If I were King

In the first of this series, I tackled the complex area of taxation and urged us to shift the focus to the new digitalized economy. In the first quarter of 2021, the Zimbabwe economy turned over Z$1,2 trillion in electronic transactions.

Eddie Cross

I know this is in local currency, but even so, it is equal to US$14 billion. That suggests we could see total trades in electronic currency exceeding US$60 billion this year. I was pleased to see the IMF revise its thinking on Zimbabwe and to acknowledge that we were doing something right and that they were revising their growth forecast upwards. This was in sharp contrast to the World Bank which seems completely stuck in the mud.

But let’s move on to look at what we might do today, to change the lives of our people for the better.

Before Independence, I thought that we had to make sure of three things: our education system must be able to give our children a real future; our health system must be able to meet our essential needs; and, we had to be able to make enough money to afford a reasonable standard of living. Those were my personal essentials.

I think that Independent Zimbabwe has delivered all three to me and my family, but we had a running start. I owned my own home, had a decent job and we have been able to send our grand children to private schools and to meet our health service needs. That is not true of the great majority of our people.

When the new Government of Independent Zimbabwe started out, their ambitions ran ahead of them. In the first 10 years of Independence we built over 6 000 schools – that is over 1 per day. We built 80 District Hospitals and 6 referral Hospitals and a world class major Hospital in Harare with over 3 000 beds. We put every primary school child into school, trained tens of thousands of new teachers and hospital workers and by 1990 we had the most literate population in Africa.

But although we received over US$10 billion in aid over this period, we still had to borrow to maintain the system and by 2000 our national debt was beyond our ability to service it and we went into default making new borrowing almost impossible. We had run a fiscal deficit of over 9 per cent of GDP for 20 years and even this was not able to maintain the level of services that our leadership had tried to supply.

Had our Government behaved better, the international Community might have been willing to support the country with debt relief and perhaps for aid for our social services, but instead we committed genocide under the Gukurahundi program, we defied all the standard rules of fiscal management, simply resorting to the printing machine when there was no alternative. In consequence we destroyed the value of all accumulated savings and capital assets, built up by sweat and tears in over a hundred years of enterprise.

When their grip on power was threatened, the ruling Party simply resorted to thuggery to maintain its grip on power and in the resulting democratic war, they demolished our reputation as a democracy and we slipped back into our status as a pariah State that we had shed in 1980.

The consequence of these events has been that the systems delivering health and education to our population have slowly slid into a state where they cannot deliver even a shadow of what people had enjoyed after Independence. Our death rates have risen and our average life expectancy has declined. Our young people leave school after 10 years of education, neither literate or numerate. People refer to the State hospitals as mortuaries not even capable of cleaning the wards or supporting even basic services.

I discussed this crisis with the Head of a local Government school and the Chairman of the School Development Committee. We did a calculation and this suggested that the State paid salaries of the teaching staff were equal to US$5 per child per month. No matter what you do, if that is all you can spend, you are going to lose your teaching staff, at least the better ones and with an average of 50 children per class, real teaching is just about impossible. Nothing wrong with the infrastructure, built up over the years, a decent school physically, but producing a generation of children who cannot hope to hold their own in a competitive world.

In the health sector the situation is no better. We train thousands of nurses every year and the majority simply leave the country for countries like the UK where there are tens of thousands of vacancies in the health sector. We train doctors – hundreds every year, only to see the majority leave to take up better paying opportunities abroad. Many flee conditions where they cannot offer their patients even a modicum of real care. Maternal mortality is among the highest in the world, so are death rates in children under 5.

So what are the solutions?

If I was King, I would immediately turn all State Schools over to the Communities they serve. Ask Parents to elect School Boards and to raise the money needed to augment what our Government could afford. I would instruct the Ministry of Finance to pay a monthly grant to schools that were registered with the Ministry of Education based on what we could afford, if we allocated 20 per cent of all tax revenue to education. I think this could be about US$20 a month per child and if these schools asked parents to pay US$30 a month as their fees, this would then allow the School Boards to pay teachers a much more competitive salary and to look after the school heads – the very people who are critical to any school system.

It is essential for Parents to be involved in their children’s education – studies all over the world have shown this to be true. I think Primary schools could operate on US$600 per child per annum and secondary schools on about double that. Give every child a computer tablet and access to internet at school and you would set our children free to set their own pace. I would challenge the international community to make that free of charge and I think they would rise to the challenge.

If I was King, I would change the whole focus of health services from one of curative care to prevention and Community based health services within walking distance. We already have 1600 clinics, I would push these to 2500 and make every one capable to serving the Community in which they were located. I would link all these to a computer/internet based clinical and diagnostic service available 24 hours a day and make it possible for these clinics to refer clients to curative services if required. I would spend 80 per cent of the health budget on this system which would also manage local public health needs and 20 per cent on the curative sector.

Hospitals would all be made self-financing with some subsidy and run as Community based health businesses. I can recall when my driver had an accident and was treated in a local government hospital – I was satisfied with the service provided but it took them two years to invoice me. You cannot run anything on that sort of system.

Would these changes solve the problems – not altogether but it would give a decent basic service to the majority and perhaps that is all we can realistically afford. The rest will have to wait until we can afford a more sophisticated system.

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