Tuesday June 24 2014

Budget lessons from World Cup


The World Cup is upon us and I am struggling to get enough sleep given the time at which the matches are being played. So far, the teams I like have not fared well and watching 90 minutes of a game that is going south for your team is torture. The Portugal Vs Germany match was a particularly painful experience for me as I was supporting Portugal.

The Germans were obviously better and their team work, razor-sharp focus and flawless execution are a formidable force to deal with. Much as I was not happy with the end result of that game, I cannot help admiring the Germans.

That particular match got me thinking. What would happen if the East African Community (EAC) countries, that have just outlined their budgets, implemented their key priorities using the same three strengths displayed by the German World Cup final team; team work, razor-sharp focus and flawless execution?

Regional budgets
Looking at the budgets of all the four countries, it is clear that efficiency and clarity around the tax code is a major priority. A tremendous amount of work has gone into making sure that the respective tax authorities not only meet but also exceed their intended revenue collection targets. The detail contained in the Tanzania tax measures was amazing and left one in no doubt that the government there intends to collect their “pound of flesh” and reduce the time wasted in back and forth with tax payers.

The detail provided in the Kenya budget was balanced across all their priorities though bedding down the security issue, pushing the energy and transport infrastructure agenda and empowering youth and women to create more jobs seems to be the main focus of the government.

Reading the Uganda document, I got the impression that government wants to focus on transport infrastructure development and tax revenues and to this end, will be amending the Income Tax, VAT and Excise Duty regulations.

The detail in the Rwanda budget document like the Kenya one was balanced across all priorities though reading the document I got the distinct impression that the Rwandan government continues to put heavy emphasis on service delivery to close the inequality gap between its urban and rural population.

All the four countries; Rwanda, Uganda Tanzania and Kenya has decided to prioritise infrastructure development in transport (roads and railway) and energy (electricity and oil and gas). On this particular agenda, the EAC have the perfect reason to work as a team. It will be a real shame if the EAC countries do not talk to one another and play as a team in realising this dream.

Going to the issue of having razor-sharp focus; governments just like individuals cannot afford to have a laundry list of things they intend to do. I am aware that market convention and tradition dictate what a country’s budget document should contain or cover. We will probably never see a budget document with just three items.

Why you don’t achieve goals
That said, one of the main reasons people (and governments) fail to achieve their goals is broken focus. Thomas Edison, the famous inventor, said “the difference between me and other men is that other people think of many things all day and I think of only one thing all day”. Edison went on to invent electricity.

Our governments need to focus on two or three key things and put in place processes and procedures to ensure that they succeed in these key priorities. They have all done an excellent job on articulating how they will collect more tax, they know the challenges and bottlenecks to tax collection, they know the loopholes in the tax laws that their citizens and companies use to avoid tax, and they are increasingly closing these loopholes.

Our governments have focused on tax collection and have achieved impressive results. If they articulated and focused on their key agenda items just like they do on tax, then as we like to say in Uganda, “we would be very far”. Apply this razor-sharp focus that they have on taxes to the energy and infrastructure agenda or the job creation agenda and our economies would be totally transformed in 10 years.

Flawless execution
Lastly is the elusive quality of flawless execution. At this point let me say that any form of execution will serve us well in the EAC. We need to execute on our plans, even 30 per cent execution will be good.

We have brilliant local brains and a whole army of foreign advisors working in our governments. We know what we want and what we need to do to get there, what is missing is execution. Rwanda has demonstrated that it is possible to execute and achieve our dreams. We need the same commitment across the EAC.

Running a government will never be as simple as winning a football match. That said there are many great lessons to be learned from how the Germans are playing.

The writer is Standard Chartered Bank’s head of financial markets in East Africa.