Energising democracy

Democracy Works Foundation (DWF) is running a social accountability initiative in Malawi, Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, South Africa and Zambia to improve access to clean energy and safe water. Our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA asks Dr Augustine Magolowondo, team leader for the Southern Africa Political Parties and Dialogue Programme, how the pro-citizen initiative nourishes democracy.

Magolowondo: Don’t blame poverty on democracy

Does democracy really work?

As DWF, we believe that democracy is always work in progress. Even in the so-called developed democracies, there are challenges pertaining to democracy. But the weaknesses must not create an illusion that democracy is not working. All countries in southern Africa, for instance, have established democratic institutions based on democratic constitutional frameworks. All countries hold regular elections. Civil society is active and in many countries, the Judiciary and parliaments are playing their rightful roles. We also have proliferation of political parties. Of course, more still needs to happen to ensure democracy continues to be relevant. The question, therefore, should not be whether democracy is working or not, but what needs to be done for democracy to continue to be relevant and deliver on its expected dividends.

What do you make of recent Afrobarometer findings that Malawians are losing trust in democracy in favour  of the one-party system they rejected 26 years ago?

It is important to unpack the underlying factors leading to this pessimism and disillusionment. In many cases, it is when elected representatives are no longer responsive to people’s needs and aspirations that the citizenry starts questioning the value for democracy. It is when democratic institutions are no longer functioning that we see a lot of this negativity setting in. There is often the mistaken view that some people have that democracy is meant to be a panacea to economic challenges. Democracy is a system of government meant to address political problems. It is not an economic ideology. When poverty persists and prevails under a democracy, it is wrong to blame democracy.

Why is the emphasis of the Southern Africa Political Parties and Dialogue Programme on energy and water?

DWF is implementing a number of other programmes. For instance, DWF is running a Democracy Works Academy in South Africa that aims at cultivating and strengthening young leadership. We also have a parliamentary strengthening programme that is being undertaken at provincial level.

Of course, the regional political parties programme in question is our regional flagship initiative. Central to the work of the political parties programme is the recognition of the potential that political parties and political actors have in supporting inclusive and participatory energy and water policy development processes and their potential in putting in place strategies and action plans that would improve access and management of these resources.

Effective political parties understand the needs of citizens, using these to develop policy positions on issues of communal concern, sparking public discussion and engagement. Political parties in government formulate critical public policy decisions with important budgetary and broader public implications. Political parties in opposition also play a correspondingly critical role to shape public policy decisions, through playing an oversight role by ensuring accountability on policy implementation and responsible budgetary spending and stimulating public debate in communities. It is therefore essential that key political parties be instilled with policy capacity in order to play their key policy decision-making, implementation, oversight and accountability roles and responsibilities effectively

What will it take to restore Malawians confidence in democracy when politicians fail to deliver water and energy promises they make in their manifestos?

We need constant and regular engagement to remind political parties about the promises they may make in manifestos. These manifestoes are not just there for them to win elections. These manifestoes must also be social accountability tools after elections. This is why, as part our initiatives in the region and also here in Malawi, DWF has embarked on a programme to deepen social accountability.

What role should Malawians play to ensure they get a fair deal?

Every Malawian has a role play for democracy to work. We need active citizen engagement. Democracy provides citizens with rights. But citizens have also responsibilities. One of the responsibilities is to actively participate in the affairs that affect them as a people. Passive citizens are a huge liability to democracy!

In terms of social accountability, what should the civil society organisations (CSOs) do differently for democracy to benefit Malawians?

CSOs need to stop talking about the people, the so-called grassroots. CSOs need to engage and involve the people. The people, individually and collectively must speak for themselves too and call for transformative civic empowerment. [We need] a shift in the mindset that ensures that every citizen realizes what role they have in society. No one should be on the receiving end. Everyone must take part.

What role should politicians play to make democracy work for the ordinary citizen?

Recent developments have shown that time for politicians to take the ordinary person for granted is over. When you have over 75 percent of parliamentarians being rejected in elections, that is a clear message that citizens have a voice and they have the power to act, when they have the opportunity. With regard to improving access to water, it is important for politicians to ensure that their responses and strategies are informed by evidence. In our programme, we have, for instance, established that while every politician thinks that you can address the water challenges by drilling boreholes, this approach is not sustainable as it directly impacts upon groundwater levels. Besides, a majority of these boreholes do not meet basic standards to ensure sustainable and clean water supply.

How will the regional project enhance social accountability for inclusive and responsive policies for access to safe water and clean energy?

We are creating multi-stakeholder platforms that will comprise of service providers, CSOs, private sector, relevant sectoral public institutions, researchers and political actors. The idea here is to ensure that political actors are constantly reminded of their responsibilities while at the same time being assisted with relevant knowledge and expertise for these parties to develop smart and socially inclusive policies and strategies in these sectors. Through these dialogue platforms, we hope to ensure to bring citizen voices, CSOs, State agents and politicians to the same table to promote a common agenda-access to clean energy and safe water for all, in line with Sustainable Development Goals?

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