Decentralization: Policy Implications


By Josephat Sinvula


The introduction of the policy of decentralization in Namibia has its origins in the vision of the South West Africa Peoples Organization (SWAPO), the ruling party, during the peoples’ protracted struggle for Namibia’s independence. It was reflected and amplified way back in the SWAPO Party Election Manifesto of 1989 during the implementation of UN Resolution 435 that mandated the

UN to conduct elections in the country. The political will for decentralization in Namibia was already expressed as early as 1989 by the ruling party.

Chapter 12 of the 1989 SWAPO Manifesto on Local Government and Housing, for instance, provided that, “… under a SWAPO government, independent

Namibia will have democratically elected local authorities in both rural and urban areas, in order to give power to the people at the grassroots level to make decisions on matters affecting their lives”.

The vision of the SWAPO Party-led government on local governance was later enshrined in the Constitution of independent Namibia.

Chapter 12 of the Namibian Constitution provides for the system of Regional and Local Government in the country.

Article 102(1) specifically provides for structures of Regional and Local Government. It states that, “…for purposes of regional and local government,

Namibia shall be divided into regional and local units which shall consist of such regional and local authorities as may be determined and defined by an Act of Parliament”.

It is therefore worth noting that with the vision of the Ruling Party that appeared in the 1989 Manifesto Election, the realization of the Policy of Decentralization in Namibia came into effect as a national policy in 1997, after Cabinet approved it in 1996.

The effective date for kick-starting the implementation of the policy was April 1, 1998.

Public Policy Option

Decentralization in the Namibian context is by definition a process through which powers, responsibilities and resources for public functions are delegated or devolved from the central government’s line ministries to regional councils and local authorities within the framework of a unitary state and under the guiding principle: functions-follow-funds and human capital.

In other words, decentralization in Namibia aims to ensure economic, cultural and socio-economic development, provide people at the grassroots level the opportunity to participate in their own decision-making and extend democracy to them as a right based on national ideals and values.

For most of us seasoned technocrats working with rural communities, we can boldly tell the Namibian nation that the process of decentralization has benefited and continues to benefit the Namibian citizens as follows:

– It has empowered regional councils and local authorities;
– It has broadened democracy;
– It has ensured a greater equity in attending to a needy population;
– It has reduced the responsibility of the State; and
– People at grassroots levels have greatly participated as citizenry in solving problems close to where they exist.

Instruments for Decentralization

The Decentralization Enabling Act of 2000 circumscribes that decentralization in Namibia will go through the phases of delegation and eventually devolution. The principle is that every function decentralized shall be followed by resources and personnel.

Delegation in Namibia means that a particular line ministry will decentralize a function, responsibility or resources to either a regional council or local authority. However, the line ministry concerned will still be accountable to and for the function(s) delegated as well as budgeting and personnel.

That is, the line ministry concerned allocates some of its functions to the sub-national levels to carry out, but not to take, full responsibility for, and without abrogating its own public accountability for those functions and without prejudice to its right to retract those functions.

Devolution means that regional councils and local authorities will have full administrative and budgetary control of the function(s) decentralized to them by a line ministry. That, the line ministry gives full responsibility and public accountability for certain functions to the sub-national level.

Currently, the majority of ministries have decentralized own staff in the 13 regions to carry out their regular functions closer to the people they serve or are supposed to interface with for whatever purpose. This is what we call deconcentration but it does not allow any participation by the population in any form of decision-making as all major decisions and budgeting are made in Windhoek.

It follows therefore that in accordance with the Decentralization Act, that activities are to be transferred to regional councils and local authorities together with staff and budget.

The transfer of staff from line ministries to sub-national levels can take place in two ways, namely, through secondment during the delegation phase or through transfer under devolution.

The decentralization policy also states which ministerial functions should be decentralized to the regional councils and local authorities in the immediate, intermediate future and in the longer term.

Democratic Decentralization, Good Governance

Democratic decentralization presupposes the sharing of decision-making powers between the central government and the sub-national levels and the Namibian government has enhanced the institution of democratic decentralization.

Hence, in putting into effect the constitutional provisions under Chapter 12, the Namibian Parliament enacted various key legislation, such as the Regional Councils Act of 1992, Local Authorities Act of 1992, Council of Traditional Leaders Act of 1997, Traditional Authorities Act of 2000, Decentralization Enabling Act of 2000, Trust Fund for Regional Development and Equity Provisions Act of 2000, institutional structures, capacity development and public awareness campaigns.

Hindering Smooth Implementation

Whilst appreciating the concerted efforts of our government in addressing issues that need to speed up the process of decentralization in our 13 regions, such as reducing regional development disparities, training and material resources support to regional councils and local authorities, financial support for recurrent and development budgets to regional councils and local authorities and creating a general understanding of the policies of decentralization to the public through both the print and electronic media, there are several critical issues that appear to present obstacles to the continued decentralization process that need to be addressed before the implementation of public services and goods can be achieved.

The most important of these critical issues include the following:

– The legal framework is rather complex and needs to be harmonized especially the various acts and regulations of various functions of line ministries with the decentralization policy

– The financial transfer systems and financial management require that in order to have a smooth transition from delegation to devolution, the following needs to be developed:

– Design of disbursement mechanism from central government to the regional and local authorities through the Ministry of Finance;

– Need to institute a system of grants, such as block grants to cater for decentralized services, approval of financial disbursements, etc;

– Performance related monitoring of the financial performance within the various sectors;

– Governance awareness in order to further clarify the roles of councils and individual councillors versus regional and local administrative bodies

– The change from delegation phase to devolution to ensure that regional councils and local Aathorities gain a state of preparedness to eventually assume ultimate responsibility for the functions under devolution in the subsequent years. The slow pace in attaining this is problematic and worrisome.

– The management capacity of the Directorate of Decentralization Coordination of the Ministry of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural Development is incapacitated by lack of skilled and experienced management cadre and core staff to spearhead the decentralization process exacerbated by vacant crucial posts within the directorate. Most of us would have preferred the directorate to resort under the Office of the Prime Minister to give it more credibility and ability to perform as the current status quo at the ministry calls for middle management staff at the ministry to oversee senior staff at regional councils, most of whom are more experienced and skilled than them, leading to an “inferior complex” by some staff as evidenced by their “super sensitivity” and defensive posturing when this anomaly is brought to their attention.

– Line ministries’ role require them to develop decentralization strategic plans with regard to delegation and devolution of service functions, staff and other resources but only a few line ministries have embarked upon this critical exercise.

– The management capacity with regard to structures at regional councils and local authorities need to be strengthened through a targeted input.

Hopefully, the secondment and transfer of staff from line ministries to sub-national levels will address the capacity issue at these levels.

Lessons Learnt

As a country, through the implementation of decentralization, we have learnt that decentralization is an expensive exercise that requires huge sums of money to support capacity building, development and infrastructure, strategic leadership and coordination, partnership with the stakeholders as we strive towards prosperous communities and education for all in Namibia.

Similarly, we have learnt that enacting enabling legislation is not a sufficient indication of political and technocratic commitment of the decentralization process. However, commitment should be shown in the allocation of resources to take the process forthwith.

With regard to the lack of internalization of the policy, some line ministries have shown a tendency or propensity of not accepting that they are part and key role players in the decentralization process. Also, political and technocratic resistance has been observed in various line ministries that are supposed to decentralize functions and resources.

Indeed, as it is always with change management, those staff members who are affected tend to protect their vested interests and act as “islands” or “no-go-areas” due to the misconception that the decentralization process will lead to their eventual demise.

Hence, as a counter reaction, some line ministries whose functions and personnel have been identified as candidates for decentralization have embarked on deconcentration of their activities in the regions whilst retaining power at the centre (Windhoek).

However, the only approved policy phases by the Namibian Cabinet are delegation through secondment and eventually devolution of functions, staff and budgetary provisions.

Policy Catalyst

Sustainable economic growth is an essential platform for achieving our broad national development goals. If wealth is not created, there will be nothing to distribute nor can our major social programmes in education and health be sustained.

At the same time, economic growth is sustainable only if present and future generations of our people share its benefits, only if it makes efficient use of our political, administrative, democratic and fiscal decentralization processes.

Decentralization entails both reversing the concentration of administration at a single centre and conferring powers on sub-national levels and its main thrust is to enhance democratic participation in policy formulation and implementation. Decentralization, therefore, brings about development.

Ordinary Namibians have a right to expect a better life after all the sacrifices they endured during the liberation struggle. We therefore need to satisfy the basic needs of ordinary Namibians, and fulfill the deepest aspirations of the Namibian people for a better quality of life and a more prosperous and secure future for their children.

Development is about people and its proper test is Adam Smith’s that no nation can be great and prosperous, the majority of whose people are poor and miserable. Rural Namibia does not pass that test today.

Remember that failure was a central cause of the protracted armed struggle in this country. Unless progress is made and seen to be made by those who are poor and miserable, there will not be any context of commitment to hard work, decent human and social relations, law and order, reconciliation in which rural development – even if defined in narrower production terms – is conceivable let alone attainable.

– Josephat Sinvula holds a B.Sc., in Urban Studies & Planning from Virginia Commonwealth University (USA), MPA from Atlanta University (USA) & is a Ph.D candidate in Political Science. He is currently the Acting Director of HR, Finance & Administration at Oshana Regional Council, Oshakati. The views expressed in this opinion piece are his own views.

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