Towards participatory budget

Only three months remain before Finance Minister Ken Lipenga presents the 18th national budget since the first national budget in a democratic Malawi was presented in 1994. This excludes supplementary budgets.

This year’s debate is likely to attract the attention of not only the public, councils, donors and activists, but law makers—all of whom are keen to see whether the Bingu wa Mutharika administration will dump the zero-deficit budget (ZDB), which has led to an increase in and introduction of new taxes.

Opposition political parties such as the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and United Democratic Front (UDF) have blamed the high cost of living, lack of donor aid inflow to avert forex shortages and some halted social projects on the ZDB, which they claim is a failed budget.

Government has had development, pro-poor and other budgets. Malawi Polytechnic, development economist Sane Zuka says the adoption of supplementary budgets may lead to loss of public trust and investors trust in macro-economics.

“If there is good communication to the public on what government wants to do, then an extra budget would be well received, but if it’s the opposite, people as well as foreign investors feel there is over expenditure and poor estimates,” he says.

 

‘There is no consultation’

Blantyre-based youth activist Patrick Kholomana says although 193 Members of Parliament represent the 14 million Malawi population in Parliament, they mostly do not consult their constituents.

“It is sad that a common person in Kameme Chitipa, Mzokoto Rumphi, Lule Nsanje, Ngokwe Machinga and Ntopwa Blantyre is left out in taking part in the actual budget formulation,” says Kholomana.

Opposition politicians believe the introduction of the ZDB is the last thing Malawians would expect to hear again in the next budget presentation.

“Even the Finance Minister Ken Lipenga has confirmed that government has punished people with taxes to finance the deficit budget,” UDF chief whip Clement Chiwaya said in Parliament during the previous mid-term budget review.

Similarly, Mark Katsonga Phiri of the People’s Progressive Movement is on record as branding the ZDB a weapon of mass destruction. In The Nation of March 2 2012, Katsonga argued that government was taking money from citizens that should have been used to feed children.

Mostly, authorities only draft figures for ministries without consulting the public except for activists and captains of industries during pre-budget consultative meetings. The meetings are occasionally presided over by the Finance Minister at regional level.

In an effort to fill this consultation gap, Blantyre City Council (BCC) moved towards a participatory budget approach as it proposed a K393 million in the 2012/2013 budget after a series of brainstorming meetings with the public, legislators and captains of industry.

Local people to decide

The process allows local people to decide how public money should be spent in their areas, such as additional police, roads, schools or better health care into the government’s localised agenda.

If vetoed by the Ministry of Local Government prior to Capital Hill’s budget consultative meetings, school blocks, residential roads, health facilities, markets would either be improved or constructed in the district.

Based on the BCC meeting, the draft budget has figures for each development that residents and MPs proposed during the first meeting held in January this year. BCC chief executive Ted Nandolo says the proposed budget reflects what residents and parliamentarians want in their various localities.

“We had our first session in January, where we came up with figures for each requested project. During our meeting two weeks ago, the council was reporting to the participants’ detailed figures,” Nandolo says.

Participatory budget good

Most contributors to the participatory budget felt this is part of the decentralisation programme, democracy and good governance issues. The contributors alluded that, the idea works well in view of the lack of ward councillors who, according to them, are pillars of development as opposed to MPs.

“This is the kind of approach towards budgetary issues that we want in a democratic State,” Arthur Matukuta, director of Solomonic Peacock Theatre observes.

Parliamentarians from Blantyre such as John Bande, Aaron Sangala, Tarcizio Gowelo, Felix Njawala and Eunice Makangala also hailed the approach of involving the public in drafting the budget.

Bande stressed the need for quarterly review meetings with the public to assess the progress of development work.

Communities in Chikhwawa, led by Senior Chief Chapananga, also spoke in praise of the participatory budget approach in the absence of councillors. In both the Blantyre and Chikhwawa meetings, findings show that people wanted the budget to focus on agriculture, health, markets, education and roads.

The chief said such an approach backs the decentralised system of handling development in Malawi.

“Capital Hill should not dictate the needs of people. Let them propose what they need in the budget. Since we don’t have councillors, councils should initiate that,” says Martha Salamano, a shopkeeper in Chikhwawa when asked on the approach towards budget formulation.

Executive director of National Local Governance Finance Committee (NLGFC) Wezi Mjojo said they have been conducting awareness campaigns on how councils can support themselves, but still many people do not know the committee’s role.

She said NLGFC’s existence has seen councils appearing as votes in the national budget since 2005, with 14 sectors including health, education, agriculture social welfare and housing.

On whether to engage the public, Zuka says the approach cannot be effective in Malawi due to low participation levels by the public.

“Structures on civic education should be developed on the ground so that people understand the concept. In some instances, decentralisation has not gained ground, thereby making it difficult for people to understand the concept,” he explains.

Zuka adds that the approach is sometimes viewed as useless, especially when elected representatives point out what their constituents need in their areas.

‘Malawi almost ready for participatory budget’

But a local economic think tank, the Malawi Economic Justice Network (Mejn) says Malawi is almost ready now for participatory budgeting since this is an area that Mejn has been working in over the past 10 years through championing pro-poor and participatory economic governance.

The organisation’s executive director Dalitso Kubalasa says participatory budgets are a part of fulfilling the basic tenets of principles of democracy. They, thus, entail an embodiment of real citizen participation in policy formulation processes.

“In fact, if we had adopted it wholesale, we would have been somewhere in terms of improved outputs, outcomes and impact. We would have had a lot to show for our improved budget execution and citizenry contributions in so far as resource mobilisation and projects implementation is concerned,” Kubalasa observes.

He says as much as they appreciate that it is the mandate of MPs to debate and pass the budget, the fact remains that they are supposed to debate and pass figures and facts that emanate from the process of consultation and citizenry involvement in the formulation of the budget that adds a lot of value and precision.

Information sourced on the Internet reveals that participatory budgeting is thought to have been designed in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 following the end of the military dictatorship and in an attempt to democratically reallocate money to where it was needed most.

Participatory budgeting schemes have also developed across the UK during the last decade. The Labour government published a draft strategy in 2008, stating it was its ambition that participatory budget be used by 2012.

“Everything around localism and big society—and the whole government agenda—is entirely consistent with PB principles, so we would like to see government recognise that a participatory approach would be a very practical way of empowering the community,” Phil Teece, programme director of the government-funded Participatory Budgeting Unit told British media.

Political and human rights campaigners such as those that provide civic and voter education under the Malawi Electoral Support Network (Mesn), however, wants councillors to initiate development.

Their call is based on the fact that Malawi’s Republican Constitution states that a year, after Presidential and Parliamentary Elections are held, local polls should be conducted.

Since 2005, Malawi has failed to hold local polls due to what the authorities say lack of funds. Last year, President Mutharika cancelled such polls until 2014  without detailing reasons, a decision organisations condemned.

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