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Civil society gate-crashed PRSP process

Even though civil society organisations effectively had to force their way into the Poverty
Reduction Strategy Paper process, and in so doing encountered considerable
government resistance, their efforts not only resulted in a measure of success in the
end, but also helped educate Malawian civil society on economic issues in the process,
argues Collins Magalasi from the Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN).

In Malawi, the participation of civil society organisations in the Poverty Reduction
Strategy Paper (PRSP) consultation process had a rocky start. Civil society
organisations forced their way into the process when it became clear that they were not
going to be invited to participate. Subsequent participation was often dependent on
personal relationships with donors and government officials.
Further, no information was shared with civil society organisations that would have
enabled more active and informed participation. Dates and invitations to meetings were
communicated at the last minute. Initially, only four civil society organisations
participated in the process, but later as the “participation-push” proceeded, about 49 civil
society representatives became involved.
At first civil society organisations were excluded from the poverty assessment and only
after they made comments on the draft document was the chapter redone. The Malawi
Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a leading civil society budget organisation in Malawi,
only became involved during the formulation process of the poverty strategy document.
The MEJN carried out research and analysis regarding the process as well as the
content of the poverty strategy document. It conducted PRSP priority hearings with
church groups and held extensive PRSP discussions with other civil society
organisations. All of these public engagements led to written submissions on all draft
PRSP documents and position papers on specific issues, such as on the representation
of civil society on the PRSP technical committee.
Further difficulties that civil society organisations experienced as they tried to participate
in the PRSP process concerned access to documents and entry to technical committee
meetings. Most thematic documentation that was critical for participation was made
available and distributed at the meetings, not leaving much time for participants to
familiarise themselves with the content of the documents. Access to papers on the
macro-economic framework by the government was denied altogether. Civil society felt
that these documents were crucial as they contained the commitments by the
government, which was written before the PRSP document was drafted.
All those interested could in principle participate in the PRSP process even though it was
felt that the government did little to alert civil society and the general public to
opportunities to participate. Local government, business people, researchers, donors,
politicians and civil servants all participated in the PRSP consultation process.
According to the MEJN civil society participation was initially considered not necessary
because the government thought of it as “not knowledgeable” on economic issues. As
such, neither the government nor donors conducted relevant background training. The
few briefings that the government held were considered by the MEJN as not helpful
enough. In the survey, the MEJN rated the transparency of the PRSP process as slightly
transparent while it described the level of civil society participation in the PRSP process
as moderate. Overall it felt that the government did little to facilitate meaningful
participation and described the receptiveness of the government to incorporate
suggestions by civil society as moderate.
The MEJN believes that the Malawian government is well aware of the link between the
PRSP and the budget although it felt that civil society organisations still see the two as
unrelated. The MEJN is emphatic that the PRSP should be formulated independently of
the budget. Only once the PRSP has been finalised should it be incorporated into the
Under very difficult circumstances, the efforts of civil society organisations to engage in
the PRSP process resulted in a measure of success. Even though the completion of the
PRSP formulation was delayed for 10 months, civil society organisations were
represented in the final drafting committee. In terms of content they contributed to the
poverty analysis, the setting of priorities and indicators and the whole section on
monitoring and evaluation came from civil society. Moreover they also made suggestions
on a costing strategy and the analysis of past efforts (structural adjustment
programmes). However, the government rejected the latter because they employed the
services of a team of consultants to do the costing. The analyses of the structural
adjustment programmes were regarded as negative.
While participation of civil society organisations in the PRSP process has improved over
time, there are still a number of steps that the government needs to take to improve this
process. The government must ensure that further processes are transparent, that a
clear programme of events is made available and that information is made available to
all stakeholders in time. This will involve openness on the part of the government and
innovativeness and persistence on the part of civil society.
The MEJN believes it is vital for civil society to develop an understanding of the
economy and the budget cycle and to learn how to prioritise and develop indicators as
key requirements for meaningful participation and effective influence in the PRSP
Even though the PRSP process took a fair amount of civil society’s time and resources
at the expense of their other activities, the MEJN believes it built unity among civil
society organisations and allowed civil society to gain salient information from the
government and donors. In addition the outcome of the PRSP consulting process helped
educate Malawian civil society on economic issues.
Finally, the MEJN is convinced that a united civil society is a strong force that can
influence trends or processes in policy formulation.

Africa Budget Watch interviewed Collins Magalasi from the Malawi Economic Justice

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