Thursday, March 12, 2015

Councillors' struggle to Tame Local Government Challenges: The Case of Malawi

Ever since his election in the May 20, 2014 Local Government Elections, Balaka District Council chairperson Patrick Botomani has become a man haunted by the daily struggle to fill the gulf between post-victory euphoria and the nudging reality of resource and material constraints plaguing his office.
Indeed, since he turned his back on his professional work to contest as Shire Ward Councillor in Balaka Central East Constituency some 15 months ago, he has discovered that some things are better said than done.
“I and fellow councillors have discovered that we need more than hope to carry our development agenda forward. At the moment, we have more needs than resources can permit, and, in some cases, you find that even basic resources, including booklets guiding the operations of Council committees, are not there, and this has a negative bearing on our work,” says Botomani.
Botomani says the council’s eight committees have no booklets guiding their operations. These include Finance, Education, Agriculture, Works, Development, Planning, Health committees, among others.
“Due to lack of these resources, councillors have been left with knowledge gaps and are, therefore, failing to monitor expenditure in crucial sectors such as health. Due to lack of knowledge as well as failure to understand these things, we ended up querying the District Health Office when we learned that the office was spending K41 million on travel (budget) and K25 million on the purchase of food items. We said, ‘Why spend less on food than on travel?’” says Botomani, adding:
“It is only through training sessions facilitated by non-state actors that we have come to understand the importance of, say, monitoring and budget tracking. For instance, we now realise that the food is for patients’ consumption only, and there are other players that assist, while travel expenses cater for so many expenditure lines, including ambulances, officials’ fuel, among others.”
Botomani says, from now onwards, the councillors have resolved to be visiting health facilities every four months, as one way of tracking the budget.
He observes that, through knowledge acquired from booklets, councillors can understand that Constituency Development Fund should not be exclusively channelled towards road rehabilitation and construction projects, but other sectors as well.
However, Botomani says councillors have started ticking despite the plethora of challenges.
“For example, councillors have made sure that health facilities such as Chimatiro and Mwima health centres, which have been lying idle for over 10 years, have started offering services.
Balaka District Health Officer, Bertha Chikuse, concurs with Botomani’s sentiments that knowledge gaps due to lack of booklets have fermented misunderstanding between councillors and service providers.
“For example, people used to say we were misappropriating funds but this notion was dispelled once we showed the councillors our expenditure figures,” says Chikuse.
Balaka has 19 public and private health facilities, of which 14 are public and five are private.

Universal challenge
As Balaka’s eight councillors seek mechanisms of navigating the challenges of financial and material resources in the course of their job, their counterparts in Blantyre do not even know how to navigate the challenge of financial and operational materials’ constraints.
Blantyre District Council chairperson, Thomas Kaumba, says, for instance, that the council has no booklets that guide the operations of committees, a development that has put councillors in a quandary.
“We don’t know what to do at the moment, considering that there are no booklets for councillors. Without these booklets, councillors have nowhere to start from,” says Kaumba.
Kaumba adds that, although the councillors have been oriented by state and non-state actors, the orientation sessions are not enough without the booklets.
“Members of committees at council level need to cross-check facts, and this can only be done using the booklets. Without such documents, there is nothing we can do other than to wait and see how things will unfold. In the end, we are not doing one of the most important things in terms of health service delivery, namely, budget tracking,” says Kaumba.
 National Democratic Institute resident country director, Taona Mwanyisa, says councillors can play a key role in promoting accountability in health service delivery and other key sectors in national development.
Mwanyisa says, as the most direct point of contact between citizens and the government, councillors should be given basic operational tools in a bid to promote efficiency in service delivery.
“It is, therefore, important to support councillors so that they can learn about their roles in local governance and public participation. Specifically, it is important to put in place mechanisms to support orientation for the health committee on budgeting, health service delivery, health service monitoring and, more importantly, on how they can respond to health concerns during disasters,” says Mwanyisa.
Added Mwanyisa: “The development will enable councillors galvanise core issues that need immediate redress; build strong linkages and partnerships with District Council secretariat and other service providers to provide redress, and develop monitoring mechanisms that will enable them to check the performance of health service providers.”

Going forward
Mwanyisa, whose organisation has been implementing the Malawi Electoral and Decentralisation Accountability Project since 2013, says steps should be taken to ensure that councillors fulfil their mandate to enhance community representation in government decision-making as well as overseeing local development initiatives.
“As elected officials they represent communities’ needs and engage the government and other service providers to respond to communities’ requirements. This role has never been more important than now. With the disasters that have befallen some districts, people are destitute and they will look up to councillors to intercede for them to articulate their needs to government,” says Mwanyisa.
On her part, Malawi Health Equity Network executive director, Martha Kwataine, while observing the importance of providing handbooks that offer guidance on the operations of councillors, there is no need for each committee- including the health committee- to have its own booklet.
“If anything, the Ministry of Local Government should come up with a generic booklet that will guide the operations of council committees, instead of having booklets for each committee. That way, the councillors will be able to discharge their duties knowledgably,” says Kwataine, adding:
“Honestly, and with due respect, how many councillors would be interested in going through piles of documents just to understand how a particular committee works? We should also consider the literacy level of some councillors and not bother them with piles of booklets. How many councillors read? So, lack of booklets is not excuse for health budget-tracking, among others.”
Ministry of Local Government spokesperson, Muhlabase Mughogho, says the ministry is working on programmes geared at making local governments tick.
But, in the absence of an immediate solution, councillors should just rediscover the force of belief that propelled them to electoral victory in order to negotiate the financial and material wilderness they find themselves in.

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