A talk show radio programme and enumerations in Malawi

Wonderful Hunga, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 18 May 2015

The voice of the urban poor in Malawi has been mute in the public sphere for so long. As a predominantly rural and agrarian-based economy, development discourse in the country has largely focussed on rural development. Urban issues have only come into the limelight in government's efforts to stem urbanisation to reduce rural-urban migration. Owing to this context, it has been increasingly difficult for the urban poor to project their issues to warrant prioritization or even consideration on the government development agenda.

However, things have now begun to change. The urban poor are getting organised through movements such as the Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor. Through their work, the Federation is working with informal settlements in all four main cities of Malawi. The Federation works in partnership with the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), a local NGO.

The Federation mobilises local communities to conduct enumeration surveys and uses them to develop Community Strategic Plans (CSPs), which list priorities of the communities. The communities organise meetings with stakeholders in the city, where they get to share their findings and plans. The CSPs have also become a tool for engaging other government agencies. The communities have produced booklets of the CSPs, which they share widely with various agencies. They use the CSP booklets as conversation currency in pushing for their demands. For communities with CSPs, the booklets present their shopping list.

Besides the CSP, a monthly radio programme called Public Square provides space for the urban power and institutions that support them. A local research consulting firm called The Research Institute (TRI), formerly the Urban Research Institute, runs a monthly two-hour radio programme called Public Square (previously called Urban Talks) on Zodiak, a popular station in Malawi.

The Public Square carefully selects topics usually based on preliminary research by TRI. TRI then invites panelists, and collaborators for funding. The composition of the panel includes one or two slum residents, a government official, a service provider, a community leader, and sometimes a member of civil society. Besides the panelists, there is also an invited audience member drawn from the informal settlements of the city.

Through the Public Square, the urban poor have a chance to interact with government institutions and put across their demands to duty-bearers. This approach seems to be yielding results. For example, in one Public Square, a discussion around water supply in the informal settlements involved the CEO of Lilongwe Water Board. The audience was able to put across their concerns on water supply, which the CEO acted upon.

The Public Square has also brought politicians like Members of Parliament onto its panel. This has created awareness of the situations in the informal settlements among the politicians. In a previous Public Square entitled "Addressing Urban Growth in Creating a Resilient Malawi," participants bemoaned the absence of a Parliamentary Committee responsible for urban development and delays in the enactment of various urban-development policies. An MP, who was part of the panel, offered herself to table a Private Members Bill, which will address these issues, with the support of TRI, CCODE, and other like-minded agencies.

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