Ministry of Finance says it has no information on how much taxpayers spent on President Lazarus Chakwera’s recent trip to the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly (Unga).
Treasury’s written response to our request for information under the Access to Information (ATI) Act contradicts what Minister of Information and Digitisation Gospel Kazako and Minister of Foreign Affairs Nancy Tembo said two weeks ago that Ministry of Finance was better placed to provide an expenditure report for the 77th Unga.
Ministry of Finance information officer under the ATI law Chimwemwe Kaunda said Treasury’s role ends at providing funding to respective government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).
He said: “You may wish to note that the role of this ministry [Finance] is to allocate resources to cost centres and all expenditure incurred at the cost centre level. In this regard, the ministry does not hold the information you requested.
“Consequently, the ministry will be unable to supply the information requested. The requested information can be obtained from the respective line ministries/cost centres that contributed delegates to Unga.”
During a briefing in Lilongwe on October 9 2022, four Cabinet ministers and senior government officials spent at least two hours explaining benefits of the President’s trip to New York, but avoided stateing the cost of the same.
Tembo said: “Give us time to get that information [on the cost] from the Treasury. The Treasury is compiling this information. They will provide us. We do not want to give you wrong information when we know there is right information at the Treasury.”
This is not the first time government has faced the question of costs on foreign trips.
During a press conference at Kamuzu Palace following a trip to Glasgow, Scotland for the Conference of Parties (CoP26), the President said the Ministry of Finance would provide a detailed report later which never came.
Chakwera left Malawi on September 12 and returned on October 4, 2022 mainly to attend Unga, but attended the inauguration of Kenyan President William Ruto on his way and held talks in Abhu Dhabi on return.
The President has faced criticism for allegedly being insensitive to austerity measures his government has instituted to cut down on public expenditure.
The concern is that he spent many days on this trip which he was accompanied by a huge delegation of 37 at a time when the country is rationing power and has fuel and forex scarcity.
Pressed to explain why it was difficult to state the figure or an estimation of the same since such trips are budgeted for, Kazako stressed that Malawians must not read too much into the cost of the trip but consider benefits.
“You have heard for yourself the deals clinched. It was a fruitful trip. We must not always have a negative mind about these trips. I can assure you this is one of the best Unga trips if not the only best Malawi has undertaken,” he said.
Our request for information from the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC) and Secretary to President and Cabinet (SPC) has not been successful.
On the other hand, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson John Kabaghe has promised to share part of this information this week.
Government indicated that part of the delegation, which included chiefs, was sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), but did not give a breakdown.
The UNDP country office has not responded to our questionnaire submitted over two weeks ago despite reminders.
Chakwera’s predecessor Peter Mutharika also faced similar criticism in 2015 after picking a huge delegation to Unga at a time 2.8 million Malawians were in dire need of food aid and the government needed about K81 billion to reach out to this population.
Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency executive director Willie Kambwandira expressed disappointment that even this regime has adopted a culture of secrecy over public expenditure.
“This is regrettable also considering that the Tonse administration came into power on the promise that they will end the era of secrecy in government affairs,” he said.