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Does planning need a commission?

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One of the main criticisms of Malawi and its multiparty democracy is that changes of government and leadership seem to be responsible for the poor state in which this country finds itself in terms of development.

Each administration comes in not only with a few flagship programmes that defines its tenure but with a complete change of priorities and focus. Programmes of the preceding administration are immediately abandoned or deliberately starved of adequate resources to be of any value to the citizenry. The net effect of such action is the lack of continuity, consistency and commitment to agreed policies and programmes. Despite the availability of long-term plans such as the Vision 2020 and the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS), there has been a problem with follow-up on implementation and monitoring of such plans, visions and strategies. This is coupled with the lack of a permanent home for the Department of Economic Development and Planning.

This department has been one of the most tossed around since the era of multiparty politics in Malawi. It has moved between being a department in the Ministry of Finance and being a fully fledged ministry so many times that sometimes we even forget that it was at one point called the National Economic Council. These oscillations from ministry to department and back have contributed to the lack of continuity and the statutory power to ensure that these long-term plans and strategies are implemented as envisaged.

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The result of these factors has been the growth and development of the Malawian economy without a concomitant appreciation of such development and the perception that these economic development have do not translate into real change to the ordinary person. Others have called this type of doing development in Malawi as the lack of transformative leadership in Malawi. This false belief that these economic development do not lead to improvements in the lives of ordinary people is one of the reasons people are not celebrating good economic news when it happens.

Take the example of the performance of the economy in 2017. For the first time since multiparty democracy, Malawi has managed to reduce inflation from double digits to the lowest level in over 10 years. By December 2017, inflation had reduced to 7.1 percent, the lowest level of inflation at the equivalent time since December 2010 when inflation was at 6.30 percent. For those old enough to remember and for those who do not suffer from selective amnesia, they will remember that from 2001 to until 2017, inflation rate averaged 15.07 percent. It is also important to remind those that do not want to remember that the all-time inflation rate in Malawi was reached in February 2013 when it reached 37.90 percent.

Interest rates have reduced more than once in one financial year; a rare occurrence. The exchange rate has been stable that for the first time since the Automatic Fuel Pricing Mechanism started operating in Malawi, there has not been an upward adjustment of fuel in 2017. In order to make gains out of these positive developments then, there is need for a holistic transformation of the way of doing things to ensure that there is continuity, consistency and commitment.

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The current administration has responded to this need in its transformation agenda by firstly, passing the National Planning Commission (NPC) Act, 2017 (No. 12 of 2017), secondly by appointing the commissioners and finally, as evidenced in the adverts last week, the recruitment of director general for NPC has commenced. NPC is an institution that has been established by an Act of Parliament, which is the principal authority for the development and implementation of national strategies and development plans.

There is no harm for this article to conclude with a piece of advice. In countries where there have been successes in having planning commissions, they have focused on the facilitation of planning processes and capacity building rather than as mechanisms for top-down control or central planning. The main actors have been the line ministries. Successful planning commissions have prioritised the building of capacities in the sectors identified in the development strategies. This is because it is at the line ministry where planning, budgeting, and implementation intersect.

It is my plea that NPC will support performance frameworks which focus on results-based outcomes, linked to existing institutional arrangements for monitoring and evaluation rather than duplicating such structures. Creating standalone or parallel planning processes, not integrated with policy development, management or budget processes, will be the quickest way to failure. The answer then for me is YES! Planning needs a commission!

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