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Hampering maternal, infant mortality fight

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By Christian Juma, Contributor:

APOLOGISED – Chioni

Patients and expectant women will have to wait a little longer for them to start accessing health and maternity services at Thelele and Hara health posts in Chitipa and Karonga districts, respectively.

The cause is a familiar one. The upgrading of the two facilities to health centres has delayed due to financial and contractual mess exposed by Public Expenditure Tracking (Pet) Focal Teams.

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Investigations by the teams have revealed that plunder and mismanagement of public funds and failure by council officials to monitor and supervise construction works at the two facilities have led to contractors abandoning the projects.

Thelele Pet Focal Team’s report has exposed flaws on how the Project Implementation Committee (Pic) mismanaged the K19 million community managed socio-economic project (Comsep)-funded Thelele Health Post in Traditional Authority (T/A) Wavikaza in Chitipa District.

If completed, the health post would have been upgraded to a fully-fledged health centre to enable expectant mothers reduce the 25-kilometre distance that they cover in search of prenatal services at Nthalire Health Centre.

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According to Thelele Pet Focal Team Secretary, Chrispin Munthali, their investigations have revealed that identifying a contractor was not procedural as the contractor was just handpicked by chiefs, leaving out those who submitted bids.

The report further revealed that the contractor, who charged K6.5 million as his payment which represents about 34 percent of the K17 million, overcharged and contravened the percentage that a contractor charges on projects of this nature. To worsen the situation, the contractor did not complete construction works after the initial agreed nine months (March to November).

“The initial amount was K20.7 million for Thelele Area Development Committee (ADC). So, five percent was deducted as the Council’s administrative fee to monitor and supervise the project, leaving us with K19 million. However, the project stalled without a single visit from any official from the District Council,” Munthali claims.

He recalls that the first withdrawal of K7 million for building materials was done with the blessing of the whole committee while the second withdrawal of K10 million was done by the Pic chairperson, Happy Chioni, without the knowledge of the Pic secretary and treasurer and it was not accounted for.

The report goes on to say that the council rented out K2 million to Kamene ADC without the knowledge of Thelele Pic committee members.

When asked to explain the expenditure of the K10 million, Chioni just apologised to the ADC and Pet committee members for the mess.

Wilton Sichinga, a former Pic treasurer said the matter has to be investigated further and so that everyone involved should be brought to book and for the mismanaged money to be recovered so that the project can be completed.

The contractor for Thelele Health Centre justified the K6.5 million he charged, saying he did not know the committee’s K17 million budget and attributed the delay to beat the deadline to the community’s delay to supply him with building materials such as sand, iron sheets and doors for the facility.

While that is the case in Chitipa, in Karonga District, if you ask Maria Munthali, 25, of Bonje Village in T/A Wasambo when she will conceive, the answer is simple.

“When the maternity wing at Hara Health Centre is functional,” she says.

Sadly, it is not known when authorities will put resources together to finish the building whose construction works began in 2017 with K4 million from the Constituency Development Fund (CDF).

Wasambo ADC Chairperson, Happy Ndovie, says the project stalled at window level and that efforts to make a follow-up yielded nothing as a politician allegedly single-handedly sourced the services of the contractor with whom he shares political affiliations.

The politician denies the allegations and instead says the council was responsible for hiring the contractor. One year later, the project was resuscitated through the K19 million Comsep Fund that the ADC got from the council.

However, according to the report, the funds were abused again and the same contractor that the community was against was imposed on them.

Unlike at Thelele Health Post, the building at Hara is big, spacious and reportedly worth the K19 million.

However, Wasambo Pet Focal Team chairperson, Barclea Nyasulu, says their investigations found that procurement procedures were flouted since there was no bidding as stipulated in the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Act and that several glitches were noted on the bill of quantity (BoQ).

“On the BoQ, it is indicating that they bought brick-force wire but in real sense it was not bought. It also shows that 335 bags of cement were purchased, yet the receipt shows 250 bags. Council officials also never monitored the project despite getting five percent administrative fee,” Nyasulu’s report says in part.

Karonga District Council Director of Planning and Development, Clement Chunga, said Comsep-funded projects were highly politicised and that as a result, some procedures were ignored to expedite the construction works.

“In essence, the money was supposed to be channelled into the ADC’s account to enable the Pic buy building materials, provide training for the community three times on how to manage funds and the project. Unfortunately, they had one training exercise only,” Chunga said.

On his part, Karonga District Council Chairperson of the Finance Committee, Councillor Belliam Msukwa, said his committee will discuss with his fellow councillors to use part of the K91 million District Development Fund to complete the project as one way of reducing maternal deaths in the area.

Governance commentator Makhumbo Munthali heaped the blame on authorities such as the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development for apparently failing to punish those who fail to fulfil their duties.

“ADCs should raise those issues up and hold those officers accountable, otherwise we have a system that fails to punish officers who abuse public resources and instead they effect transfers which, to me, is a licence to keep on mismanaging funds wherever they are posted to,” Munthali said.

Karonga Diocese’s Justice and Peace Health Governance Project Coordinator, Obert Mkandawire, whose institution is implementing an Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa project in the two districts also described the developments as unfortunate.

Mkandawire further bemoaned the delay by the government to operationalise the Access to Information Act that was assented to by the President Peter Mutharika in 2017, saying it is another setback as community members are failing to get vital information on various projects.

Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Mark Botomani, in an interview, said the process to have the ATI Act operationalised is complete and that the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the meeting for stakeholders to regulate the Act.

But as things stand today, Thelele and Hara health posts are failing to optimally offer maternal health services because of acts which would be addressed if everyone involved in the projects did their job right.

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