No Suit, No Mission
The IMF Fiscal Affairs Department provides technical assistance to the IMF member countries on public financial management, expenditure policy, revenue administration and tax policy issues. Interaction between countries and IMF staff takes place mainly through “missions”, staff visits governed by a well-defined process of meetings with the authorities, other government officials, donor representatives, followed by presentation of mission recommendations summarized in a technical assistance report, the Aide Mémoire. In the coming months FAD staff will recollect some of their more memorable mission experiences.
Posted by Suhas Joshi
“I arrived in the country in question just months after the last dictator had finally been forced out by popular revolt, aided by the international community. The country had just emerged from 15 years of war and 80% of the population was living in the capital city in pretty desperate conditions, with no public transport system, and few, if any, basic services. We advised extensively on the budget formulation process, and made a point about a budgetary allocation to provide for rebuilding public transport in the capital.
Returning, a few months later we found that despite the budget allocation for public transport, no investments had been made in that area. In fact the resources had all been transferred –or “vired” as it is called in PFM-speak, to buy cars for ministries and senior officials. This of course raised concerns about the integrity of the budget process where resources could be re-directed so easily by a handful of senior officials, without any reference to the original allocation by parliament and cabinet. The situation highlighted the need to establish stronger commitment controls and to monitor them closely. It was decided that this issue should be emphasized to the authorities at a very high level and that new systems to control budgets, their virements and commitments, were essential. The highest level meant the Minister of Finance, with a short visit to the President so that back-up could be provided!
On my next visit, I landed at the local airport ready to communicate this important message, but the practicalities of mission work intervened. I had lost my suit. All my suits! The airline had lost my bags- and I was the only passenger who got off at the airport. So I went off to my first meeting at the Ministry of Finance in my travel clothes, looking more like a tourist than an IMF advisor. Now, as everyone knows, certainly our counterparts, on IMF missions, advisors and experts are all dressed in suits, black suits, maybe dark grey or in exceptional cases dark blue. Doesn’t matter if it’s Iceland or Congo. Things don’t seem right without them.
The hosts at the Ministry were very sympathetic and the Finance Minister (in a suit, many ministries of finance have followed suit, so to speak) completely agreed that I couldn’t meet the President in my present attire. He sent one of his officers with me to the airline office to find out when the bag would actually arrive. A shouting match ensued over my suit between the officer and the airline manager until I finally intervened. Ok, the bag is not going to be found, but what about a refund? In India, airlines would compensate for loss of baggage with a refund. The manager looked at me intensely and said ‘this is an African airline- we don’t give refunds.' Luckily this incited my Ministry counterpart even more, who in no uncertain terms explained that this IMF official could not meet the President without a suit. After some further heated back and forth the manager offered to buy me a change of clothing himself the next day.
The Minister, on hearing the good news, called me and indicated he would arrange my meeting. He advised me to go and buy the clothes myself or else I would get 'bendaan' clothes. 'Bendaan?', I queried innocently. Yes indeed, 'bendaan', because you have to 'bend down' to select the undamaged ones from the second hand clothes you would get this way, I was told. I ran back immediately and told the airline manager that I would like to select the clothes personally. Luckily he sent his man with me. I bought new clothes, and the airline paid for them. I still wear the shirts (made in Mexico), the socks (made in India), and the innerwear (made in the EU)!"