District commissioners (DCs), who are at the centre of the decentralisation programme, have decried huge staffing gaps in their councils, which they say result in lack of accountability of resources.
We interviewed eight of the 28 DCs in the country. The DCs we talked to are Rodrick Mateauma of Balaka, Bester Mandele (Machinga), Rodney Simwaka(Salima), Thomas Chirwa (M’mbelwa), Grace Chirwa (Chitipa), Lusizi Nhlane (Rumphi), Charles Mwawembe (Likoma) and Felix Mkandawire (Nkhotakota).
Six of the eight DCs said they do not have a director of public works (DoPW), whose mandate is to ensure efficient and quality implementation of construction projects in district councils.
Five said they do not have a monitoring and evaluation officer (M&E) to evaluate the projects and ensure successful implementation.
Four said they do not have an internal auditor to check if funds are being used in line with their intended purposes.
Three said they do not have a director of planning of finance (DoF) to oversee issues pertaining to finances.
Two said they do not have a director of planning and development (DoPD) to oversee the planning and execution of projects in the district council while three do not have a director of administration to coordinate activities of sectors in the council.
Some of the DCs said lack of key personnel to operationalise the devolution process is paralysing services and leading to abuse of resources.
They say the development is creating misallocation of staff, multiple holding of positions which compromises standards of service delivery, officers working too long in acting positions and lack of peer review mechanisms, among others.
There have been reports of rampant abuse of public funds in some councils for Local Development Fund (LDF) District Development Fund (DDF) and Constituency Development Fund (CDF) amounting to over K15 billion, which commentators attribute to capacity gaps in the handling of financial transactions in local councils across the country.
Some 17 sectors have already been devolved where operations such as processing of salaries for teachers and medical personnel are being done at council level.
Following the partial devolution, government in the 2017/18 national Budget allocated K179 billion or about 14 percent of the Budget, according to the Budget statement.
Mateauma, whose council does not have a DoPW, DoPD and an M&E officer said these are key positions designed to facilitate development in a systematic manner.
“We are talking of personnel with high level of expertise. Minus these, there is lack of professionalism because as a stop-gap measure, we use people who are not qualified. At the same time, the officers might be failing to perform their main responsibilities,” he said.
Simwaka, whose council does not have a DoF, DoPW, and M & E officer, said: “We submitted our human resource needs to the ministry. We are still waiting for a response. Meanwhile, our operations are being hampered. Imagine, we have to do projects without professional hands while people expect high standards.”
Chirwa, DC of M’mbelwa, where there is no DoF, DoPW, DoA and M & E, said: “Now we have the District Development Fund (DDF) but without a qualified engineer as a DoPW, this affects the quality of structures produced such as roads, bridges or blocks constructed without professional input from the council.”
The DC for Chitipa bemoaned the absence of a DoA and an M&E officer.
“It is difficult to operate without these key personnel. Apart from the projects that are suffering, we are finding it difficult to coordinate activities without a DoA, and there is no M&E officer who can produce monthly reports,” she said.
Mwawembe said his council is using extension workers as a stop-gap measure yet they need personnel with skills and educational qualifications that match their job descriptions.
Mkandawire lamented over the quality of construction works due to lack of qualified staff. “We have Masaf, DDF, CDF and LDF projects, but we don’t have a DoPW and an M&E who are supposed to plan, execute and evaluate the projects. In the absence of such key staff, we are using a mere building foreman from the Department of Health to do the job. How do we handle these projects without such key people?”
Head of political and administrative studies at Chancellor College, professor Happy Kayuni, in an e-mailed response on Wednesday urged government to address the human resource challenges if it was serious with making decentralisation work in the country.
Said Kayuni: “The Public Service Reforms report, in relation to local councils, recommends “full decentralisation of government functions” and decentralisation is one of the key reform areas for the Malawi public sector. Capacity challenges faced by councils derail the whole reform agenda in local councils and negatively affect service delivery.
“In other words, if government is serious about the decentralisation process in Malawi, then human resource capacity challenges need to be addressed.”
Economics lecturer at the Catholic University (CU), Gilbert Kachamba, described the scenario as a setback on government’s commitment to deal with fraud.
Said Kachamba: “What is happening is a diversion from the norm. The Ministry of Finance should have ensured that there are funds available to recruit competent people into key positions so that they can efficiently utilise public funds.
“Otherwise, reacting when the damage has already been done is not helping us as a country to move forward. In my view, the K179 billion allocated to councils is enormous. There must be an immediate attempt to address these problems before it is too late.”
Department of Human Resource and Management (DHRMD) spokesperson Rudo Kayira, whose department is responsible for recruiting civil servants, in a telephone interview on Tuesday, while acknowledging human resource gaps, pushed back the issue to Local Government Service Commission (Lascom) and Local Government Finance Committee (LGFC).
Local government spokesperson Muhlabase Mughogho, answering our e-mailed questionnaire on Wednesday, said the ministry was moving to address the challenges noted.
“The ministry, under its affiliate institution, Lascom, is currently rationalising and integrating staff at council level. This process entails finding out where and which sectors have more human resources of the same kind. These will be moved to sectors or councils that lack such expertise.
“The process was carried in eight districts and, currently, the process is being carried in the remaining councils. Thereafter, it will be determined where there is need for fresh recruitment,” she said.
However, Mughogho added: “The human resource gap existing in councils may not be able to deliver as required. But the rationalisation and integration process which is currently in process will see to it that this problem comes to an end quickly. The devolution process requires that council members should be aware of what is required of them and that every arm at district level should be in full operation.