Region: Africa
Thematic Focus: Political & Legal Reform
Country: Zimbabwe


Zimbabwe, being a unitary state, has a system of local government that operates under delegated powers. To facilitate the operation of this system of governance and to open channels of communication between all the participants in development, at the sub-national level, administrative structure at the provincial, district and urban levels and those below it (ward and village/neighborhood) were defined. These structures were created through the Provincial Councils and Administration Act of 1985.

The strongest commitment to decentralization by the government after the 1985 Act was the promulgation of the 1988 Rural District Act. However, a four-year delay in its implementation reflected the difficulties foreseen in making it operational. Limited attention had been paid to controversial issues like the role of the chief executive vis-à-vis that of the District Administrators (DAs); resource mobilization and utilization in the newly formed councils; and voting by farm workers in council elections.

Key Factors

The key issue in the decentralization process is the political role of the local government. The role of the local government is to mobilize and increase people's participation in development of their local areas. At independence in 1980 there was a strong reaction against the colonial experience and therefore the need was to demonstrate the good intention of the new government in representing the rural and urban communities, by involving them in development planning and decision-making at the village/neighborhood, ward and rural district/municipal levels.

The division of powers between the national (central government) and local (rural district and urban councils) level varies according to the categories of services, activities and functions. Central government focuses on guidelines, national policy, standards enforcement, national planning and financing, and the development of infrastructure of national importance through the Public Sector Investment Programme. The latter includes major roads, dams, power generating capacity, referral hospitals, secondary schools and so on. Central government has a supervisory role over the local level of government, overseeing the appointment of senior staff and approving council's budget. It also has a facilitating role in activities such as negotiating loans for capital development on behalf of a local government; and sometimes a controlling over, for example, prices charged for services and leases, and over potential sources of revenue. Central government also has the right to approve [or reject] provincial plans.

The province is the intermediate level, where all the activities of Urban and Rural District Councils (RDCs) and of central ministries are coordinated. Provincial plans and policies are mapped out there, including the review and evaluation of activities at the lower levels of the local government system. Approval of RDC plans is made by the Provincial Administrator's Office and these plans, together with guidelines from the central government, constitute the basis for the drafting of the provincial plan. This is a standard annual practice. Resources, mainly from the centre, are channeled through the Provincial Council for transmission to the local governments.

Local governments are in turn empowered by their respective Acts to perform the following functions and roles subject to approval by the central government:

Specific functions of the Local Councils fall into two categories: mandatory and permissive. Mandatory functions are those that are basic and are to be carried out by all councils. These include:

Local governments in Zimbabwe are creatures of the central government and must limit their activities and procedures to those prescribed by that level. However, local governments are affiliated with two independent associations: the Association of Rural District Councils and the Association of Urban Councils. Representatives of central ministries and senior government officials in local governments together with concerned local organizations (including NGOs) are invited to their annual meetings, where future plans and programmes, intergovernmental relations and budgets are tabled and discussed, and past performance is reviewed.

Main Lessons

In general, decentralization in Zimbabwe has been gradual and judiciously carried out. A mismatch between resources and responsibilities could not, however, be avoided as the central government grapples with run-away fiscal deficit for the past 13 years. High yielding local revenue sources, such as property tax, are either controlled and limited or not efficiently organized. The mismatch has also negatively affected the capacity of local governments to mobilize and allocate resources, and to galvanize local action. As a rule, political and economic influence by the local government remains limited as citizens continue to look at the central government rather than to the local levels for resources, particularly in rural areas. Efforts to bridge the gap between available resources and responsibilities are currently being carried out in a number of RDCs with assistance from the donor community.

Summarized from: Zimbabwe, By Louis Masuko (pages 43-61) in Changing Nature of Local

Government in Developing Countries, Edited by Patricia L. McCarney