Malawi: Freedom of information and public contracting

June 27, 2017

By Sally Akinyi

Malawi’s new Access to Information Act signifies a new dawn particularly on the road to enabling increased disclosure in public contracts. Assented in February 2017 by President Peter Mutharika, many Malawians welcomed the move and this signalled a shift in opening up public access to government information. This means, citizens can now access information from the government and demand for accountability in the management of public resources.

Malawi has often found itself in a tight spot in misappropriation of funds, this has emanated from scandals like Cashgate, Tractorgate and the recent maize deal. The tail end of these scandals has denied Malawian citizens crucial services such as drugs, adequate teachers and teaching materials in schools, food, and road networks.

What do these scandals have in common? Public procurement. Millions of tax payers’ money is spent on procurement every year to purchase essential goods and services for citizens. In fact research indicates that efficient public procurement is often the biggest indicator of socio-economic transformation in any country.

While public procurement processes are deemed long, technical and boring, they are vital. That’s why dodgy deals can slither in without being noticed. This is because mostly, procurement deals are done in secrecy.

According to the African Security Review’s journal dubbed: Combating Corruption in Malawi, 2005, awarding of contracts in Malawi has often been dominated by the political elite in order to gain business deals.

Further, statistics from Transparency International’s Public Opinion done in 2011, indicated that 57 per cent of Malawians surveyed believe that corruption in public service delivery had increased making it a challenge to access public services.

Malawi has been progressive in instituting legal frameworks and establishing institutions such as the Auditor General’s Office and the Public Finance Management Act of 2003  in its war against corruption. The engagement by government together with the private sector in initiatives such as the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST) will enhance accountability and transparency in the sector. The Malawi Procurement Act 2003, beyond paper will also enable efficient procurement procedures in government. It is also worth noting that Malawi joined the Open Government Partnership in 2013, a significant milestone on the road to strengthening democracy and good governance

However, with the new Access to Information (ATI) law, the government can benefit from new ways of tightening its grip on fighting corruption in public contracting. Grappling with urgent needs such as boosting the economy, strengthening public institutions and fighting corruption; this new law can help the government achieve all these objectives especially in becoming more efficient and reducing high levels of discretion.

Access to information, often one of the indicators of democracy, is essential in allowing citizens to join the war against graft by seeking and retrieving public documents. This enables them to make the government more efficient and accountable in its actions. Currently, 113 countries around the world have now adopted Acess to Information Law.

New approaches such as open contracting can further complement ATI to promote disclosure and citizen participation in public contracting. Open contracting a pro-active form of disclosure helps government to publish all information related to public deals from awarding of contracts to termination. In countries such as Nigeria, platforms such as Budeshi have played a critical role in supporting government to monitor the performance of public contracts.

Open contracting can save millions of tax payers’ money, make better use of national resources, deliver better goods and services and prevent corruption and fraud.

The business community too also stands to benefit from open contracting through advancing a good business environment that can fight corruption. By enhancing a robust relationship between government and the private sector, new markets and business opportunities will thrive.

Open contracting has proven to be a powerful tool in improving the quality of lives of citizens through healthcare, education, sanitation, infrastructure and transport.

Hivos Southern Africa recently held interviews with stakeholders who drafted the ATI Bill to seek their opinions on how it will transform the public sector in provision of services to citizens.