Our Lukewarm Decentralization

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By Godfrey Chitalu

For us who were adults during the 90s, we watched with trepidation as more than 250 companies were privatized at the stroke of a mighty pen. Those wielding power said they were in control of the after effects. Our hope was that the shift from public to private sector would bring about political, administrative, fiscal and market decentralization. The focus it seemed was more on physical privatization of known running national assets without embracing decentralization and its four aforementioned facets in totality. It was like rushing for the dessert without touching the main meal. We are all now wedded to that thought pattern, where the main meal has gone begging.

It is undeniable that collectively, we did not care for other critical elements that involve a shift from the public to the private sector. The current scenario is that power, services, systems and most activities in our country are and will continue to be heavily centralized until heaven knows. Although there is a marked plurality of thoughts about decentralization, our country has been feet dragging in executing this component. Despite a head start from donors, this snail walk is quite palpable.

Politically our dreams of regional representation that involve a sort of mixed member proportional representation was thwarted by disagreements. Without supporting proponents and opponents, we missed an opportunity, perhaps on ethical reasons to have a form of devolved representation. There are claims that the ruling party did not do a good job at marketing a certain bill and a counter claim that the opposition are actually not good listeners. Since its water under the bridge, political decentralization in Zambia theliz no!

I hope the new representatives we are going to elect in August will give some wings to this direction. We have also not scored much in regard to administrative decentralization. This relate to redistribution of authority, responsibility and financial resources to lower levels of government. Our local authorities it seems have been incapacitated by over centralization. Our councils grapple with tax collection issues within their geographical ambit. I mean all taxes; tolls/roads, traffic, user, land, mining and related finances should be channeled through the councils. This latitude can go a long way in devolving functions even if it means picking up the wage bill for all and sundry.

In all fairness almost all functions for planning, financing and expansion should be left to local authorities. Why should everything start and end with Lusaka? Why should civil servants be employed from Lusaka? Does it mean our provinces have no qualified human resource? Let us emulate other countries where such functions are handled at regional levels. Why are we so fixated with controlling finances from one central unit in Lusaka?

Total decentralization is a very critical element which successful governments have ignored. Is it a complex issue for our country to allow revenue sharing, debt transactions, borrowings, refinancing and the said fiscal transfers to be handled by regions? Don’t we trust our provincial and district leaders? Fiscal autonomy should be embraced but with good formulae for resource sharing, perhaps using population as a marker.

In regard to market decentralization our country has also not taken enough bold steps. In here shifting responsibility for health and education functions from the public to the private sector is at the core. If we are to score points in political, economic and social issues there is need to embrace decentralization in full.

Of course we have made some strides in partial devolution for our health and education systems. If you visit most communities, at least a health post and a school is visible. We however need to take great strides towards total decentralization. Remember that financial responsibility is a core component of decentralization. If local governments and private organizations are to carry out decentralized functions effectively, they must have adequate levels of revenues.

In conclusion heavy centralization is at the core of service commissions that go round our country day in and out to recruit, demote and promote staff when this function can be done at zero cost by locals!  

The author is a social commentator who writes for pleasure.

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