Pro-poor orientation for municipalities, a toolkit for better service delivery

World over, the globe is littered with ‘failed local states’ and failing municipalities including several new ones that are emerging as having no prospect for fiscal viability. For the past decade, there appears to have been a profound challenge for municipalities in Zimbabwe to emerge from fiscal distress.

A major common phenomenon cutting across municipalities in Zimbabwe today is that they are all heavily imbued with ingredients for their own self-destruction. Despite the fact that local government has a significant role to play in determining quality of life at the community level, municipalities today are faced with both external and internal challenges that threaten the very vitality and essence of local governance.

Zimbabwe is experiencing one of those moments in history where there is rapid growth in its major urban centers. Many cities have begun to exceed provincial populations. Recent growth in cities and in the sprawling suburban and rural areas surrounding metropolitan cities has implied significant shifts in Zimbabwe’s social fabric and political and economic make up that in turn has required appropriate capacity, skills, knowledge and policies across different governance scales. Residents are increasingly looking to their local governments to ensure that the softer or human services side of quality of life is protected and enhanced.

Ostensibly, the economic challenges facing the country have resulted in municipalities extensively falling short in ensuring that services needed by the poor are actually delivered, maintained and work properly. Rudimentary infrastructure, ever increasing urban poverty, dilapidated sewer systems, poor road networks, unwillingness by municipalities to adequately assure the provision basic services to significant portions of their populations (the underrepresented and marginalized members of community), rampant corruption and a general lack of accountability have all rendered municipalities moribund.

This has been so acute that municipalities have as a result adopted extreme survival strategies such as implementing callous debt recovery policies which have assumed the form of civil lawsuits, property attachments, disconnection of services and bill estimation amongst others. It is no surprise that these have yielded unsuccessful results. It is often said that local government is the level of government closest to the people.

Regrettably, local government institutions have been largely perceived by residents as being highly “technocratic” and “managerial” rather than inherently democratic and all involving. Poor rate payers who are living way below the poverty threshold have been over burdened with excessive rates and charges. In the majority of instances, these have been met with stiff resistance by rate payers who have, more than ever before, felt the need to ‘punish’ local authorities.

This has been augmented by the fact that relations between residents and local authorities have become complex where residents are increasingly feeling that local authorities no longer have good intensions towards them as they are merely engaged on a clientele basis, rather than a humanely one. Consequently, rates have not been at all progressive and have thus offset the residents’ ability to pay.

The ambivalence of central government on the extreme cost recovery policies adopted by councils has also been a shocking phenomenon which has further accelerated the debts more and more poor people find themselves in. This has resulted in largely accruing debts which residents have not been able to offset, resulting in the seizure of properties belonging to those who cannot afford. Poor residents have been made to suffer through unreasonable billing systems, stiff rates and penalties, unmerited tariff design mechanisms and unreasonable price and tariff determination which have compounded the misery rate payers find themselves in.

One of the major shortcomings of municipalities has been the inability to adequately heed to the central government directive which required all municipalities to utilize 70% of their budgets towards service delivery and 30% on salaries. It is important to acknowledge the need for budget integrity and coherence as a guarantee of the prudence of the fiscal authority

In order for municipalities to be viable and to be able to meet service delivery expectations and demands, there is need for a pro-poor orientation. First and foremost, there is need to revise the tariff determination mechanism used by councils. The relationship between service cost and charges levied on services should be properly examined.

A culture of debt forgiveness should also be considered as having the potential to result in a culture of rates compliance where citizens feel they have the responsibility to sustain municipalities, rather than municipalities surviving at the expense of citizens.

This strategy should be inculcated as part of building a culture of compliance and restoring trust rather than a carefully thought out strategy for improving the revenue base. There is need for municipalities to carefully reform their debt management systems extensively to meet the needs of its varied customers. Lowering the rates to match incomes may become an incentive for rate payers.

Municipalities have over the past emerged as a significant level of government that are now deserving of their own seat at important financial allocation tables, such as infrastructure funding and revenue allocation. There is need for central government to create an enabling environment through which local authorities can thrive and progress.

One way to do this would be devolving most responsibilities such as collection of toll gates revenue to councils and cities. In the same vein, central government must look into increasing central grants to aid municipalities to transition out of the current quagmire. Budgeting should also be used by municipalities as an instrument of financial control rather that an instrument of financial planning.

There is need to invest more and more into pro poor budgeting. Pro poor budgeting is a very new and if not a very radical phenomenon. The move towards pro poor budgeting and participation now marks even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s approaches to economic strategy (at least on the surface). For the poorest countries, the entry point of this new approach is the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) process. These policy strategy papers are required for Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) to gain access to substantial reductions on debt owed to the international financial institutions (the World Bank and the IMF).

Sadly, today local institutions have degenerated into elite-based self serving institutions serving the interests of their own and consumers have been reduced to mere second class citizens with the ability to choose and complain and have been stripped the ability to proactively shape services. Pro-poor institutional reforms and policies including ‘people budgeting’ practice and political commitment along with ownership and credibility (resulting from broad based stakeholders’ participation) is essential for a sustainable shift in municipal pro-poor economic policy.

There is also need for the creation of frameworks or entry points of engagement so that residents too can be guaranteed a permanent place in the bargaining table. A pro-poor municipal outlook has the potential of promoting equity and social justice and leading to greater transparency, enhanced accountability and, above all, to pro-poor results. There is also an abiding need for all Zimbabweans to be actively involved and seize the opportunity to confront Zimbabwe’s political legacy of clientelism, social exclusion, and corruption by making local authority processes transparent, open, and public.

Emmanuel Ndlovu is the Advocacy and Programmes Manager for Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association. He writes in his individual capacity and may be contacted on: [email protected] and [email protected]

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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