On Wednesday 11th April 2018 the Parliamentary Committee on Social and Community Affairs took a swipe at non-governmental organisation (NGOs) for spending a lot of development finances on projects for which there are no evident results in the communities. The irking followed the committee’s oversight tour of duty to Nsanje and Chikwawa districts. The committee hypothesized that the money does not trickle down to the people, meaning that it is eaten up in the transaction costs of delivering the projects.
Of course, NGOs have their fair share of sleaze, waste and transaction costs. However, the blame for development ineffectiveness cannot be exclusively theirs. The situation is a more direct indictment of the ineffectiveness of the state’s regulatory quality to ensure development results. It is a governance problem predicated on weak accountability mechanisms for development performance. Governance indicators for a decade or more, persistently show that government effectiveness and regulatory quality in Malawi are negligible, and that while there is a semblance of voice by citizens, it does not achieve significant gains in accountable or responsive governance. Parliamentarians need to see the larger picture—the forest rather than individual trees and then they will rediscover their missing role in accounting for development resources and results.
The breadth, depth and severity of rural poverty in this country is less due to lack of development finance than governance institutional failures and perverted incentives of a whole range of actors including some NGO personnel, politicians and bureaucrats at all levels. Our systems for tracking resources and harnessing them to maximise impact are in a state of disarray and perpetually dysfunctional. For example, in the current set up, we simply do not know how much total investment is done in primary education in any given year or district. The easiest figures to mention are from the National Budget. However, this leaves out a lot of resources, much more than the allocation in the National budget, that gets spent on primary education.
To illustrate the point, consider the following situation about Dowa district. A recent mapping of NGO programmes and resources found that total 2018 NGO budget for the district is K3.7 billion with Traditional Authority (T/A) Chakhaza having the highest NGO allocation at K1.2 billion and T/A Dzoole having the lowest at K207 million. Contrast this with only K1.5 billion that government has allocated Dowa district council to finance all public services. Evidently, a significant amount of resources is actually available at district level from the NGOs for the development agenda. The key questions: What mechanisms has Parliament instituted through legislation to ensure effective planning and coordinating through which resources could be spread across the district and allocated to address game-changer interventions; or to ensure that NGO programming responds to District Development Plans without duplication of efforts and resources? In the absence of such mechanisms and relevant periodic reports, how can we account fully for development effectiveness of the resources?
Furthermore, NGOs are legally obliged by law to submit to the NGO Board annual program and financial reports. Reports of the NGO Board indicate that compliance rate for International NGOs, a very important conduit of international development finance, is as low as 25 percent, thereby hindering probity and effective accountability for development results. For 2016, 10 per cent of randomly selected international NGOs had an annual total audited programming expenditure of K202 billion. This shows that there are even more resources from the remaining 90 percent. But how does Parliament relate with the NGO Board to access useful information to shore up the game of accountability for development results? What does parliament, in its oversight role, do to ensure that the NGO Board functions as intended by law to ensure NGO accountability without being an intrusive and destructive policing entity for NGOs? How does the Ministry of Finance (Development Cooperation Section) which records aid from development partners collaborate with the NGO Board to reconcile figures and provide a more accurate amount and expenditure allocations of international development finance in the country?
Overall, the roles of the NGO Board, Local Government Councils, Parliament and parts of the Executive branch of Government in ensuring accountability for development resources and results are minimal. As a country we are not in a position to effectively and adequately account for development resources and results. The blame is more with state institutions than with the NGOs. This is one aspect of Malawi’s indictment of weak institutions have that have the right forms and appearances but their functionality is far too sub-optimal.
*Henry Chingaipe is a governance and development specialist.