HomeOpinionEric Bloch Column: The realities of devolution

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He also argued that Zimbabwe is too small for devolution to be constructively pursued, and that the effect of devolution would be to divide that allegedly small country into numerous minuscule countries.

 

However, the reality is that the majority of those pressing for devolution are seeking economic and administrative devolution, in contradistinction to political devolution.  None are seeking that their provinces should become separate, independent countries.  But they do contend, with great justification, that administration should be decentralised from Harare, and that within the parameters of an overall national economic policy, appropriate underlying policies should be regionally determined, as all too often one area may be in need of policies and actions very specific to their areas.

The Zimbabwean economy continues to be extremely weak and distressed, but as grievous as is the economy in Harare and its surrounding districts, that in the remainder of Zimbabwe is even worse.  To a significant extent that weakened economic circumstance is due to the almost total lack of devolution.  Any interactions with government must be pursued in Harare, for the offices of the diverse governmental ministries in other cities are  naught but post offices, devoid of any determinative powers.  That is so in respect of the ministries of Industry and Commerce, Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Resettlement, Finance, Labour and Social Welfare,  Local Government, Urban and Rural Development, Mines and Mining Development, and almost all other ministries.

Almost any issue requiring ministerial interaction is subject to referral to Harare (where, as a general rule, such referrals are dealt with at one of three speeds, being slow, very slow, or stop!  As a result, innumerable issues impacting economic activity in non-Harare areas, are jeopardised and negatively impacted upon.

Like circumstances apply to almost all State enterprises and parastatals, including Zesa, TelOne, NSSA and many others.  Moreover, because of that governmental administrative infrastructure of near-total concentration of operations and determinative authority in Harare, similar circumstances apply to most private sector entities of a national nature.  This is especially apparent in the banking sector, with branch managers in centres other than Harare being devoid of any substantive authority.  This applies similarly in the case of pension funds, insurance companies, and very many others.

Recently the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BPRA) issued a comprehensive, most informative statement entitled  Demystifying the Myths about Devolution of Power, suggesting that the arguments against devolution of power are superficial.  Its first comment is that “one major myth against devolution is the perceived fear that it would lead to the disintegration of the country and the state”.  Refuting that myth, BPRA states that “the reality is that devolution is the sharing of power between the various spheres or levels of government within one state.  It is merely a call for the government to cede authority, resources and responsibilities to the local communities”.

BPRA also authoritatively refutes the presidential contention that Zimbabwe is too small for devolution of power, which  it convincingly states is devoid of substance and uninformed.  BPRA points out that “with a population of 14 million, the population is larger than that of eight African countries put together”, being “Namibia (2,2 million), Botswana (2 million), Lesotho (2,1 million), Mauritius (1,3 million), Gabon (1,5 million), Guinea Bi   ssau  (1,6 million), Swaziland (1,2 million), and Equatorial Guinea (0,7 million)”, all of which successfully have pursued devolution.  BPRA reinforces this emphatic contention that size is not a constraint on devolution, by recording that “Switzerland is a small country with a population of 8 million people and distinct languages but has implemented devolution and reaped huge benefits as it is one of the most stable countries in Europe”.  This is conclusive evidence that population size does not really matter in devolution.

BPRA’s statement also credibly highlights that “devolution involves not just the transfer of power, but also financial resources”. It emphasises that “the rightsizing of the central ministries and bureaucracies consistent with the transfer of functions to other levels should result in considerable savings which should provide finance and personnel to devolved governments.” 

The BPRA statement contends that “the expenses incurred by the state in maintaining a large bureaucratic structure” would, if effective devolution is pursued, “result in considerable savings which should provide finance and personnel to devolved governments”.  BPRA emphasises this by stating that “the expenses incurred by the state in maintaining a large bureaucratical structure will be diverted to the establishment of smaller, less expensive local government structures”.

Over and above numerous other very convincing arguments by BPRA on the merits of devolution, their statement makes the very valid point that “the existence of devolution enables decisions on local issues being “made by local citizens through a lower level government that is closer to the people and more responsive to local needs”. 

 

BPRA emphasises this by stating that “devolution transfers the power, functions and responsibility that enable local governments and communities to make socio-political and economic decisions that determine their livelihood, and thus promotes citizen participation in critical issues that affect communities”. 

 

Moreover, BPRA makes the very credible assertion that “within the context of Zimbabwe, direct participation of the people through decentralised systems of governance could be a panacea for corruption and help in the promotion of developments and strengthening of democracy.”

Zimbabwe’s next door neighbour, South Africa, has  substantially effected devolution, with positive economic and other benefits, and without it in any manner being nationally divisive  The head offices of the governmental ministries are in Pretoria, but parliament is conducted in Cape Town.  The majority of the ministries operate offices in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Bloemfontein, the personnel therein having fairly extensive determinative powers within the framework of prescribed national policies. 

In like manner, most of the banks, insurance companies and pension funds have their offices and top management in Johannesburg, but have substantive offices in other centres, with the branch managers having relatively substantial authoritiy.  If devolution works in South Africa, and in many other countries, it should surely similarly work in Zimbabwe.

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