Chitipa South legislator Welani Chilenga’s motion to put Constituency Development Fund (CDF) firmly under parliamentarians’ grip has reignited accountability questions over the most abused kitty for local development. This rekindles a longstanding conflict between legislators and councils over the spending of CDF. How best can this be managed? Our News Analyst SUZGO CHITETE speaks to Associate Professor Asiatu Chiweza from Chancellor College’s Department of Adminstrative and Political Studies. Chiweza has done studies on CDF and decentralisation.
Tell me more about your experience in local government and decentralisation affairs.
A: I speak from a position of research evidence and information documented in various Malawi Government audit reports. I have done studies relating to the CDF since 2012 when I was commissioned by the National Local Government Finance Committee to review the fund. In 2014, I was a member of the team that evaluated the National Decentralisation Programme and in 2015, I conducted a Political Economy Analysis of Accountability for Resources and Results in Local Government Councils under the commission of Tilitonse Foundation.
: From the studies you have done, what are the sticky issues with CDF?
: In all these studies, what has come out very clearly is that except for a few constituencies, the story of the CDF in many districts is littered with stories of abuse, politicisation of development projects by members of Parliament and the deepest deficit of accountability both for the money and for the results.
Since its introduction, various stakeholders, including the National Audit Office, have raised concerns over the mismanagement of the CDF, including the identification, implementation and monitoring of projects, quality of projects, procurement processes, and accounting for project activities.
Due to continuous complaints from stakeholders about the CDF, the Secretary to Treasury commissioned an internal audit exercise in the 2016/2017 financial year in line with the provisions of the Public Finance Management Act. A total of 16 local councils were audited. They included 12 district councils and two city councils. The audit covered transactions for the 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 financial years which had a disbursement of about K1.9 billion for the 16 councils. You may wish to know that the findings of this internal audit exercise are not different from the previous studies on CDF. This audit also found many challenges mostly in issues of procurement of materials, maintenance of records on CDF usage as well as well questions surrounding the quality of some of the CDF projects. Yet, nothing has been done to this day to bring the culprits to book.
Q: What are your thoughts on a recent report by a committee of Parliament which accused councils of mismanaging CDF and proposed that there should be CDF desk officers recruited for effective management of the fund?
A: The suggestion to recruit CDF desk officers for effective management of CDF may not be the solution. It is quite cosmetic and it does not deal with the root causes behind the abuse and accountability challenges affecting CDF.
Q: Though the motion has been withdrawn, Chitipa South lawmaker Chilenga suggested that the Minister of Finance should transfer CDF resources from councils to the National Assembly – to improve on management. Could this be a possible solution to CDF woes?
A: The private member’s motion and the suggestion that the Minister of Finance should transfer all the CDF resources from the councils to the National Assembly with effect from the 2021/22 financial year does not solve the accountability challenges dogging CDF. This is indeed a threat to the devolution of powers espoused in the Decentralisation Policy which Parliament itself adopted in 1998.
By being part of the voted expenditure in the National Budget, CDF is supposed to be governed and regulated by the Malawi Public Finance Management Regulatory Framework, which includes the Public Finance Management Act of 2003, the Procurement Act, and the Audit Act of 2003. Being public funds meant to facilitate local development subjects them to local governments as cost centres and the local governments are supposed to be accountable for how they utilise resources assigned to them within the legal frameworks governing the management of public funds. District commissioners and chief executives of councils are, therefore, supposed to control the disbursement of funds and are accountable to Parliament for all local authority votes.
Although this appears to be common sense, accountability on CDF is heavily compromised because of vested interests of powerful actors in the districts.
Q: Are MPs justified to have a bigger say on CDF because it is their own fund?
Due to the fact that the introduction of CDF was negotiated and initiated by the MPs themselves, there is a perception that this is a special fund that belongs to the legislators for them to assist communities without too many controls and regulations. This seems to have created a control and ownership dilemma in many local authorities.
As a result, many district commissioners, chief executives and other officers have tended to exercise their controlling functions cautiously for fear of the repercussions.
MPs also have over the years resisted any scrutiny and discussion of CDF financial and progress reports by local authority structures, yet as voting members of Councils they are supposed to be promoting accountability of all local government resources.
Our studies have also shown that some DCs and chief executives are also culprits in this abuse circus as they sometimes collaborate with directors of finance to utilise project funds such as CDF and DDF for other operational purposes, mainly subsistence allowances and fuel against stipulated rules and regulations.
There is no need to play the blame game in this matter. Both Malga and the National Assembly should be interested in ensuring that the scarce taxpayers’ resources are being used prudently to deliver tangible development results for Malawians. Malawians are tired of singing the same song about the CDF year in and out. The immediate solution for this is first to bring to book both MPs and Council officers who abuse CDF and other local development funds.n