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Localism in Zambia

Water kiosk on the outskirts of Chipata in Zambia

Zambia’s Constituency Development Fund proves how much more can be achieved when local people are in control. Will the country’s new government take it to the next level? Austin Macauley reports

The run up to Zambia’s elections in September was characterised by as much mud slinging by rival politicians as you’d find in the UK. But there was one issue that they all agreed on: the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) must be protected at all costs.

Indeed, since Michael Sata and his Patriotic Front party triumphed, unseating Rupiah Banda to become president, politicians have been falling over themselves to increase the amount of money going into CDF. Just last week there were calls for it to rise to anything from one billion kwacha (K1bn) to K5bn from its current level of K720m (roughly £90,000) a year for each of Zambia’s 150 constituencies.

For a country where around two-thirds of the 13 million population live below the poverty line, the consequences could be far-reaching. But the reasons for optimism lie as much in the nature of CDF as the sums of money involved.

Set up in 1995 and with many equivalents across Africa, the scheme is designed to create pots of money to target local issues and foster development. But in the early years the impact of CDF was hampered by the meagre amounts of money involved – an annual budget of as little as £1,250 per constituency initially – and by corruption among politicians and officials. This led to increasing pressure by civil society organisations like Caritas to introduce reforms to alter the way in which the scheme is administered.

Caritas had already been campaigning to close the growing gap between politicians and the people they serve and CDF presented an ideal vehicle to address the issue. With MPs exercising complete control of their constituency’s allocation, accusations of supporting pet projects or discriminating against areas where they had poor political support were rife.

The road from Chipata to South Luangwa in Zambia

Consequently, CDF committees were set up comprising the local MP, ward councillors, community leaders and local council officers. The next crucial step was the creation of National Assembly Constituency offices in every area. The combination of a locally targeted fund and a local point of contact has been key to the scheme’s success, according to Mthaziko Zulu, governance programmes coordinator for Caritas in Chipata, capital of Zambia’s eastern province.

‘In the past I would go to an office and say “the roof has blown off my local school” – it would then go to the minister for education, be discussed and assessed and I’d wait three years for the roof to be replaced,’ he explains. ‘But with CDF, within two months it would be sorted out if the funds were available.’

Caritas monitors the effectiveness of CDF and regularly meets with communities to get feedback. Thanks to the reforms, and despite the relatively small amounts of money involved, the scheme continues to surpass all expectations.

‘It has brought MPs closer to the community,’ says Zulu. ‘With other government programmes that are coming through, communities are not involved in planning, making decisions etc.

‘But with CDF there’s real involvement of people so communities have started organising themselves for meetings looking at what problems they have to sort out and prioritising them. You now see a lot of participation. The funding doesn’t come with strings attached, people decide how to use it.’

Local councils receive their area’s allocation direct from government, advertise the availability of funds, invite project proposals from the community and then proposals are passed via the district planning office to the CDF committee for scrutiny. Chosen projects are then presented to the full council meetings for approval and, if successful, a project management committee formed by the community steers the initiative from then on.

It’s had an empowering effect in many areas, says Zulu. ‘Unlike other funding, communities strongly believe this is their fund.’ So when residents of Milenge in the Mansa district of Luapala province in northern Zambia suspected officials of embezzling K200m of CDF funds they marched to the council offices carrying placards, singing songs and chanting slogans demanding the removal of the officers involved.

‘What is amazing for me is the way in which people have got involved in deciding what to do with the money – no one is imposing on them. The way it has grown and been accepted has happened at a far faster rate than I expected. It’s also amazing to see all MPs supporting this. With other parliamentary reforms they have been divided and we’re not moving forward.’

‘Unlike other funding, communities
strongly believe this is their fund.’

CDF has been spent on a wide range of projects, from road and water supply improvements to new sports, health and recreation facilities. But perhaps it’s the smaller scale initiatives that highlight the added value it can deliver. In many communities women’s ‘clubs’ have been formed, typically involving 15-20 people focused around a particular issue. Some have been able to gain funding to pay for machinery in order to pursue income-generating activities, such as growing and processing groundnuts to produce peanut butter or buying a hammer mill to grind maize rather than having to do the job by hand or travel to pay to have it processed elsewhere. Money generated by the club is then loaned to members for their own activities or simply to improve their standard of living. It’s easy to see how CDF funds can be multiplied and recycled in this way.

Last year the World Bank named Zambia as one of the world’s fastest economically reforming countries. But severe poverty persists despite economic growth in recent years – something newly-elected president Michael Sata capitalised on by pledging to implement pro-poor policies. The task is huge, but the chances of success will be far greater if government learns from the success of CDF to date – and builds on it, says Zulu.

‘What we are pushing for now is an increase of this fund. There are a number of other government projects and all those funds should be channelled through CDF. But also there’s a need to move towards putting in measures that would safeguard the fund, to ensure it does not go to waste and that communities are getting real benefits from it.’

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