Malawi is urbanising at a rapid rate. By 2020 it is expected to have the world’s highest annual urbanisation rate of 6.3 %, according to UN-Habitat statistics.

Unethical behaviour by politicians, technocrats and physical planners in the country threatens cohesive urban development and poses challenges to the future of Malawi’s urban spaces.

“The country has recently seen an explosion of unplanned development and settlements as citizens have lost confidence in the official town planning system,” says UN Habitat Malawi Country Manager, John Chome. He made the comments at a Malawi Institute of Physical Planners (MIPP) symposium held in capital city Lilongwe recently.

Due to the unethical planning environment, Malawians have a decreased sense of obligation to formally apply for and get planning permission, and to apply for proper land titles or building permits, says Chome.

Ubanisation, if well managed, facilitates sustained economic growth and promotes broad social welfare gains. Development experts around the world agree that urban areas are engines of social and economic development. But policy weakness and disintegrated stakeholder coordination can undermine the benefits of urbanisation.

Malawi has since its formation experienced a variety of approaches to urbanism: from early Banthu settlements, colonial settlements, and the relocation of the capital from Zomba to Lilongwe to more recent programmes that aim to support the growth of the urban agglomeration in rural environments and in strategic central locations to guarantee balanced national urban growth. Physical planning in Malawi emerged as part of the state’s intervention to control urban and rural environments.

In his presentation made at the symposium, Leslie Majawa, a planning official from the Ministry of Land’s Department of Physical Planning in Zomba city, said the proliferation of unplanned settlements and illegal developments in the city, once the country’s capital city, is a result of the difficulties with accessibility of land.

“It takes years to access land from the formal market which is also expensive,” said Majawa, noting that the situation has bred corrupt practices allegedly perpetrated by official land managers in the Ministry of Land, Malawi Housing Corporation, and the city council.

Majawa said in this kind of scenario, “planning becomes impossible as the illegal developers construct unplanned haphazard settlements with poor or no access, erratic water and power supply and poor sanitation.”

“The new land owners lack formal tenure as they do not have any lease, do not pay taxes, and have no building approval,” said Majawa. “The informal system shall continue to take advantage of the ailing condition of the formal land management system and flourish in the urban areas.”

Planning does little to address inequality 

Urban land categories in Malawi are divided into private land, which includes freehold and government land, and public land, which is used by the state to lease to developers.

“If used positively as a tool for development, physical planning remains an expression of government policies and objectives that emphasise settlement planning, land use management and infrastructure development,” Mtafu Zeleza Manda, who lectures on Geography and Physical Planning at Mzuzu University, observes.  “If used negatively, physical planning becomes a racist, class or political tool for spatial expression of exclusionary economic and social policies at national and local levels.”

Manda notes that as a statutory tool for state intervention, physical planning influences accessibility to services and facilities. “This makes physical planning, especially zoning aided by development control mechanisms, responsible for many investments, political and social outcomes in the urban and rural spaces,” he says.

Unfortunately, despite having development control mechanisms in place, inequalities in Malawi have not changed. Housing zones in the country continue to be defined by income levels: low-density zones are still for the rich and medium-density zones are for middle-income people, while high-density zones are for low-income groups.

The planning expert said ad hoc planning, corruption and allocation of land through political dictates has watered down the planning profession’s integrity.

“Such attitudes towards development planning have brought chaos leading to people invading road reserves, stream reserves, streets for vending activities and open spaces, claiming they needed land for housing,” he says.

Many disenfranchised, landless people saw land diminishing and hence opted for land invasion as a coping measure, explains Manda. “All this suggests that the planning system was not helpful to the poor and weak and that the planning system and plot acquisition process was expensive and that the poor and weak were not benefiting from the long delay and corruption in the system even when land was available.”

Rot in the system 

The UN Habitat’s Chome observes that unethical behavior has added costs to national development and has gone a step further to hurt the poor who cannot afford the high costs associated with acts and practices of corruption, bribery, influence peddling, fraud and extortion by physical planners and their connivers.

He says some physical planners are engaged in abuse of office, abuse of privileged information, favouritism, and in conflicts of interests. For example, an official responsible for preparing the town planning committee agenda may be offered a benefit to make an applicant jump the queue, he explains.  Likewise, a planner or a member of his family or a friend may apply for a plot, which is to be offered on a first-come, first-serve basis before anyone else, by using inside information, explains Chome. Corrupt planners might also advise planning committees to approve a development proposal that shouldn’t have been approved if critical information was not concealed.

Chome highlights that unethical behavior lowers both domestic and foreign investments, which in turn retards economic growth of a country as investors are forced to pay bribes to have access to land or to get planning permission.

According to Aggrey Kawonga, former Lilongwe City Council chief planner and Technical Director of the National Construction Industry Council (NCIC), the initial high quality infrastructure development of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, was made possible because it was heavily guarded, politically, since any construction required presidential consent.

He said the development control practice in Lilongwe is locked by two screening processes: these require public and commercial buildings to be vetted by structural engineers, and professional certification by architects and engineers. Private housing units, meanwhile, can be designed by draughtsmen and can easily be approved as long as they subscribe to planning standards and guidelines.

“This has caused problems relating to the quality of structures and [the] townscape in general as there have been cases of forging signatures of professionals,” he said in a MIPP publication titled ‘The dynamics of growth of Lilongwe, the capital city’.

He observed that poor urban construction standards have been compromised by failure to implement design standards of development proposals submitted and approved by the city due to lack of professional construction supervision.

“Abuse of urban consolidation from policy has also resulted in excessive encroachment of public open spaces and road reserves for commercial and residential development exacerbating poor city townscape,” adds the former capital city planner. “Lack of commitment to strengthen the city management process and the political positioning of incompetent staff in city administration and planning has watered down urban management needs.”

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