People, Promise and Politics: Adding Our Voice to the Public Discourse on Water and Politics
written by Muthi Nhlema, Team Leader
Of all the values that underpin our work at BASEflow, my
favorite child would probably be “Boldness” which we describe as:
‘The recognition that
the challenges we seek to address are complex, which is precisely why they have
persisted for decades. BASEflow believes that courage is needed to take
calculated risks and make ambitious decisions to change what many in the sector
believe cannot be changed’
As development workers, we oftentimes forget that our work, besides digging that well or building that school, involves changing the accepted way of doing things. This usually means standing up for those who are voiceless, mostly because they are afraid to speak; which puts us in the firing line of people with influence, power and, ultimately, vested interest in keeping things the way they are. It’s in such moments that one knows what one is really made of; for it is in such times when boldness is needed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that minefield which is the nexus between water and politics.
The nexus between water and politics in Malawi, like many places in the world, has always been a minefield of controversy where philosophies and ideologies battle for dominance. What may seem in the eyes of many to be an indiscriminate threshold resource that should be accessible to all, is seen, through the political lens, to be a powerful tool to gain votes and legitimacy from the masses. The recent Malawian tripartite elections in May of this year exemplified this through promises that were made that, on paper, seemed to go against principles of sustainability and the guidelines/frameworks outlined in national policies such as the National Water Policy e.g. a case in point: https://mwnation.com/ndirande-gets-boreholes/ .
It is from this clash of interests, between the developmental and the political, that controversies arise; and, resultantly and understandably, civil society organizations, particularly those working in Malawi’s water sector, chose to either tread carefully or avoid the likely fallout all together. It is a dilemma that we at BASEflow understand all too well.
So how can a civil society organization engage the political
whilst navigating the minefield of controversy surrounding it? We cannot say we
have all the answers, but, leading up to the May 2019 general elections, we
decided to add our voice to the public discourse around Water and Politics and
whether or not, the two can or should mix. Below are the ways through which
BASEflow added its voice:
Publicity: we were featured in one of the major dailies talking directly to
the theme of “Politicization of Water”. Enhanced by a full-page interview, my
position on the topic was that water is a threshold resource which should be
managed sustainably by all, including politicians during campaign period,
within stipulated government guidelines. Politics cannot be ignored as it is
part of the decision-making ecosystem. However, politicians have a
responsibility to understand the science, the data and technical aspects of the
decisions they have to make around water resources; and NGOs, private sector
and donors need to do a better job to communicate the science.
Contribution to the Presidential debate: BASEflow, in partnership with WESNET and Democracy Works Foundation, brought together a cross-section of civil society organizations together to develop a Position Paper outlining the key water sector questions for the Presidential Debates that were scheduled prior to the elections. In summary, the following were the questions that were developed:
Inadequate Funding for Water Services Sector: What are your plans and the specific actions you will take to ensure that the water, sanitation and hygiene sector is allocated at least 3% of the total national budget? How will your government ensure that we finally decentralize water sector funds to be used by government in providing these services at district level?
Poor Water Resources Management: Given that hydroelectric power is the primary source of energy for Malawians, aside from diversifying energy sources, what will be your plan to ensure that water resources are managed properly to allow for adequate power generation?
Limited Accountability of Stakeholders: What mechanisms will you put in place to ensure that members of your party and indeed any other stakeholders do not go against existing government water and sanitation policies and guidelines and when they do how will you hold them accountable?
Low Prioritization of the Water Services Sector: What is your opinion on having a stand-alone Ministry for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene? Though the questions were not asked of the Presidential candidates, the interactive and meticulous process leading up to the Presidential Debates raised the profile, and importance, of key water sector issues which has not been the case in recent years as the last question would suggest.
“Madzi Alibe Chipani (water has no color)” Radio Campaign: Using the power of radio and inspired by my friend Ned Breslin, a local production company reached out and partnered with BASEflow to develop a series of short adverts to reach rural communities and aspiring MPs with key messages that:
Raise awareness of the need and benefit of following government policy, procedures and processes when providing groundwater development services during and beyond campaign-period;
Address accepted practices, or ways of doing things, during campaign period that negatively impact on the sustainability of boreholes/handpumps
Building off real-life stories and voices, the radio campaign had 7 adverts in all which were broadcast 700 times from November 2018 until May 2019, reaching countless millions with key messages. The radio adverts, their key messages and abridged translations are below (click on the audio player to listen to actual advert);
This was how BASEflow added its voice to the public discourse around Water and Politics during the 2019 campaign period and we continue, through organizations such as WESNET and Democracy Works Foundation, to add our insights, values and ideas to this sensitive, but strategically important, area; because, as one Malawian water practitioner once said;
“The science behind understanding water resources is important, but it’s the politics of the time that determines the future!”.
As frustrating as it may be to work with politicians who often look no further than a 5-year horizon, politics is part of the decision-making ecosystem and cannot be avoided or purged. It is politics, as mentioned, that shapes the future and the only way we can change the course of the future is by being at the table and influencing those in political power. Sometimes it is slow, agonizing and maddening, but indifference, apathy or fear, the default of many when it comes to politics, is just as destructive if not worse than inertia. Though it might not seem that way at times, ‘governance’ is actually a doing-word – a dance between the elected and the electors – and like a dance, it’s about finding the right balance between delivering a finite set of promises, from an ocean of competing priorities, and achieving one’s personal political ambitions; a task that is now far more complicated to accomplish given the reality of climate change. Both sides have, and should, have a stake in a functional governance system; and, as is often forgotten, it is within the power, and responsibility of, the citizenry to demand for a governance system, and leaders therein, that serve their interests. Our role as civil society, in this complicated love affair between the people and politics, is to remind both of their responsibilities and, hopefully, help society find that balance between promise and politics.
I won’t be the first person to say it is easier said than
done and I surely won’t be the last, but as long as the dialogue is open,
though at times heated, we are moving closer to finding that balance.