Someone needs to defend council secretariats

During my time at Treasury and the Local Development Fund (LDF), I worked with councils—whether at town, municipality, city or district levels.

Like every public body corporate, they have a lot of challenges, some very serious. They also have some really bad apples whose work ethics and organisational culture really stink.

Their disregard of laid down public finance management systems, Treasury instructions and operational guidelines is the stuff of Sicily-like or old New York gangsters.

And the level of incompetence can sometimes be beyond embarrassing—and frustrating.

But I have also come across some of the best district commissioners (DCs) and council chief executive officers (CEOs) whose commitment to developing communities is admirable.

I have also worked with great directors of planning and development (DPDs) and directors of public works (DPWs)—folks who are happier getting dirty working with communities in the remotest of areas than enjoying the comfort of their air-conditioned offices.

And one can accuse most of these professionals of a lot of things, but resisting decentralisation is not one of them as some councillors and politicians would have us believe.

During the presentation of public expenditure tracking (PET) project report in Mchinji by the Malawi Economic Justice Network (Mejn) recently, Ward Councillor for Mkoma in Mchinji West Constituency Nathan Ndhlamini (Malawi Congress Party-MCP) said civil servants working at the council secretariat are resisting decentralisation by not accommodating the councillors’ oversight role.

At the same event, senior Mejn Mchinji Chapter member Martin Munthali said he had also seen what he called disrespectful attitudes towards elected officers by some council officials.

To end this, according to Munthali, government should give MPs and councillors powers to recruit DCs, council CEOs and other senior officials to make them “responsible/report to you” councillors and MPs.

I don’t know how Munthali and some of the councillors hope to achieve these recruitment powers.

But the fact is that at the moment DCs and council CEOs can only be appointed by the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, according to the Local Government Act.

Senior officials of the council—that is at director level—can only be hired by the Local Government Service Commission.

In other words, there have to be amendments to the Local Government Act to enable this desire. I know MPs would jump at the opportunity to change the Act so that they can control DCs.

But if our legislators have any moral conscious, while at it, they should also amend this law to kick themselves out of council businesses where they have voting powers. They can’t have it both ways—either they are operate at national level or at local level and stop their self-serving behaviour.

They should satisfy themselves with enacting national laws, of which they have very little to show for it.

I am worried that there is a growing trend—as decentralisation deepens—to wage a war against council employees.

For example, when a Treasury-sanctioned internal audit revealed that several MPs had misused resources under the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), several parliamentarians started pushing the blame on council secretariats.

Some character from the Public Affairs Committee of Parliament (PAC) even said the body would summon DCs to explain how the fund—ideally a tool for parliamentary involvement in community level projects within the decentralization rubric using earmarked public funds under the MP’s influence—were abused.

This is laughable because MPs cling to CDF as if it is a personal trust fund.

And now it is councillors who want to pile everything on council secretariats. Those of us who have at some point been involved in local development planning and implementation know that politicians—councillors and MPs—are in fact the biggest problem when it comes to decentralisation.

They have in fact made the objective of local governments—furthering the constitutional order based on democratic principles, accountability and participation of the people in decision-making and development—hard to achieve.

MPs and councils are the first to tear into pieces council development plans—developed with the participation of communities and development structures such as Village Development Committees and Area Development Committees—and replacing projects with their political whims.

For example, a council plan may want to drill 20 boreholes in a council in line with social economic profiles of the areas in terms of poverty levels, population and other criteria within the context of demand driven development.

For political reasons, these MPs and councillors, instead of respecting development plans, would demand that the boreholes be shared equally among wards or constituencies even when in some of those areas, communities did not identify that as a need. All they care about is to show that they have done something for the communities even if that community does not want that particular service.

Now, tell me, who is frustrating decentralisation? Who is taking power from the people?

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