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Ward councillors: Another governance betrayal?

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KALIYA—There is a lot that needs to be done

Hope for an end to plunder of public resources at Dedza District Council is fading away very fast among the people surrounding Chitowo Health Centre in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kaphuka in Dedza.

At least 110 villages, which are scattered far and wide, access their healthcare services at the facility.

For decades, people from Magwaza Village could not take their sick relatives to the health centre because of Chitowo river that lies between it and the facility.

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The people in the area pleaded with their ward councillor and Member of Parliament (MP) to do something about it as a matter of urgency.

The councillor presented the issue to the council, which, in response, allocated K15 million towards the construction of the bridge.

But the villagers are discontented.

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“We feel robbed. Look at the rickety bridge the contractor gave us for K15 million. Is this fair?” asks Group Village Head (GVH) Magwaza.

Magwaza doubts the management of the whole project. He believes that officials at Dedza District Council mismanaged the project, that compromised workmanship on the bridge.

“Otherwise, how could they pay him such a huge amount of money for a substandard work?” he wonders.

Chitowo Bridge is just one example of how councils have abused public resources at the expense of poor Malawians.

A recent Auditor General’s report shows that taxpayers’ money amounting to over K100 billion has been lost due to corruption and fraudulent payments made from public funds in government ministries, departments and agencies from the last five annual audit reports.

The audits, from 2013 to 2019, are the ones that the Office of the Auditor General has been presenting to the Ministry of Finance and the National Assembly.

The K100 billion lost in these financial years means that, on average, the country is losing about K20 billion every year due to corruption and cartels fuelled by leaky government processes.

According to Malawi News calculations, the K100 billion lost in five financial years was enough to build 30 Community Day Secondary Schools with hostels, laboratories, books and staff houses.

Again, K100 billion is enough to support 150,000 needy students per year in public and private universities.

The same amount is also enough to procure drugs for all the district hospitals and health centres in the country for five years.

President Peter Mutharika – speaking when he met officials from Malawi Local Government Authority – acknowledged the increased lack of transparency and accountability in management of funds in councils.

“There are increasing levels of abuse of resources. Yes, theft and corruption in councils. And I would like to say, this needs to be stopped as soon as possible,” Mutharika said.

But it is the people of Magwaza and other villages across the country that are baffled more with the unrelenting evaporation of money from the public coffers.

Village Head Loti Chisambi of T/A M’mbelwa in Mzimba says at the height of the campaign to bring back ward councillors, voters were told the councillors were a solution to the abuse of public resources.

The elected ward councillors were touted as advocates of community participation in development under the decentralisation reforms in Malawi.

The councillors, it was said, would promote efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery and curb corruption in councils.

This, according to Loti Chisambi, raised hope among citizens that there will be an end to high-level corruption in councils.

“Thus, we, the ordinary citizens, could not expect the plunder of public resources to continue to thrive in councils as ward councillors watched. But the opposite is happening today. So, who should we blame today?” asks the chief.

In its latest baseline survey, Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre (MHRRC) found that lack of skills and knowledge in budget analysis and tracking among ward councillors and traditional leaders is the major contributing factor to incessant abuse of resources in councils.

In fact, MHRRC Executive Director, Emma Kaliya, warns that the free-for-all plunder of public resources will continue thriving unless ward councillors and traditional leaders have their capacity built to track budget and public expenditure.

The situation prompted MHRRC to source financial support from Danish Church Aid (DCA) to implement a project, which aims at enhancing citizen voice and action in local governance and development projects.

The project is targeting district councils, ward councillors, District Executive Committees, Area Development Committees, Village Development Committees, Area Executive Committees, Health Advisory Committees, community-based organizations and civil society networks.

Kaliya says the major goal of the Active Citizenship Project, which is under implementation in Dowa and Ntchisi, is to contribute towards accessible quality social service delivery, increased representation of women and youths in leadership and that women and youths have increased incomes and access productive resources.

Kaliya discloses that orientation of ward councillors and chiefs on available windows of funding at district councils and their role in tracking implementation of the various development projects in their respective areas is one of the major activities under the project.

“During the orientation workshop for ward councillors and chiefs from Dowa and Ntchisi, it was observed that there is a lot that needs to be done to fully capacitate the councillors and chiefs on their role in budget and public expenditure tracking. The councillors do not seem to understand most processes and they also do not have knowledge about other documents they are supposed to access and study so that they discharge their duties well,” she says.

Kaliya adds that the poor relationship between councillors and Members of Parliament is another problem that continues to hinder progress in most areas.

Hence, one of the activities MHRRC will do under the project is to monitor adherence of implementation of service standards and build the capacity of rights holders in accountability approaches.

Dowa District Council chairperson Martin Luka Phiri says the skills and knowledge they gained from the orientation workshop they attended at Mponela recently will enable councillors embrace a different approach when discharging their duties.

Phiri further discloses that the training had enhanced their understanding of budgetary and developmental issues.

“I can promise that our ward residents will see change from us,” he says.

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