditures are being squeezed out, then to quote the President, “it is time to think outside the box” and I am not so sure that enhancing public sector performance and productivity alone will address that.

What I find interesting is that it is not immediately clear to me whether government regrets implementing the SSSS or that government remains happy, but would want issues of productivity addressed. At its onset, didn’t the Fair Wages and Salaries Commission, know that implemented as planned, public sector salaries will constitute twice the recommended portion of national revenue? I am surprised that the government is surprised. In any case, this whole concept of performance and productivity, while commendable, seems to me to be nothing more than some theoretical romantic notion and buzz phrase that human resource experts like to toss about especially where the public sector is concerned. In 2006 when the Health Sector Salary Structure was implemented, the Ghana Medical Association held a productive conversation with the employers with some consensus on the need to sign performance contracts with public servants. Core to this was the need for stronger public sector management that ensured effective supervision and discipline all the time. If workers were popping to work at 1000 am and disappearing at 100 pm in clear infringement of their contracts, what were their supervisors doing? This never happened. Everyone was quite happy to do business as usual, something I see the President hates. More recently, I have also heard the FWSC romanticize about productivity, but till date, I do not have a clue what shape or form it will take or if it ever happen. So by all means, let’s put productivity on the table and determine not just how we will measure performance at all levels, but ensure that effective supervision is ensured within a clearly defined contract framework.

Highly commendable is the President’s directive to the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations to work directly with the Ghana Statistical Service to produce data on the unemployment rate in Ghana. We look forward eagerly to this. Further, the attempt to coalesce all social protection programmes under the umbrella of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection seems logical given the sheer volume of pro poor government interventions, with the identification of the poor being fundamental. Be it Health insurance premium exemptions, school feeding, cash transfers under livelihood empowerment against poverty, distribution of free school uniforms and solar lanterns, expansion of life line energy thresholds etc. the poor clearly seem to be in hot demand for in the President’s words, “we cannot advance as a nation, half poor, and half rich.”

Government’s promotion of “citizen-based monitoring and evaluation of public policies and programmes, as well as providing feedback and suggestions …” sounds most reassuring for democratic governance.

As for the New Patriotic Party’s boycott of the address, what shall I say? They boycott Mahama’s address but not his allowances. They boycott the Electoral Commission’s recent by election in Volta but not their review meeting in Ashanti. They boycott the vetting of Mahama’s Ministers but indicate their intention to pose questions to same. I suppose these are simply interesting times!

Sodzi Sodzi-Tettey

www.sodzisodzi.com Sodzi_tettey@hotmail.com 7th March, 2013

Columnist: Sodzi-Tettey, Sodzi