We are not ready for lifestyle audits

The president’s recent statement on a US radio station declaring that there will be a lifestyle audit in Namibia is a concern to me.  He said:  “We will also have lifestyle audits. This is going to be done...If your salary is this, how do you live this kind of lifestyle?” 
 
According to reports, such audits were done in Kenya and there are civil society groups here in Namibia who advocate for this. But, be careful what you wish for.  All too often, we start the ball rolling on things like this and don’t spend enough time examining the possible ‘downside’ to what we legislate. 
 
An online dictionary says that lifestyle audits are a critical management tool to identify fraud. A lifestyle audit is the term commonly used by forensic auditors to describe the tests that are performed to determine if the lifestyle of an employee is commensurate with that person’s known income. 
 
Using these ‘tools’ would supposedly allow authorities to identify a person who has a known net salary of (let’s say) N$15,000 per month who lives in an N$5 million house and drives an N$1 million car.  The audit is presumed to be a laser beam tool directed at a specific suspected target, not as a national law broadly applied to potentially over 100,000 civil servants or hundreds of public servants (ministers, political appointees, judges, ambassadors, legislators, government consultants and special assistants).  When listening to the brief comment our president made, to some extent, I recognize that we all have to be big boys and girls and know that often politicians roll with the moment when they are ‘live’ in interviews and they can say things in ways that fit a specific situation.  The literal words they use on these occasions may not necessarily be a fixed blueprint for action, but may be an affirmative statement of their overall sentiments.  Perhaps that is the case here. We all know that for such a log
istically complicated, expensive, and legally questionable thing like a lifestyle audit to be done by government agencies (I wonder which one?), would take years just for the legislative framework to be drafted and passed into law.  Then, the implementing regulations, policing/subpoena authority, logistics, (including staff recruitment and training) would cost hundreds of millions (if not more) and need an annual budget, office space, and take even more years to be launched. 
 
Don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing that our leaders have innovative ideas to challenge the various difficulties that Namibia faces.  Indeed, something must be done!  There is no doubt that corruption and mismanagement (or questionable decision-making) in our system are partly the cause of the recent Fitch outlook downgrade.  
 
Too many decision-makers in our society don’t act in ways that show that they embrace the priorities of those citizens who are really struggling to afford basic necessities. Far too many are keen on addressing problems where they come from (or those who they know), but are not necessarily vociferous advocates of those in need from other parts of the country.  I am not referring to the previously advantaged and newly advantaged groups of Namibians, I am referring to the people who work for peanuts per month and don’t have enough money to eat three times per day, put shoes on their kids’ feet or bury a relative properly. 
 
I get the feeling that the majority of Namibians are more interested in a piece of getting arable land,  having a higher paying job (or just any job), being able to get their sick loved ones to a doctor, have access to fully equipped schools, solve water issues so their livestock will live through this drought and other everyday concerns.  I am not sure the man-in-the-rural-street in Namibia (not Windhoek), even knows or cares about a lifestyle audit.  
 
I think the president is seeking a new way to approach national challenges.  And, he was elected in a landslide to do just that; I support this.
 
All that said, a national discussion about a lifestyle audit should have begun here and not on a global radio program.
 
It seems to me that lifestyle audits done on potentially 100,000 civil and public servants (or even a relevant fraction of that huge number) would take capacity and investigative expertise that Namibia does not have (in sufficient quantities) right now and there is no money for foreign consultants. 
 
It seems to me that to investigate a citizen because their purchases ‘seemingly’ don’t match their KNOWN GRN salary means examining ALL avenues of that person’s revenue, foreign and domestic.   It would mean knowing about everything they inherited in the past.  It would mean an examination of legally protected income tax filings.  It could mean exposure of the personal financial information of his/her spouse, all family members and even private CCs and Ptys where that person may derive income. 
 
The private information of all others also involved in those ventures or properties would necessarily be exposed.  What about the privacy of these citizens who are not targets of the audit?  What happens if the house or farm where someone is living in belongs to a private company or if the car they are driving is leased? 
 
Is any of this disclosure legal without a warrant from the courts with specific charges of fraud against a specific person?     
 
Then there is the issue of political will.  Parliamentarians, ministers and public officials won’t even declare their income now, even with a law that says they must, what makes anyone think that they will open up their personal asset registers (and that of their families) to the scrutiny needed for a successful lifestyle audit?  In any event, why would they even pass such legislation mandating such exposure for themselves?
 
Then there is the political constituency issue.  There are scores of civil service and public officials in the areas where the ruling party has a voting majority (or is trying to build one) who earn their income from multiple sources.  These rural power-brokers will never stand for someone counting their cattle and goats, demanding income tallies from the rental of rooms in their homes or shacks at the back of their properties, scrutinizing revenue sheets from taxi licenses they rent and cars they run, documenting their off-book hair braiding enterprises, tombo/ombike brewing ventures, cuca shops, shebeens, gambling machine rooms, kapana stands, and other informal businesses done that generate cash flow above their ordinary GRN salaries.  The closer we get to election time, the more remote such a lifestyle audit will get.
 
Can you imagine the same disinterested, under-trained, inefficient, and sometimes rude civil servants who are behind some of the desks in various public offices having access to people’s sensitive, confidential, private tax and asset information as a part of the lifestyle audit process?  I can’t.
 
I imagine lifestyle audit subjects’, asset lists and other things in overflowing files on the floor or stacked on desks, papers lost, and information shared with gossip newspapers or tsotsis (they will know what to ‘shop for’ when they break in) or posted on social media. Consider this:  How will targets of these audits be identified?  Shall we assign supervisors, neighbours, co-workers or the police to spy on everyone and report back? Given the tribalism, suppressed racism (Alwyn Strauss) and social jealousy that permeates Namibia, what would be a fair way of deciding who should be subject to a lifestyle audit?
 
If promise to enact the Western-style ‘lifestyle audit’ in Namibia was made in earnest, some could consider it reasonable.  But, I wonder, why not work with what we already have on the law books and enforce that to cripple corruption in Namibia rather than overcoming the major obstacles facing this new (for Namibia) concept?
 
 

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