For all its stark beauty and harsh realities, East Africa and Tanzania in particular, is not a place for the practical at heart.
What is often striking here, especially when considering that the average daily earnings are closer to what most Canadians make in 10 minutes at minimum wage, is that being poor makes life neither simple nor cheap.
The reality of a least developed country such as Tanzania is the overall limited presence of basic services. When the ability of the state is limited, things such as a primary health care, public education and safe water are only sporadically available — and often come with a fee attached.
In a land of the poor, nothing comes for free. A checkup for malaria, the leading killer in the nation, can be half of a typical farmers daily earning; education is provided only up until Grade 7 and still requires the mandatory purchase of a uniform; a bucket of water costs about 15 cents (or to fill a typical Canadian tub, it’s a buck a bath).
Yet more than the expense in cash, it’s the hidden costs that are borne in the generally poor quality of the services that can be had.
Tanzania has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world; there are actually programs for students to have roll calls for teachers (as educators are absent while sourcing income from second and third jobs to make up for poor wages); a 15-cent bucket of water is often one either carried half a kilometre from a poorly functioning public well or is darkly murky with sediment.
Whether rich or poor, the result of weak basic services is that an inordinate amount of resources are spent attempting to bypass the system.
For those with money, the general lack of quality drives families to seek private services that are often costly enough push one closer to the poverty precipice.
For the majority of people who do not have money, the only alternatives are to do without, improvise with next to nothing or pay for services that are only likely to keep one impoverished.
Having been born and raised in a system where basic services are available to the point that I dreaded going to school or the doctor as a child, witnessing the absence of essentials always puts me at a loss and the concept of actually paying extra for them leaves me somewhat dumbfounded.
And in essence, therein lays the rub. Where does service delivery begin and who should foot the bill?
Among all Tanzanians, be they affluent or underprivileged, there is a growing mutual sentiment that having to pay taxes for financing invisible and inferior public services is similar to theft.
Yet on the flip side, there is the government view that not paying taxes (and more of them) not only makes it impossible to improve service delivery — it is robbing the public good.
Being a relative outsider, I often marvel at the vehemence on both sides of the chicken and egg debate that is service delivery improvement in Tanzania and the adamancy of all parties involved that the problem is solely the fault of the other. Yet more than anything, I am always startled at how little each side is willing to admit that the solution requires give and take from one and all.
As the solution of one only exacerbates the problems of the other, what emerges is that both sides are right … and both sides are wrong.
The clarion call of the moment, both from citizens and state in Tanzania, is one that finds its unity under the banner of "efficiency." Citizens want to see their taxes used more effectively and governments want to see improved tax collection.
However, achieving efficiency is not an activity that can be accomplished alone. Rather it is a process that requires trust among all parties involved. In this regard, while efficiency in basic service delivery is obviously absent, the missing element is integrity.
More than just putting up more schools or drilling more wells, there is a mutual need to recognize that we all have our parts to play to make these things actually work.
On the surface, the problem always appears to be money (hence the ongoing chicken and egg tax debate), but at the root, it is perhaps embedded mistrust that is the looser thread unravelling the fabric of the nation.
» Josh Sebastian is from Brandon-Westman and is currently working on international development projects in Tanzania, East Africa.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 24, 2012