The Sunday Mail Newspaper

As Government continues to devolve power through an elaborate programme to promote development, the Zimbabwe Local Government Association (Zilga), which is the umbrella body for the country’s urban and rural local authorities, is pushing advocacy work and advising Government on best strategies to fine-tune its implementation. Last week, The Sunday Mail spoke to Zilga president Alderman David Guy Mutasa on the sidelines of Zilga’s launch of a paper on devolution advocacy. Below are excerpts from the interview.

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Q: What is your overall assessment of the implementation of devolution so far?

A: We acknowledge the significant strides that have been made in operationalising devolution under the Second Republic.

Through the implementation of intergovernmental fiscal transfers, local authorities have been able to address infrastructure development deficits in record time. Roads have been rehabilitated, clinics and schools have been built and various service delivery equipment such as refuse trucks, graders, tippers, among others, have been procured.

We hope that these allocations increase so that we continue to facilitate the progressive realisation of the socio-economic rights of our people. We appreciate that devolution will take Zimbabwe far and it is the major driving force for Vision 2030 to be a reality.

Q: What are some of your recommendations to Government to improve implementation of the programme?

A: Zilga urges Government to facilitate a transition towards a devolution framework that will result in the achievement of Vision 2030 by embracing the principle of solidarity, territorial approach to local governance and policy coherence.

Q: What are some of the challenges that local authorities have faced in implementing devolution?

A: Councils build their fiscal authority around effective consultations of the residents of a local Government area. Most have established both structures and procedures for consultations with the aid of local and international civil society organisations, alongside national Government support.

However, local, but mainly national, politicians interfere with local planning and budgeting processes.

Some mobilise the minister and ministry responsible for Local Government to block council policies.

This creates an impression that councils are an extension of the ministry responsible for Local Government.

Further, the standards applied to and interference visited upon councils are not experienced by other State institutions like parastatals, which make decisions with financial implications without consulting citizens.

Q: Are you suggesting that there are fights between Members of Parliament and councils in implementing devolution?

A: The interaction between Members of the National Assembly and local authority policymakers is an area needing regulation.

Because Members of Parliament and Senators are also centres of power, they often contradict or undermine local authority powers. Invariably, they fan community preferences that may contradict choices made with council facilitation.

This arises from the overlap between use of council wards and parliamentary constituencies as units for development planning purposes.

The role of parliamentarians at local level requires full definition in a devolved context to ensure that law-making by the three tiers of Government is clear and effective.

Q: Do local authorities have enough autonomy to implement devolution?

A:  A worrying impression exists where national agencies view local authorities as extensions of the ministry responsible for Local Government rather than a standalone tier of Government.

This is furthered by administrative and policy communications from the ministry that entrench national Government’s control over local functions, including with respect to resources.

The ‘desk officer model’ at the ministry responsible for Local Government often comes under scrutiny as one that undermines local fiscal autonomy and decision-making authority.

Through this mechanism, limits are imposed on revenue and expenditure levels without adequate evidence, let alone appreciation of local realities.

Often this disrespects the notion that council services are costed.

That the cost parameters vary by council is often not fully considered by officials of the ministry responsible for Local Government.

Key informants indicated that there was some arbitrariness on the part of officials of the ministry when advising on council budgets.

The autonomy of local authorities regarding recruitment and supervision of senior staff is critical. Councils require a higher degree of autonomy regarding the personnel needing management function, from chief executives to heads of departments (directors), than they have presently.

This will enable senior executives to be held to account for policy implementation and, thus, accountability for results.

At present, this relationship is unclear. The Local Government Board plays a role in the recruitment, promotion and termination of employment contracts. The determination of these processes at national level is a stream through which council policy-making (resolutions) gets weakened.

Some senior council staff feel more accountable to national than Local Government.

Q: What are some of the salient features of Zilga’s devolution advocacy paper?

A: Generally, devolution is the handover or transfer of Governmental powers, responsibilities, resources, accountabilities and authority from national to sub-national tiers of Government.

The objective of devolution is to enhance State accountability and delivery to citizens.

We envisage that devolution will increase efficiency and effectiveness of local governance institutions by minimising bureaucracy owing to ensuring levels of decision-making are closer to the people.

We relish the opportunity to govern on our own initiative, managing our own affairs and steering appropriate development trajectories as enshrined in the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

The paper seeks to articulate that devolution presents an opportunity for Central Government to engage Local Government as partners for success and entrench whole-of-Government and whole-of-society approaches to national development.

The paper also speaks about development planning and interaction of State institutions.

Devolution funds have brought some impetus to local authority-level planning and implementation of development. There are increased responsibilities around making and implementing policies.

Q: In the devolution advocacy paper, you raised issues on the limitations that local authorities are having on spatial planning and land administration powers. Can you shed more light on this and how it affects service delivery?

A: Local authorities’ spatial planning powers are currently curtailed, causing serious delays in decision-making necessary for seizing economic development opportunities.

This is specifically an issue for rural local authorities as their spatial planning functions are currently exercised by national Government. Planning approvals currently take long as applications move from local authority to provincial and then national levels, frustrating service delivery.

The delays also partly account for the circumventing of processes contributing to land access and housing development informality.

National Government and council executives overlap in terms of functions and jurisdictions, especially in spatial planning and land administration.

Such interference undermines councils’ planning authority powers.

Apart from the ministry responsible for Local Government, the ministries responsible for mining and lands also perform spatial planning functions that tend to contradict those of rural local authorities.