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Decentralisation in Malawi: a gun without ammunition

Over 20 years after the country adopted multiparty politics, Malawians across the country have heard the slogan ‘Power to the People’ innumerable times. To some the term is regarded as a symbol of liberation, while to others it has been a constant reminder of the struggles which they still need to overcome.

Immediately after denouncing a highly centralized one party rule in favour of multiparty democracy, Malawi adopted a new Constitution based on the principles of participatory democracy.

The idea was to make every Malawian responsible for the development of the country as well as making duty-bearer accountable when discharging duties on behalf of the general public, hence the introduction in 1998 of the Decentralization Policy to reinforce government’s desire to take the citizenry on board.

Globally decentralisation is becoming an increasingly fashionable term in most development literature, and it continues to be a worldwide trend in the form of governance, especially for countries that seek to serve public interests through vigorous participation of all sectors.

As part of the process of consolidating democracy and as a strategy for realizing the country’s development goal of poverty reduction, the Malawi government decentralized its political and administrative authority to district level.

According Director for Local Government Services, Kiswell Dakamau, government, through the Decentralisation Policy, has managed to cultivate citizen participation in decision-making process as well as monitoring progress of issues that affect them.

But while government is touting its successes in devolving power, communities on the other hand have a different story to tell. To them, the writing is on the wall that the central government is not ready and willing to relinquish all the powers down to the communities in line with the spirit of devolution.

Chimwala Area Development Committee (ADC) Chairperson, Mary Mmadi, says their involvement in the planning process starts and ends at being told of what government wants to do for them.

“We were told by nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) that it is our duty to initiate developments in our areas through VDCs [Village Development Committees]. And for countless times, we have been proposing projects to government through ward councillors but the response has always been negative,” says Mmadi.

She further says most of the times, the projects, which officials at the district council implement are the ones which the people did not ask for. Oftentimes, Mmadi says it takes over two years for government to respond to their need.

“And by that time some donors might have already provided us with our need because, unlike government, NGOs are quick to appreciate and provide for our problems,” she adds.

In addition, the ADCs across the country are facing a serious capacity building challenge such that most of them are not aware of their roles and responsibilities. They know they have been given power to hold duty-bearers accountable, but they have no clue as to how to use that power.

Just like Chimwala ADC, people in Masanje area, Traditional Authority Chowe, in Mangochi seem to be living in their own world. They reveal that since multiparty democracy was introduced in the country, they have never been consulted by members of Parliament (MP), councillors or any official from the district council regarding developmental projects in their area.

“That an MP receives CDF [Constituency

Development Fund] is news to us. We just see people working on our roads and schools but when we ask them, they usually tell us that they have been sent by people above. If we ask them more questions, they usually threaten to stop working on the project, hence we just stay quiet,” explains John Kachenga, Chairperson for Masanje ADC.

On several occasions, he explains that they have tried to contact the authorities at the district level to empower them with knowledge as to how they are supposed to discharge their duties, but their efforts have been futile.

“Villagers come to us complaining of various issues pertaining to development, bearing in mind that we are their leaders. But we fail to assist them because we are also powerless. And when we go to the district council, they always dismiss us by saying that the issues are too technical for our understanding,” says Kachenga.

Officials at the district level are not spared either. Just as the communities are complaining of not being heard, council members are also pointing a finger at central government for not giving them powers to manage the councils according to the needs of the people.

Mangochi District Commissioner, Jack Nguluwe, argues that the central government is not giving the councils enough power to discipline their employees as well as manage finances that are collected at the district level.

“It is very important that employees at the district level develop a mindset that their bosses are not at Capital Hill. They need to know that their bosses are at the district. This will help in instilling a spirit of commitment among the workers,” he says.

In most cases, Nguluwe says councils fail to meet local people’s expectations because central government has not devolved all its powers to them such that every activity the councils make has to be approved at the Capital Hill.

Commenting on this, Dakamau says that his ministry is yet to conduct official training for personnel manning local government structures such as VDCs, ADCs AECs. He explains that the responsibility to train personnel for these local structures is in the hands of district councils.

“As a ministry, our role is to train officials at the district level while the responsibility to train community structures rests in the hands of district councils. But we should understand that funds are limited.

“Hence, we are calling upon partners to assist our councils in building capacity for communities in order for them to understand and appreciate the concept of decentralisation,” he says.

As a step forward, Dakamau says his ministry is currently training full council members on the local government system in Malawi as well as orienting them on how local authority business is conducted.

“People should understand that we stayed for nine years without councillors and this in one way affected the implementation of the Decentralisation Policy which the country adopted soon after attaining democracy. What we are doing now is equipping them with knowledge on how to conduct their business,” he explains.

Dakamau also says the inclusion of K5 billion District Development Fund (DDF) in the 2015/2016 financial year is an indication that government wants to move away from centralised governance to devolution.

“Our assessment on the ground has shown that people are now able to appreciate the roles and responsibilities of councillors such that small development projects that had stalled due to lack of collaboration between councils and the people have now started being implemented.

“We believe that if there can be a good working relationship between all council members, Malawi can develop in the next five to 10 years, considering that government want to be increasing the DDF during each financial year,” he said.

But National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust, which is among organisations entrusted with civic educating the locals, believes that the central government is deliberately withholding power from the citizen.

The organisation’s District Civic Education Manager for Mangochi, Turner Banda, explains that, on the ground, there is enough evidence that people now are aware of their roles and responsibilities in development, but it seems government is not ready to take their views on board.

“Local people are now pressuring and making duty-bearers accountable by among other things questioning their authority but officials do not take their views onboard. It seems they are not ready for a bottom-up approach which devolution is built on,” says Banda.

As the wait for a fully devolved governance system continues, government is in the meantime hoping for a situation where full council members will be able to meet people’s expectations as a way of sustaining their participation in local government issues, which is a fundamental part of development. While on the other hand, locals are longing for a time when government will give them ammunition to propel their ideas to fruition.

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