Empowered locals fill democratisation gaps

Justice Zimba, a 45- year-old registered voter from Kamundenga Village in Traditional Authority M’ mbelwa in Mzimba, finds satisfaction in participating in democratising Malawi since the country reverted to multiparty system of politics. Zimba has religiously exercised his civic duty and right to vote for leaders to represent ideas and interests of the…

By Steria Manda:

Justice Zimba, a 45-year-old registered voter from Kamundenga Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) M’mbelwa in Mzimba, finds satisfaction in participating in democratising Malawi since the country reverted to multiparty system of politics.

Zimba has religiously exercised his civic duty and right to vote for leaders to represent ideas and interests of the community.

“By voting in any election, I am participating in the democratic process of our country,” he says.

But, whether out of sheer disinterest or lack of awareness, Zimba could not actively participate in Malawi’s democratic processes beyond voting.

Government adopted decentralisation as one of the steps designed to consolidate and institutionalise political freedom and improve governance.

Among others, the policy sought to decentralise political and administrative authority to district level, including the transfer of expenditure responsibilities and revenue assignments to lower levels of government.

It was envisaged then that the policy would lead to improved efficiency and effectiveness in local councils through enhanced accountability.

Proponents of decentralisation argued that the policy would make government more responsive to local needs by tailoring levels of consumption to the preferences of smaller, more homogeneous groups.

But as National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust District Civic Education Officer (DCEO) for Lilongwe Urban, Hajira Ali, states, the policy has not achieved its purpose largely because citizens are not active outside the electoral period.

Ali says decentralisation to local communities characterised by poverty, low levels of education, and inequality, may lead to low accountability and higher susceptibility to political capture.

Speaking at a Citizen Forum in Lilongwe Mapuyu South Constituency on Saturday, Ali said decentralisation has failed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness in local councils largely because citizens are not equipped with knowledge and skills for holding duty-bearers accountable.

She said that in most councils experience has shown that there are drawbacks to decentralisation, especially where inequality is higher and education and political participation are lower.

“We have always challenged the electorate to go beyond voting and start demanding accountability from their leaders and that is key to preventing abuse of public resources,” Ali said.

A recent research by Democracy Beyond Elections, a collaborative, national campaign dedicated to transformative democracy rooted in community-led decision making, established that the engagement between citizens and duty-bearers increases understanding of and trust in government, inspires transformative learning and civic leadership, and directs resources to communities with greater needs.

According to the findings of the study, there are communities around the world that have already seen the ways that participatory democracy can make government more responsive and equitable as cities use participatory budgeting to enable residents to directly decide how to spend public budgets.

Governance and human rights expert Undule Mwakasungula says supporting ordinary citizens to influence the policy-making process and participate in decision-making is critical to the development of policies that reflect the needs and interests of citizens.

Mwakasungula states that promoting political participation is an important way of improving state accountability and responsiveness and empowering the underprivileged in society.

“This can encompass a range of approaches, including strengthening democratic citizenship, promoting engagement between the State and civil society, promoting access to information and strengthening citizens’ associations.

“Decentralisation, civil society activism and the transparency of and access to information also play a key role in strengthening accountability,” he says.

Nice Trust, with support from the European Union, is empowering citizens with skills and tools for their effective participation in democracy.

The organisation’s acting Executive Director Grey Kalindekafe says the ultimate goal of Nice’s intervention is to build an active citizenship that is able to engage duty-bearers in building fairer and more resilient societies.

“We equip community members that are often ignored, pushed out or marginalised by their social and governance systems with the tools, resources and opportunities to deeply engage in democratic processes.

“We strongly believe that empowering Malawians and giving them greater control over their own development destiny would help in building accountable and responsive government institutions that can meet the needs of the citizens,” Kalindekafe says.

Zimba is confident that the initiative, which he says has enabled rural communities to actively participate in the democratisation process, will ultimately result in more rural voices being heard.

“Previously, we wouldn’t even think about asking a councillor or Member of Parliament how Constituency Development Fund is being spent,” he said.

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