8 Mar 2021

Fiji civil society groups warn of uncertainty growing over economy

2:35 pm on 8 March 2021

Fiji's government has been urged to come clean and tell the people the truth about the state of the economy amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

This comes amid public consultations on the 2021-2022 National Budget.

Civil society organisations scrutinise the national Budget.

Civil society organisations scrutinise the national Budget. Photo: Supplied

Civil society groups in Fiji said there is a lot of uncertainty about the state of the economy and the future direction being taken by the government.

The Covid Alliance for Humanitarian Response said with several major cyclones also striking Fiji during the past year of the pandemic, the government should own up if it does not have the money to help Fijians.

Last July, the government unveiled a $US1.7 billion Budget for the 2020-2021 financial year.

In delivering the historic Budget, Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum also announced a $US930 million stimulus package to fund the country's recovery from the impact of Covid-19.

Addressing last week's public consultation on the 2021-2022 Budget, Sayed-Khaiyum said the government had borrowed $US1.4 billion, of which $US690 million was sourced offshore while the rest, $US454m from the National Provident Fund.

Sayed-Khaiyum, who chaired the virtual meeting from Singapore where he is seeking medical treatment, said the gross borrowing is to pay for operating expenditure due to less revenue and the economy contracting.

"Are we borrowing money to build things that are of no use to us? Or our we borrowing money to spend on operating expenditure? Or borrowing to pay for government expenses or civil servants' pay etc?

"We have not done that. But this year for the first time, we are actually borrowing to pay for operating expenditure because we have less revenue and our economy is contracted."

Sayed-Khaiyum said because of Covid-19, the government trend of borrowing more domestically changed because Fiji had to do more offshore borrowing.

But a former Treasurer, Savenaca Narube, said stabilising revenue and removing wasteful expenses must be the first priority of any government in a crisis.

Narube, who is also leader of the opposition Unity Party, said the government had done exactly the opposite by destabilising the revenue further.

He criticised the gross borrowing and warned the total debt would increase to over $US4 billion this year.

Narube said there is no such thing as 'borrowing smartly'.

"Fiji is simply borrowing, full stop," he said. "And to top it all, the government is borrowing more so the future generation could borrow less. This is simply nonsense.

"The only reason the future generation would borrow less is because they would have to seriously cut expenses in order to have enough money to repay the debt."

The Health Ministry said Fiji has had 63 cases of Covid-19 with seven active cases, all in border quarantine.

It said 54 cases had recovered while two deaths were recorded

One year into the pandemic, thousands of Fijians - majority of them in the tourism sector - are still without work or are on reduced hours because the border remains closed.

In Fiji, there are growing fears of a humanitarian crisis particularly for many people who live in informal settlements since Cyclone Winston in 2016.

In Fiji, there are growing fears of a humanitarian crisis particularly for many people who live in informal settlements since Cyclone Winston in 2016. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Sally Round

The Women's Crisis centre is one of several members of the Covid Alliance on Humanitarian Response.

The centre's co-ordinator, Shamima Ali, claimed the State assistance is not reaching people who have lost their jobs and families who have nothing to eat.

Ali questioned the effectiveness of certain government initiatives particularly she said incentives aimed at cushioning the impacts of the pandemic.

"We are quite concerned at what is happening," she said. "In terms of medicine, medical attention, in terms of food on the table, the job losses, the pay cuts and so on.

"And education, how many children are not in school? So we are not getting a clear picture from the government but on the ground the picture is getting clearer and clearer."

The Alliance is calling for drastic changes to the way the government manages the economy.

Meanwhile, the head of the European Union in the Pacific, Sujiro Seam, launched the Citizens Budget Guide in Suva two weeks ago and called on the government to prioritise health in the Budget.

Ambassador Seam said money must be spent to safeguard the Fijian people from Covid-19 because of the impact the pandemic has had on jobs and the 40 percent dent it has placed on government revenue.

"Citizens must be involved in the elaboration and the execution of the Budget according to the principles of transparency and accountability," he said.

"These are really about saying what you do and doing what you say.

"I call for everyone to work in partnership because whatever we do we do it better when we do it together."

Earlier. Sayed-Khaiyum told Parliament that last year's Budget deficit was steep - at 20.2 percent - which pushed the debt-to-GDP ratio to 83.4 percent.

But he said the cost of doing nothing was far steeper.

The government has projected that its total debt will increase to $US4.1 billion by July this year with gross borrowing for the 2020/2021 financial year at $US1.4 billion.

According to a report by the Citizens Budget Guide, the government's expenditure for 2020-2021 has increased by around $US69 million.

The report said the expenditure was higher than the Covid-19 Response Budget.

The report is aimed at improving people's perception of the Budget and to promote accountability and transparency in public financial management, Ambassador Seam said.

"The guide will promote good governance and verify the effectiveness of public funds in compliance with people's needs."

The EU-funded report was developed by the Fiji Council of Social Services (FCOSS) with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO).

Civil society organisations at a Budget briefing in Suva.

Civil society organisations at a Budget briefing in Suva. Photo: Supplied

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