Interview with Pauline Conway, Irish charge d'affaires

Pauline Conway is the charge d'affaires at the embassy of Ireland, whose 29-million-euro aid programme is at the fore of the government’s radical decentralisation programme, which aims to transfer budgetary control from the level of the zonal administration to that of the woreda, or district. Here Conway tells IRIN about what she believes the programme should achieve and the hurdles it must be overcome.

QUESTION: What are Ireland Aid’s priorities in Ethiopia?

ANSWER: The Ireland Aid programme started in Ethiopia in 1994 when we established diplomatic relations with the country. The budget has grown very rapidly since then. The overall goal of our 2002-2004 Country Strategy Plan is [and I quote] "to support a process of poverty-reducing, self-reliant, sustainable and equitable growth and development in Ethiopia".

The allocation for 2003 is €29.349 million, 28 million of which is for programme support, and the balance for administration. Over 54 percent of the 2003 budget is allocated for rural development in Tigray and Southern regions. There we are supporting five multi-sectoral integrated
area-based programmes, two of them in Tigray and three in the South. These area-based programmes operate at zonal, woreda and community levels.

The sectors supported by Ireland Aid include food security and agriculture, soil and natural resources conservation, basic education, primary health care, rural water supply, rural roads and community development. Since the programmes are implemented by the local authorities and communities, there is a very strong focus on capacity building at all levels.

Ireland Aid is also supporting the Tigray regional food security programme, and farmer-based operational research in agriculture in both regions. Additional funding will also be provided at regional level in these two regions for education, health and HIV/AIDS.

Q: How does decentralisation within the country affect your work at the zonal and woreda levels?

A: It has had a big impact on the management of the programme, because up to mid-2002 we were working with just five zones. Now, since responsibility for rural development has been decentralised to the woredas, and the roles of zonal councils have changed and become less significant, we find ourselves dealing with 48 woredas - effectively 48 different rural development programmes. So, since the Irish embassy/Ireland Aid is quite a small operation, this additional monitoring responsibility is placing a heavy burden on our staff.

We are looking at various options and discussing them with our partners at the regional level in the two regions and in the zones and the woredas. Already, the regional authorities have assumed increased responsibility for coordination and day-to-day management of the programmes, and we expect this to continue in 2003. One possibility might be to move up a level, put money through regional government structures, and then make them responsible for transmitting it directly down to the woreda level.

Since so much has happened, particularly in relation to decentralisation, since our current Country Strategy Plan was drawn up in November 2001, we are planning to have a mid-term review in March/April of 2003. One of the outcomes we expect from the review is advice on what the future format for Ireland Aid’s support to rural development in Ethiopia should be. We very much value the rural development programme. We feel it is a very effective way of tackling poverty at the community level.

Q: What are the issues that you see coming up in terms of decentralisation?

A: We see it as a very positive development in trying to bring service delivery closer to the beneficiaries and give people a say in the priorities and the programmes which affect their lives. If it is done well, it can really strengthen local democracy. However, there are a number of issues. Firstly, decentralisation to woreda level has taken place very fast.

Prime Minister Meles [Zenawi] announced plans in October 2001, and implementation started July 2002, so an awful lot of work had to be done getting people in place at the woreda level. Also, because the woredas had very limited functions prior to this, there was a big capacity deficit both in terms of staff and facilities at those levels.

So, there is a lot of work to be done in terms of training people to undertake their new responsibilities, ensuring that there are enough people at the woreda level to carry out activities, and that facilities exist, e.g. office accommodation, housing etc, to ensure that staff will remain in place once they are assigned to woreda level.

Ireland Aid has worked with Tigray and Southern regions, the five zones within these regions and their constituent woredas to agree on development activities in accordance with local priorities to be undertaken at woreda level with Ireland Aid funding during the 2002/03 financial year. We are now discussing how the planning process for the 2002/03 financial year should be implemented, and what can be done to train people at woreda levels to ensure they have the capacity to plan, implement and monitor development activities.

In the current financial year, because of the speedy implementation of decentralisation, a lot of the woreda plans were drawn up by experts from zonal-level sector bureaus, and I am not sure how much local participation there was in plan preparation. Hopefully, with Ireland Aid support, the preparatory process for the 2002/03 financial year can be improved.

Q: Will there be delays in programmes because of the lack of capacity, or will there be a smooth transition?

A: I think at the beginning some delays are inevitable. In 2001, we found that, due to all the discussions and meetings taking place all over the country from March onwards as part of the political renewal process, there were some delays in implementation of Ireland Aid-supported activities, because people were busy with meetings.

Again, in 2002, there were some delays in implementation due to short-term disruptions caused by the decentralisation process. As a result, our 2002 expenditure in Ethiopia was less than originally planned. We hope that things will settle down and start moving normally as people’s implementation capacity and confidence grow. For example, in some of the woredas in eastern and southern Tigray Region, progress in implementation of Ireland Aid-supported activities now seems to be as scheduled.

Q: What will be the measure of the success of the decentralisation programme?

A: There are a number of things which can be assessed. Examples include the extent to which services are in place at the district level, and whether there have been real, measurable improvements in the levels of food security, access and quality of education and health services and access to water. Also, to what extent in a particular woreda the plans are based on real identification of priorities by the local communities, and whether what is actually undertaken corresponds with agreed local priorities.

There is also the question of the extent to which local communities can put pressure on their local authorities to deliver effective and efficient services and to be more accountable.

Q: How do you ensure the accountability at a local level?

A: Ireland Aid is a donor; in a sense it is not up to us to ensure the government is responsible to its constituents. Obviously, the primary responsibility for that lies with the Ethiopian authorities. Part of this responsibility is working with people to ensure that they have the ability to question, and there are structures in place to ensure people can have a say and complain and get action if their demands and needs are not being met.

Turning to the issue of accountability for Ireland Aid funding, while funds are channelled through Ethiopian government accounts, we have certain checks, such as a very active internal
and external audit programme.

While at the moment all our funds are spent on jointly agreed particular activities, we are considering moving towards providing block-grant capital support at regional levels in Tigray and Southern regions. If such a decision is taken as a result of the mid-term country review, this support would be linked to performance against agreed indicators, such as improvements in health and education service delivery, increased agricultural production and food security.

Q: How do you think decentralisation will change the political map of Ethiopia?

A: It will be very interesting to see what will happen. A colleague of mine has commented that decentralisation tends to create an unstoppable momentum in terms of increased democratisation and improved governance. Hopefully, we may see something similar here.

A lot will depend on how fairly decentralisation is implemented. For example, if woreda councils are controlled by opposition parties, regional authorities will need to ensure that these woredas receive their block-grant entitlements just like those controlled by the government parties.

I understand that some of the opposition parties complain that decentralisation will make it more difficult for them to organise, because, rather than working at zonal levels, they will have to try to organise support at a woreda level. The government has stated that decentralisation is intended to strengthen direct democracy: this could work very well if it's properly implemented.

Q: Is there a potential for decentralisation to strengthen the hand of the government because so few woredas are in opposition hands?

A: This is possible, but a lot will depend on the spirit in which decentralisation is implemented and whether there is a level playing field. Obviously, it will also challenge the opposition to organise themselves at the grass-roots level and try to build up a power base there. Hopefully, the Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman will be in operation before long, since these institutions will constitute an important means of monitoring developments and remedying abuses.

The donor community can also play a useful role by asking questions and monitoring what is going on. However, we can only influence - obviously it has to be an Ethiopian-led process.