Setting devolution up for success: Part 1

Rudo Grace Charamba Correspondent

The term devolution refers to the transfer or delegation of power, resources and representation down to the lower level of government, thus creating a government that is close to the people.

Such local governments are responsible for addressing the everyday needs of the population that they serve through the management of the associated social, economic and political development programmes.

The Zimbabwe Constitution provides for the organisation of Government at three levels, namely, national, provincial and local authorities, with the provincial and metropolitan councils making up the provincial level while urban and rural district councils constitute the local authorities.

In principle, devolution provides a major opportunity for improving governance through the following:

Giving powers of local governance to the people, thus granting rights to communities to manage their own resources

Enhancing their participation in making decisions that affect them

Promoting democratic, effective, transparent, accountable and coherent government in Zimbabwe as a whole

Preserving and fostering peace, national unity and indivisibility of Zimbabwe

Transferring responsibilities and resources from the national Government for the purpose of establishing a sound resource base for the devolved governments.

Devolved governments are expected to deliver improved service and also drive development more effectively than central Government because the officials responsible for planning are closer to the peculiar circumstances of various regions or localities.

They are, therefore, believed to be well-equipped for designing optimal solutions to the development problems of these areas.

It is also argued that central Government planners lack adequate appreciation of the critical factors that influence development at the local level, and are thus inclined to develop generalised and unrealistic plans that cannot sufficiently address the developmental needs of communities.

Accountability is also expected to be enhanced because local governments are directly answerable for the quality of programme implementation, whereas with centralised administration, they can easily shift blame for their defective implementation or misuse of resources to their superiors at central Government.

The success of devolution, measured by the achievement of its objectives, calls for commitment and buy-in of the agenda by all stakeholders followed by highly participatory, inclusive and prudent implementation processes, guided by objectives that are derived, by consensus, from the national goals.

According to literature, devolution is often implemented far less comprehensively than intended and thus fails to achieve the objectives of the agenda.

For example, a wide range of progressive legislation was passed, in several nations, but was never implemented.

The shortcomings were attributed to significant challenges that were mostly pronounced in devolved governments where additional roles and responsibilities are assigned.

This piece considers experiences with devolution as a driver of socio-economic development, recorded in literature, in efforts to promote successful implementation of the devolution agenda.

Devolution entails meaningful engagement of citizens, by local authorities, to actively participate in making decisions that relate to addressing their needs.

The two groups of citizens primarily relate to each other on matters regarding service delivery, which is ordinarily perceived to be highly unsatisfactory in many regions and nations, Zimbabwe included.

Such dissatisfaction tends to consistently strain relations between the two groups that are supposed to work to together for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Several common contributing factors, for this shortcoming in service delivery, are cited in literature, notably poor management and equally poor governance systems, which lead to the loss of resources through waste, corruption and rampant theft.

The weaknesses in governance systems mostly relate to limited or lack of opportunities for citizens’ participation, as well as the unresponsiveness of local authorities.

In the same context, local authorities cite lack of capital and rising cost of supplies, defaulting citizens as well as interference from central Government as the main contributors to the poor quality service delivery.

On top of the challenges relating to the strained external relationships, there is often another pressing issue and associated shortcomings involving councillors and council officials.

Councillors are, ideally and officially, the decision-makers on key council policies, programmes and projects, implying that they manage council business.

Like all managers, their effectiveness depends on their level of control on such business.

However, their management capacity is ordinarily built by way of briefings, on council business and the associated processes, provided by council officials.

Moreover, the majority of councillors ordinarily depend on council resources that are also controlled by the council officials.

The officials thus become the councillors’ de facto benefactors, a situation that is suboptimal for ensuring good governance, as well as the objectivity in the functions of councillors as citizens’ representatives.

Constant review and adjustment of governance systems is thus imperative to ensure their effectiveness in promoting success.

The adequacy of financial, human and institutional capacities for sound equipment of the devolved governments to manage additional, and often more complex, tasks assigned to them, is key for successful devolution.

For example, instances of duplicity of effort at both the central and local levels were attributed to incompetence among officials as well as poor institutional structures.

To be continued next week.

Dr Rudo Grace Gwata-Charamba is an author, development project/programme management consultant and researcher with a special interest in Results Based Management (RBM), Governance and Leadership. She can be contacted via email: