Catch-22 of Devolution in Zimbabwe

So the question that’s bugging me this weekend is how, or indeed whether, it is possible to reconcile a devolutionary programme with the need to hold involved actors to account in a generally undemocratic and non-transparent system? I’ve reached the point in my thesis now whereby I’m now trying to look forward more constructively and I’ve hit this stumbling block… I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try and write it down and run it past anyone who ends up reading it!

The Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE), Zimbabwe’s famous national community-based natural resource management initiative, was designed to provide an alternative land use for communal land farmers suffering through drought on marginal lands. By advocating the economic advantage of wildlife/game ranching (elephants, buffalos, lions etc.) CAMPFIRE encouraged these marginal farmers to move away from the intensive and problematic cattle ranching to the sustainable use of mega-fauna. The programme was designed to be fully devolutionary, whereby communities set themselves up into cooperatives or used the local government structure of Ward Development Committees (WADCOs) to apply for Appropriate Authority (AA) from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management (DNPWLM) which would give them de facto ownership, decision making authority and control over the wildlife in their communal area.

In reality, the process of AA was only ever decentralised to the Rural District Councils (RDCs) as the lowest legally recognised entity in the governance system. The RDCs are supposed to act as representatives and on behalf of the people on the communal lands under their jurisdiction, but generally, for numerous reasons, they do not but rather co-opting the process for their own financial benefit. The people living on the marginal lands are mainly seen as passive recipients or pawns in this natural resource management process, the outcomes being a decrease in food and livelihood security as access to relied upon natural resources is restricted and the government reneges on development infrastructure hiding behind the inflated expectations of CAMPFIRE benefits. The ongoing conflict between traditional leadership and the representatives of the central administrative system (i.e. Councillors) diminishes the representation opportunities for the local communities, exacerbated by the significant lack of communication and information reaching these remote locations. Struggling for basic needs and daily survival, unaware of their political rights to question and hold others to account, in many cases the local people who were supposed to be the target beneficiaries of the CAMPFIRE process have not been reached.

It is clear to many who have studied this programme that in order to benefit local people, they need to be devolved the power to manage, control and make decisions about the natural resources in question. However, it is equally as clear how much of a Catch-22 this situation is. How does one change the governing system that is inherently hierarchical and power driven, undemocratic, and unwilling to relinquish control of financial revenues streams, to do just that? And due to the lack of empowerment and political power held by the communities, other actors will need to be involved in the process of holding the system to account; it is not enough to just specify the process on paper, it is necessary to have a system in place with checks and balances so that it is also confirmed to be happening in practice. If the process needs to be one of co-management and/or multi-way partnerships, can it still be a process of devolution? Does it not just re-run the risk of co-option, power battles, and fragmentation leaving those with the least political clout once again at the bottom of the pile? But equally, without it having these defined processes in place, a devolved system to the local level would be easily as co-optable by those higher up the political chain?

Basically, to have a devolved system that will function in a wider system of unaccountability and power dynamics those being devolved to must have the capacity and ability to hold their own. But, without devolution, the rural communities have too little ownership or control of their livelihoods and opportunities to build their capacity and ability. To build their capacity and ability there needs to be a complex mix of infrastructural development driven by the government to help meet local basic needs (roads, networks, water, health etc.), education driven by external actors on political rights and accountability processes, and the opportunities to practice adaptive management of these natural resources with responsibility for both the costs and the benefits.

Is that even feasible in Zimbabwe?

*I should make the claim here that my research is based on four villages, 2 in Binga District and 2 in Chiredzi. The findings from these have been supplemented with key informant interviews, a workshop, and significant reading of the literature over the last 3 years. While I appreciate there are some exceptions to the case outline above (i.e. Masoko, Mahenye), the findings overall do paint a picture that is more generalisable.

3 Responses

  1. Roy Hagen
    Roy Hagen April 13, 2015 at 14:12 | | Reply


    First, you stated: “…(CAMPFIRE), Zimbabwe’s famous national community-based natural resource management initiative, was designed to provide an alternative land use for communal land farmers suffering through drought on marginal lands.”

    A little later you say, “In reality, the process of AA (Appropriate Authority) was only ever decentralised to the Rural District Councils (RDCs) as the lowest legally recognised entity in the governance system. The RDCs are supposed to act as representatives and on behalf of the people on the communal lands under their jurisdiction, but generally, for numerous reasons, they do not…”

    My perspective: I think the first thing one needs to do is to recognize that “Zimbabwe’s famous national community-based natural resource management initiative…” never was an example of CBNRM. The communities in Zimbabwe have never been empowered to manage wildlife. The management of wildlife in Zimbabwe has never been “based” at the community level. It is local government that was empowered by central government to manage wildlife. CAMPFIRE has always been a local government-based natural resource management initiative. Revenues were shared with communities but not power and control over the wildlife resource.

    As regards CBNRM, the most successful aspect of CAMPFIRE is that it eventually inspired the development of CBNRM programs for wildlife management in Botswana and Namibia. What makes the CBNRM program in Botswana and Namibia so exceptional on a continent-level scale is that communities were empowered by central governments to control and manage high-value natural resources. I am not the only one to argue that this probably happened only because of the exceptionally high levels of good governance in Botswana and Namibia.

    The other large scale CBNRM success story on the continent (that I know of) is the community-based natural forest management (let’s call in CBNFM) of wooded savanna forests in 5 or 6 West Africa Sahelian countries and this program illustrates a situation where good governance is not as crucial to its success. CBNFM got started in Niger as a small component of FLUP (Forestry and Land Use Planning Project) at almost the same time as the local-government-based CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe and it has spread to Burkina, Mali, Gambia, Guinea, perhaps Tchad and most recently to Senegal. In terms of the number of countries covered, it has been more successful that CBNRM for wildlife management in southern Africa. In terma of hectares under management, it is less successful — but nobody knows what that total is.

    As contrasted to CBNRM in Botswana and Naimibia, CBNFM in the Sahel focuses on the management of one of the lowest valued natural resources — semi-arid wooded savannas managed primarily for wood fuels for urban centers. One of the main reasons that forestry departments were sometimes willing to transfer management rights to communities is that the resource is of such low value — there was not a lot of rest-seeking opportunities for government forestry agents. I think another important factor, especially in the early days, was the impact of the two devastating Sahelian droughts that culiminated in 1968 and 1984. Sahelian Waters and Forests (Eaux et Forêts) adminstrations saw that nearly all of their previous initiatives can come to nought and some of them — especially in Burkina — were willing to try a new approach. And I think that CBNFM has perhaps been the most successful in countries with the best levels of governance.

    Now I digress a bit. I find that one of the most remarkable aspects of CBNFM in West Africa is that hardly anyone in the CBNRM community knows about it. Another remarkable aspect is that all of the CBNFM initiatives in West Africa have been comercially-0riented from the beginning and they all involve the sustainable harvest of live trees. I don’t know of any significant community-based natural forest management initiatives in East, Southern and Central Africa that involve the harvest of live trees (with the partial exception of Cameroon, but I understand that program is frought with many problems). I find it highly ironic that natural forests are one of the world’s greatest renewable natural resources and few donors and environmental NGOs show any interest in the sustainable, commercial management of natural forests for wood products. In many cases, the environmental NGOs are strongly opposed to such an idea.

    Anyhow, coming back to your dilemna, Elizabeth. I don’t know of any examples of the devolution of control and management rights over high-valued natural resources to communities in countries that do not have a reasonable level of good governance. I do not know if it would be possible and I am a bit pessimistic on that score. I think that you have done a very good job of diagnosing the problem. I don’t know if there is a solution. I wish I could be more helpful.

    Roy Hagen

  2. Mitchell Mahachi
    Mitchell Mahachi April 25, 2015 at 13:48 | | Reply

    You raise very interesting points Elizabeth in your Catch 22 article. I happen to have worked for a local authority involved in campfire in Zimbabwe. Interesting in that when I read your article I began to introspect on some of our actions and tried to rationalize why they were done in this manner. I came up with following:

    The idea of devolution:This was splendid as an idea; villagers or communities benefiting directly from resources in their area. However, the problem seemed to lie in communities that did not have the wildlife and felt they should also have a share of the resources or benefits as they feared regional inequality. Being that local govt is divided into wards with councillors as the head of the Ward development committee and reporting to council, there are bound to be those councillors who do not have wildlife in their wards but want a share of the proceeds from Campfire. So to ensure that everyone (in council now) is aware of the going ons, the campfire is managed by council so that the benefits are spread “evenly” throughout the district.

    This is where I think devolution to village level and management of resources by the community itself did not take place. From my observation, community participation in the way campfire was/is being run can be increased. It must be borne in mind that councils could and should get input from the community with regards to cbnrm though sadly this does not happen at times. What I see is that as you pointed out, NGOs and other CBOs need to support communities get to a certain level of socio-economic development and capacity.

    To add on, I think you referred to the accountability of the actors involved in cbnrm. This again, is another reason why campfire did not go down to community level. It was felt in some sections that officials in councils would be held to account if the proceeds from campfire were misappropriated rather than if a member of the community did the same. Councils then went on to employ personnel in this area to work with communities in managing their resources.

    Why did this not succeed you may ask? Some councils took advantage of a gap in communication between council and the community. Feedback on returns from wildlife sales etc was not fed into the public domain and when information is not demanded (not that it should) , only a trickle is released. I think this is the undemocratic and non transparent system you referred to. Furthermore, some councils apart from being mismanaged have been badly affected by the economic situation as there are no revenue streams from central government and have ended up using funds meant for other projects to pay off debts and so on.

    Prospects of improvement in governance exist but are still in their infancy. The call for results based management system in public offices is a step in the right direction and may lead to greater transparency. However, the civic groups need to ride on this wave and make communities assertive in demanding their interests.

    I hope this assists you in one way or another.

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