February 23, 2015 By Victoria Saffa
The Budget Advocacy Network (BAN) with funds from Christian Aid last Thursday launched a report on fiscal challenges posed by the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone at the conference room of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, George Street in Freetown.
The Ebola epidemic has engendered tremendous pressure on the national budget stemming from revenue losses estimated at US$45.7 million in the second half of last year, and additional spending of about US$36 million, bringing the Ebola-related budgetary needs to almost US$82 million.
While launching the report, Deputy Commissioner of Anti-Corruption Commission, Shollay Davies, said it was no gainsaying that the outbreak has placed tremendous pressure on the national budget amounting to US$82 million. “It is therefore expedient that every stakeholder, including government, development partners, civil society, parliament and the business community, take responsibility to mitigate the effect caused by the Ebola,” he urged.
“On the part of government, it should consider diversifying the economy with emphasis on other sectors other than mining and customs, undertake stringent fiscal discipline by cutting down on wastages emanating from unproductive use of government resources in strengthening internal controls in MDAs, and hasten the privatization of unproductive public sector institutions.”
Davies said steps must also be taken by oversight institutions such as the ACC, Audit Service Sierra Leone, Parliament and the Accountant General’s Office to institute effective oversight on government revenue collection and utilization regime.
He informed the gathering that both the ACC and Public Accounts Committee of Parliament have agreed to work together to address issues raised in the real time audit report on the management of the Ebola funds issued by the Auditor General.
“As a commission we will leave no stone unturned to bring to book those found wanting of misappropriation. We had in the recent past taken proactive steps to sensitize health workers and the general public about issues pertaining to transparency and accountability in the management of the Ebola funds. We have also established the Ebola Response Transparency Initiative to monitor the utilization of the funds and strengthen the oversight regime,” he said.
Bilal Kargbo, Director of Corporate Service Department at the National Revenue Authority, noted that civil society plays a crucial role in the governance and development agenda of any country, adding that many times people only see civil society as effective opposition to government and even in that role it provides a check to government to be more accountable to the citizenry and get the social contract operational.
He said in the period of economic challenges driven largely by one of the world’s ever worst epidemics, the supportive role of civil society was much more welcome, perhaps more than ever.
Kargbo thanked BAN for producing a very good report looking at fiscal alternatives, especially at a time when government is struggling to fund development programmes, noting that the NRA welcomes any realistic and viable ideas to revenue mobilization in periods of crisis and therefore looks forward to collaborating with the CSO.
Also, Mathew Sandi from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said the weakening of public finances associated with the Ebola outbreak has exerted strong economic and social woes on Sierra Leone. On the revenue side, the epidemic has eroded non-mineral revenue base and weakened compliance with tax regulations, making it more challenging to meet revenue targets, Sandi said.
“Coincidentally, revenue performance was also adversely affected by difficulties in the iron ore sector. On the expenditure side, as additional budgeted resources were devoted to the fight against Ebola, current expenditure overrun was offset by lower than budgeted capital spending with negative consequences for planed public investment. As a result, in 2014, the fiscal deficit widened, reflecting both the impact of Ebola and additionally lower iron ore prices,” he said.
Director of Budget Bureau, Mathew Dinge, said the report by non-state actors on the challenges in addressing service delivery to the people of Sierra Leone was most welcome. He said the report basically talks about avenues open to government in the midst of the current Ebola crisis.
He assured BAN and other civil society actors that the Ministry of Finance will continue working with them on that front, noting that the country’s budget is now activity led to prevent wastages, unlike in the past.