THE GOVERNMENT has started disbursing devolution funds to local authorities countrywide to ensure provinces can carry out meaningful and strategic developmental programmes.
With $2,9 billion having been set aside by Treasury, Zimbabwe should start seeing capital projects being rolled out nationwide as the Government moves towards decentralising development, that is allowing the people in each province and community to decide what they need and want, rather than have this decided in Harare.
This makes sense. There is a budget for infrastructure across the country, but the people in each area must know more of what they need first, and who are unlikely to be worried about turf wars in Harare.
Already local communities have been applying devolution funds for what they want, and because it is their decision they are even topping up the devolution funds with money raised in local rates, and even getting donations from businesses and others in their areas.
Treasury has so far released approximately $290 million towards the programme. Already, many projects are underway in provinces across Zimbabwe to unlock economic opportunities and build a culture of conducting business.
Once completed, devolution will turn provinces and districts into national hubs for production and export of unique products and services. With thousands of people pinning their hopes on opportunities that devolution will create, reports that some local authorities were sitting on funds meant for developmental projects are disturbing.
They need to follow the example of those who have been eager to grab the cash, top it up and race to build or install what their constituents have been shouting for over the years.
A good example is Mhondoro-Ngezi Rural District Council. As devolution funds flowed in the council rushed to build a long-desired extra clinic and put in a piped water supply in the surrounding area.
It added a bit of its own funds and managed to get a few local businesses to chip in. The example set was praised when Vice President Kembo Mohadi was pleased to preside over the opening and commissioning ceremonies last week. It is this sort of response the Government was hoping for, but other councils are less prepared. Local authorities have over the years often ascribed their failure to deliver on financial distress.
Faced by stark realities like poor roads and collapsed service delivery in most local authorities, there is no reason why devolution funds should be locked up in banks.
However, this appears to be the case, amid revelations that some local authorities have no idea, how they should use funds allocated to them.
A recent visit to Nkayi Rural District Council by Local Government and Public Works Deputy Minister Marian Chombo revealed that the local authority had failed to deliver despite receiving devolution funds.
It is crucial for local authorities to immediately commit funds released from Treasury to use on projects that would have been planned and budgeted for so that the money does not lose value. The country was wading through an inflationary environment where a dollar today has more value than a dollar tomorrow, hence the need to use funds promptly to realise maximum benefits for the nation.
Immediate use assists in the accountability of the funds to avoid cases of misappropriation which often occur when project costs are revalued to accommodate increases in costs of either material or labour.
Given the manner in which the devolution principle is spelt out, which among other things requires provinces to develop critical infrastructure that can create economic opportunities, there is no reason why devolution funds can be stuck in the banks.
Varying amounts being released from Treasury to provinces are based on the needs of each province, which should make it easier to channel funds to those areas of deprivation.
The power to decide on the activity to undertake remains the local authorities’ power under major six areas, which are education, health, water, electricity, social amenities and roads.
With such defined areas of priority, it should be easy for councils to channel funds on projects that fall within the defined major areas to avoid underutilisation and abuse of devolution funds.
Any council worth its name must have a list of projects, and even have this list in order of priority. As the money flows, council should be able to take the next project on the list, issue the tenders and get cracking.
Nkayi district is an area of low rainfall, and water supply has always been a challenge in the district. Instead of keeping the funds in the bank, council should be thinking of improving water supplies in Nkayi by drilling boreholes.
Other funds can also be used to develop water harvest methods, as a backup measure to existing water sources, when the situation becomes dire. The case of Nkayi alone clearly shows that the council has no sound public finance management systems, which are a pre-requisite for devolution to be a success and to be meaningful.
Implementation of devolution without ensuring that the people in charge are knowledgeable about sound public finance management systems could be a recipe for disaster.
Local authorities have often been found wanting when it comes to managing funds. Cases of embezzlement, tender fraud and misuse of project funds have become their mainstay, a situation that clearly shows that there is little or no financial prudence in the corridors of most local authorities.
Sound public management systems would need to be strengthened to plug in on possible leakages and misuse of funds. On the other hand, councils could be failing to utilise devolution funds, because they lack the expertise to implement developmental projects as autonomous institutions without hand holding from central government. We urge Government to provide local authorities with technocrats to advise and assist in the implementation of some of the projects.
Outside the purview of the technocrats, provincial structures of the Government and other stakeholders could also assist by giving guidance to the implementers on how best the funds can be utilised to the satisfaction of everyone. What needs to come out clearly for local authorities is that devolution in not an event, but a process. For the exercise to be successful, that will require prudence and due diligence on implementers of devolution within local authorities as they prepare the journey towards autonomy on economic developmental projects.
In the long run, the Government should wean off local authorities from the Treasury, a development that calls for municipalities to manage own resources, funds and projects so that they can drive the developmental agenda in their own provinces.
These efforts seek to achieve modernisation and industrialisation of the country in line with Vision 2030 of achieving an upper middle income being advocated by President Mnangagwa.