Foreign travel expenditure by top government officials dropped by Sh2.18 billion in the six months to December on austerity and restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Fresh data by the Controller of Budget’s office shows that top officials spent Sh1 billon on travels abroad between July and December last year, compared with Sh3.18 billion in a similar period a year earlier -- reflecting a fall of 68.6 percent.
The government has previously struggled to rein in wasteful spending on foreign travel, with policy analysts singling out overseas trips by officials -- which often involve lavish allowances.
Margaret Nyakango, the Controller of Budget, attributed the drop to restrictions on non-essential travel to contain Covid-19 and limit wastage of taxpayer funds in an economy ravaged by the pandemic.
“The disruptions occasioned by actions taken by the government to contain the Covid-19 pandemic affected MDAs’ planned activities resulting in low revenue and expenditure. Expenditure items that were mostly affected include; domestic and foreign travel, training and hospitality,” Ms Nyakango said.
President Uhuru Kenyatta in March last year banned non-essential foreign travel by all State officials. The directive required all senior officials to obtain mandatory clearance to travel from the Head of Public Service, Joseph Kinyua.
Taxpayers have over the years spent billions of shillings on air tickets and per-diems for State officials, especially those on trips to expensive destinations in the US and Europe.
Foreign travel expenses by members of the bicameral Parliament dropped by the biggest margin of 92.3 percent, settling at Sh70.17 million between July and December 2020 compared to Sh914.1 million in the corresponding period the previous year.
The office of President Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, posted the second biggest drop in foreign travel expenditures, with Sh25.65 million spent in the period under review — a 76.9 percent fall from Sh111 million in the corresponding period a year earlier.
MPs, Senators and the Office of the President and his deputy have for years been the biggest spenders on foreign trips due to official assignments that usually have huge delegations and draw the highest per diems.
The State suspended all non-essential travel for officials, whether on official or private engagements following the ban on international flights in March after the country reported the first case of coronavirus infection.
Ambassadors and high commissioners abroad were asked to represent the government in engagements within their respective jurisdictions.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs — which is in-charge of Kenya’s diplomatic engagements — registered the third highest fall of 35 percent to Sh739.46 million from Sh1.154 billion spent in similar period a year earlier.
International fights resumed in August last year but most international meetings and bilateral talks were cancelled or held through teleconferencing, saving taxpayers billions of shillings in allowances and tickets for the foreign trips.
The Treasury has also cited overseas trips by State officials as examples of wasteful spending, saying all non-core expenditure will be reviewed to enable the government to make savings and fund its programmes without relying too much on debt.
But top State officials have consistently defied the Treasury order for budget cuts on non-essential items like travel, publicity and entertainment.
State House has in the past been forced to defend Mr Kenyatta’s frequent trips abroad, arguing that most of them had the potential to attract investments.
Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani last year said that the non-core travel for State officials remained suspended despite resumption of international trips.
With most countries opting to freezing foreign travel for their officials and suspending international forums due to the pandemic, airlines have lost billions of shillings in revenues.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — the United Nations agency responsible for civil aviation sector — says that seating capacity fell by around 50 percent last year, to 1.8 billion passengers compared to around 4.5 billion in 2019.
ICAO estimates that the global aviation industry’s annual losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic at around $370 billion.