The ABCs of Educating Parliament in Malawi

Updated: Jan 21


A typical review of a draft law in Malawi brings together members of the Parliamentary Committee responsible for the group of laws the Committee oversees. The Malawi Parliament customarily hires a legal expert who will work with the Committee members over a given period, deciphering the complex language that may be difficult for the regular MP to break down, from the first page to last, from one article to the next, from the first letter to the last punctuation. The expert supports, to the extent possible, by guiding Committee members towards the implications of each article of the draft law, providing members with the opportunity to debate its contents and provide input that will be in the best interest of Malawians. When all Committee deliberations conclude, all nitty-gritties addressed, iterations with drafters at the Malawi Law Commission and Ministry of Justice done, the Committee presents the completed draft, now a Bill, to a session of Parliament for a plenary debate.

Only, this is a utopian aspiration than our current configuration of parliamentary membership is yet to give.

According to experts working with Parliamentary Committees on draft law reviews, a regular session with Committee parliamentarians is usually a little achier than the smooth narrative above. Committee members hardly distinguish the deliberations of the day from an opportunity to catch up on the news of the day, be on the phone, or hold a side deliberation with another member on a matter of concern that least speaks to Committee dealings. The end of the day is accompanied by an offering of gratitude, Malawian style, for a job thoroughly done…usually a heap of compliments directed at the legal expert. Day’s over, till next time.

On the outset, the good news is that this is not typical of all parliamentary Committees in our National Assembly. The bad news is, anecdotally, it appears a high proportion of Committee members carry a flare of laissez faire attitude to parliamentary processes such as these. Any reason could explain this behavior. Either, they just do not care enough about the citizenry or their constituents. Or, Parliament must yet figure out more interesting approaches that would entice the attention of members.

Experts, on the other hand, suggest an important shortcoming of many of our representatives – education.

From here, things get rather messy. The subject of academic qualifications for political representatives has been contentious the whole world over. In recent months, fiery discussions in South Africa and Kenya have yielded nothing, including that the Kenyan Parliament recently threw out a motion for a Bachelor’s Degree as an academic minimum for MPs. In many Western countries, no mention is made of academic qualifications, and rather pointing out citizenship, statesmanship and a reasonably clean criminal record as important qualifiers for parliamentary representatives. For some countries, age and eligibility to vote are cast as sufficient parameters for qualification. In Sierra Leone, one needs to pass the proficiency to speak and read English. In Malawi, among other qualifiers, a Malawi School Certificate of Examination (MSCE) is prerequisite to earning a seat in the august House.

Nonetheless, some studies seem to calibrate a loose hierarchy of learned parliaments. First on the list is, well, Iran. Not startling for a country with a literacy of over 98% for both males and females, including the youth, according to UN Statistics. Then follow countries like China, Canada, South Korea, Germany, Japan, the United States, England, Australia and Finland. No set requirements, just representatives understanding the need to pile up some degrees before parading on ballot papers.

Many people have argued that education should not be a prominent feature to run for a parliamentary seat. Some maintain that the key roles of parliament, which are ensuring accountability of the Executive, law making, control over the national Budget, conducting constituent duties, education and information, training and recruitment of country leadership do not require formal university training. They posit that the ultimate qualifier, in a democratic society, is the electoral process itself, which confirms the criteria a constituency looked for in a candidate of choice. All things equal, then, it is clear how a member of parliament reflects the attributes of a corresponding electorate. Building on this notion, a persistently ill-informed electorate is likely to produce the types of parliamentarians that legal experts in our parliament interface during Committee review activities.

We, thus, find it imperative to consider the correlations between a country’s educational achievements with that of its political leaders that should be elicited during campaigns corresponding to the setting of minimum academic qualifications. The top ten list of educated parliaments above becomes easily validated by the statistics that each of the countries exhibit on national education attainment.

By now it is lucid how our honorable representatives are hired for more than arguing in a modern Parliament. Their roles on various house committees are critical to the shaping laws that represent all Malawians, which surpass a typical rule-setting mechanism at the village level. An important minimum in parliamentary Committees is obviously a measure of how apt every given member is to understanding the intricacies and contents of a law, ensuring the adequacy of their awareness to minimize critical errors that can be costly to the country. This minimum level of intelligence gathering to the formulation of laws is indispensable before laws can be debated in Parliament, and it should avoid having legal experts prepare the content for Committee Chairs to present to Parliament. The duty of our representatives is not to read and speak English but provide substance to issues of national concern.

The absence of these elementary endowments is a hazard to changing the odds of Malawi for development.

A proposal to instate a minimum qualification for lawmakers is likely to be shot down before the presenter is ready to finish reading the motion. In fact, it will require the sitting parliament, with all the diversity of certificates that each head represents, to pass such a law. Our cognizance of the caliber of most of our MPs, we think it is not worth shooting for such a motion.

We agree that education of parliamentarians needs to improve if substantial progress will be made in Malawi. Already, pressure on Malawi’s parliamentarians to produce certificates led to a surge in enrolments in many of those institutions the Council for Higher Education shied from accrediting at some point this year, a sign that one would rather wave a piece of paper around, without the education that they need to back it up with. And, even if it were possible to vote in a more educated parliament, the quality of education that many of our MPs will exhibit will continue to be questionable if the electorate lacks the relevant formal, informal and civic education.

If we will alleviate the burdens our legal experts, whom we pay generously with taxpayers’ resources, face, we need to start with a larger education question than arguing minimum qualifications for MPs.

This article is the result of an intense conversation with an insider in the Malawi Parliament, to whom we are immensely grateful.

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