Participatory democracy and governance at council level is under threat of ‘State capture’ as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have technically taken over the running of local authorities, The Nation has established.
NGOs have become key financiers of ‘extraordinary’ council meetings in many district councils, setting the development and governance agenda that suits their interests as government is unable to fund the council meetings.
A Malawi Councillors Capacity Building Programme from 2014 to 2016 six months progress report The Nation has seen, Women’s Legal Resource Centre (Wolrec) found that there was significant ‘anecdotal’ evidence that full council meetings were not being held in the districts as required by law.
Instead, the report notes, NGOs and other organisations are financing ‘extra-ordinary’ council policies or campaigns. meetings to promote particular
When in full operations, councillors are expected to formulate policy for the council to empower the Executive machinery to execute the policy formulated by the council, to receive and submit progress reports, to discuss emerging issues affecting people resident in the district and to monitor and evaluate council business.
Reads the Wolrec report in part: “These ‘extra-ordinary’ meetings do not require the service committees to be fed into them. Therefore, the service committees are often infrequent. The councillors expressed considerable frustration that they could not properly carry out their role, particularly in scrutinising budgets and service delivery, as there was not a proper schedule of meetings. Quantitative research is required to map the scale of this problem across the country.”
The report also talked about councillors’ relationship with members of Parliament (MPs), observing that it remains a clear area of tension, particularly around the Constituency Development Fund (CDF).
“There was also discussion about the demand by [political] party officials for elected councillors to favour party members when allocating the Local Development Fund [LDF]. Councillors also raised their disquiet that council papers are often tabled at meetings, not giving them any time to properly scrutinise them, and the annual budget is prepared by the secretariat with little or no input from elected councillors,” reads the report.
Wolrec programme officer Loma Mtema confirmed the findings in the report, saying it was true that most councils’ meetings were held “just” to approve or accept NGOs’ new projects.
In an e-mailed response, she said: “Councils are not meeting as expected as most councils have no funding. They cannot call for council meetings as a result they just get feedback on what NGOs are doing in the district and approve NGOs coming in the district.
“This is dangerous for the council as council business is never discussed apart from just announcements during such meetings on their issues and full business belongs to NGOs.”
Blantyre district commissioner Charles Kalemba said it was true that district councils are financially incapacitated, but said the challenges are not only limited to the councils.
He said so far, in the last financial year, the council only managed to hold two full council meetings and failed to meet the required four council meetings a year.
Lilongwe City Council (LCC)
nhas had eight full council meetings and six extra-ordinary meetings since the voting in of councillors in the May 20 2014 Tripartite Elections, according to LCC spokesperson Tamara Chafunya who said the meetings were supported financially by the secretariat.
The Nation has found out that government has not yet funded the council since December last year. One NGO indicated that in one district council they got a budget of over K1 million for an extraordinary meeting.
University of Malawi
(Unima) political scientist Boniface Dulani described the development, that local councils are becoming dependent on NGOs to finance their activities, as unfortunate and worrisome.
He said the development gives enormous power to NGOs to not only influences the agenda of local councils, but also to dictate the trajectory of local development, a deviation from the democratic norms that councils were supposed to serve.
Said Dulani: “While both councils and NGOs seek to advance the welfare of the people, the current situation means the views of the unelected NGO community is dominating, with the possibility of suffocating the views of the ordinary citizens at the local level.”
Malawi Local Government Association (Malga) said what they know was that councils fund their own meetings and that NGOs may request that they be
given time to present their issues.
“We have never heard of a situation where NGOs fund such meetings solely to drive their agenda. When an NGO has been given space to present its issues at the council meetings, the NGOs
may support the meeting with some issues like refreshments if the NGOs can manage to do that. However, that’s out of the NGO’s goodwill,” said Charles Chunga, Malga president.
However, he said the frequency of holding meetings may differ from one council to another because of a number of reasons including the availability of finances and that government does not allocate money specifically to cover full council meetings or indeed any meetings of the council.
Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development spokesperson Muhlabase Mughohgo said all councils were expected to meet quarterly for their ordinary council meetings to discuss issues concerning their councils.
She said: “However, the ministry is well aware that some councils are operating under severe financial constraints. The ministry together with National Local Government Finance Committee is working hard in assisting councils to find local revenue enhancement strategies.”