Thirty-five former employees of the National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust have sued the organisation for unfair dismissal.
Nice Trust also closed 14 district offices following a restructuring programme.
The dismissed workers argue they were laid off 10 months before the end of the current European Union (EU)-funded programme, and without benefits.
Nice Trust is implementing a 10 million British pounds (about K1.2 billion) five-year programme on Chilungamo (Justice and Accountability), which is ending in 2022.
Nice Trust board chairperson Zolomphi Nkowani, in a telephone interview on Wednesday, said the trust’s lawyers are handling the matter.
“I am constrained to comment because I do not want to prejudice the case. Let us wait for the legal process,” he said.
But, in a response to our questionnaire, the EU head of operations Ivo Hoefkens explained that in 2019, Nice Trust undertook an institutional assessment aimed at repositioning itself to effectively and efficiently deliver on its mandate as it transformed from a project to an established trust.
He said: “The assessment identified a number of areas that required improving, including scaling down and merging of some offices within its operations to ensure its sustainability. These are autonomous management decisions of Nice [Trust].”
Nice was reconstituted as a public trust in 2012 after operating as a project of government funded by the EU since 1999.
Following this change of status, Nice Trust became an independent and autonomous organisation with an independent board of trustees.
Minister of Civic Education and National Unity Timothy Mtambo, in an interview, decried scaling down “considering the organisation’s crucial role of public awareness on critical issues prevailing now”.
He cited the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tonse Alliance policies such as Agenda 2063 and the fight against corruption.
However, Mtambo said his ministry is lobbying Treasury for additional funding to Nice Trust, as it is high time government prioritised civic education in the country.
Explained Mtambo: “Civic education is not cheap, all MDAs [ministries, departments and agencies] have a civic education component. The ministry recently launched Malawi National Civic Education Policy, which is a document to harmonise all civic education activities and Nice Trust is instrumental in implementing that. Now with this downsizing what are the chances of this policy succeeding?”
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) national coordinator Boniface Chibwana also feared the development will compromise civic education at a time there are several emerging issues in the governance sector such as the Access to Information Act and Covid-19 vaccine that need constant interactions with masses.
He said this is the time the trust was supposed to up its engagement initiatives and not downsizing.
“We also implore government to increase its subvention to Nice Trust so that in the event that donors pull out like is the case now, issues of civic engagement should not be hugely affected,” said Chibwana.