wenty-three years ago, decentralisation promised local authorities and their citizens a lot—more money, reduced poverty, more power and autonomy to set their agenda.
But interviews with senior council officials, policy-makers, development experts as well as our review of studies and reports on decentralisation show that more than two decades later, devolution has barely lived up to expectations.
We have established that Capital Hill has failed to transfer the stipulated five percent of the national budget to councils—only managing to provide half of it—according to Financial Managers Network (FNM), a loose grouping of all directors of finance in councils.
Poverty levels have worsened, with the World Bank projecting that around 70 percent of the population in Malawi currently lives below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day per capita at 2011 purchasing power parity.
This poverty rate is 7.5 percent higher than the 65 percent recorded in 1998—the year Malawi embarked on the devolution journey.
Governance and efficiency expectations have also not made headway, with the National Audit Office (NAO) reports consistently showing rising wasteful spending, fraud and corruption in the councils.
Another blow to decentralisation is that Capital Hill still clings to the bulk of the powers and responsibilities it should have relinquished to local authorities; continues to impose supply-driven development approaches instead of demand-centric ones developed by communities through local governance structures.
Policy vs reality
On paper, and in line with the Decentralisation Policy of 1998, councils are supposed to make all decisions on local governance and development.
Further, the policy expects local councils to promote local democratic institutions, democratic participation as well as spearhead infrastructural and economic development through district development plans.
But the 2018 Decentralisation Road Map developed by Professor Asiatu Chiweza, who has done extensive research on decentralisation and local governance in Malawi, notes that central government’s resistance to devolve powers as per policy has left local authorities disempowered on their stated mandate.
Furthermore, two successive National Decentralisation Programme Review Reports (NDP 1 and 2) have consistently reminded government of the need to relinquish powers and responsibilities to councils, but not much progress has been made.
The second NDP review report released six years ago—covering the period 2005–2013—recommended that the central government amend the 2010 Local Government Act; allow councils to recruit all staff members and desist from imposition of development.
The 2010 Act expanded central government powers over local authorities, which analysts say reverses decentralisation efforts.
The amendment in 2017, allows members of Parliament (MPs)—who only used to be observers in council meetings—to have voting powers in local councils.
Professor Happy Kayuni, who teaches public administration at the University of Malawi, observed in an interview that such manipulation of political systems have made it harder for councils to gain control of power necessary for their survival and to enable them to provide better services to their communities.
He also looks at the amendment that gives parliamentarians a vote on council affairs as clear evidence of how Capital Hill works to frustrate decentralisation.
“In all fairness, why should we have MPs at council level? The first arrangement, where they were more of observers, was not conducive, and now to give them even more powers [voting] is literally undermining the authority of the local government.
“Let there be separation of powers. Why are councillors not in Parliament? The same reason should justify why MPs must not be part of councils,” argued Kayuni.
Another recommendation in the NDP review reports was to allow the Local Government Service Commission to be a stand-alone body, away from the armpits of the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, so that it focuses on recruitment and disciplining of council employees.
But, up to date, all senior council staff from the position of director are centrally appointed and are answerable to Capital Hill, which affects the autonomy of the local authorities in terms of accountability and decision-making.
Professionals under director level, but deployed from various ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) have dual reporting lines.
They are answerable to both the council and their respective MDAs, a situation one of the district commissioners we talked to said shows insufficient commitment to devolution.
“We have officers that are ceremoniously part of the council when, in fact, they belong to the central government. They are deployed to serve the respective MDAs. So, this is not decentralisation. What must happen is that all these staff members must be under councils and report to councils,” said the DC, who asked not to be named.
NDP review reports have also questioned why chiefs, who are major players in local development, are centrally managed when their administration is supposed to be a function of the local councils.
“We noted that the management of chiefs consumed significant financial resources of Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development at the expense of its other key functions such as implementing the decentralisation programme,” reads part of the report, which recommended that this function be decentralised to councils.
University of Malawi lecturer in political science and administrative studies Professor Mustapha Hussein, who has written extensively on decentralisation, observed that placing administration of chiefs under the central government is another way of exerting influence over councils.
He argues that the central government, which includes the Executive and the Legislature, consider local governments a threat to their power; hence, using every means to hold on to such powers.
The decentralisation policy blueprint makes it clear that local authorities should be in charge of education, health services, and public infrastructure such as roads, community halls, stadia construction and street naming, among other functions. Despite this clear cut of responsibilities, central government still has a tight grip on these functions.
While the policy mandates councils to be responsible for infrastructure and local development, such powers have largely been usurped by the central government—reducing councils to spectators of the development they ought to manage.
For example, Capital Hill has been imposing development projects on communities when decentralisation, according to Professor Kayuni, is supposed to take a bottom-up approach model in which the demand comes from beneficiaries depending on their identified needs, not simply supplied on whims of government.