In the early 1980s, I was a young man in my 20s listening and reading with keen interest as nationalist politicians promised us unlimited access to free education, health and such other things.
The newly “crowned” Zanu Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, dazzled and bemused Zimbabweans with Marxist-Maoist rhetoric as government plunged itself into an orgy of unprecedented public expenditure.
Schools, “vocational training centres”, clinics and hospitals mushroomed everywhere pushing adult literacy rates high and child mortality rates low. I was impressed.
But looking back at the scenario today, as a mature politician concerned for the welfare of citizens, I realise that the euphoria of independence concealed one vital statistic from us: the cost of these supposedly free services.
I have always argued with the intellectual ideologues in my party that it does not matter what political persuasion one is, one must always be sensitive to the plight of the poor and disadvantaged in order to leave an indelible mark in one’s political history.
Any sensible Zimbabwean leader — I included — must be alert to the millions of citizens out there who cannot afford basic education, health and food.
My question today, which I will attempt to deal with empirical evidence is this: Should we respond to the plight of the disadvantaged by a simplistic “free everything” policy?
Our national constitution advances an agenda of equality and justice. The only challenge we have to grapple with is that of interpretation.
To put it in context: the argument between residents’ associations and councils over pre-paid water meters is that of right of access versus sustainability.
Let me desist from legal debate — the basis of my premise being whether “right to” means “at whatever cost to the provider”.
For those like me, who travel and investigate political systems, you know that social democracy as practiced in Nordic countries allows private enterprise to generate enough taxable resources that add value to national endowment.
These are the resources tapped to provide subsidised — not necessarily free — quality education, health and other infrastructure.
In some countries, education is totally free from cradle to grave. Yet in those countries taxes are prohibitively high, while citizens literally work 24/7.
Zimbabweans are some of the most highly-taxed people in the world, yet revenue “disappears” into pay packets of civil servants and wanton political abuse by the ruling party.
There is just not enough left to push the social service agenda. The Mugabe government has toyed around with the “free-now-not-so-free-now” idea, with disastrous consequences.
When it suits them, as Primary and Secondary Education permanent secretary Constance Chigwamba once did, they “freeze” school fees for political expediency.
University students routinely riot over tuition fees as “government students” at Fort Hare in South Africa starve.
This is my point: if the economy is not generating money, no amount of populist rhetoric will deliver free “anything”.
Former Malawian President Bakili Muluzi’s free education policy ballooned primary school enrollment by almost two million, but because of poor infrastructure, citizens did not enjoy the benefits of this “freedom”.
Free education without schools, books and well-looked-after teachers is simple politicking.
Both Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association will attest to that thousands of teachers are fleeing Zimbabwe because the Mugabe government fails dismally to reconcile political rhetoric with governance reality.
My colleague and former Education minister David Coltart was the closest Zimbabweans ever came to sanity in our education system.
As long as Zanu PF economic policies are repulsive to investors, our universities will never attract sufficient private grants for research and industry-tailored skills training. Someone has to pay the “cost” of freedom.
The Public Library of Sciences published an article edited by Zulfiqar Bhutta, examining the impact of free primary health delivery in Ghana.
For obvious reasons, there was a “stampede effect” where poor people who previously could not afford, inundated health facilities.
He observed it was only a national health insurance scheme that could assist institutions to improve infrastructure to cope with increased pre and post natal care.
However, the author still argued that there was “generally a ‘scarcity of good quality evidence’ on the effect of such policies in low- and middle-income countries”.
Nonetheless, “accelerated reduction in inequality is evident and is primarily a result of the larger immediate increases in coverage observed in poorer women compared with richer women”.
What shocked me most was the conclusion that studies on benefit incidence by the World Bank have shown that the richest often benefit more than others when care is available free of charge because they are more able to express their demand and to influence healthcare professionals.’
Sophie Witter of the Institute of Applied Health Sciences in Scotland did a similar study on Aama (mother) by Nepal’s Maoist-led government, nonetheless mostly funded by UK’s DFID.
Inevitably, there was “an increase in institutional deliveries in the public sector and in other facilities included in the policy since the introduction of Aama”.
Not to mention an increase in workload and demand for better staff incentives.
The researcher concludes positively that “Aama policy appears to be operating with reasonable effectiveness, as seen from the facility perspective”.
I touched on the ongoing pre-paid water meter debacle — constitutionality and feasibility of “free water”.
No doubt, many studies have been carried out on water delivery, including such by Peter Brabeck-Lemathe (Water is a human right but not a free good), Fredrik Segerfeldt (Water for Sale) and the Academic Foundation’s Keeping the Water Flowing (Barun Mitra, Kendra Okonski and Mohit Satyanand).
Brabeneck-Lemathe argues that use of water to fill up swimming pools, watering flower/vegetable gardens and washing cars should come with a commercial cost.
The provision of “safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all” is as much a human right as it is a legitimate UN demand.
He adds that “(w)ater as a free good leads directly to what is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’.”
Brabeneck-Lemathe prefers subsidies to outright “water freedom”, because, as in India, people end up paying more to vendors because of a dysfunctional municipal system.
Mitra, Okonski and Satyanand argue that “cheap” water results in less investment in infrastructure.
Eventually councils fail to deliver water, forcing ratepayers to buy from private suppliers who are not necessarily expensive if permitted to compete in a “free water market”.
South Koreans wasted water because it was almost free, thus, the authors argue that a more sustainable Increasing Block Tariff system is better in the long run for ratepayers.
They cite an example of Ecuador where heavy water subsidies resulted in a near 50% collapse in infrastructure, since it was impossible to recover the cost of water delivery.
At the height of Zanu PF’s land “reform”, it was common practice for Mugabe to trigger “free input euphoria” at rallies.
The then Reserve Bank governor, Gideon Gono, succumbed with massive expenditure in free fertilisers, fuel and implements that eventually plunged Zimbabwe into the food insecurity cabbage it is now.
By 2014, deputy minister, Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation responsible for cropping, Davis Marapira had seen the light: “The days of farmers getting free inputs are over.
We have resolved as government that starting from this season, 2014 to 2015 farmers will no longer be getting free inputs for agriculture…”
His party colleague, Paddy Zhanda was blunter, reminding cattle owners “Your cow is worth more than $400 and a bag of fertiliser costs around $10, so if you sell that cow, you get 40 bags of fertiliser.
Stop getting used to waiting for free inputs.”
Hooray to the new light in Zanu PF that it may have been free yesterday, but in the end, someone will pay for it!
lWelshman Ncube is MDC president