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Namibia's Decentralisation Policy was adopted in 1997, but the idea of empowering communities through sharing power and responsibility between national and sub-national governments dates back to the time before Independence.
The introduction of decentralisation in Namibia should be viewed against the historical background of the un-democratic and discriminatory form of governance before Independence. At the time, the majority of people did not have the right to make decisions on matters that directly affected their lives, and were not given opportunities to determine their own destiny.
The liberation movement SWAPO saw decentralisation as a means of achieving local democracy and grassroots-level participation in government affairs long before the Independence in 1990. This is demonstrated in the 1988 SWAPO blueprint (UNIN) on governance in the independent Namibia.
At Independence, the concept of decentralisation was enshrined in the Constitution, the fundamental law of a sovereign and independent Namibia. The Constitution provides for the establishment of sub-national governments and a system of decentralised government within the confines of a unitary state and national policies, ideals and values.
The next step paving way for a decentralisation was the creation of sub-national governments. They came into being through the enactment of the Regional Councils and Local Authorities Acts in August 1992 and their governing bodies – regional councils, town councils, municipality councils and village councils – became operational after the first regional sub-national elections in December 1992.
In 1996, more than three years after the enactment of the Regional Councils and Local Authorities' Acts, the Ministry of Regional and Local Government and Housing instituted a review to establish whether decentralisation was on course. It indicated that progress was slower than expected, and that the reform needed a clear policy framework for its implementation.
This prompted the then Minister of Regional and Local Government and Housing, Hon Dr. N. Iyambo to develop a fully fledged and all encompassing decentralisation policy for Namibia. The policy was published in the booklet ‘A Decentralisation Policy for the Republic of Namibia – Decentralisation, Development and Democracy', in November 1996, and sanctioned by Cabinet on 11 December 1996. (In 1998, the booklet was later followed by ‘The Policy, Its Development and Implementation'.)
The Decentralisation Policy was tabled in the National Assembly on 30 September 1997 and unanimously adopted as a national policy for the promotion of equal economic, cultural and socio-economic development and improved public service provision across the country.
The job of the Namibian Government is to make decisions that affect Namibia and to administer the country. The central government is mainly situated in Windhoek, but this is far away from the communities in both urban and rural areas across the country. This is why the National Assembly adopted the Decentralisation Policy in 1997.
"Decentralisation" means giving the power to make decisions about these urban areas (villages, towns and municipalities) and rural areas (settlements) to regional councils and local authorities, which are directly elected by the people who live there. Through decentralisation, people living in the regions, through local authorities, have more control over their own lives – they can influence the decisions that affect their daily lives.
Decentralisation gives regional councils and local authorities the power to plan and administer on a local level and to do things that improve the lives of their citizens, both socially and economically. It gives them political and financial responsibility for realising national ideals and values.
Decentralisation – the transfer of political, financial and administrative powers from central government to regional councils and local authorities – has great potential to foster sustainable development in Namibia. The main objectives of the Decentralisation Policy are listed below.
To extend, enhance and guarantee participatory democracy
In the context of government decentralisation, "participation" refers to community members exercising their rights and responsibilities through democratic processes. That is, community members participate in regional governance by voting for their elected representatives in regional government; and by involvement in government programmes and activities. It is the civic duty of the citizens to form civil society groups such as NGOs, rate-payers organisations and service clubs, which both initiate innovative self-help programs such as poverty alleviation projects as well as lobby government on behalf of their members
To ensure and safeguard rapid sustainable development.
To transfer power to the regional councils and local authorities based on national ideas and values.
To improve capacity of regional and local government councils to plan, implement, manage and monitor delivery of services for their constituents.
Political, administrative, financial and planning power will be transferred from central government ministries to regional councils and local authorities. By receiving the functions regional and local authority councils will become responsible for and get the authority to carry out planning, implementation, management and monitoring of service delivery at the regional and local levels. Based on the transfer, regional councils and local authorities are to be provided with continuous and formalised capacity building and training in essential fields to improve their service delivery. It is a requirement under the Namibian Decentralisation policy, that the delegating or devolving authority provides the required resources to build the required skills and equip the regional and local institutions.
The Decentralisation Policy identifies 28 functions (tasks) that should be decentralised (handed over) to regional councils and local authorities in the short term. These functions, listed below, are services that directly affect the life of the communities:
Other functions identified in the policy document are intended to be decentralised either in the intermediate or long term.
When the Decentralisation Policy in its entirety is put in place, a number of basic services will be planned for and provided by regional councils and local authorities instead of line ministries based in Windhoek. This will bring many benefits to the people. Some of the most crucial ones are listed below.
Government will be better aware of our local needs and priorities
The regional councils and local authorities are closer to the communities than the central government in Windhoek. These sub-national governments are therefore more familiar with local needs and priorities. With full decentralisation they get to decide how to use the funds allocated to them: For example, which school is to be renovated, where the water points should be set up, what type of other services does the area need for its development?
We get more opportunities to influence how government funds are used
To establish what the local needs and priorities are, regional councils and local authorities are obliged to listen to the communities. For example, at the regional level people can contribute towards decision-making by attending regional council or various development committees meetings and airing their needs and concerns with their constituency councilor. (More information available from your regional council or local authority.)
We do not need to travel far to interact with the government
Regional councils and local authorities are more easily accessible to the general public than line ministries in Windhoek. For example, applying for a license for your vehicle at the regional council office and picking it up at the same place saves time and money compared to having to travel to Windhoek to organize it - and the same counts if we need to report a broken water pipe or a teacher who is neglecting his duties!
Political and administrative office holders will need to perform properly
Regional councils and local authorities are directly elected by the people who live there. When councils have full responsibility for service delivery, people – by voting in elections – can hold their councilors accountable for failure to deliver services or reward them for delivering good services. Decentralisation also improves transparency: everybody is allowed to sit in council meetings where development plans are discussed, approved or rejected. Furthermore, records of approved activities, allocated funds and the use of these funds are kept with the sub-national government where people have easy access to them if they are not convinced by the results they can see on the ground.
Decentralisation, handing tasks over from a line ministry to regional councils, means that staff, assets and funds must be transferred from central government to regions. This requires profound changes in the way the government is organized, and therefore it also takes time.
Since the inception of the policy, much effort has been put in creating an enabling environment for decentralisation. In simple terms, this means developing guidelines for involved stakeholders on how to go about handing over functions (tasks) and resources.
Another key area of work has been strengthening of the regional councils to prepare them to take over functions that are currently performed by the line ministries. This work, too, is bearing fruit as assessment studies conducted in all regions indicate that the regions are now ready for the handover.
So far, only one of the functions earmarked for decentralisation in the Decentralisation Policy, rural water supply, has been handed over to regional councils. This happened in August 2007. Indication however exists that several other earmarked functions could be handed over in 2008.
Local authorities have already been assigned the responsibility for delivering a number of traditional urban services in their areas. These include services like water supply, electricity, sewerage, refuse collection and infrastructure maintenance and development. They are not expected to receive additional functions from the line ministries in the short term. However, they are expected to play an increasingly important role in decentralisation in the medium to long term.
It is important to note that functions are being decentralised in two phases. These are called delegation and devolution. At the moment, we are at the first phase, delegation, where sub-national governments perform tasks on behalf of the line ministries. At the second phase, devolution, decentralisation takes full effect and sub-national governments have the full responsibility over the tasks delegated to them. At this stage, they will also have more freedom to decide how the resources given out by the central government for the region or local authority area are to be used.
We can discuss decentralisation within our communities, and let our leaders know what we think about the process. Decentralisation will only work if the people and their leaders agree on what they what to achieve in terms of development.
For decentralisation to work, leaders must support the process. If the leaders realise that we, their people, want decentralisation to succeed, they will also support it.
We should therefore make sure that the councilors elected to serve on our regional local authority councils are always aware of our needs. After all, the councilors are just the guardians of the new powers that central government is giving to us, the people.
Regional councils and local authorities are obliged to listen to the communities. For example, at the regional level people can contribute towards decision-making by attending regional council or various development committees meetings and airing their needs and concerns with their constituency councilor. (More information available from your regional council or local authority.)
Currently, most services (education, healthcare, rural water supply etc.) are provided by line ministries (central government). They also do most of the planning and construction of service outlets, like schools, clinics and water points. This will change with decentralisation. In future, line ministries will be more focussed on planning, training of personnel, setting standards, and monitoring ("making sure that things are being done properly".)
In short, decentralisation will leave central government free to deal with matters that affect the nation as a whole – the defence, for example, will always be controlled by central government because it has to defend the whole country, and not just one region or town.
"Taking Government to the People" does not imply that regional councils and local authorities become independent or autonomous bodies, however, or that they are de-linked from central government and are not subordinate to national policies and priorities. The common loyalty to a unitary state should never be doubted or questioned.
On the contrary, taking government to the people in a unitary state means that both central and sub-national governments share the responsibility for delivering services to the people, for the socio-economic development of urban as well as rural areas, and for maintaining peace and stability in the country.
A decentralized governance system provides at the same time opportunities for a certain uniformity across a country but also opportunities for making required local adjustments in order to be more responsive to the needs and interests of the local population.