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The bridge to somewhere: Restoring trust in Tanzania’s governance

By Oscar Abello
: Catherine Mulaga of MIICO, a network of community-based organizations in southern Tanzania, is a civil society leader fighting to restore dialogue between public officials and citizens to fight poverty. Photo: Petterik Wiggers / Panos for Oxfam America

Enhancing people’s ability to engage their leaders on the nation’s most pressing issues.

When Catherine Mulaga came to Chabu, a village of about 2,000 people in southern Tanzania in 2010, she found that sick people, pregnant women, even injured people were crossing a hand-crafted rope bridge to cross the Songwe River to get to the nearest available health center—a three kilometer walk across the border into Malawi.

And yet, “there was in fact a health dispensary [clinic] in Chabu constructed in 2008,” Mulaga says. “But it was not operational.”

A perilous, yet life-saving bridge

Prior to getting their health clinic operating, sick people, pregnant women, even injured people from Chabu, Tanzania were crossing this hand-crafted rope bridge to cross the crocodile-inhabited Songwe River to get to the nearest available health center—a three kilometer walk across the border into Malawi. Photo: Petterik Wiggers / Panos for Oxfam America
Despite its remote location, Chabu is an international crossroads. Wednesday is market day, bringing people and goods back and forth across the river, as do Sundays for church. Families on either side have long intermarried.

But when you reach the riverbank, you find no passport control, no customs inspection, no plaque commemorating the bridge's construction. The Chabu bridge is not far from the main road, less than 15 minutes' walk downhill along a well-worn path through cornfields. 

What you do find hangs tenuously over rushing waters, made of bamboo, branches, tree roots and rope bundled up only loosely in some sections, suspended from a large tree on the Chabu side that juts out slightly over the river. If you come in the dry season, you may find crocodiles patrolling the river below when the slower water is more to their liking.

Regardless, people crossed the bridge because they needed the clinic’s services in Malawi. The next nearest open clinic in Tanzania was in Bupigu, a village more than 12 kilometers away. Many pregnant women in Chabu simply chose to give birth at home.

Catherine Mulaga and the villagers wanted to see this change.

As the head of the governance program at MIICO, a network of community-based organizations that advocate on behalf of people in the southern Mbeya region of Tanzania, Mulaga’s first step in 2010 was to enable people in Chabu to select and form a social accountability monitoring team. Their first task together was to conduct a needs assessment of the village – and the clinic was a high priority.

They also found that the problem with the health center was mostly one of paperwork.

Catherine Mulaga (left, in red) speaks with staff at the health center in Chabu. Photo: Petterik Wiggers / Panos for Oxfam America

“The clinic had not yet been registered with the Ministry of Health,” says Mulaga. This was due to a lack of bureaucratic oversight, which meant no staff, and no supplies.

What goes up, often doesn’t come down

For the past five years, Mulaga and her colleagues at MIICO have been guiding villagers through social accountability monitoring, a formalized process in which everyday citizens practice identifying community needs and presenting issues to public officials.

Mulaga is ideally suited for her role. She grew up traveling all over the country, as her father was a doctor working for the government. She got a government job herself in 1996, but after one year, grew frustrated.

"The big challenge was the issue of resources,” Mulaga explains. "You go for months in government not doing anything because there is no resources for activities in the community.”

This is largely a symptom of Tanzania’s public budget allocation system, which remains highly centralized—a holdover from its days as a one-party autocracy. Taxes get collected at the local level, but virtually everything gets sent in to the national treasury, leaving local governments to sit and wait for their budget money to return to them—very rarely earmarked as they earlier requested.

So Mulaga found work instead organizing farmers in Ileje District, where Chabu is located, to improve production and address other social issues. She worked at a local nonprofit, the Integrated Rural Development Organization for 13 years. There she met and married her husband, Patrick, an agriculture specialist who still works for the organization.

When Mulaga joined MIICO in 2010, the social accountability monitoring program was her first big project. In collaboration with regional stakeholders, MIICO selected three districts of the districts most in need, including Ileje. The village of Chabu emerged as a starting point.

Overcoming apathy

In order to govern a populace spread so thinly, Tanzania’s founders went through great lengths to build an extensive governance system, creating spaces for people to participate.

By law, every village council in Tanzania is supposed to hold quarterly meetings with the village assembly, made up of every man and woman. All are invited to attend, but only those over the age of 18 may vote on issues like communal land usage or local laws. They also discuss and delegate volunteer tasks like building housing for teachers or healthcare professionals, as many of the materials needed are available locally. The process is then replicated with representatives sent up to the district level.

For years, however, village and district meetings have been poorly attended, if they happened at all. Without local budget control, any inklings of participation have historically met with only frustration.

"When local level authorities haven’t been given the full autonomy, this is something that has a cascading effect down to the people,” explains Semkae Kilonzo, who is coordinator of Policy Forum’s secretariat in Dar es Salaam. Policy Forum is a national network of 76 dues-paying member NGOs that focus on the needs of people who are poor throughout Tanzania.

"Even if someone is corrupt, the system is there to be used,” explains Richard Angelo (left), capacity enhancement manager of Policy Forum, the organization that first trained MIICO staff on social accountability monitoring. On the right is Semkae Kilonzo, coordinator of Policy Forum’s secretariat in Dar es Salaam. Photo: Petterik Wiggers / Panos for Oxfam America
“So imagine you, an everyday citizen, participate in these village meetings and you say what your priorities are. You’re told, ‘Don’t worry. All the time and effort you’ve put in here will be reflected in the plans.’

“Then the village plans go all the way up to ward level, then district level, then region, then national level, and then the planning process comes down the opposite way and you hear from the top, 'No no no. MDGs. We were told schools in every ward. That’s our target. So go and do it all over again.'

“Would you blame me if I didn’t participate in that village assembly the next time?"

So how does a person even begin to restore trust between citizens and their government?

Mulaga says that the largest part of the struggle in her work at MIICO is to build relationships between public officials and citizens, and restore the value of these existing formal processes. She was among the first cohort of over 200 staff trained in social accountability monitoring from Policy Forum member organizations across Tanzania.

"Through this process we re-introduce the local government system so that [people] become aware,” Mulaga explains. "For example, all the villagers are welcome at the quarterly meetings. The chairperson is not the only one. With that at least they [know they can] participate, to follow up."

And that is what they did to finally get the Chabu health clinic up and running. When the social accountability monitoring team found that the clinic hadn’t been registered, they presented this to the community at the next quarterly meeting of the village assembly and because of the community’s advocacy, the clinic finally opened in July 2012.

Catherine Mulaga of MIICO (left) says that expanding people’s opportunities in Tanzania requires building relationships between public officials and citizens. Here she is pictured speaking with Rosemary Staki Senyamule, the Ileje district commissioner, in her office. Photo: Petterik Wiggers / Panos for Oxfam America

The squeeze on local officials

Getting the clinic registered was, relatively speaking, an easy win. When resources started flowing, with it came one doctor and one physician’s assistant. A nurse came on board last year. Opening the clinic was just the first item on a local to-do list that continues to add new items and then cross-off achievements, however insignificant they might seem in the grand scheme of things.

There are still major issues like the fact that the clinic does not have enough staff, nor reliable electricity or running water. But in an environment where people face so many deeply entrenched and persistent challenges, there is no such thing as a small victory to Mulaga in the struggle to restore trust between Tanzanians and their government.

Rosemary Staki Senyamule became the Ileje district commissioner in 2012, right around the time when the Chabu health clinic opened. 

"I really appreciate what the NGOs do,” she says. “They see the problem and they are part of the solution. Sometimes I call them I say, ‘In Ileje, we have this problem. Can you be part of solving this problem?’"

District commissioners are often in a hard place. They are political appointees, representing the President at the local level. When the budget allocations come in from the central government, it is their responsibility—should they so choose—to represent how national-level decisions will affect the people of their district. At the same time, district commissioners do have some official and some unofficial channels to wield some influence over national budgets and ministries as party players.

Kilonzo of Policy Forum recalls that President Kikwete last year issued a decree that all secondary schools must build science labs. If a district commissioner failed to get it done by November 2014, he or she would be fired. 

"It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Semkae, especially given the tremendous shortage of healthcare professionals in Tanzania. 

“But when you think then where are they going to have to get the money from, they’re just going to have to get it from somewhere within their own budget. When you give those decrees, you disrupt the planning process.”

In the neighboring Ludewa District, Commissioner Juma Madaha was so thrilled with the work of Catherine Mulaga and MIICO that he wrote them an official commendation letter thanking them for doing their social accountability monitoring work in a few of his villages—and begging them to replicate it in the rest of his district.

“Of course we want to, but we don’t have the resources right now,” Mulaga says. She can’t duplicate herself or her team.

A new, pressing issue—land grabs

In the looming shadow of persistent poverty in the area, every bit of political and social capital—or in a word, momentum—is precious. Even more so when it’s momentum on the side of small farmers.

Maize, coffee, tea, bananas, rice and other fruits and vegetables seem to sprout from every bit of spare ground in Mbeya, and the region’s rich farmlands are part of the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania. Mbeya is a target for agribusiness, both foreign and domestic, raising the spectre of land grabs.

Only 5.6 percent of land in Tanzania is owned under official title. Most smallholder farmers in Tanzania own their land under a combination of customary law and by purchase. What this means is that the 70 percent of Tanzania’s 45 million people who live in rural areas could be merely a bribe or kickback away from losing the land that is their livelihood.

"A lot of investors are coming for this area,” says Mulaga. “Land will be taken by the government [and sold to investors]. Because of this we are afraid for the food security. Farmers here have been growing their own food for so long. Where are they going to get food?"

Sharing the office with Catherine Mulaga at MIICO’s offices is Gloria Mdindile. She is an advocacy officer whose main duties are to organize Farmer’s Forums—groups of usually 30 farmers that share a district council representative. Each forum must be gender-equal, 15 women and 15 men. These groups utilize the village assembly meetings as a way to engage with their public officials on land use and ownership issues.

Gloria Mdindile (left) is an advocacy officer with MIICO whose main duties are to organize Farmer’s Forums—groups of usually 30 farmers. These groups utilize the village assembly meetings to engage with their public officials on land grabbing issues. Photo: Petterik Wiggers / Panos for Oxfam America
"Governance is the big issue for the farmers," says Mdindile. "There are problems of land, of water. But the source is the governance system. People do not know who their leaders are, what their responsibilities are, as leaders what they are supposed to do, as the community what are their roles. We need to make sure there is a better connection or relationship with the government and the farmers,” Mdindile says.

She explains that “the government just goes and sells land that has been used by the community members for years, creating a lot of conflict between villages, villages and higher levels of government, even between villagers themselves.

The village meetings and the district meetings are the first ports of call for investors seeking to buy land. If they don't happen, investors may go straight to village councils or district commissioners in private and strike a deal. When the local village council has approved a purchase, it can look like all the local authorities have been consulted, but in fact it is the entire village assembly that must debate and vote on the deal.

“People may still think the President has the last say on the land. They don’t know they have the right to defend their own rights to it - even local leaders sometimes don’t know about that," says Mdindile.

"I’d say it’s not as hard as it used to be. Things are changing."

One challenge, however, is the continued reluctance of women to participate in decision-making forums.

“We also have to be aware of confidence issues, because if you are involved in advocacy, you have to have confidence,” Mdindile says. One of the ways MIICO addresses confidence is by arranging exchange visits for farmers from one ward or district to another, to exchange leadership stories and help create some solidarity between them. 

A national context that needs more sunlight

No one seems to be gathering hard evidence or even speculating whether the work of Policy Forum and its members is helping to infuse the expectation of trustworthiness and accountability into the political culture of Tanzania. But through MIICO’s social accountability monitoring work, people are becoming aware of how they can hold their leaders accountable. 

"Even if someone is corrupt, the system is there to be used,” explains Richard Angelo, capacity enhancement manager of Policy Forum. “We try not to advocate for witch-hunting practices that focus on individuals, but rather how we can find sustainable solutions for the systemic issues, how we can monitor and utilize mechanisms to prevent, and take corrective action in instances of misuse and abuse of public resources.”

As one might imagine for a young democracy—Tanzania had its first multi-party elections in 1995—working with community organizers to enhance citizens' budget scrutiny skills can be a dicey game at times.

Angelo recalls a time that they had to stop a training session mid-lesson, when a district commissioner learned of what they were doing and registered his disapproval. They explained the social accountability monitoring process—that it’s not about staining any one party’s reputation, but rather is about creating a better, more productive relationship between public officials and citizens. The commissioner relented, and they were able to resume the training. Lesson learned, however, for Policy Forum. In subsequent trainings, Policy Forum has been sure to include public officials up front, from the beginning – enhancing their capacity to listen alongside citizens’ capacity to speak up.

Listening and oversight is definitely in the headlines of Tanzanian newspapers, as the country deals with the fall out from a $122 million scandal earlier in 2015 involving the falsified sales of shares in an energy company, leading to the resignation of the energy minister and three members of parliament so far.

Curiously, the withholding of foreign aid as a result of the scandal’s emergence is thought to be part of the reason why people actually lost their jobs due to their involvement. As one Kenyan op-ed contributor writing in Tanzania’s leading English newspaper put it, “Donor independence has, ironically, led to more corruption."

Catherine Mulaga has seen the solution and in her mind it requires building the local relationships “between the community and the political leadership or the government.” The road to protecting farmers' rights and expanding their opportunities begins with dialogues like those that started with opening the Chabu health clinic.

“Before people were afraid of [public officials], saying 'Oh, they will take us to the prison or they will fine you,’” explains Mulaga.

“But now, at least you find people that can say, ‘Oh, you are village chairperson. Listen, this not good—where are the extension workers here? Or listen, that is not good, but let us improve it ourselves.’


This story is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local leaders who are standing up for accountability, making demands of their government, and getting results in the fight against injustice. Though Oxfam may not fund every project or organization featured in the series, Oxfam stands in solidarity with all those around the world working to right the wrong of poverty.

Read the briefing note

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