Too Much Governance for Too Little Local Development

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Early 2013, there was an outcry at Lunjika, Mzimba District. A Member of Parliament in one constituency had decided to apportion much of the Constituency Development Fund to building a bridge in one village on the side of the constituency where he got most votes in the 2009 Parliamentary election. The villages on the other side? They would have to fend for themselves as the harsh rains of January raged on.

The village is the smallest unit of local governance in Malawi. Yet it remains Malawi’s greatest indicator of development as planners are preoccupied with combating poverty at the most basic levels, a growing priority over the years. For the delivery of goods and services intended for the amelioration of livelihoods, be it by government or development partners, the village is the key entry point for how these goods and services will be designed, implemented and from which progress can be measured if at all individual lives are being touched. The delivery of boreholes, clean energy or family planning technologies is denominated by how many villages have or can be reached by an intervention. If one were to take a deep look into Malawi, our villages would inevitably become the clearest face of our poverty.

The current configuration of local government presents a system where the Traditional Authority (TA) reigns as paramount, overseeing scores of group village headmen/women (GVHs), who themselves take care of numerous village headmen/women (VHs). The district, then, naturally covers the area of collective jurisdiction of a number of TAs. This makes TAs the highest level of authority in our understanding of the traditional system of governance, as well as the ultimate custodians of customs and cultural norms. A council of TAs periodically commune at the District Commissioner’s office, participate in the District Assembly, and consequently affect key decisions on the development of the District they all share. As ultimate authorities to whom loyalty of their subjects is unquestionably directed, the intimate role they play in influencing decisions of their people around national politics is no surprise.

Regardless of the length of time TAs, GVHs and VHs have been the key protagonists of local development, which has been a really long time, it is evident how a poorly determined decision at every stage of the hierarchy would have detrimental effects on the welfare of the people whose propensity to blindly follow these god-like personas remains very high. Even in 21st century Malawi. And so goes every decision to appropriate provisions that are necessary to root out poverty across health, HIV/AIDS, education, income security…the list goes on…that needs educated scrutiny of the highest caliber if change were to happen. But, despite the individual and collective roles that could imply positive or negative movement on the village development scale, this website would like to dedicate the focus of this article to a more fundamental challenge that emerges in the spatial outline of our largely rural country.

For better perspective, the effort it takes a GVH to complete a tour of his/her villages is enormous as they traverse the geographies of rivers, hills and forest area dividing up their jurisdictions. The unique characteristics and needs of each village pose a mental challenge as well if the GVH will satisfy each VH and, at the same time, ensure their loyalty to them is unshaken. And, the shrunken size of villages that is continuously a consequence of a high turnover of village fragmentation makes the financial and psychological costs of managing complex problems astronomical. This means even a competent GVH will, before they can even afford to cause problems of their own in their relations with their TA, they are already spread too thinly in managing the issues that affect their villages. More conflicts, driven mainly by a fast-growing village population, will mean that families will continue splitting – while also splitting land owned or held – in turn creating smaller chiefdoms that extend the list of administrative units for the GVHs.

For example, a 2013 research on village registers in TA Mwambo of Zomba District shows there were 325 villages that contained approximately 120,000 people. This meant that the average village in TA Mwambo’s jurisdiction had about 369 old, working age, youths and children (depending on how one defines them), which, by Malawian standards, is a large village size (there were 1753 births that were gifted to families in the area in 2011 alone). Many villages elsewhere in Malawi are much smaller that they could easily make for less than a third of this size in the less populated Districts. Although the report is silent on the numbers and roles of GVHs in the area, it is straightforward to see the torment in their role to reach the needs of all the individual villages in their clusters.

The modality of choice in approaching development in many of Malawi’s villages is almost cast in stone – mainly a matter of mentality than formality – guiding that working through TAs, GVHs and VHs is the way of reaching people at the grassroots. This condemns development workers to a very likely inefficient system that consumes time navigating villages, sampling some among many, as much as it imposes an incredible cost. Consequently, development work is bound to achieve very little as efforts are scarcely fashioned in a concentrated approach. In addition, broad-based development becomes a challenge due to the fact that positive spillovers from interventions in one village would hardly reach other villages in the same GVH cluster. The same goes for spillovers from one GVH to another, compromising unified development under one TA.

It sounds obvious that the logical solution be a concentration of villages in a single location, which would require developing some basic services for – in our example above – 120,000 people in one area. Of course, it would be easy to build a given number of roads, direct a water and/or electricity service line to a single address, and run a vaccination campaign in one spot that will allow for the work to be done on time. It also adds reasonable impetus to the Ministry of Transport and Public Works to consider a tarmac road to a single location where economic activities among its inhabitants would provide a return to the investment. With easy access would come better policing, agricultural extension, hospitals and ICT connectivity. And yet, to agriculturists, farmers would have more land to cultivate when they no longer have to dig their hoes into someone else’s land every season they grow crops or graze. And as organized life transforms, not everyone would have to be a farmer to survive, since people’s skills and education can easily be applied beyond tilling the earth. To have to own farmland would become less of a need than to invest in housing and other higher-return sources of decent livelihoods.

The flipside of such development in Malawi, however, is how the sweetness of such development still has a distant horizon to reach. The problem lies not in the limitations that consolidation of villages imposes, as, at the present time, may be a compelling opportunity for development, but largely in the cultural notions of attachment to certain pieces of land to which we owe many a frequent homage to ancestors. The importance of such historical adherence to ancestral land surpasses economical and other factors that would implore land owners and holders to free up such land for more productive use. And the idea to cling to their lands has become an important advantage for politicians who champion the idea of power of VHs, GVHs and TAs in relation to how much they can maintain a handle on societies that have vowed to protect their ancestral lands.

The cycle of poverty will continue as long as our traditional local bureaucracy meets development interventions as the main means to deliver goods and services for development. A structure that consolidates the heavy village system we currently run will not just be complicated to achieve as adjustments have to take place, but it will be loathed by many whose powers are up for dissolution. Furthermore, it will take a long time for Malawi’s politicians to jump onto the idea if finding a more efficient alternative to consolidating support will be difficult.

But someone bold enough will have to inject enough wisdom to overhaul such a system, and that person will have to be impregnated with more love for country than for power.