LOVE LETTERS TO TANZANIA: Good citizenship: Whose job is it?

Friday April 8 2016



By Sabine Barbara;

Australian companies are implicated in the global Unaoil bribery scandal, Iceland’s Prime Minister resigns over corruption inquiries, Tanzanian MPs are charged with soliciting bribes.  Corruption, it seems, is universal.  Fortunately, prosecution of corrupt citizens in Tanzania ensures money is flowing back into the nation’s coffers.  This warrants optimism, but criticism of government initiatives persists.

Focusing only on authorities’ performance, critics bypass a key question:  Whose job is it to fix a nation?  Without hard-working, ethical citizens, who empathise and sacrifice, governments are toothless tigers.  Good governance provides the right parameters, but citizens are crucial agents of change. 

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, John F. Kennedy impressed upon Americans.  It still rings true.  Tanzania’s leaders have not yet achieved quality in free education, but: can any government?  Whilst simultaneously eradicating poverty, financing infrastructure, providing health care and meeting all needs of a growing population?  The magnitude of the task necessitates asking: how much do citizens pay for reliable electricity, roads, police protection and other services?  Are they doing enough for their country?

That affluent nation’s governments perform better is a fallacy.  They are only as strong as their tax base.  As a rule, wealthy countries’ top tax rates exceed 40%; even 55% in Sweden, Japan and Denmark.  Bemoaning my own tax obligation, I recall U.S. Supreme Court Justice Holmes’ words: “I like to pay taxes.  With them I buy civilization.”

Tanzania’s privileged live well.  Investments deliver handsome yields, domestic help is inexpensive, food cheap, land abundant.  Do the elite aspiring to life-styles comparable to rich nations accept comparable tax rates?  Benefiting from income inequality, are they not morally obliged to contribute more?

As government agencies act decisively, tackling tax evasion and the diversion of funds into corrupt individuals’ pockets, hesitant tax payers lose the previously logical excuse that taxes are misused.  Understandably though, citizens earning around Sh730,000 resent paying the same marginal tax rate of 30% as the elite earning many million shillings.  Accordingly, World Bank economists advocate higher top income tax rates.


Social responsibility, however, extends to all who use services, including those who earn little.  Income inequalities do not excuse idleness, expecting authorities to perform miracles.  How can some Tanzanian parents abdicate their responsibilities altogether?  Universal free education is a proud feature of humane societies which carry their weakest members, but requires community support.  Voluntary contributions, officials keep reiterating, are welcome.  Yet, while some donate goods or time, others demonstrate against authorities instead of finding ways to support their own children.

Theoretically, Australians also enjoy free education.  In practice, parents manage under-funding by volunteering and fundraising.  On weekends, they paint, sell goods or clean schools.  They also cook and run the school canteen, despite paying taxes.  Playing their role, they create healthy, cohesive school communities.  

Such established volunteering cultures help authorities provide social services.  Volunteers collect donations for charities, work as city guides for tourists, cook food for the needy, drive the elderly to the doctor.  They fundraise for overseas aid and teach refugees when government funded lessons run out.  They tackle soil erosion and climate change via planting days.  So they should!  Creating the future world we want our children to inherit is our shared responsibility as global citizens.

A 2014 study found that, on average, Tanzania’s citizens do not volunteer much time compared to other nations.  Regrettably, to many youngsters, “volunteering” denotes foreigners’ assistance rather than their own contribution to their nation.  Many time rich unemployed young Tanzanians are reluctant to provide unpaid community service.  Aspiring to a volunteering culture could encourage them to change the fortunes of their country. 

Youth hanging around their friend’s bajaji should show initiative instead, fill potholes in the road or build desks for schools, concurrently enhancing their résumés.  Skills gained voluntarily and commitment demonstrated impress potential employers.  Good citizens take pride in building a nation, not just criticising authorities.  If Tanzanians can trust that fellow citizens can be called upon to contribute, all according to their means, hope for Tanzania’s future independence grows.

The author is a freelance writer, working in Australia as a program leader in education and expert teacher