De-Mystifying IFMIS and Coding Morality in the Government of Malawi

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

The Integrated Financial Management Information System, or to use its famous short name, IFMIS, took off in Malawi as early as 1995, sponsored under a project approach the World Bank Group has adopted in several developing countries. From the time it was introduced to Malawi Government’s senior management, IFMIS was destined to get riddled by challenges of all colors and magnitudes. In 2004, the Accountant General’s Department (AGD) announced it was going to tweak it to address 21 key challenges that were identified in the nine years since its adoption, according to a presentation by Nwazi Mnthambala in 2007, then Deputy Accountant General. The fine-tuning allowed even the domain on which the system functioned to change to a more centralized system. A system on which donor resources were spent to safeguard every Tambala spent by the Malawi Government, the one thing the IFMIS has evidently failed to avoid is entrenched and complex malfeasance by those that have taken advantage of its weaknesses.

In 2008, Edwin Rodin-Brown reported the difficulties of rolling out IFMIS in developing countries, citing among many factors, the complexity of IFMIS for national public systems. The heftiness of IFMIS can be overwhelming for many evolving states, particularly for those countries in lower categories of development. In addition to the need to understand the operational dexterity of the software, the government can be subjected to altering its own structure to allow compatibility. The task of changing from a paper-based to an electronic record management system itself is a mammoth one too, and for countries like Malawi, this would include the need to dispense with lengthy man hours training staff at all levels, some who would remain without a computer for the rest of their careers anyway, a process that Ms. Mnthambala’s presentation notes was also not accounted for in the rollout of the system.

Mr. Rodin-Brown, in his 2008 guideline, nods to the general inadequate human capital in the rollout of IFMIS. But he continues to highlight one other challenge, which is as suspected, fraud and corruption. And the latter has hit Malawi with a vengeance over the past decade that we have waken up to the issue. The one advantage of the growing corruption problem in Malawi has been that citizens have become more familiar with the systems that government uses to receive, budget and expend their resources, which has somewhat helped with the exposure of our leaders to the regularly missing accountability. Another gain on the citizenry is the ability to identify the missing information between what has been reported to be accomplished versus what actually happened.

IFMIS’ de facto identity.

In spite of the obvious, Malawians seem to be increasingly fed wrong information about IFMIS. And perhaps the most important attribute is the sobering fact that IMFIS is not de facto capable of preventing the theft of government resources.

The system, to simplify, transfers government operations from paper based operations to electronic ones as we noted above. This process is essentially customized, meaning the system is designed to follow existing government administrative procedures. To quickly share a small departure that the Government of Malawi made with regards to the adoption of IFMIS, the government was rolling out a decentralization and devolution process when it undertook the transition to an EPICOR-based IFMIS in 2004, to make it a centralized system. I do not claim that this may have been a potential problem for Malawi, but do recognize the incompatibility of the political interest with the operational one. However, it does shed some light on how we apply ourselves on many other aspects of Malawi’s development.

To illustrate a point, a standard procurement process is as follows: Officer A requests the purchase of a computer, her immediate supervisor accepts, then asks the Administration Officer to issue a Local Purchase Order (LPO). The LPO is sent out to an identified vendor. The company then delivers the computer through the Security and Stores Officers, who sign a delivery note and take the computer to the ordering Officer A. When Officer A acknowledges receipt of the computer, she requests the next Officer in the process to process the payment of the invoice.

So, the IFMIS becomes the platform on which these steps become automated. It provides an electronic form at every stage of the process, sending automatic prompts to responsible officers in the procurement chain described above in line with the roles they are expected to play until the product or service is delivered and the payment made. IFMIS also ensures that these steps cannot be skipped, which guarantees the process to halt when a responsible officer at a given stage is absent, or performs an alternative function. Consequently, Officer A cannot ask for the payment of her computer invoice before it has been certified that the equipment has been received by the Security and Stores Officer(s).

The path to theft and fraud in an IFMIS regime.

Although IFMIS provides a robust system of accountability and checks and balances in the handling of administrative and logistics processes of government, it is common knowledge that the unashamed looting of government resources in Cashgate and Maizegate largely took place through it. And as I pointed out before, IFMIS has no capability to prevent stealing, but rather to ensure that bureaucracy is given due diligence. So, here is how I believe public theft took place in our government.

The procedural nature of IFMIS processes requires that not only one Officer can steal from government coffers, but an entire chain of authorities. So, public servants have had to connive and feed false information in the system. To keep to our example above, Officer A has to work closely with Security and Stores Officers to state that the computer has been received even when it actually has not. The processes will continue as if everything is normal. What is critical is that Officer A also has to make sure that she has the confidence of the Finance Officer who issues the payment that the rusty machine on Officer A’s desk ought to be perceived as new. Whatever happens to the computer in the vendor’s shop, its proceeds are split between the vendor and all public officers involved in the procurement chain. Picture this happening to a procurement of thousands of computers, stationery, vehicles, farm inputs…and so on.

There is an important social effect that coordinated theft will normally establish, which is trust among the perpetrators, in turn creating a culture that becomes institutionalized as the norm of conducting business and earning a more ‘dignified’ living. After all, the government paycheck is hardly worth boasting about to a spouse at home, or a concubine on the way home. And as the new norm gets rooted as the modus operandi of government business, political influence permeates as the protective gear that sustains behavior.

A truism is that the system relies on honesty of a different kind. It is the kind of honesty that is vested in people who take their work and interest of the bigger picture, i.e., the country, seriously. They become the strongest security lock that IFMIS needs to bear fruition. No matter how advanced a system is, but as long as self-interested parties have a platform to collude, government resources will always be latent prey.

So, although encrypted codes and passwords appear as the means to uphold the credibility of a system such as IFMIS, it is honesty, integrity and professionalism that are the real security keys. And the search for such attributes needs to start from the top to the bottom, and from political to professional circles.

And the moral code is one that only the government needs to examine.