Some people have argued that the country would be wasting money holding Local Government Elections because the work of councillors is ably being implemented by MPs who have Constituency Development Fund, assisted by traditional leaders who receive a monthly honorarium. Anthony Kasunda spoke to political analyst Dr Henry Chingaipe who holds a different view.
Q: How do you analyse this scenario where all other agents of development are well rewarded while a councillor is not given real motivation to drive development?
A: In so far as compensation is concerned, councillors are treated unfairly as councillorship is effectively treated as a charity position. Yet their positions and expected roles are the most crucial for effective transformational participation of the ordinary people in governance and development processes. The lack of a clear compensation policy and practice gives the impression that of all the public sector development actors at local government levels, councillors are the least important. If, as a country, we are serious about broadening and deepening democratisation through effective local government, there is an urgent need for the Local Government Service Commission to put in place a scheme of reasonable incentives for councillors.
Q: With this kind of attitude towards councillors, do you think government is serious about getting quality representation in local councils or we just want to fulfil the constitutional requirement to have councillors in place?
A: My view is that, as a country, we have not been serious enough with building a local government system based on devolution of political authority from the central government. Those who hold power at the centre have continued to look at local government only as a system of field administration and not necessarily as a mechanism of sharing political power and Executive decision-making. While there have been some administrative reforms to support the decentralisation process, it is my view that these have largely achieved de-concentration of central government functions.Â
Unless the incentive scheme for councillors is revisited and made more realistic before the elections in 2014, the elections may simply satisfy the political demand for local elections and may help the JB administration to gain political mileage without necessarily transforming the practice of local government.
Q: There is only about one year to the tripartite elections, is there enough time to do structural reforms?
A: One year may or may not be enough. It depends on the nature of reforms being considered; the processes of enacting those reforms, the nature of interests of key stakeholders in the reforms and what they can actually do to veto or frustrate the reforms. For instance, reviewing the conditions of service for councillors can be done within the year especially if Parliament can quickly deal with the proposals when they are presented there. Other reforms, such as clearly delineating the scope of work between Members of
Parliament and councillors and the role of chiefs, and legislating on these, may take longer and may go beyond 2014. Yet, without serious reconsideration of these aspects of local government, the current drive may actually end in futility as it will simply be business as usual.
Q: MPs are given constituency development allowance in millions. Donâ€™t you think there is duplication of roles since councillors are also supposed to drive development although they have no independent resources since MPs and chiefs also have a vote in the council?
A: I do not think that the Constituency Development Fund [CDF] does, in any way, project a duplication of roles between councillors and Members of Parliament. In my view, the CDF provides a mechanism for achieving minimum levels of equity in the allocation of development resources across all constituencies. It, therefore, helps to mitigate the public perception that development resources were given only to constituencies where sitting Members of Parliament belonged to or supported ruling parties. At the local level, the CDF provides a real opportunity for cultivating a healthy working relationship between Members of Parliament and councillors whose wards fall within the constituencies. Thus, development planning and execution is expected to be a shared responsibility. Furthermore, the rules governing CDF only give Members of Parliament a leadership and not necessarily a controlling role. In that sense, a constituency is only a variable that is used for allocating resources by Parliament and does not make the CDF an independent source of development finance for the MP. In fact, the CDF and the Local Development Fund are useful programmes for building the capacity of local development structures such as the area and village development committees for development management at grass roots level.
Furthermore, under the Local Government Act, MPs and chiefs do not have voting rights in the local assemblies. Voting is reserved for the elected councillors only. However, the absence of councillors for a long time has created opportunities in which officials at the local assemblies have often turned to MPs and chiefs to endorse or make certain decisions that should have been made by councillors. This is a systemic anomaly but that is what the practice has been.
Q: Should government revise councillor allowances and can Malawiâ€™s economy support such an initiative?
A: My view is that the entire compensation package for councillors should be reviewed and improved if we have to make serious headway into grass roots democratisation, good governance and sustainable development management. If councillorship should be deemed a full time job, I would suggest provision of a salary in addition to any other allowances that may be deemed legitimate for public servants of their cadre.
Q: What do you think is the best way forward?
A: I think that the most important thing is to rediscover our local government aspirations that are founded on broadening and deepening representative and participatory democracy as well as meaningful grassroots involvement in development management. These aspirations are attainable most effectively within a decentralisation framework that is founded on devolution. Unless we refocus on devolution (away from administrative de-concentration), the local government system will continue to be somewhat stuck in mid gear as has been the case in the recent past or we shall simply consolidate a defective local governance system that does not serve the interests of democracy and development.