Beginning in 1995, Malawi's process of decentralization faced a lack of state legitimacy and serious financial constraints. In 2005 the government began to incorporate traditional leadership to achieve the participatory outcomes that decentralization had intended to produce.
Problems and Purpose
Enshrined in its 1995 constitution and beginning in 1996, the Malawian government undertook a process of decentralization, stating that it would improve service delivery, increase citizen participation, and ultimately reduce poverty. These efforts culminated in local government elections in 2000, but it quickly became clear that decentralization faced many challenges, including a lack of state legitimacy and serious financial constraints. As a result, in 2005 the government shifted towards a reliance on structures that incorporate traditional leadership, such as Village Development Committees (VDCs) and Area Development Committees (ADCs). Although these structures have reinforced the power of undemocratic traditional leadership throughout much of Malawi’s rural areas, they could potentially provide the participatory outcomes that decentralization had intended to produce.
Background History and Context
While it ruled Malawi since 1891, the British began governing the country through indirect rule in 1933 (p. 316, Eggen). In practice, this meant that a British District Commissioner (DC) declared select local chiefs to be ‘native authorities’, a role that allowed their influence to grow substantially (Ibid). As academic Oyvind Eggen states, under this new role chiefs “held widespread powers as the arm of local government for almost every purpose, including the power to make rules” (Ibid).
During the early 1960’s many nationalist leaders, such as the Nyasaland African Congress, were opposed to chiefs due to their aforementioned relationship with the British colonists. However, President Kamuzu Banda decided to utilize them in the administration of the country upon gaining power.This decision was influenced by an array of factors, including the ability of chiefs to stifle opposition and expand the reach of the state. Thus, at the advent of independence President Kamuzu Banda ensured that chiefs were “fully subordinated to him and his party”, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) (p. 318). In 1967, the MCP passed the ‘Chiefs Act’, a bill declaring that chiefs, now termed ‘traditional authorities’ (TAs), would maintain their “traditional functions under customary law, tax collection, and ‘general administration and such functions as the District Commissioner may require’” (Ibid).
During this time, committees were established under the District Commissioner to ensure that there was a clear line of communication down the lowest levels of society. In this system, Village Development Committees (VDCs) were established at the group village level. VDC resolutions would then be passed up to the traditional authority level for discussion within Area Development Committees (ADCs), whose resolutions would then be passed up to the District Executive Committee (DEC) level. Finally, the DEC would review and communicate the resolutions to the closest formal government representative, the District Commissioner. As Eggen writes, President Banda had established “a highly effective chain of communication and control all the way to the village level.” (Ibid)
With the fall of President Banda in the early 1990s, the emergence of multi-party democracy in Malawi, and the neoliberal policy of rolling back the state that was prevalent in the 1990’s, the role of traditional chiefs in the country was downplayed in official government documents (Eggen, 319). In fact, in 1998 the Malawian government passed the Local Government Act and Decentralization Policy, bringing about the removal of chiefs as chairs of VDCs and ADCs, as well as establishing a more limited role for traditional authorities in general (Ibid). In 2000, Malawi held its first local government elections, but since the term of the elected councilors ended in 2005 few additional elections have been held due to a lack of funds and a lack of support from political leaders, such as MPs, who viewed councilors as threats. As a result, district officials have increasingly returned to relying on sub-district committees, such as VDCs and ADCs, to implement programs in rural areas. In fact, increasingly district officials view them as the most effective “avenues through which communities participate in decision making on issues that affect their daily lives” (Chiweza, 22). This view is widely debated, however, as membership in these structures is limited and often influenced by traditional leaders and politicans.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Both Village Development Committees and Area Development Committees are legacies of British indirect rule. Today, the inability of the Malawian state to hold local government elections has resulted in a renewed reliance on these committees. In fact, they have become so common that many development organizations, such as OXFAM, provide funding to them in order to support these ‘participatory structures’ (Chiweza, 68).
Participant Recruitment and Selection
In 2001, the government of Malawi produced the District Development Planning Handbook for District Assemblies, in which it outlined the intended composition of the various sub-district committees (Chiweza, p.40). Below are its suggested configurations:
Village Development Committee: One elected member from each village, ward representatives, four women representatives, one elected extension worker. Group Village Headman supervises but cannot chair.
Area Development Committee: VDC chair, vice chair, ward representatives, representatives of religious groups, representatives of youth and women’s groups, representatives of business community, chair of area executive committee. Traditional Authority supervises but cannot chair.
District Executive Committee: Heads of council directorates, NGOs, other government institutions in district.
In practice, however, the Malawian government does very little to enforce these rules, and as a result there are different actors populating committees across the country and different professionals chairing the committees (Chiweza, p. 5).
Methods and Tools Used
Malawi's decentralized form of governance relies heavily on committee work at the village, area, and district level. Meetings at each level are deliberative, involving the identification, prioritization, and proposition of development solutions. Committees higher up the chain are also involved in the monitoring and oversight of project implementation while those at the village level encourage the mobilization of community resources and public participation. The extent to which these tasks are carried out is, however, uneven, and many of the committees are unaware of the methods and tools of engagement and participation at their disposal.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
In theory, Village Development Committees should meet on a monthly basis to identify, prioritize, and brainstorm solutions to the development challenges in their communities. These include “issues of food security, poor access to infrastructure, markets and public services.” (Chiweza, p. 22) Upon doing this, they should report their resolutions to the Area Development Committee. The ADC should also meet on a monthly basis to review all of the reports received from VDCs, at which point they would identify any community needs that exist in more than one VDC. From here, they should prepare project proposals for submission to the District Executive Committee. Throughout this process, both the Area and District Executive Committees are supposed to advise and provide technical assistance to the ADC and VDC. Upon receiving these proposals, the DEC advises the District Council on how to move forward. Below is a short summary of the various responsibilities that these committees have in theory, as outlined in the Chiweza Report:
- Assist in identifying, prioritizing, and preparing community needs and communicate them to the ADC.
- Encourage and mobilize community resources for popular participation in self-help activities.
- Report to the Group Village Headman (GVH) all activities and discussions of the committee.
- Assist in the identification of community needs that exist in more than one VDC, and communicate this to the DEC.
- Receive, prioritize, and prepare project proposals from VDCs for submission to the DEC.
- Supervise, monitor, and evaluate the implementation of projects at TA level.
- Mobilize community resources and solicit funds.
- Act as an advisory body to the ADC.
- Assist the ADC in the identification and preparation of project proposals before submission to the DEC.
- Assist in supervising project implementation at area level.
- Conduct data collection and analysis on project implementation at community level.
- Take the lead in the organization of VDCs.
- Act as trainers of VDCs and assist then in setting guidelines for development in the area.
- Conduct preliminary feasibility studies of the community needs.
- Undertake technical appraisal of project proposals.
- Train VDC, AEC, ADC in technical, leadership and management skills.
- Advise the District Council on sectoral policies and programmes.
- Assist in soliciting funds from local and external sources.
It is important to note that many committee members are unaware of their individual responsibilities and have a limited understanding of the role these governance structures are supposed to play in Malawian society (Chiweza, p. 5). This is largely due to the fact that there is insufficient funding available for training and supervision for members of these committees (Ibid). As stated by Chiweza, “due to limited supervision by DEC, AEC committees rarely meet and there is no deliberate effort by AECs to follow up on ADCs and VDCs” (p. 6). Many ordinary people in rural Malawi also have very little knowledge of these structures; however, this is not the case in all regions of Malawi, with areas such as TA Kachere having monthly meetings where individuals hold a deep understanding of this system of governance. More research is needed to explain this variance.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Discussion around the effectiveness of these structures is complex. When first created, the intended outcomes of these structures were quite different from the participatory results that development practitioners are hoping for today. During colonial rule, the committees were successful in being a cost-effective alternative to direct rule that faced little resistance from the local population. Even today, it appears as though the government of Malawi has allowed these structures to persist for similar reasons, as they are seeking cost-effective structures that can reach rural areas and thereby expand the reach of state influence. However, the development community has also made a clear effort to use these structures to increase participation from rural communities in policy formulation and decision making processes (Chiweza, 1). It does not appear that these objectives are being fulfilled: although ordinary citizens are consulted during VDCs, when reports are passed up to the DEC there is ample opportunity for narratives to be hijacked by elites. As academic Boniface Dulani stated in an interview, “you find that the traditional leaders tend to have quite a major say in terms of what projects should be brought to the community and indeed even in mobilizing people in our communities” (Interview). According to Sherry Arnstein, such a system is not very effective at encouraging participation from the most marginalized populations, as the consultation that takes place with ordinary people has “no follow-through, no ‘muscle, hence no assurance of changing the status quo” (Arnstein p. 4). In fact, it appears that the Malawian state’s reliance on these structures has cemented the power of traditional authority in Malawi. According to Mr.Dulani
“we…have a state that has very, very, extremely limited reach. For the most part…people deal more with their traditional leader than they do with the formal political leadership, or indeed even in government, the civilian government machinery like civic officials. They’re just not there in the countryside, so if you have a dispute in the village, there’s no local court where one can take their case to. The traditional leader is there, he’s available, he’s closer to you, you can go to him.
Here, Dulani is referring to the reality that traditional chiefs are often more respected in Malawi due to the fact that they are long-term community members as opposed to short-term political representatives. According to Dulani, this has resulted in the delegitimization of the state, a fact that is important for development practitioners to note, especially if they are concerned with achieving good governance outcomes.
According to interviews, traditional spaces of political action are beginning to get more democratic, with chiefs increasingly coming under fire from citizens for misuse of power. Dr. Mufunanji Magalasi at the University of Malawi told us that “if you are a stupid chief you would easily lose your position if you are not listening to what the people want.”
In her review of VDCs and ADCs in Malawi, Chiweza concludes:
“the overall impression of VDCs and ADCs is that they are passive institutions because they lack capacity (human resource/knowledge and financial), and members are demoralised, due to lack of delivery and feedback. If these committees are going to serve as structures for facilitating the goals of decentralisation in Malawi in promoting participation of the rural masses in decision making, a lot of work and financial support is needed to reorganise these committees and make them truly functional.”
Indeed, if reformed properly, these structures could act as an important participatory structure in Malawian society. However, in its current form, these structures are often dysfunctional, underutilized, or coopted by elites, ultimately preventing the transformative effects of participation from being realized. If they are to be democratic and participatory, the Malawian state must provide more funding and attention to these structures.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Malawi's hybrid political system exemplifies the complexity of governance in many global south contexts. In Malawi, the state relies on traditional authorities to implement and deliver programs and services in rural areas. This has occurred for a host of reasons, ranging from the inability of the state to afford local elections to a general lack of state legitimacy beyond urban centers in the country. Development actors have even started to incorporate these traditional structures into their interventions to achieve participatory outcomes, as they are often the closest and most respected actors to ordinary citizens. However, reliance on these authorities has further entrenched and legitimized traditional authorities in Malawian society. Questions could be raised about whether this delegitimizes the state and, if so, what long-term consequences this will have for democratization efforts in the country. Additionally, Malawi's political system draws attention to the important role intermediaries can play in the engagement between citizens and the state in global south contexts. Academics Bettina von Lieres and Laurence Piper have argued that this practice of mediation “reflects a context-specific form of democratic deficit.” (p. 2, 2014) In fact, so prevalent do they find this phenomenon that they state it may be useful to sometimes replace the term ‘state-society relations’ with ‘state-intermediary-society relations’ (p. 1, 2014). Ultimately, the successful implementation and functioning of new participatory projects in the global south will rely on careful and continued monitoring and evaluation.
Participatory Reflection and Action
Traditional Governance Systems
Arnstein, S. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216-224.
Chiweza, A. (2010). A Review of th Malawi Decentralization Process: Lessons from Selection Districts. Ministry of Local Government and Concern International. http://tilitonsefund.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/A-Review-of-the-Malawi-Decentralization-Process-2010.pdf
Eggen, O. (2011). Chiefs and Everyday Governance: Parallel State Organisations in Malawi. Journal of Southern African Studies, 37(2), 313-331.
von Lieres, B., & Piper, L. (2014). Mediated citizenship: the informal politics of speaking for citizens in the global south. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Malawi National Guidelines - Integrated Catchment Management and Rural Infrastructure:
Local Government Overview: http://www.catchmentguidelines.org.mw/en/procedural-guidelines/local-gov...
District Executive Committee http://www.catchmentguidelines.org.mw/en/procedural-guidelines/district-...
Area Development Committee http://www.catchmentguidelines.org.mw/en/procedural-guidelines/area-deve...
Village Development Committee http://www.catchmentguidelines.org.mw/en/procedural-guidelines/village-d...
Area Executive Committee http://www.catchmentguidelines.org.mw/en/procedural-guidelines/area-exec...
Lead image: 'A village gathering in Malawi' | Poverty Action Lab https://goo.gl/WzXv4V