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Do you want to know what the civil society has been learning about Covid19, join the conversations as per the information below.
Notification on the 40th SADC Summit 17th August 2020 and 40th Ordinary SADC Summit Programme
Dear Distinguished Ambassadors and ICPs,
As a follow-up to the Note Verbale regard the 40th Ordinary Summit of SADC Heads of State and Governments which will be held virtually on Monday 17th of August, 2020, with the Republic of Mozambique as the host, we would like to notify you that the live broadcast of the official opening and closing ceremony which will be broadcast live by Televisão de Moçambique (TVM), from 10.am to 11.10am CAT and from 12.30 to 13.30pm respectively will also be streamed live on the YouTube Channel of Televisão de Moçambique TVM https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfRoEW08udEmsPSIt_YDK_w
and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/mocambique.tvm
Arrangements have been made with DSTV to open the Televisão de Moçambique (TVM), Channel 701 on DSTV in all SADC Members States, and on all free to air satellites.
Channel 701 is currently not accessible on DSTV packages in some english speaking countries but we have been informed that this will be open up from 16 – 18 August 2020.
Interested in knowing more about what the frontline leaders are doing during covid19 to hold the government accountable, follow the link below to join the webinar.
Written by Prisca Kowa from Policy Forum on the 23rd of July 2020. The original article can be accessed here
To reach those who are furthest behind in society, it is important to institute a system of just and fair social economic development. This is key especially during these tough times of the COVID-19 pandemic where global health and economic systems have been significantly disrupted. Through the years that I have been working with communities, I have observed how important it is to have groups of people who are empowered and have a voice and the capacity of being active players in raising concerns that affects their wellbeing. In this regard therefore, while pursuing a ‘leaving no one behind’ agenda it is paramount to ensure that community members who are most vulnerable are empowered.
The year 2020 marks a decade of action towards attaining the 17 global goals for Sustainable Development. World leaders have been called to deliver the SDGs by 2030 and to announce actions they are taking to advance the agenda. The implementation of SDGs commenced in January 2016 with a view of accelerating global actions to end poverty, create prosperity and protect the planet. As opposed to MDGs, SDGs are shaped with a unique character of being holistic and universality, bringing onboard people, prosperity, planet, peace and partnerships. The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres asserted that “The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are our collective response to building a fair globalization”. This implies that, the national, regional and global collective actions must be well coordinated to ensure SDGs are attained and the promise of having a fair globalization where no one is left behind is achieved by 2030.
Thus, as the pledge to “leaving no one behind” connotes the commitment made by the world leaders, it is an undoubted that people who are the most marginalized cannot be passive and must be empowered and engaged in the monitoring, review and implementation of SDGs so that the realisation of these global goals reach first those who are furthest behind. To advance this, citizen engagement approaches must then be employed, one of the approaches that has been widely used by different development practitioners is Social Accountability.
Social Accountability (SA) encourages citizens to proactively demand for accountability on the use of public resources. It emphasizes the inclusion and participation of citizen particularly those who are marginalized, those who are more vulnerable with social stress and high chances of missing the benefits of services provided by the government. The World Bank (2004) defines Social accountability as actions initiated by citizen groups to hold public officials, politicians, and public service providers to account for their conduct and performance in terms of delivering services, improving people’s welfare and protecting people’s rights.
The common tools used to deploy social accountability include public expenditure tracking, participatory policymaking and budgeting, citizen monitoring and evaluation of services that promote transparency and accountability in budgeting and service delivery. For a successful social accountability intervention, there must be an enabling environment guided by four pillars elucidated in detail below. In light of those pillars the nexus between the social accountability and aspiration of SDGs to leaving no one behind will be established.
The first pillar of social accountability demands having organized and capable citizens groups and a government that is engaging. It is a truism that unorganized citizens can neither exercise their rights nor be able to participate in governance processes including holding duty bearers to account on the use of public resources allocated for service delivery or to ensure progressive and constructive relationships.
Thus, communities must know what SDGs are and what they aim to achieve and hence contribute to it. For example, at the very grass root level, citizens can participate through attending village meetings and it is through such platforms they would know what the government aspires to achieve locally, nationally and globally. However, if the existing structures limit this, it would be difficult for the voices of vulnerable communities to be heard.
The opposite is also true. In my experience through conducting social accountability interventions in Tanzania, I have witnessed that in areas where people were not part of the planning process, delays in development projects and sometimes reluctance by communities to support development projects is commonly experienced. This is no different when it comes to SDGs, communities must be empowered so that they clearly understand what they will offer and hence contributing to their realisation and by doing so the aspiration of inclusiveness will be attained.
The second pillar is responsive government, this is vital to enable social accountability and so is to the implementation of SDGs. Given that the government is the primary actor responsible to deliver SDGs by 2030, it ought to be responsive and ensure that it creates democratic spaces for its people and avail information related to the implementation of the SDGs of which citizen will use to monitor its realisation.
Last year I got the opportunity to participate in the CSO taskforce which was responsible for the country SDGs implementation report writeup (Voluntary National Review report). One of the major gaps observed included the understanding of the SDGs by the communities and mostly the vulnerable groups. This posed challenges into measuring the extent to which the implementation of the SDGs in the country has achieved towards elevating the marginalized groups. Considering that 2030 is just ten years away, it is vital that the information related to SDGs is trickled down to the very grassroot communities so that they own the goals and hence take an active role towards contributing in their review, monitoring and implementation.
The third pillar encourages access to information, the importance of accessing reliable and credible information to exert social accountability cannot be overstated. Governments are obliged to avail information which would enable citizens and other civic actors to constructively engage in the course of participating in the development agenda including SDGs. In light of the experience shared above, CSO actors encountered a challenge of getting latest, credible and reliable information during the process of developing the report on VNR for SDGs, such information would gauge the status of SDGs implementation in the country, as a result we were required to rely on outdated information. Although this was not the case in all goals, goal 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institution) posed a huge challenge regarding information on implementation progress — this challenge was as well acknowledged by the government in their SDGs VNR report.
The fourth pillar acknowledges the role of culture and context within which SA is practiced. Social accountability requires cultural relevance, it must be understood and framed according to the unique values, language, and practice of the people within which the initiative is taking place. This is the best way through which the practices of social accountability can be initiated, mainstreamed, accepted and sustained in each context. Given that Tanzania is a Swahili speaking nation, deliberate actions must be taken by the government to translate the SDGs to be popularized and to fit our context. This will not only increase understanding of the goals by the communities but also enhances the participation and ownership.
To wrap up on the pillars and the nexus between social accountability and SDGs, it is important to note that, the four pillars of Social Accountability are interrelated, thus, for the social accountability ecosystem and as one of the approaches to empowering marginalized communities, each pillar prerequisite conditions must be observed to consent a systemic operation of the social accountability.
In line with this, Civil Society Organizations which have traditionally been working to empower communities must couple the efforts by the government. Their interventions, therefore, must demonstrate community empowerment to ensure attaining of milestones at the local level where most marginalized communities reside.
Community empowerment, therefore, should be more than the involvement, participation or engagement of communities. It should demonstrate community ownership and action that explicitly aims at social and political change. It should denote the ability of re-negotiating power in order to gain more control, and thus if some people are going to be empowered, then others will be sharing their existing power and giving some of it up (Baum, 2008). It is imperative to note that in empowering communities, power shift must be concentrated into complementing marginalized capacities to be able to organize themselves so as to take more control in making important decisions that affect their lives. This will include deciding on how resources can be distributed and allocated to serve their interest which in turn will uplift their welfare.
Once communities feel empowered, they will be able to organize into capable groups which will be at the forefront of demanding for accountability, this will include the ability to gather information relating to SDGs and use such information to directly engage with duty bearers and demand that the programmes or projects implemented serves community interests in order to leave no one behind. For instance, SDG 3 on good health and wellbeing — encourages communities to be in a position of linking what targets are set and how budgets have been allocated and distributed to ensure the realization of the same.
I therefore conclude by insisting that achievement of inclusive and people centered development, a kind of development that considers those who are furthest behind, communities must be empowered. As highlighted above, application of community empowerment tools must deliberately continue to be employed by all actors in the development ecosystem. This would not only bring about fairness in the development but also reducing inequality gap. Thus, I call upon all actors involved in the monitoring, review and implementation of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development to accelerate efforts through putting in place a well-coordinated mechanism while ensuring creation of community spaces for marginalized to engage is maintained so that no one is left behind.
Originally written by Esteri Msindo on the 07th July 2020
When the Department of Human Settlements deliver a house to its beneficiary, the beneficiary signs a letter called ‘a happy letter’ as he/she gets allocated a house. However, when the house is sub-standard, a few years down the line the joy of owning a state house fades away leaving the poor unhappy. This is the case with the people of IYM ward 3 residents where a programme to fix houses with defects (rectification) started in 2013 to rectify 1350 houses and the target was reduced to 900 due to financial challenges on the main contractor according to the ANC Chief Whip for Inxuba Yethemba Municipality.
On 23 July 2019, the community representatives of ward 3 in Inxuba Yethemba Municipality (IYM) handed over a petition to their local municipality, addressed to the MEC for Human Settlements, Ms Nonkqubela Pieters and the Cacadu District Municipality officials of Human Settlements. Key issues emerged from their list of demands, combating corruption, improving service delivery and job creation. The community alleged that the Department of Human Settlements has failed to deliver quality housing and by doing so fail to create a better living environment for the people. The community demanded close monitoring of the rectification project in order to deal with any corruption on appointing contractors and supply chain. The National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC) must be present during the construction. IYM claims in response, that NHBRC has been involved in the process, which begs the question of why the structures being built are of poor standard.
They called for the Department to practice people centered development that involves the community, which the community feels the Department has failed to do through the rectification programme. They demanded the use of local contractors for the project and an end to giving contracts to undocumented immigrants, in accordance with the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). The EPWP programme seeks to empower local communities and community members were concerned that the project does not benefit the IYM community as contracts are given to outsiders in an area of high unemployment. In response to the issue, IYM identified the main contractor as Veren Builders, who was contracted by the Department, who appointed sub-contractors Takela and Qakazile and the two sub-contractors subsequently appointed local contractors for labour only due to the fact that local contractors had no financial capacity and some were not NHBRC registered. Although sub-contracting is permissible, the implications of further sub-contracting mean at each level the contractor ensures that they remain profitable and that mean the money directed to construction can eventually be limited and therefore compromise the quality of the house. This can partly explain the continued construction of sub-standard houses.
Among other things, the community demanded speed delivery on title deeds to state houses beneficiaries and for the Department to provide houses to the 4000 people who are still in need of shelter and at least for the MEC to come and engage with those on the waiting list for state houses. The community’s list of demand also included the investigation and dismissal of any officials that are implicated in corruption in the rectification project.
The rectification programme was introduced by the Department of Human Settlements to fix state houses with defects. Initially rectification was targeted at pre-1994 housing stock, but due to continuous construction of poor-quality houses post-1994, the programme extends beyond 1994 housing stock nationally and is currently on going in the Eastern Cape Province. The Human Settlements Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu pronounced an end to rectification programme in 2015. However, the Eastern Cape Province has continued rectification as per need. The community in IYM alleges corruption in the appointment of contractors, irregularities in supply chain and a general failure on the part of government to be transparent, accountable and to monitor the ongoing rectification project. The rectification project, said to be undertaken by Takela Construction has reportedly been constructing sub-standard houses. Details for the rectification project in question, cost and timeline could not be accessed from the municipality by the PSAM. The community demanded that the MEC visit their community within seven days of receiving the petition.
Seven months after their petition – members of the community indicated that their demands had not been addressed. Instead, the Parliamentary Liaison Officer for the Eastern Cape Department of Human Settlements visited the community on a fact-finding mission and the community leader alleged that he warned them not to work with an NGO, “that is fighting the government”. In August 2019, the community leader approached the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) to assist in the matter and to visit the place. The striking feature of shoddy work in construction of houses is evident on the ground, not only those constructed in the 1990s but those newly constructed to replace the 1990s are poor quality houses too as the pictures below show.
Figure 1: House with defects constructed in 1996 in IYM, Cradock
The project to fix houses with defects in ward 3, IYM is undertaken on old structures built in the late 1990s. In some cases where the house is totally broken down beyond repair, the programme allows the rebuilding of a complete structure to replace the old one. On some structures, one could see inside the house through holes on the walls. The worse problem in IYM is that the houses that are supposed to replace the old sub-standard structures are also not to a good standard. One could literally touch the walls and plastering begins to peel off (see Figure 2 below).
Figure 2: Newly constructed substandard house in IYM. A community member touching the walls and the plastering falls off.
To make matters worse, some sites of construction have been abandoned for a long time left with foundations only with no hope for completion any time soon (see picture below). The residents in ward 3 are greatly frustrated by what they think is the collusion of ward councilors, the government and other political representatives in acts of corruption, poor administration and abuse of public funds. The community fears that if these issues are not addressed as soon as possible they will result in violent protests that may cause destruction or bloodshed.
Figure 3: Foundation, which IYM residents claim are abandoned
When the Department constructs poor standard houses to replace those with defects, that amounts to wasteful expenditure on public resources as poor structures will require rectification again in the future. The houses are handed over to the beneficiaries; however, the quality of houses makes the beneficiaries unhappy instead of celebrating house ownership for the very first time in their lives. Without addressing the root problem(s) that causes construction of poor quality houses, the Department of Human Settlements is creating a moving target on rectification that will not be possible to clear, as communities will in future call upon government to rectify the same houses.
The community strongly feel that their housing rights have not been met even after receiving the house as the condition of those houses are not of a good quality. The community expressed concerns about how the houses are not suitable for people with disabilities making them vulnerable to injury. Below is an example of such a structure. The current occupant is a community member who is faced with challenges in terms of using his house. The defects on the house pose a risk to the occupant with special housing needs.
Figure 4: A house owned by the disabled beneficiary in IYM
The observations by the PSAM confirms the plight of the people in ward 3. Their housing rights could be realised if the Department address their concerns because they receive the happy letter but they are not happy at all. The government must investigate the allegations of corruption and mismanagement and address them if confirmed. In addition, the government must adhere for calls to closely monitor the process of building and ensure the houses being built are to the standard expected by the NHBRC. This will ensure the people of IYM have access to adequate shelter.
Human Settlements Researcher: The Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM)
School of Journalism and Media Studies
T: +27 (0) 46 603 8827
16B Prince Alfred Street, Grahamstown, 6139 PO Box 94, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa www.psam.org.za Twitter: @PSAM_AFRICA
 IYM Response to the petition of ward 3, 19 August 2019.
 The name of the construction company was provided by the leader of the community and was also mentioned in the response to the petition by Inxuba Yethemba Local Municipality.
OSISA aims to assist those organisations in Southern Africa responding to COVID-19. For more information, you can visit their site.
Below are the themes that are supported by this grant:
With the outbreak of Covid-19, many governments’ health and basic service delivery systems have already been placed under considerable strain and across Africa, fragile health and economic systems are likely to face further planning and budgeting challenges now and in the aftermath of the pandemic. As a result, international financial institutions, private foundations and development agencies are pledging billions of dollars across the globe for governments to successfully combat COVID-19 and to cushion the most vulnerable populations from its socio-economic impact. The pandemic has also exacerbated pressure on the region’s public financial management (PFM) systems as well as exposed previous and ongoing corruption as more questions are being asked as to why health systems are weak/underprepared for the pandemic. At the same time, COVID-19 public health interventions are curtailing the abilities of citizens to exert accountability and oversight in many ways. Civic space and any efforts to expose COVID-19 related corruption are therefore vulnerable to clamp down. Local Transparency, Accountability and Participation (TAP) strategies are therefore critical to solving a lot of these challenges and to the future of better health & broader fiscal governance systems.
In April 2020, 8 organizations – Accountability Lab Africa & DC offices, African Freedom Information Center, AfroLeadership, BudgIT, CODE / Follow The Money Africa, the Public Service Accountability Monitor and Global Integrity – came together to collaborate on Account4COVID, an initiative that promotes and advocates for greater accountability, civic inclusion & transparency of COVID19 public allocations and expenditures.
Distilling our collective objectives
In May 2020, the above organizations scheduled a call with several organizations working in the field of fiscal governance transparency and accountability on the continent. These calls sought to explore how an initiative like Account4COVID could strengthen their local TAP strategies concerning publicly funded COVID-19 efforts. The consultative calls confirmed the need to gather actors from across the region to analyse the impact of COVID19 on fiscal governance and to exchange ideas and lessons for possible strategies to improve transparency, accountability and participation in the following key areas:
The Account4COVID initiative plans to hold a series of webinar sessions to facilitate dialogue, networking and exchange between civil society organizations, and other change agents seeking to address TAP challenges and opportunities related to Covid-19 in their contexts.
Insights from the 1st webinar
The first webinar on 17 June aimed to provide an overview of select COVID-19 related transparency initiatives across Africa. Additionally – the objective was to share, reflect and learn about some of the emerging opportunities and challenges concerning demands for transparency, accountability and participation in the use of COVID-19 related funds. The webinar attracted a diverse audience including advocates of open government, social accountability and open budgets in Africa and beyond. Speakers’ inputs and questions from the floor illustrated a range of important interventions to tackle novel (and not -so- novel) socio-economic challenges.
Hamzat Lawal, Chief Executive, Connected Development, Nigeria & Founder, Follow The Money International provided an update on its Follow The Money initiative which officially began in 2012 has been scaled up in recent months to a pan-African campaign which empowers other civic actors and oversight bodies with a technology application to map and track the COVID-19 donations in Kenya, The Gambia, Malawi, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Liberia and Nigeria. In Zimbabwe, the technology application has also been designed to assist with contract tracing by mapping Covid 19 hot spots in Zimbabwe.
Masana Ndinga-Kanga, Crisis Response Fund Lead at CIVICUS in South Africa shared about impact of the South African government’s public health interventions on the right of civic actors to freely exercise oversight, organise, participate in decision making processes particularly around COVID-19 allocations & expenditures. She also highlighted how their transparency demands and participation in COVID-19 decision making processes as CIVICUS are designed to address the inequality gap within South Africa, in order to protect vulnerable communities from the pandemic. She also spoke about the unequal power relations between Western lending institutions and African governments which end up influencing fiscal priorities more than local voices.
Wanjiru Gikonyo, Director of The Institution of Social Accountability (TISA), Kenya talked about the lack of data, transparency and participation around current COVID-19 debt relief loan negotiations & other debt service offers from international financial institutions which is intended to free up resources for public sector health needs and other emergency spending. She pointed to the importance of debt transparency to mitigate against unmanageable debt levels which reduce domestic resource availability for future development priorities.
Moussa Kondo, Country Director for Accountability Lab, Mali presented on a recently launched Coronavirus CivActs Campaign (CCC) – a Citizen Help Desk to prevent misinformation and close data gaps including providing reliable data on Covid 19 donations and monitoring its expenditure by government as well as debunking pandemic myths and rumours. In the case of Mali, Accountability Lab has translated all the relevant data into local languages.
Uadamen Ilevbaoje, Project Lead for BudgIT’s spoke about the launch of a web based platform focused on COVID 19 building on their outstanding work with Tracka. The platform monitors Covid-19 donations given to the federal and state governments of Nigeria ranging from private and public, local and international organizations.
Learning and inspiration
The main takeaways and lessons learned from current COVID related TAP initiatives on the continent include
At the end of the webinar, 45 attendees voted on the topic of discussion for the next Account4COVID webinar. Anti-corruption received the majority of the vote with 27%. 20% showed interest in the Socio-economic impact of COVID. The following topics: Contracting & Procurement, Expenditure Tracking, Health and basic service provision each received a vote of 13%. Access to information and Closing civic space each received a vote of 7%.
We hope to co-create a webinar series that is tailored to the needs of governance reformers. In order to help us do this, please kindly complete this short survey.
If you would like to participate in the next Account4COVID webinar and/or in the initiative more broadly please do feel free to reach out at email@example.com. This initiative, although limited to COVID19 and TAP in Africa, is open to any and all organizations interested in joining the initiative. Join the initiative and continue conversations offline!
To join this webinar, follow the link https://event.webinarjam.com/register/1/2o49qam
An online conversation of frontline leaders ensuring accountability on COVID-19 Fund allocation in Africa. To join follow this link https://bit.ly/Account4covidAF
Written by Henry Ndlovu, May 2020; the original article can be accessed here.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (Covid 19), which has become a global pandemic, has profoundly transformed the manner human beings and organizations conduct their daily business. Parliaments across the globe have not been spared from the disruptive effects of Covid 19. However, since Parliament is a creature of the Constitution, its mandate and functions cannot be willy-nilly ‘locked-down’. Hence, despite the constraining situation brought about by Covid 19 preventive measures, Parliaments cannot afford to suspend their cardinal functions indefinitely or for inordinately long periods. Doing so will not only be a dereliction of duty but a breach of their constitutional mandate. Given that the pandemic has necessitated formulation of emergency laws and policies, mobilization and re-allocation of public resources, there is, therefore, a justified need than ever before for Parliament to provide the necessary checks and balances to guard against the excesses of the Executive.
Parliaments, therefore, need to develop and implement innovative ways of conducting their constitutional functions given that their traditional ways of doing business have been rendered practically impossible by Covid 19. This paper seeks to explore some of the innovative strategies that Parliaments can implement during the subsistence of the Covid 19 preventive measures so as to ensure that they continue executing their constitutional mandate.
Impact of Covid 19 on Parliament’s Business
Parliaments across the world generally have three basic functions recognized by law, in most cases the national Constitution, and these are; law-making, oversight and representation. However, the Covid 19 pandemic and in particular, the implementation of preventive measures recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international and national agencies have adversely impacted the conventional ways Parliaments are accustomed to in conducting their business. In carrying out the aforementioned functions, the law and parliamentary procedures require Members of Parliament (MPs) to physically assemble at the Parliament building, or to be precise in the Chamber, during plenary session or in committee rooms during deliberative committee meetings.
However, lockdown measures have severely affected Parliament’s ability to meet physically or in-person yet this is the crucial time when Parliament should be meeting frequently to respond to the rapidly evolving crisis by passing appropriate legislation and approving supplementary budgets in response to the demands of the pandemic as well as monitoring government actions. Otherwise, if Parliaments do not innovate but succumb to lockdown measures, their powers and functions will be usurped by the Executive. In fact, this is already happening in some countries as evidenced by the enactment of statutory instruments and budget reprioritization by the Executive without the involvement of Parliament. As suggested below, Parliaments can still remain relevant and play their constitutional duties even during a lockdown period by adapting to the demands of the current situation.
Many parliamentary jurisdictions recognize and embrace the right of citizens to participate in parliamentary business in various ways and some of these ways involve physical human interaction such as public hearings and oral evidence sessions or briefing sessions. In Zimbabwe, this right is enshrined in section 141 of the Constitution. Parliamentary portfolio committees usually criss-cross the country soliciting the views of the public on Bills and key public policies. The Covid 19 preventive measures create a challenge for this to be done. However, Parliaments can still gather public views through other means such as social media platforms and live radio public hearings as explained in greater detail below.
Main Focus of Parliament during Covid 19
During a crisis or an emergency situation, the role of Parliament cannot be business as usual given that the situation may require a radical shift from Parliament’s current business or routine to the enactment of emergency laws and supplementary budgets to deal with the situation at hand. It is, therefore, postulated here that during the subsistence of the Covid 19 lockdown period, the focus of Parliaments should be redirected to the following key areas;
Innovative Strategies of Conducting Parliamentary Business during Covid 19
In order to perform the above-mentioned duties during a crisis situation, Parliaments have to adapt their conventional ways of doing things and embrace new strategies as observed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) among its members. Some of these strategies involve the following;
Parliaments can still meet physically to transact their business but in a manner that observes the WHO guidelines on Covid 19, particularly the observance of social distancing requirement and the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Given the large size of some Parliaments, this may necessitate reducing the number of Members of Parliament (MPs) that may meet at any given time. Parliamentary presiding officers and political parties represented in Parliament can devise an appropriate formula. In this situation, Parliament should only meet to deal with urgent business such as passing a supplementary budget to provide additional resources needed to effectively implement Covid 19 preventive measures. In addition to supplementary budget, it is crucial also for Parliament to approve government’s borrowings during this Covid 19 period as more resources are mobilized either through domestic borrowing or from multilateral lending institutions in order to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. In Zimbabwe, this important responsibility for Parliament is clearly spelt-out in the Constitution, Public Finance Management Act and the Public Debt Management Act. Such sittings of Parliament may also be done if there are urgent pieces of legislation to be passed in response to the Covid 19 pandemic to ensure that decisions and actions taken by implementers are done within the confines of the law.
Besides urgent plenary business of Parliament as discussed above, it is also crucial for relevant Portfolio Committees to continue meeting so as to provide oversight on the Executive. Again necessary measures should be put in place and strictly adhered to ensure that safety of Committee Members and staff attending such meetings is guaranteed. In this case, it is very crucial for the Portfolio Committee on Health to be given a latitude to meet regularly in order to provide effective oversight during the subsistence of the pandemic. This is so because most government efforts and resources are being redirected to the health sector. The Budget Committee and the Public Accounts Committee should also be allowed to meet to ensure that public resources and finance are used transparently and accounted for. It may also be necessary for a Portfolio Committee that deals with social welfare issues to meet in order to ensure that vulnerable members of society; e.g. People with disabilities, orphans, elderly etc, receive government support during the Covid 19 lockdown period. Other parliamentary portfolio committees should only be allowed to meet as and when an urgent need has arisen.
In order to limit the presence of MPs within Parliament’s premises in line with the social distancing requirement, portfolio committees may alternate their meeting days and also committee members can alternate attending these meetings. This can assist in decongesting Parliament’s premises.
Where Parliaments cannot meet physically even in limited ways as discussed above, the only other possible option is transacting business virtually. For many Parliaments, this may be an uncharted territory and as a result may present some teething problems. However, as noted by IPU, many Parliaments have had to resort to “remote working tools” despite the technical and security challenges involved. Some of the virtual platforms that some Parliaments are employing in transacting their business include Skype, Zoom, Webinar, YouTube, Facebook, Whatsapp among others. Zoom, because of its flexibility to accommodate a large group of participants, has become the most popular social media tool. The British Parliament adopted a policy to temporarily conduct its plenary sittings on Zoom and has since been doing this until mid-May when the policy will be reviewed. South African parliamentary committees have adopted the YouTube platform for conducting live meetings.
As illustrated by the above-cited examples, it is possible for parliamentary committees to transact business without meeting physically but virtually on any platform of their choice to deliberate and make recommendations to the Executive on issues related to Covid 19. Some of the pertinent issues that have come to the fore in many countries since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, which require the attention of parliamentary committees include;
Through their representational role, MPs can still perform their constituency related duties during the Covid 19 lockdown period. Many countries have created Covid 19 Response Teams/ Task-forces to coordinate the implementation of Covid 19 measures. These teams operate both at national and local levels and members are drawn from various government departments. MPs have a duty, therefore, to monitor how these teams are carrying out their duties. If they observe challenges or problems in the manner these teams are discharging their duties, MPs will be within their mandate to bring up such issues to the attention of the Executive or relevant institutions in order to have those challenges addressed.
A number of governments have scaled up social welfare programmes to provide social safety nets to vulnerable members of society whose numbers have swelled due to Covid 19 lockdown measures. It is, therefore, within the duty of MPs to oversee the identification of beneficiaries and distribution of social protection relief in their constituencies to ensure transparency and accountability. This will ensure that such social protection assistance reaches deserving beneficiaries and thus guard against corruption and partisan distribution of such relief assistance.
Given that Portfolio Committees cannot conduct field visits to physically assess the preparedness of healthcare facilities vis-à-vis Covid 19, MPs can fill this void in their constituencies and share information so gathered with the relevant portfolio committees through virtual platforms. The relevant committees can then deliberate on the issue and come up with recommendations to the Executive.
MPs can also play a crucial role in raising the awareness of the public regarding Covid 19 and disseminate information in their constituencies regarding measures being implemented by government to combat the spread of the disease. In this regard, MPs can collaborate with civil society organizations (CSOs) and community radio stations to disseminate relevant information to the constituents. In most rural constituencies Whatsapp has proven to be the most popular social media platform. This is, therefore, another tool that MPs can make use of and thus be able to play their representative role despite constraints brought about by Covid 19 pandemic. However, in carrying out their constituency duties, MPs need to be exemplary in adhering to prevention measures so that they are seen to be practising what they preach to their constituents.
There are no signs in the horizons that the Covid 19 pandemic will vanish any time soon given that it takes time to develop effective vaccines. Parliaments should, therefore, adapt to the new reality and realign their procedures and processes accordingly. The only way for Parliament to remain a relevant pillar of democratic governance in the face of Covid 19 pandemic is to harness new technologies in executing its constitutional mandate and functions. Parliament cannot afford to ‘lockdown’ its functions as this gives the Executive the ruse to assume those functions thereby eroding the vital principle of checks and balances. There is need for accountability by government even during a crisis; on how public resources are being used for instance. This helps to curtail potential Executive excesses of power and public resource utilization or management.