Local governance structures in Traditional Authorities (T/As) Malenga and Nthondo in Ntchisi district are excited with the decision by the government to finally operationalise the Access to Information (ATI) Act.
Thokozani Damba, a citizen journalist under the Citizen Action in Local Government Accountability (Calga) Project in T/A Nthondo, says the Act is a huge relief to them as it bridges an information gap that has existed for decades between citizens and duty-bearers on public expenditure.
The Act provides for the right of access to information; defines the scope of public information the public has the right to access; to establish the (Independent) Public Information Commission and define its functions; to promote transparency and accountability of public officers; and to provide for matters connected with or incidental to the foregoing.
Damba says as a local governance watchdog, the law comes handy to them in demanding transparency and accountability in the way the council is utilising government funding baskets such as the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), District Development Fund (DDF) and Local Development Fund (LDF).
“Our attempts to demand such information before yielded no result. The council officials at the council did not cooperate when we asked for procurement documents where we had doubts on the cost and workmanship of the project,” he explains.
But the seemingly bemused Damba is now relieved that with the ATI law in place, communities will now be able to demand information on various development projects, including demanding access to procurement documents to ascertain the correlation between what was budgeted and what has been utilised on each project.
Damba is one of the citizen journalists under the Calga Project, which the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) of Lilongwe Archdiocese is implementing with funding from the Irish Aid through the Danish Church Aid (DCA).
The project is being implemented in T/As Malenga and Nthondo in Ntchisi and T/As Chiwere, Mkukula, Mponela and Msakambewa in Dowa. The goal of the project is to increase citizen participation in the formulation and implementation of development projects at the local level.
The project noted a poor working relationship between the MPs and councillors on the one hand and local structures on the other.
The relationship between communities and duty-bearers at the council was not good either. In April 2020, the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development was forced to suspend Ntchisi District Commissioner (DC), Peter Jimusole, after residents expressed dissatisfaction with his performance.
The locals accused Jimusole of not following proper procedures in hiring and firing staff, favouritism in identification of contractors and lack of vision to develop the district.
“We are not against the DC as an individual, but we are not happy with how the office is conducting itself administratively,” said Kennedy Kapakasa who is also Group Village Head Chimwankhuku.
CCJP-Calga field officer for Ntchisi, Harry Dzowera, thinks this could have been avoided if there was free flow of information between the rights-holders (citizens) and duty-bearers.
The Calga project was introduced to help in generating evidence for effective advocacy for policy change, funding increments, increased participation of citizens in development decisions.
Dzowera says they observed that existing animosities between citizens and duty-bears on the one hand, and citizens and elected officers was an impediment to the realization of social and economic aspirations of the wards and constituencies.
“We noted that because of the poor working relationship between rights-holders and the elected officers, majority of the ward councillors could not mobilise their constituents to push for enhanced performance and service delivery at their respective councils despite undergoing countless capacity building trainings from various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders,” he expounds.
The Community Journalists also found that councillors do not share district development plans, budget allocations and any other development-related documents with their constituents.
And this largely contributed to failure by councillors to mobilise people to participate in development activities to achieve much-desired transformation in their areas.
“The findings from the Community Journalists revealed limited actions of citizens to monitor, report and hold duty bearers accountable in the allocation and utilisation of local development resources in the local councils. This is largely due to failure by councillors to mobilise their constituents and lack of knowledge on DDPs and budget tracking processes,” he adds.
Dzowera says these, plus many more challenges, have been the major stumbling blocks to the realization of decentralized public service delivery in line with the decentralisation policy.
On the other hand, the information gap bred mistrust between the public and duty-bearers on financial spending.
However, Damba testifies that there has been a significant improvement in the governance strata in the areas following the introduction of the project.
He says, for instance, that MPs and councillors are now attending ADC meetings, which they used to shun before.
“We have also observed that our councillors and MPs are closely working together when initiating and implementing development projects. There has also been an improvement on the level of engagement between local development and governance structures and elected officers,” he narrates.
But still more, Damba fears that all these efforts could be meaningless in the absence of a piece of legislation that gives ordinary citizens powers to hold and demand accountability from the duty-bearers.
The Malawi Congress Party legislator for Ntchisi North East Constituency, Olipa Chimangeni, confirmed to have shunned several meetings her ADC used to call to formulate development plans for the area.
Chimangeni says this was because there was a lack of trust between the two parties.
“And I believe that this mistrust was a result of the absence of access to information on topical issues. So, I am happy that after the CCJP had enlightened us on our roles and responsibilities, which has also helped us in addressing petty differences, we now have the ATI law to empower citizens to hold us accountable,” she says.