Local authorities in Zambia are facing daunting challenges. For years now, the councils have learnt to accept the bitter fact that problems are part of their daily existence and wonder whether these problems will one day come to an end.
A number of factors have contributed to the problems currently haunting the local authorities, which have to an extent, rendered them non-existent or at least caused many people not to appreciate their importance.
Notable among these factors is the lack of financial resources. Most councils are beset with perpetual financial problems to the extent that they are not able to provide social services to the general population like collection of garbage, maintenance of feeder roads as well as good drainage and sewerage systems. This failure to provide basic social service has resulted in perennial outbreaks of cholera in most parts of the country thereby adding yet another problem to the local authorities.
So then, in the context of what is currently prevailing in the local authorities, could the decentralisation become a viable solution?
Since decentralisation is the transfer of resources, power and authority from the central government to the local authorities, it is often argued that the phenomenon can play a key role in ensuring better development of communities. This notion stems from the need for the citizenry to exercise control over their own local affairs and foster meaningful development, which would also help to reduce poverty at local level.
According to Local Government Association of Zambia (LGAZ) executive secretary Maurice Mbolela, decentralisation is the only optimistic way to put to rest the problems being faced by the local authorities. Decentralisation will improve efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of public services because resources will be transferred to the councils through either grants or share of resources.
Currently, councils are facing financial challenges because some of the financial benefits they used to enjoy such as road tax and fuel levy were taken over by the Government, he said. It is often argued that once implemented, decentralisation could empower the local people to participate in developmental activities through the formation of area development committees (ADCs) in place of the current resident development committees (RDCs).
Decentralisation could also promote transparency and downward accountability of the Government by local communities which is why from both the political and administrative point of view, decentralisation undoubtedly offers hope that it could be a solution to most problems facing civic authorities today.
Others say it could improve the Government’s responsiveness to the needs of the local people, thereby creating a conducive environment for local economic development as well as enhancing the management of local resources in a sustainable manner.
Malawo Matyola, executive secretary for the Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD), an umbrella of organisations working for the upliftment said decentralisation would involve people in governance. “Decentralisation will enhance ownership by local communities because they will be involved in deciding what projects are to be undertaken. “Through this process the people will have some level of ownership,” Rev Matyola said.
The decentralisation policy once fully implemented will bring out the relevance of the existence of the councils.
Currently, councils do not have functions, authority and resources. They depend on the goodwill of central Government to exist.
It is an indisputable that certain councils have people at the helm of power that lack the necessary qualifications and are thus, unable to provide effective leadership in terms of management of the resources. This is often cited as the main reason behind non-payment of workers’ salaries, failure to provide social services and the inability to settle the huge debts to service providers.
There have also been reports of theft and misappropriation of grants and other financial support to the councils. These challenges have further resulted in the councils’ failure to maintain feeder roads or prevent the outbreak of cholera, which has become a perennial experience in most parts of the country every rainy season. But once the system is decentralised, and planning for development starts to take place at district or provincial level, most problems could be resolved.
The 1997 Food Reserve Organisations (FAO) report on technical consultation on decentralisation dubbed ‘Decentralisation and Local Government Performance' indicates that decentralisation enhances the performance of the local government system.
Research in Indonesia, Morocco, Thailand and Pakistan shows improvement in resource distribution, local participation, the extension of public services to rural areas, project identification and implementation, and employment generation after implementing decentralising reforms of the public sector, said the report.
It further states that studies of decentralisation in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia indicate that the performance of decentralised administrative units have been very positive. Devolution in Papua New Guinea increased popular participation in government, and has improved the planning, management and coordination capacity of provincial administrators. Reforms there do seem to have made the government more responsive, it reads in part.
In 2004, the late Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa launched the decentralisation policy following wide consultation between the Government and key stakeholders such as parliamentarians, labour movement, and non-governmental organisations. The policy, which was part of the third component of the Government’s Public Service Reform Programme, required all the Government ministries and departments to transfer some administrative power to the local authorities.
In view of this, many Zambians were optimistic that decentralisation was going to strengthen the councils’ capacity to provide goods and services and increase local people’s participation in developmental activities once fully implemented. Unfortunately, it has not kick-started despite the decentralisation implementation policy (DIP), a roadmap for the implementation of the whole process, being put in place.
Concerns have also been raised that the implementation of the policy may not be achieved by 2011, when the whole process is expected to fully mature, considering the slow pace at which the whole process is being handled.
Some sections of society have even deplored government for what they say is its lack of enthusiasm to quickly implement the whole decentralisation programme. Certainly, many people are wondering why government cannot implement the decentralisation policy because it is now four years down line since it was launched. Government had the zeal to implement the decentralisation policy.
Unfortunately, the zeal diminished at one point. So, our effort is aimed at bringing back that zeal after all it is decentralisation is the Government’s idea, said Rev Matyola whose organisation is spearheading the campaign to implement the decentralisation policy.
In his speech during the official opening of parliament recently, President Banda announced that the Government was committed to implementing this policy. It still remains to be seen just how soon that commitment will translate into reality to hopefully ensure the general citizens are fully involved in fostering their own development.
For previous discussions on decentralisation see the here.