Accountability of Covid-19 resources wanting – report

A police officer attached to Mutukula Border Police Station being interviewed at Masaka hospital after testing positive for Covid-19  on May 5, 2020. Early testing allows time for faster treatment. PHOTO/ISSA ALIGA

What you need to know:

  • The report titled: Managing COVID funds: The Accountability Gap, authored by Uganda Debt Network (UDN) in collaboration with the International Budget Partnership (IBP),  reveals that information on the detailed breakdown of budgets pertaining to Covid-19 was not made public in areas involving procurement where billions if not trillions of shillings were spent.

Overall, Uganda’s level of transparency for Covid-19 resources has been found wanting in many ways, according to a new report.

The report titled: Managing COVID funds: The Accountability Gap, authored by Uganda Debt Network (UDN) in collaboration with the International Budget Partnership (IBP),  reveals that information on the detailed breakdown of budgets pertaining to Covid-19 was not made public in areas involving procurement where billions if not trillions of shillings were spent.

Generally, the assessment conducted between December 2020 and January 2021 in 120 countries, including Uganda, indicates minimal information as having been provided in the course of executing Covid-19 expenditures, bringing into question the government commitment to transparency and accountability of the pandemic deployed resources.

Although there was a dedicated website to disseminate information and data on COVID-19, the findings of the research reveal that the Covid-19 Response Hub did not provide any information on some of the stimulus packages proposed by the government to protect mainly small businesses from pandemic induced pressures during this period.

Despite some reported corruption scandals, including the one regarding some government officials involved in inflating Covid-19 relief food prices, the report notes that there was no official public document available on the website on this and related matters.

Further, there was no information on extra-budgetary funds and other off-budget arrangements used for implementing policies and programmes included in the emergency fiscal (revenue) packages.

And importantly perhaps, it emerged in the report presented at the Multi-stakeholder workshop on Covid-19 Transparency and Accountability last week in Kampala that there was no information provided in 2020 on actual spending on Covid-19 expenditures.

Four months before the study was carried out, about 16 loans had been acquired in the name of COVID-19 and other related interventions for the economy. It should be noted, however, that the loans accrued between January and August 2020 excluded the Grants and Supplementary budgets as at end of Financial Year 2019/20 according to UDN Director Programmes, Mr Julius Kapwepwe.

As a result, in a period of just one year, Uganda’s public debt increased by 35 per cent from Shs49 trillion in December 2019 to Shs65 trillion by December 2020.

This sharp rise was mainly on account of borrowing to respond to Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, Uganda’s present total debt burden is in excess of Shs70 trillion, according to the report.

By close of the just-ended first quarter of the financial year 2021/22, the country’s debt threshold is hovering between 50 and 55 per cent, a situation that economic analysts interviewed for this article say is not “ideal”. Revealing perhaps, this does not factor in the numerous supplementary budgets accrued so far.  

Some relief

Uganda performed relatively well in the provision of macroeconomic and aggregate budget information, where adequate information was availed to the public.

The assessment also noted that the COVID-19 stimulus package was introduced as part of the regular annual budget process. Also, information on all supplementary budgets passed as well as the amounts was readily available on public websites.

Going forward, Mr Kapwepwe is of the view that governments present an immediate, comprehensive Covid-19 economic recovery plan for short and medium-term for the secured IMF resources and other related funds. This he said should be in addition to disclosing all details related to procurement contracts linked to emergency spending, wherever possible in open formats.

Explaining the cameo role of Parliament in terms of oversight, the former Chairperson of the Committee on National Economy, Mr Stephen Biraahwa Mukitale, noted that, the legislature’s function was rendered minimal once the executive arm of government, headed by President Museveni, decided to invoke the Public Health Act, which is dictatorial in many ways, to respond to or manage to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking during the annual taxpayers' appreciation week on Friday, the Finance Minister, Mr Matia Kasaija, alluded to the fact that a massive amount of money has been so far secured and spent in the course of the Covid-19 recovery, including containment measures aimed at suppressing the spread of the pandemic.

Without divulging details, he said, “this is a matter for another day”, considering its toll on the revenue kitty and debt burden implication.

Utility

As part of promoting budget transparency and accountability for COVID-19 funds, UDN collaborated with IBP to assess the level of transparency and accountability in the generation and utilisation of Covid-19 resources in 120 nations and especially how countries managed their initial COVID-19 fiscal policy responses

The objective was to assess how the government fared and to generate lessons on how they can respond better, both to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and to future ones.

The research focused on the three critical pillars of accountability such as public access to relevant information, adequate oversight arrangements, and opportunities for citizen engagement. 

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