Prof Mthuli Ncube throws algorithm farce

Finance and Economic Development Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube

THE insinuation by Finance minister Mthuli Ncube that he used a sophisticated algorithm system to determine who should benefit from funds to be disbursed to vulnerable households once again exposes government’s aversion to transparency and accountability.

Ncube claimed he had used a “sophisticated algorithm” to choose beneficiaries of the ZW$180 per household Covid-19 “pocket money”, making a total departure from his earlier commitment to disperse the funds through the department of social welfare.

The money, which government said will benefit at least one million of the most impoverished Zimbabwean families is part of the ZW$600 million kitty availed by the government to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Initially, Ncube said beneficiaries would be identified by the Social Welfare Department, before making the dramatic summersault.

According to the Cambridge English dictionary, algorithms refer to a set of mathematical instructions or rules that, especially if given to a computer, will help to calculate an answer to a problem.

When the fund was announced it was claimed that the Ministry of Social Welfare would prepare the database of recipients who would qualify for funding, but cracks started showing when it became apparent that government initially planned on distributing these funds through a single mobile money service provider, OneMoney —operated by government-owned mobile operator NetOne, further highlighting the penchant for obscurity in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration.

Government, as usual, rushed to deny the claims.

Mthuli’s algorithms averments, thus, effectively, trashed statements by Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare deputy minister Lovemore Matuke, who in an interview with a local daily, on April 15, said disbursements would be under his ministry’s purview.

Given the government’s penchant for profligacy and the tendency to divert and abuse public funds especially for political expediency, concerns have been raised over whether the money would be used for its intended purposes once the confusion manifested.

Matuke claimed that 800 000 beneficiaries who will get support “were identified through the Econet platform”, while only 200 000 were identified by the Ministry of Social Welfare.

Public policy expert and University of Zimbabwe Political Science lecturer Tawanda Zinyama said such lack of coherence gives credence to suspicions that there could be no money at all and if there is, it was being distributed on partisan lines, with Zanu PF members being the foremost beneficiaries.

“Ncube’s claim that he used a complex algorithm to determine beneficiaries raises a stink. It points to chicanery in the corridors of power where so-called sophisticated mathematical concepts are used to obscure the controversial spending of public funds,” Zinyama said.

“This has raised doubts as to whether there is even a list of beneficiaries in the first place. Perhaps this is just a public relations exercise to create the impression that the government is doing something about people’s suffering. That is when you start seeing some people developing suspicions about the issue of impartiality.”

In addition to this, questions are also being raised about government’s lack of disaster preparedness and the ability to withstand socio-economic shocks brought about by either health emergencies — as is the case with the coronavirus — or some natural disasters — as was witnessed last year with Cyclone Idai.

At a time other governments around the world are offering their citizens adequate cover for social protection and job losses, the Zimbabwean government is seen scrapping the bottom of the barrel for meagre offerings.

Women’s University in Africa senior lecturer Albert Maipisi said where such mechanisms do not exist, transparency and accountability remains a pipedream as government would be fighting to save its face and cover up for its glaring deficiencies.

“From a disaster management perspective, the situation is likened to a time of uncertainty and plans made pre-disaster are usually implemented without challenges as opposed to those that are made during the disaster like in this case. So, criteria for selection of vulnerable groups should be pre-defined and, in our context, I am not sure if there is a national strategy for that in place to inform programming,” Maipisi said.

“Where that does not exist, the effects are like that and there is no mechanism for ensuring transparency and accountability. A comprehensive disaster management strategy should address those issues and it does not exist in the country as of now.”

To further highlight the lack of transparency in government, the registration of SMEs which were supposed to benefit from rescue packages to prevent them from collapsing, was shrouded in controversy after the inclusion of individuals who are not involved in the sector.

This came after the director of the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation Samuel Wadzai said the list compiled included individuals who are not involved in SMEs sector.

“This was a hurried process and there was no clarity in terms of the requirements by the ministry. They bunched the social welfare element together with the informal sector facility. There is no clarity on who is doing the selection process and the vetting. We have been requested to update our databases, which we have done. We have submitted them, but we don’t know who is going to decide who gets money and who doesn’t,” Wadzai said.

Source – the independent