Administrative devolution an economic necessity

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Of the many issues which must be seriously addressed in assuring a substantive recovery of Zimbabwe’s traumatised economy, a critical one is that of administrative devolution in both public and private sectors.

Column by Eric Bloch

While there are recurrent demands by many for political devolution, of far greater importance is the need for administrative devolution within the corridors of government and by many essential economic entities.

Although there is much justification for some of the demands for political devolution, effecting such decentralisation should not be to such extent as to endanger national unity, and as would to all intents and purposes result in that which would be tantamount to the secession of provinces that constitute Zimbabwe, into separate, independent, countries.

To a large extent, political devolution should be centred on, according to local authorities a high degree of autonomy on all issues that do not have material national repercussions, including the access to and provision of utilities and services to residents within local authority areas, and the economic entities operating in those environs.

In contradistinction, the pronounced absence of administrative devolution is a major retardant to the wellbeing of the economy in general and of the populace in all areas of Zimbabwe other than those in the capital city.

Almost without exception, any and all decision-making authority within governmental ministries and parastatals as well as other state enterprises is confined wholly to their head offices, most of which are in Harare.

The offices elsewhere in Zimbabwe are empowered to do nothing other than carry out functions of an administrative nature and to serve as quasi-post offices in forwarding issues to their head offices for consideration, determination, and processing.

In all our government ministries the personnel of those ministries in locations other than Harare are devoid of any substantive determinative authority, and all too frequently are even barred from effecting routine processing of documentation.

A like circumstance exists within most parastatals, including those concerned with energy generation and distribution, telecommunications, air travel, and other essential elements of economic activity, development and growth.

This cataclysmic, excessive, concentration of authority and action upon the capital city severely constrains timeous resolution of key issues, as well as mandatory compliance with the law by almost all commercial and other economic entities and activities in the diverse cities, towns, and rural areas which prima facie are key components of the Zimbabwean economy.

Moreover, the excessive concentration of decision-making (within the boundaries of prevailing laws and policies) and of much administration, on head offices does not pertain only to governmental bodies, but also to many private sector institutions with a national presence.

These include banks, building societies pension funds, insurance companies, retail chains, and many others. Branch managers (with a few notable exceptions) are accorded miniscule decision-making jurisdiction, they being obliged to refer almost all matters necessitating decision to their head offices, national credit committees and the like.

A primary negative consequence of the intense concentration of decision-making authority is to demotivate investment beyond the environs of Harare or in close proximity to that city, and often, motivate existing enterprises to relocate to the capital.

Moreover, most enterprises that remain situated in the diverse centres outside Harare are either subject to greater than necessary operational costs, due to having executives or other personnel all too often commuting to Harare, or suffering considerable operational prejudices due to the delays involved in referring issues to head office, awaiting responses thereto, and often having to make additional and supplementary submissions or representations.

Yet another consequence of the appalling great retention of total determinative authority (no matter the degree of importance or unimportance of the issues) on a centralised basis is that many, and especially the skilled, seek to be employed or economically operational in Harare, depriving other centres and their inhabitants of recourse to such economically or socially essential skills, save and except if resorted to by costly and time-consuming travel, or other communication to Harare.

Since 1980, government has recurrently and dogmatically declined any and all requests by any of the international embassies functioning in Harare for consent to establish consulates or other representative facilities anywhere beyond the boundaries of 40km of the capital city (with the sole exception of Mozambique having been granted consent to have a consulate in Mutare).

Undoubtedly the motivation for this constraint is to enable government to maximise its monitoring of the activities of international diplomats, but the consequence is a massive prejudice to those of Zimbabwe’s populace in general, and those possessed of foreign nationalities in particular, including recurrent needs to travel to Harare and consequently being subjected to generally substantial costs, as well as their attendant loss of valuable productivity time in their centres of residence.

This policy is in sharp contrast to that of many other countries worldwide and within Southern Africa, as evidenced by the extent that many diplomatic missions have a presence in both Pretoria and Cape Town, as well as some also having such presence in Johannesburg and Durban.

Within the private sector there are many comparable examples of absence of devolution. Almost without exception, any application for loans or other funding facilities to banks and other financial institutions must be referred to centralised credit committees.

There are no such regional committees (even if they would be constrained to determinations within pre-prescribed criteria and constraints) nor any substantial vesting of authority in branch managers.

This applies similarly to the purchasing, marketing and merchandising divisions of many national chains within the distributive trade.
And these are but a few examples of the absence of administrative devolution in Zimbabwe, and of the related economic prejudices therefrom.

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