The debate on what should be the most appropriate level of per diem and sitting allowance for our MPs should lead us to find a better way of remunerating and compensating those holding public and/ elected offices.
For our MPs we need to adopt more realistic rates of daily substance allowance (DSA or per diem) which can allow our MPs to spend their nights in decent and secure accommodation (I don't believe there is any MP who yearns for luxurious accommodation - which lacks in Dodoma, anyway).
We should appreciate that after spending more than 14 hours in sessions and meetings they deserve a decent and cool place to rest and also prepare for business of the following day.
This means we have to define what is a decent and secure accommodation. I have seen some MPs feeling comfortable enough staying at hostels like that owned by VETA, whose rooms cost about Tsh40,000, but of course others were staying at Dodoma Hotel, whose room rates are double or triple that of VETA hostel.
And there are many more guest houses with decent and secure environment, costing anything in between. We could borrow from the practice of many international organisations by objectively establishing what is the minimum requirement for a decent, secure and accessible accommodation.
An annual or biannual survey is conducted to determine the cost of living (room, meals and laundry) in hotels and guests meeting the predetermined minimum standard.
This is done for each town. An average is then taken for different categories of urban centres: cities, municipalities, regional headquarter towns and district towns. As for sitting allowance there is need to come clearly on which type of meeting and what time of the day and day of the week do our legislators deserve sitting allowance.
Again what should be the level of sitting allowance relative to either the per diem or daily salary. The MPs should put a ceiling on the allowable proportion relative to the gross salary.
If I have to declare my interest, I am one of those whose minds have failed to appreciate the reasons given for paying sitting allowance to officials meeting during normal working hours. I only understand if people are paid for working beyond normal working hours and during public holidays and weekends.
In my view, the prevailing debate on allowances for MPs should also be taken in the context of existing social economic conditions. While it is true some of the complaints are due to ignorance of cost of living in towns (it is possible to get a room for less than ten thousand in small towns and trading centres) there is feeling of ill-timing given that the majority of low and middle income earners are suffering from the impact of inflation; and the government was still mobilising funds to pay debts and arrears (e.g. construction companies and teachers).
This debate should also remind us on the need to harmonise and integrate the various allowances paid to employees of ministries, departments and agencies as recommended in the Five Year Development Plan approved by Parliament in June this year.
This recommendation emanated from the observation that the current system of accessing and eligibility to allowance benefited a few and yet it could make a difference in raising the take home package if it was appropriately streamlined and rationalised.
To conclude, I believe there is room for the public and parliamentarians to approach the matter in a more sober manner. On one hand the media could help to educate the public that although Tsh70,000 may appear huge by rural standards (enough to hire a tractor to cultivate more than two hectares or buy one bag of fertilizer and one bag of improved maize seeds) in towns it is not enough to buy a room in a one star hotel.
As citizens we should be asked if wish to condemn our MPs to live pauper life simply because they represent constituents with poor people and jobless youth? The way the media usually portray is as if the MPs get the allowance of Ths 70,000 as net pay after incurring all expenses. To be fair the media should attempt to show how much does it cost for the MP to live in Dar or Dodoma? As I mentioned above the net saving depends on the choice of accommodation.
For a very modest person the most one can save in a day is ten to twenty thousand. On the other hand the Parliamentarians can decide, after soul searching, to adopt a more modest approach in seeking compensation for their cost of living while on duty. This shouldn't be very difficult given the social, political and economic context the country and the world is facing.
Basing their demands on constitutional right to be adequately remunerated and compensated is correct but not good enough in the current context where the society has failed to offer very basic constitutional rights such as decent housing and living wages to our police force and teachers.
They should know that they are not just MPs, they are first and foremost our leaders and commanders in the war to fight our three enemies: poverty, ignorance and diseases. When as a nation we are financially strained people expect our leaders, led by our MPs, to be in the forefront in cost saving and leading a frugal life. This means accepting to lead a simple life for the sake of unifying peoples' efforts in fighting poverty.
They should appreciate the possible ramifications of choosing to ignore the feelings of the masses, however misled or misguided their perceptions may be.
The MPs should also come with an effective communication strategy to educate the masses on cost of implications of ordinary duties expected to be carried by an MP.
I believe there should be a meeting of minds between the two sides: the masses to appreciate that MPs are eligible to better care for them to effectively discharge their duties; and the parliamentary to continuously search their inner souls and balance their demands based on more realistic costing of modest living.
They should remember that the electorate sends them to Parliament to represent them in law making and resource allocation, among others; but for sure not on a money-minting mission! But of course they are not expected to live in urban slums for the sake of solidarity with the poor! Both extremes are undesirable. A balanced approached is what is urgently required. I humbly submit.
Dr H. Bohela Lunogelo is a policy analyst and Executive Director of the Economic and Social Research Foundation. He can be reached on [email protected]