The closure of the UNHabitat country office has sent government and some NGOs panicking over the future of urbanisation, human settlement projects as well as disaster risk management programmes in flood prone areas.
The agency, which opened an office in Malawi in 2006, was supporting urbanisationrelated programmes such as slum upgrading across cities, policy formulation and implementation as well as disaster risk reduction mostly targeting flood prone areas.
UN acting resident coordinator Florence Rolle told Nation on Sunday in an e-mailed response that the closure of the office was a decision made at the highest level due to budgetary constraints: “Since 2014, over 20 country offices have closed. The Malawi office is closing as part of the scale down.”
But Principal Secretary for Lands, Housing and Urban Development Charles Msosa, whose ministry has been working hand-in-hand with UN-Habitat in areas of urbanisation and human settlement, bemoaned the closure of the office.
“It is sad that the UN-Habitat has closed shop. Yes, it could be a global decision affecting a number of countries, but I thought we needed more support considering our needs. Unfortunately, we cannot do anything about it. We wished we maintained the office, but how? The government resource envelope cannot bear such a cost,” he said.
UN-Habitat has been working with government and city councils in slum upgrading through improvement of housing facilities and was providing water and sanitation support in densely populated areas such as Mtandire, Mchesi and Chinsapo in Lilongwe and Salisbury Lines in Mzuzu.
Between 2015 and 2017, up to 30 000 primary school learners and 21 000 community members in Mzuzu and Karonga had access to improved toilets either in homes, schools, health facilities and markets courtesy of the UNHabitat which also improved sanitation in densely populated low income settlements in Lilongwe, according to a UN Habitat projects report produced this year.
In 2013, UN-Habitat constructed a multi-million evacuation centre in Chikwawa which provides shelter to hundreds of flood displaced people and director for Disaster and Risk Reduction, James Chiusiwa, described the decision to close the Malawi office as unfortunate.
“Malawi has become a disaster prone country due to climate change and the UNHabitat has been a willing and supportive partner. With donor fatigue facing the country, the agency was a trusted partner, Malawi has lost,” he said.
According to Chiusiwa, incidents of urban disasters such as floods in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and the 2010 earthquakes in Karonga, forced the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma), with support from UN Habitat, to tackle urban vulnerability to disaster, a development which is likely to be affected with the closure of the office.
He, however, could not quantify the support government would not access following the closure of the office. Deputy director of Urban Development Mercy Dube described the closure of the office as a blow to Malawi. She said apart from the technical support, the office was a link between Malawi and the UN as well as several other donors.
“We have managed to develop plans to tackle urbanisation and town planning with support from this office. This will affect the flow of funding and support from donors that we were linked to through UN-Habitat,” lamented Dube.
She said her department is currently working on a new urban policy and implementation of the New Urban Agenda, which may be impeded by funding constraints in the absence of the country office.
Zomba City Council, which benefited from an Urban Slum Upgrading project to address the issue of unplanned housing and settlement in the old capital, according to the council’s spokesperson, Mercy Chaluma, might be negatively affected by the closure of the UN agency.
Kelvin Kalonga, national director of Habitat for Humanity, a local NGO which is among the major beneficiaries of UNHabitat, admitted that some of their work will suffer due to the closure of the office.
Blantyre-Based Concerned Youth Organisation executive director Harvey Chimaliro said they are shocked at the closure of the agency.
He said from 2010-2012, his organisation implemented a yearlong project aimed at equipping youths of Blantyre City with basic computer skills with support from UH-Habitat.
I may not give you a concrete amount but believe me it’s a lot of money that has come to us through this office. We are talking of funding our trips to international trainings and conferences and locally, too, facilitating capacity building programmes. All this is money which if well calculated we could be talking of billions of kwacha lost,” said Chimaliro.
Despite voices of concern, the UN downplayed the impact of the closure, saying Malawi will continue to benefit through the regional office in Nairobi as was the case before the establishment of the office in 2006. “It must be noted that the closure of the office in Malawi does not mean that UN-Habitat has stopped its engagement with Malawi.
UN-Habitat will continue its engagement with Malawi under different modalities such as working through other existing resident UN agencies. UN-Habitat recognises the importance of supporting Malawi to move forward the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda,” said Rolle But some sources felt the assurance from the UN resident coordinator in Malawi is simply meant not to raise alarm of what is at stake after closure of the office.