Devolution: Bringing govt closer to the people

HARARE - The constitutional reforms under way in our nation provides a window of hope for most citizens. The constitution will give the parameters on which the state will be run.

The constitution will herald a new governance dispensation; some will win and others will lose in the process.

Devolution, we are told is one of the sticking issue between political competitors.

Despite this, it is very clear that the majority of Zimbabweans across the political divide are in favour of devolution.

What is also clear is that, there are political elites who are opposed to devolution.

What are the fundamentals of devolution? Why do we want it? What are its components from a development perspective? What are its dangers?

Remaking of the state Devolution is part of the reforms aimed at building a strong and effective state.
Our central government has a long record of failure to perform its functions.

Devolution is not, therefore, an attempt to dismantle the state but to match roles to the capacity of the state.

By sharing functions between central and local governments, the ultimate aim is towards improving service delivery and socio-economic development.

Throughout the whole world, strong and effective states have shared transparency, accountability, efficiency and effectiveness as common denominators.

These four fundamentals have led other states to record high levels of development.

In pursuit of a strong development agenda, Zimbabwe has to have institutions closer to the people.

This has three advantages; better adaptation of government activities to local conditions, increased transparency and accountability, and better financial management.

When a state fails for too long, you have to reconfigure it. We have trusted central government as the prime mover and shaker of development for the past 32 years.

The results of this arrangement need no mention — unemployment, poor public service provision, lawlessness, increasing poverty, dilapidated infrastructure, corruption in government corridors etc.

 Now is the time to change, moving from a “one central government” doing everything to “several local governments” performing devolved functions.

This approach will certainly match functions with capacity and hopefully will deliver services to the citizens.

Crisis is the mother of invention. We have been subjected to a crisis for so long largely because of an intransigent central government.

The central government has too much power and delivers virtually nothing.

We are not the first country in this situation, many countries did it and devolution had to take them up the development ladder.

Local development projects require large amounts of resources as well as proper management.
Over the last three decades we have seen local infrastructure projects failing due to inefficient utilisation of resources or limited resources from the Treasury.

 Local resource mobilisation is an important artefact of devolution. In this regard, local projects will not only rely on central government funds but also get resources from local sources.

Broadening participation Government programmes perform better when they make use of potential users and local social capital. Why is this so?

Implementation is easy; chances of programme sustainability are high and enhanced feedback to government agencies.

Devolution will entail development programmes implemented and managed at the very local level, where development is needed most.

The old way of waiting for instructions from Harare would be over, as local dynamics will dictate the pace of programming.

Devolution comes with it constructive popular participation in decision making, plan formulation and development work.

Participation by the local people has brought immense benefits in housing projects in Port Elizabeth, South Africa; forest management in Gujarat state, India; water borne sanitation systems in Recife, Brazil among others.

We don’t need to look abroad for working examples of participatory development at work — the Zimbabwe Homeless People’s Federation offers a very close and practical approach.

The federation has transformed thousands of lives using people’s participation as an anchor of development.

We have seen government directed programmes suffering a premature death.

We have seen dysfunctional boreholes, unused gardens, collapsing fowl runs, deteriorating pig sties, etc, due to failure by initiators to embrace local participation.

We have seen central government projects, to say the least only working for a “day” when top government officials commission the projects.

Devolution is a strategy that fosters local ownership of development projects.

Once local people have a sense of ownership to the project, they fight for the projects survival and success.

A new thrust to policy making, which includes all concerned actors, happens in devolved structures.
Civil society, business, communities, and state institutions can interact at the very local level making decisions in line with local conditions.

Why would someone sitting in an office along Samora Machel make decisions that have an impact to a villager in Buhera, Binga, Dande?

It defies logic, and therefore development decisions should be made at local structures, if they are local in nature.

Voice to the people.

Currently, the policy making process is elitist side-lining the majority of Zimbabweans who enjoy and/ or suffer the policy outcomes.

Devolution will bring public debate about policy making to the people.

The people will debate and decide on the course of action to take. Public confidence and trust in the state will increase.

Citizen charters in Malaysia and client surveys in Nicaragua, India and Tanzania have shown options for tapping the previously untapped voices of the people.

Organising the voice of locals through community organisations is essential for building a critical mass of community voice.

Genuine organisations representing communities on policy making bodies is an important first step in articulating citizen interests in public policy making.

Local and provincial governments under devolution will work closely with formal and informal organisations representing the people. This approach has been used successfully in some developing countries across the world.

….and devolve cautiously

Devolution is no magic bullet to solve all the problems we are confronted with. Instead, if not carefully planned and executed, it can cause more problems to the nation.

Devolution has brought big gains in India, China and Latin America.

In our case we have to be on the lookout for three setbacks which can occur in the name of devolution.
 These are; rising inequality, macroeconomic instability and the risk of local capture.
The gap between regions may widen and marginalisation according to ethnic origin can spark unrest.
If devolved governments lack fiscal discipline, government may be forced to bail out.

This bailing out may make the government lose grip on the national macroeconomic policy.

Local governments may also be captured by local elites with political power.

Local elites may pursue their selfish interests at the expense of the ordinary citizens.

The dangers of devolution show the importance of central government in the success of any devolution strategy.

The matrix lies on finding a formula to share responsibilities between central government and other tiers of government.

The romanticisation of devolution programmes for political gain by central government remains a major hindering factor.

Politicians view devolution as a threat to their hold on power and thus a programme that should be thwarted at all cost. - Davison Muchadenyika

*The writer is a development planner

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