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Malawi’s Development Toolkits: The Weakest Links

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Tiunike Online launch issue.

The 2015 National Human Development Report (NHDR) for Malawi is finally here!

The United Nations has painted the colors of inclusive growth all over the 194-page document in the anticipation to persuade Malawian policy makers to view economic development through the lens of the full cross-section of the country’s citizens, including the poor and vulnerable. It navigates through development strategies from the Post-Independence Development Plan (1965 - 1969) through the second Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS II) (2012 – 2016), while zooming in to the last technical detail from design to content to monitoring implementation.

The NHDR drives us to an essential discovery. From independence, Malawi’s development strategies, in spite of their many limitations and strengths, have been quite reasonably inclusive. Despite the obvious weighty focus on agriculture as the main driver for development, the analysis does also skew towards other critical sectors as health, education, labor and productive industries (mining, manufacturing, tourism, etc.). Laying everything bare before Malawians, the NHDR demonstrates that the foresight of national planning in Malawi has been inclusive for a very long time, which for us, is where the problem lies, owing to the fact that this has not translated into tangible change. Although policies and plans have adequately addressed the aspects of development with the highest impacts on poor and vulnerable people, the level of inequality has been on a steady increase throughout the country’s post-independence era. The poor are becoming more desolate, while the rich determinately hurtle on.

This is symptomatic of our craftiness at using papyrus and ink more than in performance.

As we traverse through the dense text, colors and images in the NHDR, a few underlying issues begin to surface beyond the suggested recommendations. Notably, the quality of development required in the work we have done is ambiguous. With a growing population and its corresponding complexities that depict quintessential livelihoods in Malawi, our successive governments have responded by raising the measure of quantity as the main tradeoff for quality in almost all areas affecting the poor. The multi-dimensional nature of poverty highlights the intimate linkages between the public effort to provide for basic services and the state of livelihoods. The result has made the separation of public service clients - the affluent and those that have no luxury to choose - clearer. This has removed the soft cushion on which the same poor would land when faced with shocks in the economic and social system, in turn, making them worse off.

A dire economic situation socialized with a decaying moral fabric has some Malawians appropriating meagre public resources used to support public institutions into private hands – so they can either afford to choose or sustain their position. This has only made more frantic the plight of the poor and vulnerable, and defeats the purpose of the inclusiveness intentions of the development policies of the past 50 years.

In 2013, the OECD held a workshop on inclusive growth where they defined the notion as economic growth that creates opportunity for all segments of population and distributes the dividends of increased prosperity, both in monetary and nonmonetary terms, fairly across society. Although Malawi’s national planning has always coupled its development with inclusiveness, the OECD was right to bring the notion back to the fore, to remind us the term is a notion that requires the invocation of a great deal of responsibility.

Perhaps this was an opportunity for us to rethink why our development has been regressive in the face of plans that only go as far as romanticizing fabulousness in every abstract sense. So, the NHDR emphasizes “political will” as an indispensable component of the toolbox of any development sculptor Malawi will elect to Capital Hill. Although we think political will is requisite, we advise taking a step further in ensuring that the theory and practice of development can finally confluence – and, perchance, this is where political will ought to be applied.

The running of government requires our politicians to be bold enough to take a pause and excavate all the schemes gathering dust on shelves and CD-ROMs of Capital Hill and perform one simple job: build the tools that will transform ideas into action, scalable action. These magicians need to bring back to life the many brilliant plans we made as far back as the 60s, with some context adjustments, of course. We believe that fulfilling every word in those volumes has a great chance for lasting change, and would prevent the reprehensible attempts that misdirect public resources to buying shoes for all Malawians, cows for every family, or cement and iron sheets for the poor – proudly disguised as tough development agendas. Sound implementation of development plans in Malawi should empower Malawians to get such amenities by themselves, leaving government to perform its sanctioned duty of regulating conduct, and saving itself some insults while at it.

It suffices that Malawians want development, and lessons over the past 50 years have taught us well that we will not receive what we do not sweat for, because even donor money has had a better chance at flying back to base than making a difference on the ground. We are ready to join any buffoon daring enough to promise real hope, a guaranteed return on our sweat and the space to chart our own course as a nation.

We would like to re-emphasize the impeccable wit of our national development plans. However, we think these would be better if we decoupled the elicited empathy for the poor that is associated with inclusive growth. As a matter of fact, some pluralistic approaches have proven to be more effective and eventually inclusive than one would fathom. Take the Saemaul rural development scheme that has been the driving force behind South Korea’s development success, changing it from aid-recipient to donor within a generation! With no hindsight of its subtle effects, the building of infrastructure in roads, education, health, ICT, water, energy and markets in rural Korea ameliorated the lives of rural people with significant externalities on the lives of women who were considered unequal and thus more vulnerable compared with men. Pluralism in development helps everyone, poor and rich, but more prominently, provides the equal opportunities of inclusive growth if well managed.

Our dedicated sympathy for the poor is enthused in large degrees by the West’s definition of its “kindness” to poor Africa. It makes us believe that foreign money has the solutions and that we should relentlessly keep ourselves focused on the poor, while we slowly lose sight of the big picture. As there are almost no wealthy Malawians that do not have connections with poor Malawians, government needs to relegate to them the task of shopping for shoes, cows, goats, cement and malata. They will take care of their poor while government can go back to the pot and stir internally- and donor-generated revenues for long-term development investments.

Our intelligence has been undisputable. Our actions leave a lot to be desired. And our leadership exhibits a dearth of stamina required for the task. For once, we need to realize the strengths we always had, and deal away the weaknesses that are holding us back.

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