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2011 budget must be pragmatic

THE national anxiety surrounding the delivery of the budget speech and the subsequent tabling of estimates by the Minister of Finance and Development Planning Timothy Thahane confirms that beyond being  a matter of income and expenditure the national budget is a policy engagement exercise based on the socio-economic as well as  political imperatives of the country. 

The basic question occupying the minds of many is what the 2011/12 national budget would say in the midst of the hard realities of the devastating levels of poverty, inequalities, corruption and the destruction of the recent storms. 

This situation is compounded by the general sluggish recovery from the recent global financial crisis.

The fact that this budget must also cover the local government and national elections makes it even more important.

This situation suggests that Thahane would have to cut down on some of the areas he would have otherwise planned to finance.

That however may not be a matter taking this or that out of the estimates and replacing it with the other.

It has to be a carefully considered balancing act.  

The coming budget should be able to solicit an all encompassing consensus to act with resolve both to cope with the challenges and retain focus on the national priorities articulated in the national key policies. 

Thahane should demonstrate how the budget finances the national key policies. 

Civil society organisations have in the past criticised Thahane for failing to clearly indicate how the budget responds to national policies.

For example the formulation and implementation of the budget has not demonstrated appreciation of the decentralisation policy of the government. 

Because this has been a concern for a long time, it would not be too much to ask him to indicate concrete ways through which fiscal decentralisation to community councils would be done when he presents his budget speech in Parliament tomorrow. 

The discontent among Basotho over the refusal by ministries to decentralise responsibilities should find a strong and convincing response from this budget.

Although Sacu revenue has not improved Thahane should still retain social spending on orphaned children, free primary education and the sponsorship to secondary education, as well as the old age pensions.

Thahane will have to announce a recovery plan from the effects of the recent storms. 

However that plan should not be solely a relief exercise but rather one that addresses the immediate without losing focus of the long term goals.

For example the construction of roads should be labour intensive so that there are direct income benefits to the ordinary members of the community.

 It would actually be interesting to see how the minister would link that relief plan to capacitating community councils to come up with their own recovery and rehabilitation plans.

Allocating councils money to carry out their own rehabilitation projects would be the most efficient way of responding to the challenge. 

The national government would then focus on main roads and bridges, etc.

Lesotho is due for local government elections this year while in 2012 the country is expected to hold general elections.

In both instances the government would like to go with a positive popular appraisal.  It would be a good decision for a politically shrewd finance minister in this situation to have an increase for the civil servants that can rekindle their service delivery commitment.

It would be expected that such non-immediate benefit schemes as one devised by the new Public Service Ministry on civil servants pensions last year, would be seen.

This becomes even more pressing given that the law improving the retirement packages of the head of government and their spouses is fresh in the minds of the people. 

What would be interesting would be for the minister to demonstrate in more clear and concrete terms how people who are trying to create employment would be assisted.

The role of civil society in delivering services and advocacy is normally neglected yet crucial in the budgetary processes.

For years now, the minister of finance has been heard emphasising public participation in the budgetary processes.

It is high time that he demonstrates how much money is set aside to facilitate that process.

While generally budgetary processes in Lesotho are elitist and exclusionary, it must be noted with confidence and appreciation that the willingness of the minister of finance to engage is encouraging.

In fact communities from Kuebunyane, Hloahloeng, Seforong, Kanana and many others have concrete examples of how this willingness to engage has seen their aspirations becoming budget promises and finally estimates.

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