- Chinese contractors are not investors
- Why the Harambee Prosperity Plan is needed
As Government gears itself to hit full throttle this year, The Patriot seized the opportunity to interview Tom Alweendo, Minister of Economic Planning and Director General of National Planning Commision (NPC), to get a clear picture of the changing business and economic environment in the country.
He also responded to claims that the country’s planning apparatus has faltered and why he is still the right man for the job and why he thinks the Harambee Prosperity Plan and Vision 2030 are attainable despite the tough economic climate in Namibia.
In his first interview of 2017, The Patriot’s editor Mathias Haufiku pressed the minister to explain why there was a need to introduce the Harambee Prosperity Plan and why Chinese seem to be getting preferential treatment when it comes to Government contracts.
What have been your main priorities since joining government?
Need to have a central office, it was a good idea the office was not a full ministry. The office is multi-sectoral and we must be able to coordinate and there was no better place than to be in the Presidency. To avoid the issue of being a sectoral ministry. The idea was to prioritise things instead of doing everything at once. In my view, prioritizing is key and having fewer goals is key because it helps you to plan and monitor the programmes better. People used to ask me if we will reach Vision 2030, it was always my feeling that if we continued doing things the same way we will not reach it, there was need to do things differently and that is what we have done. Things need to be done in a systematic manner. Another target was also to address the issue of inequality by providing our people with the basic services because you cannot fight poverty if inequality exists. Flexible plans are also key to ensure that you change when the circumstances under which they were implemented change. It does not change the end goal, but it surely helps to make things easier. With NDP4 coming to the end, the question is whether some of the things we introduced made a difference in the country, I would like to think so.
Are you happy with the current developmental state of Namibia and do you think Namibia is where it ought to be 26 years after Independence?
I think we do, if you look at how small it was then and its size today, you can see that we made progress, it did not just happen by chance. Sometimes I laugh when I hear people saying Independence brought no change, but my view is that people now have a platform to air their views and frustrations unlike during the colonial era where they were forced to be quiet. People now start to realise that they have a Government they put in charge to take care of the affairs of the country, that is the difference. But if you have roads built from village to village and others did not get they will always complain, development will never be enough. The same with education, we now provide free education, parents used to pay a school development fee which has been scrapped. I am not saying we should be satisfied with what we have, but it should be motivation to do more in future. It is for us to accept that there are still challenges that need to be addressed because we are in a much better position to address them compared to the past. I maintain that things have improved although more still needs to be done, and there are strategies to do that. Although we are not getting the results as quickly as we want, I must say this is a collective effort between the Government and the citizenry. Parents must be involved in their children’s education, teachers need to do their part, society needs to be able to discourage children from going to shebeens – that is the collective effort I am referring to.
How is the ministry involved in issues of sustainable development at global level?
Sustainable development simply means you have to develop in a manner that will allow development tomorrow. People always refer to the environment when talking about sustainable development, I also think you can think about the environment but also other spheres such as skills development to nurture future leaders and so on. If you do not develop your skills in the country, you cannot develop tomorrow. I definitely support sustainable development, because it is the only manner in which the future generations can be taken care of.
Namibia competes directly for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) with other SADC states. What benefits does Namibia offer over other countries in SADC as a place to locate a factory or manufacturing operation or any other significant investment?
Every time I read papers people are complaining about foreign investors. Foreign investment is key considering our small economy. Namibia has a small economy. I joined a FaceBook discussion where a member of the public said Government is using the small economy talk as an excuse not to do things. I commented saying that when we say we have a small economy we are not saying we cannot sustain the country or survive, the small is in reference to reliance on the external markets because our internal markets are too small to sustain ourselves, there is no way we can rely on ourselves. Take consumption for example, we currently import the majority of the food we eat. From a skills perspective, we rely on foreigners such as Chinese for development, they can simply close their borders then we will suffer. Therefore, one must have alliance in the external markets. But for them to come there must be some incentives to lure them to Namibia, you also do not want to give them too much then lose out on revenues. We however have to avoid a situation where our economy is in the hands of foreigners, that is why we changed the Foreign Investment Act to the Investment Act. Not only do we want foreign investors to come, we want to make sure we own the economy. We have to prioritize the importance of domestic investors by helping them to grow by crafting favorable policies. I think our incentives are sufficient to lure investors, we have peace and stability. They will also want financial incentive, but as a country we cannot give away too much. Of course, the locals get the same treatment and we try to empower them. I am not sure our investors will say they do not get the same support. If you are a Namibian, what must I give you that you do not already have, is it an environment or money to start a business? I think locals get the same incentives. Some people come here claiming they are investors while they merely come and compete for tenders. Contractors can never be investors because they get paid for their services, they do not pump in any money. They are mere contractors, the complaints about Chinese are mainly about contractors. Look at Husab mine, those are investors and you hardly hear complaints about them. The problem is with the Chinese who seem to be getting preference for State contracts. I do not think they get preference, but they always emerge as winning bidders. The question is why the system always chooses the Chinese, but if they meet the requirements there is nothing we can do.
How do we bring in more Namibians then?
Would you then argue that I must give the contracts to companies without the know-how just because they are Namibians?I think government has put in place measures to build local capacity, for instance, foreign companies are forced to partner with local companies. It is unfortunate because that arrangement does not seem to be working because most of the Namibian companies teaming up with the Chinese are not growing, they are always small companies. Government surely did something to empower locals, but I still do not see big Namibian companies in the construction sector.
Maybe it is because we have too many briefcase companies…
That is the problem. Maybe we must change the terms of joint ventures. Currently our companies do not care about learning, many are totally fine with just getting the money. Yes, they have the money, but from a skills and capacity point of view our companies are not growing and as a result the tenders always go to the Chinese.
The Government has launched the Harambee Prosperity Plan, dubbed the socio-economic blueprint for the country. Can you explain why there was a need for this instead of continuing with the existing development plan?
When the President came into office he identified some programmes that needed to be accelerated, programmes taken from NDP4. Programmes under Harambee have some urgency to them but that does not mean those in NDP4 are neglected. There is nothing wrong with that, one also has to consider your resources and make decisions accordingly.
What is your assessment of the current economic situation?
I think we are facing tough times and that there is a problem. We acknowledge the problem and we have taken remedial measures. As you know, you cannot solve a problem if you do not know that it exists. To deny a problem is not the right thing, you just have to accept and adjust to improve things the way we are doing. The major problem is that our revenue projections did not work out due to external factors. But I think the strategies that we have adopted, and if implemented, will improve the situation over time. It is better to tighten our belts now, go hungry a bit so that we can have a better tomorrow. So instead of having three meals per day, rather change to two meals a day rather to save for tomorrow.
Did we act too late perhaps?
There will always be that, I am sure they will say we acted too soon also. What is reported is that we did something, I am not defending the timing but we also did not act based on media reports. We do expect the media to shout that there is a problem without giving a solution. But as Government, when we present a problem it must be accompanied with a remedial plan. We cannot just announce something and sit back without giving solutions.
Since Government is reported to be broke, how is NPC going to ensure the funding of projects under NDP5. Especially with these huge development budget cuts?
For me this is the time we have to plan extra harder because there is no money, and for me this is a critical time. NDP5 will help to inform us what we can tackle. It is not just about the money component, but it also helps to guide us when it comes to utilizing the little resources we have to the maximum. NDPs are not only about capital projects, there are also other aspects that need to be taken care of. We do not look at the cost of the plan per se, but rather how much progress we have made with the resources pumped into the plan. Only after the implementation period of the plan will we be able to give you the total cost of the plan but rather how much we learned in the process. For me it is not about failure but rather how much we learned. Even if we only completed 20% of our targets and we have learned, it is good.
Some people are saying Tom Alweendo has exhausted all his planning models and therefore you must give to the next person given the number of years you have occupied this portfolio. Are you saying you are still the right man for the job?
I cannot rate myself, I just have to wait for other people to do that. I still think we are on course. Whether I am good enough that is not for me to decide. It is one thing to do something and another to be seen to be doing something.
During your time as Governor of the Bank of Namibia, you often raised concerns about the increasing government debt and questioned whether certain public expenditures are justified. Do you still hold these views?
For me quality is key, therefore any expenditure undertaken must result in quality service delivery.
When can the nation expect a progress report on Vision 2030?
We do not have a separate Vision 2030, but we monitor it through our NDPs. The NDPs give us insight on how we are progressing because they are the driving vehicles towards Vision 2030.
Let us talk about TIPEEG, a programmes launched under your watch. Were we right to go on such a spending spree?
Spending spree! I do not know why there is always a misunderstanding with TIPEEG. It was not an independent programme, we needed a stimulus to boost economic growth in the country. Some people thought money was given to NPC and money was squandered, but in reality TIPEEG was implemented through the ministries. Our economy grew because of TIPEEG and as a result the construction sector carried the economy for some years after TIPEEG. We built more infrastructure.
But was the spending on TIPEEG sustainable?
Yes, it was, because our economy grew and our construction industry carried us through.
But our construction industry is currently in a shambles…
What if TIPEEG was not there….TIPEEG carried the construction industry and it benefited the country. People think TIPEEG was a separate programme but it was not the case. It was a programme implemented at the time because NDP4 was not launched yet, but still, it was a government programme like any other.
What do you regret most about TIPEEG?
Nothing. What really concerned me is the fact that there is always negative connotations towards TIPEEG, maybe it’s a Namibian thing. But when people heard of TIPEEG everyone wanted their own company specifically for TIPEEG. They even stopped saying they got Government tenders and referred to it as TIPEEG tenders. People still think it was a corrupt scheme but there was nothing corrupt about it. The connotation that money was squandared and the programme was not well planned are not true. I regret nothing about it, I just regret the tag given to TIPEEG and the fact that corruption and nepotism insinuations continue to be mentioned when people talk of TIPEEG. People are saying there was corruption in TIPEEG but no one is coming forward with concrete information to pin point the alleged irregularities that took place. The only thing I regret about TIPEEG, is the fact that we could have explained it better to the public when it was launched, maybe it would have eliminated any doubts or negative perceptions about the programme.