The “Pick & Choose” column’s message appearing under the heading “Engage the Mulanje residents” in Malawi News edition dated September 3–9, 2016 was not only loud and clear but also informative and the facts represented those of the voiceless.
I for one, it made my day. How could government forget to plant trees on Mulanje Mountain before deciding to tap water from Mulanje Mountain and supply it not only to Blantyre residents but also to the community within Mulanje? Why neglecting the community’s concerns in the first place before proceeding with the projects? Do they want to conceal the actual amount that will go towards reforesting the mountain and in the extraction of water from the ground?
Development is considered to be an inherent goal of any individual either within a community or a society. Participation, as a mechanism for influencing decisions that affect the lives of ordinary people, enables every citizen to act in response to public concerns, speak out their mind about issues that affect them and take responsibility for changes to their community.
As already noted in Pick & Choose, government cannot threaten the residents and get away with it. Consulting the community and building consensus was of essence.
With the advent of multiparty democracy, Chaponda and company should have, prior to the abortive launch of the project, organised a special conference to get views, input and contributions from the general public on Mulanje’s socio– economic challenges.
By engaging the general public on the proposed projects, community participating in the decision would have produced many important benefits. The community would have become more sympathetic evaluators of the tough decisions that government officials will have to make. On the other hand, the support from the community would not have created a combative populace to govern and regulate as exemplified by the anger from Mulanje residents.
The enthusiasm that is accorded to the community to participate in conferences is the belief that their involvement in a democracy will produce more public preferred decision making on government officials and also a better appreciation of the larger community.
Through such a forum, numerous participants with a best level of technical and social understanding yield better policy decisions. Thus better social and political outcomes are realised. Nonetheless, through regular contact with the community that may not be engaged in the policy process, government officials learn what policies are likely to be unpopular and they plan in advance on how to avoid such policy failures.
But that was not the case with the community in Mulanje where Chaponda and company’s move was not well grounded in the preferences of the community. Whatever was planned could not be implemented in a smooth fashion for the public appeared more combative.
While government officials that were chased away from Mulanje may learn about one or two things on the legitimacy of their decisions from its citizens, some would build mistrust and hostility towards the community members that may make contributions to the values of openness and democratic accountability that go by the name of transparency.
In fact, transparency encompasses government actors and their decisions. It also encompasses the ability of the public to participate in decisions either through fair representation or direct participation; and the ability to hold government officials accountable to the public opinion when they act in ways that affect people’s interests.
However, not all is lost. Those who are unhappy with Mulanje residents should just discuss with them so that they clarify envisaged solutions. It is through community participation that a community learns how to resolve conflict and allows for different perspectives to be heard.
In that way, learning is promoted and people would be able to help themselves. Issuing threats or acts to injure members of the community will not move Malawi forward both socially, politically and economically.
However, the authorities involved are commended for heeding the plea of the community to reforest the mountain before the commencement of the water project, and government should also plan in earnest to replant trees on and around Chiradzulu Mountain for, the community and Chiradzulu District Hospital would yearn for a similar project.
Regards Heinrich Dzinyemba
A vibrant writer who gives a great insight on hot topics and issues