A Progressive Approach to Dialogue on Urbanisation in Malawi

A recent national urban forum in Malawi, supported by the Cities Alliance, highlighted the progressive approach to dialogue on urbanisation that is taking place in the country.
A recent national urban forum in Malawi highlighted the progressive approach to dialogue on urbanisation that is taking place in the country.
 
The Forum, which was supported by the Cities Alliance, is also expected to provide substantive input into a new national urban policy for Malawi.
 
The fact that such a dialogue is happening at the national level is especially notable in Malawi, which is – for now – primarily a rural country. With a high urbanisation rate of 5.3 per cent per year, however, it is unlikely to stay that way. According to current estimates, some 20 per cent of Malawi’s population lives in urban areas; that number is expected to reach 50 per cent by 2050.
 
The country is also starting to feel the pressure of urbanisation as more households are living in poor housing with inadequate services and high unemployment. As such, the debate on urbanisation is taking on a greater importance throughout Malawi, and a national urban forum was initially held in 2008.
 
The Second National Urban Forum, which was held from 27 to 28 October 2011 in Lilongwe, provided a space for a genuine policy dialogue among all partners on urbanisation in Malawi with the view of informing policies and programmes for adequate basic urban services and infrastructure such as housing, water, sanitation and energy in order to promote sustainable urban development. The theme for the event was “Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Urbanisation in Malawi”.
 
“The Forum was a very useful platform from which to understand the amount of programming in the urban sector that is currently underway in Malawi. What is clear is that the dialogue on urbanisation in Malawi is in the early stages.”
 
--Ntombini Marrengane, State of the Cities in Africa (SOCA) Project Coordinator, University of Cape Town
 
Hosted by the Government of Malawi and UN-HABITAT, the Forum drew a large number of participants, with some 220 representatives from the government, private sector, NGOs, informal settlements, civil society, media and academia attending.
 
Deputy Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development Christopher Ngwira formally opened the Forum with the announcement that his Ministry had set aside MWK50 million (US$300,000) in the Public Sector Investment Programme to support slum upgrading activities through the National Slum Upgrading Programme.
 
World Bank Country Manager Sandra Bloemenkamp delivered the keynote address, in which she urged government to engage slum dwellers for successful urbanisation.
 
Speakers and discussions focused on the core issues at the heart of the urbanisation debate in Malawi – how the country should urbanise, how the process should be handled, goals, different roles and responsibilities and, more importantly, how access to basic urban infrastructure and services can be accelerated. A significant part of the Forum was devoted to civil society including slum dwellers representatives, underscoring the strong collaborative relationship between the country’s civil society and the national government.
 
The Forum also featured training events, examples of best practices on improving the urban environment, and the presentation of the Malawi Award for Human Settlements to three winners who included the Malawi Homeless People’s Federation, Lilongwe and Blantyre City Councils.
 
The day before the Forum, UN-HABITAT hosted a media sensitisation workshop for journalists to promote knowledge and skills on reporting urbanisation in Malawi. The workshop also provided background on the issues surrounding the forum. It addressed how the media could be involved in the event and how to disseminate the key messages of the Forum. The workshop was also well attended, with some 14 media outlets participating, and helped the Forum garner significant attention in the Malawi media.
 
The Cities Alliance, which was represented at the event by Secretariat member Adele Hosken, supported the Forum as part of the first phase of the Malawi City Development Strategy and Slum Upgrading Programme Framework. This initiative seeks to improve the lives of Malawi’s urban poor in select cities and build the capacity of government, local authorities and communities to reduce slum growth. It is being implemented by UN-HABITAT and the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development.
 
 
A grassroots debate on urbanisation develops in Balaka
 
In the leadup to the Malawi Urban Forum, UN-HABITAT and the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development also held a district forum on urban issues in Balaka – a small but rapidly growing town of 25,000 people.
 
A unique aspect of the Balaka forum is that it was the direct result of community mobilisation by residents. Noticing that urbanisation was affecting their community, the residents of Balaka formed a debate club in order to discuss the issue and their role as citizens.
 
It quickly became evident that small but fast growing towns are not being given the attention they deserve if they are to avoid the mistakes of their larger counterparts. It also became clear that information exchange between urban and rural centres is lacking, and that residents of urban areas have more access to information than their rural counterparts. The debate club activities were eventually parlayed into a district-level forum with the support of the national government.
 
Since its establishment, the Balaka Debate Club has held over 60 debates on a range of social, political and economic issues including land, sanitation, and clean water. It has essentially focused on citizenship-building and governance issues such as the roles of councillors, parliament, leaders, chief and community, among others. The club draws on resource persons from organisations including the University of Malawi, government, and CBOs to participate in and help formulate debates, and the target groups include policy makers, leaders and the general public.
 
The club has also served to sensitise people on citizenship-building and issues that impact them so that they can make more informed decisions through public open debate, decentralisation forums and orientation seminars. The ultimate goal is to enable the community to participate in the economic development in the country.
 
Some of the debate club’s achievements include greater awareness of citizen’s rights and responsibilities. For instance, residents now realise their rights with regard to land and that there is a legal framework for land administration. These debate forums have also served as a link between the citizens of Balaka and the town council to inform the local development agenda; the engagement has led to improved waste disposal in townships where the town assembly took quick action in response to citizen demands.
 
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