Active Citizens, Africa, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines

POLITICS-MALAWI: New Efforts for Citizen Power

Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Nov 21 2008 (IPS) - Civil society organisations in Malawi are keen on the newly introduced Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF) which, they hope, will provide people with more power to ensure that there is proper governance and transparency in the country.

Up to 65 percent of Malawi's 13.1 million people live below the poverty line of less than a dollar per day, according to Malawi government statistics.

Malawi's transparency and accountability record is also not very good – the country is ranked number 115 out of 180 countries in the 2008 Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

A new programme – funded by the 130 million pound Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF) of the Department for International Development (DFID), the arm of the UK Government that manages Britain's aid to poor countries – designed to help citizens hold their governments to account may help.

The "Strengthening Citizen Demand for Good Governance Through Evidence Based Approaches" programme – which will be implemented in various African countries – was launched in Malawi's capital on Nov. 19, 2008.

Overseas Development Institute (ODI) director Dr Fletcher Tembo said at the launch of the project that there is need to strengthen the country's budding democracy through participatory governance and social accountability.

Tembo explained that the programme is about facilitating citizen's voices through the engagement of civil society, independent media, elected representative and other non-state actors.

He said following the launch of the programme, a national coordinating organisation will be appointed to provide grants to the media, parliament and civil society organisations in their pursuit to intensify governance and transparency issues.

"The whole emphasis of the fund hinges on citizenry power. The programme would want to enable the citizens meet their aspirations better at the same time holding the government accountable," he said.

The Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a coalition of 100 civil society organizations, including NGOs, community based organisations, the media, trade unions and the academia, is excited about the GTF. MEJN works on social and economic governance.

MEJN executive director Andrew Kumbatira lauded the launch of the programme saying it would strengthen accountability.

"We need to progress as a country and we can only do that if there is good governance and if government is accountable on its spending," said Kumbatira. "The country's citizens therefore have a great role in monitoring government and this will be made possible with the fund," said Kumbatira.

He said there are already existing programmes in the country where citizens participate in holding government and political officials accountable but that these are minimal.

Kumbatira cited the Umunthu (human-ness in Chichewa) Initiative, where constituents are able to summon their member of parliament to explain how he has been representing them in the national assembly, as one of the programs where citizen participation is already working.

"Of course the Umunthu initiative is only happening in two of the country's 27 districts and the GTF will help in expanding such kind of program to all the districts," Kumbatira told IPS.

He also mentioned Budget Monitoring as another already-existing programme with citizen participation. This is implemented by MEJN and communities at local level hold local authorities in their assemblies accountable on public funds.

"Even the Budget Monitoring has lots of gaps as it is done in very few areas due to lack of resources," said Kumbatira.

Kumbatira also said with the GTF, citizens will be able to prevent legislators from misusing public funds the way they did last year when the passing of the Malawi national budget for 2007/2008 was held to ransom by a political impasse between the ruling and opposition parties in Parliament.

The delays in passing the budget affected the progress of development projects and the provision of essential services such as health and education as government could not procure enough supplies without the national budget.

The country's main opposition parties, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the United Democratic Front (UDF), wanted the Speaker of the House to declare vacant the seats of parliamentarians who had crossed the floor to join President Bingu wa Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The opposition parties were citing Section 65 of the Constitution, which stops legislators from leaving the parties that put them into power. Mutharika himself won the presidency under the UDF but dumped it after becoming president and went on to form the Democratic People's Party.

The budget which was supposed to be passed on June 2007 was not passed until September and Mutharika told people in a national radio broadcast that up to $2.2 million was wasted by Parliamentarians during the squabble which yielded no results. The parliamentarians who crossed the floor still have their seats in the national assembly.

"We want to see an end to such inconsiderate conduct by parliamentarians and we will use the GTF to work with citizens to ensure that transparency and accountability is the order of the day," Kumbatira told IPS.

*The Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Britain's leading independent think-tank on development and humanitarian issues, is driving the implementation of the "Strengthening Citizen Demand for Good Governance Through Evidence Based Approaches" in partnership with the Inter Press Service (IPS) Africa and CIVICUS.

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