a foreigner’s take from inside the Malawi budget office
That’s the start of a blog post by Matt Collin, currently a Research Officer at Oxford’s Centre for the Study of African Economies and formerly (2006-2008) an ODI Fellow working as a Budget Officer in Malawi’s Ministry of Finance. Matt reflects on his experience with Malawi’s Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS), the software platform used to transfer funds from the Ministry of Finance to other ministries, who in turn use the platform to make payments:
There wasn’t much for me to do when I first joined the Budget Division of Malawi’s Ministry of Finance back in 2006… One of the very first things I worked on was an attempt to reconcile the difference between expenditure ceilings set by my department and actual reports of expenditure from the Accountant General’s department.
I quickly noticed that IFMIS-generated reports seriously deviated from what was being approved by the Budget Division, sometimes even showing expenditure which was above and beyond what had been mandated by our department.
At my director’s prompting, I visited the relevant department at the Account General’s to request more detailed reports from IFMIS. The likely culprit was some
ofdata problem, and I was curious to get to the bottom of it, seeing the whole exercise as a problem with some sort of technical solution. While the civil servants I spoke to at the AG were friendly enough and agreed to send me reports, upon my return to the Ministry of Finance it was later made clear to me that the AG wasn’t too fond of this unknown fresh-faced mzungu making random requests. Not long after, more pressing work diverted my attention, and this particular issue faded into the background.
There is one excerpt in particular from Matt’s blog post that stuck with me:
…when finance systems don’t work properly, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between corruption and incompetence.
That bit underscores an important challenge in investigating financial discrepancies: do you accuse someone of being clever (and stealing) or stupid (and not equipped to do a job)? Either way, you’re insulting someone. That’s not an easy situation to be in when you’re a foreigner — and that’s one reason why the fact that forensic auditors are being flown in from Britain sits a bit uneasy with me. I try to think about how governments of developed countries deal with financial irregularities — I can’t remember a recent scandal where forensic auditors from another country were flown in. I recognize that pervasive cases might require external (non-governmental) auditors, but how “external”? Does it require auditors from outside the country (international auditing firms have branches in Malawi)? If so, would a group of Zambian auditors not be far enough removed? Why does corruption in Malawi require British oversight in the postcolonial period?