Monday, January 12, 2009

Sudan: Overtaxed, Over-ticketed, and Overcharged Nation for Scarcely anything in Return

By John A. Akec

In Sudan there are many issues that can keep us writing and asking myriad questions at infinitum. One of them is the addiction with collecting taxes and charging citizens for every service they use. And for sometimes, I have been wondering as to why Sudanese pay taxes when they are charged for all services they use or need to access. The service could be as essential as children education or hospital treatment; or as mundane, yet vital, as using a public park, or visiting a loved one in hospital. Universally privatised Sudan economy and tax did not make much sense as good bed-fellows and therefore I have come to suspect that the Sudanese could be the most overtaxed, overcharged, over-ticketed people on Earth, all for nothing in return. Here is why.

A not-so- recent publication has estimated Sudan government’s tax revenues composition at 30% direct tax and 67% of indirect tax. I believe indirect taxes have dramatically risen at the time when education and health services are being privatized. In Britain where I lived for many years, it takes great search to locate a private school in the neighborhood. In Sudan a school means private school. In Britain (a rich country), a private school is only for the very rich. In Sudan (a poor country), a private school is the only likely thing available in the neighborhood. Furthermore, the Sudanese person nowadays pays to see a doctor in public hospital, pays for medical tests, and then pays for prescriptions. No operation is free. To call an ambulance the Sudanese must pay. To visit a hopsitalised relative in public hospital, one must pay SGD 2.00 at the entrance. And oddly enough, doctors are more likely to prescribe more than one drug (an average of 2 or 3) for an illness, which unnecessarily drives up the treatment costs for the patient. And many a poor have asked the inevitable question at the pharmacist’s counter: which drug is the most important among these? Also over-dosed nation? I would think so. And as many pharmacists are attached to health centres, commercial self-interests may be blamed for the tendency to over-sell drugs to patients. The difference between a ‘public’ hospital and private hospital is only measured in costs of treatment; with public hospitals being ‘slightly’ cheaper, not free.

And if the concern about paying for what should have been common and free goods was confined to education and health service, the debate would have beeen straight-forward and political one. But the Sudanese man and woman can hardly use or ask for a service without being asked to pay. To apply to university, there is SGD 125 (US$ 60) application fee. There is airport fee of SDG 35.00 (US $ 17.00) for external air travel and SDG 20 (US $ 10) for internal travel. To leave the country one must pay for an exit visa ($ 50.00 in Juba International Airport).What is it exactly are we paying for? What service when we are paying for parking in Khartoum International Airport? And recently, paying SDG 5.00 (US $ 2.5) for using a trolley at Khartoum International Airport? This is when Juba International Airport still lacks sound or public address (PA) system to convey information to passengers, and instead relies on raw human voice to make announcements? When the tractor still pulls the luggage's trailer in Juba International Airport?

Whats more, I changed my UK driving license into a Sudanese one about a year ago. First, I went and enquired from relevant authorities and was told it would cost about SDG 175.00 plus SDG 25.00 eye-test fees. Not accurate information, as it later turned out. On the day I obtained my driving license, it cost me a staggering SDG 250.00 (or $ 120.00).That included additional (originally undeclared) charges such as UK license translation fee to Arabic, application form fee, stamp duty fees, and photocopying costs.

And most recently I was involved in a minor traffic accident and had to pay SDG 30.00 ($ 15.00) for a copy of police traffic report which insurance companies in Sudan need in order to process claims. Because there was no photocopier in the traffic police office, I was asked to drive half a mile in order to photocopy second party’s insurance document. I told the official later that it would have been more convenient for me if they had their own photocopier in their office. What happens to SGD 30.00 ($ 15.00) being paid by their clients to get traffic report? I asked. I could not receive a single convincing answer from him.

Sometimes I am let to think that our government has become addicted to collecting money from citizens and anybody that steps into our soil. This is when Sudan’s wealth indicators show a GDP of $44 billion. That works out as $88 billion (purchasing power parity. This means a dollar in Sudan is worth twice its value in the US in terms of what one can buy with it), according to Economist Intelligence Unit of The Economist (2008).

While the IMF has been praising the government of Sudan for its impressive economic growths (see the attached GDP growth since 2004), the average Sudanese is still to feel the impact of such economic growth in terms of free services such as free access to hospital treatment and free Universal primary and secondary education for their children, amongst others. Besides, there are a lot of externalities and failures of this laissez-faire economy that would demand an immediate government intervention. The IMF should consider looking at the resulting quality of life's indicators which are not made available by the IMF as they never concern the potential investors.

In summary, taxing people and charging them is pointless unless those concerned with collecting taxes and charges realize that citizens are entitled to some free goods and services and, in case of charged services, they deserve the quality of service that reflects what they are paying. In business jargon: we need better value for money. It is also clear that part of fees need to be reinvested back in whatever service we have been concerned with and paying for in order to improve the quality of service without necessarily raising up the charge. This is not happening in most cases. And that is sad.

I do recognize the importance of tax and charges. But tax for nothing in return ought to be baffling to an average person. All this provides food for thought to Sudanese politicians of all colours and persuasions, especially those politicians who will dare to make a difference in the life of an average Sudanese man and woman.


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