Researching the politics of public sector reforms in Malawi

The Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) Research Programme has commissioned a multi-country study on the comparative politics of public sector reforms (PSR) in Africa, with case studies onMalawi, Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda. In this post, I show how the basic research questions apply to the case of Malawi. I highlight the salient political economy parameters that characterise the public sector environment and shape, for good or worse, the design and, more importantly, the implementation of public sector reforms.

Chingaipe:  Reforms

Chingaipe: Reforms

Research objectives and significance

The overarching research objective is to explain the effectiveness of the Malawian state, through an analysis of selected administrative functions that have the potential to shape the entire public sector, and are generally deemed essential for a bureaucracy that can be the harbinger and midwife of social, economic and political development. Empirically, data collection and analysis are focusing on five functions, namely: coordination; public finance management; public/civil service management; auditing; and anti-corruption. Data collection on each of the functions focuses on two dimensions: the sufficiency of legal and regulatory framework for the function (mandate); and the empirical dynamics of the actual execution of the function.

Thus, in effect, the study is an assessment of the effectiveness of the Office of the President and Cabinet(OPC) – which, besides being ultimately responsible for everything about the public sector, is specifically, in operational terms, responsible for the coordination and public/civil service management functions. For public finance management, the primary duty bearer is the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, while the National Audit Office and the Anti-Corruption Bureau are primary duty bearers for the audit and anti-corruption functions.

The research will contribute to discourses on PSR in Malawi and beyond by establishing variance between formal mandates and institutional frameworks, on one hand, and what actually transpires in practice insofar as the discharge of the selected functions is concerned, on the other hand. The analysis will bring out theoretical insights for the emergence of informal rules and practices and their interaction with the formal mandates and institutional frameworks. It will therefore be useful in many ways for current and future efforts at public sector reforms in Malawi. This is particularly important because of the background context for public sector reforms in Malawi.

Context for the assessment of the politics of public sector reforms

Like many African countries, Malawi has been through waves or generations of public sector reforms (PSRs). These date back to the immediate post-independence period in the 1960s, with state-centred reforms, through the era of neoliberal reforms (structural adjustment programmes) from the 1980s to the 1990s and a myriad of reform initiatives under the banner of New Public Management after the year 2000, to the current wave commissioned after the 2014 general elections. By some counts, there have been about 79 diagnostic and prognostic reports on PSR in Malawi.

However, the promised efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector has continued to be sub-optimal. TheFailed States Index, which measures variables on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 indicates complete failure, scored Malawi’s progressive deterioration of public services at 8.2; uneven economic development at 8.0; poverty and severe economic decline at 8.4; and state legitimacy at 7.5 in 2013. Similarly, World Bank Governance Indicators, which measure variables on a scale of minus 2.5 (weak) and 2.5 (strong), show that between 2002 and 2012, government effectiveness, regulatory quality and rule of law in Malawi have persistently been negative. This and other evidence shows unequivocally that the Malawi public service is in some kind of a stable low equilibrium, despite numerous attempts to reform it.

Preliminary interviews with senior technocrats who have worked on PSR in Malawi suggest that, at the very best, some of the reforms have been poorly implemented, while others have been abandoned in mid-gear, or have continued to face monumental challenges – so much so that the prospect of achieving their goals is in perpetual doubt. Even for the new PSR initiative commissioned after the 2014 general elections, there is a significant level of scepticism, especially on whether the reforms will actually be implemented.

To paraphrase Polidano (1988), it could be said that, so far, the practice of PSR in Malawi ‘resembles a landscape dotted with ruined edifices and abandoned skeletal structures’. In assessing the politics of PSR in Malawi, the current research hopes to throw light on why previous reform efforts have completely failed or achieved sub-optimal results. The emerging narrative points to the centrality of politics in the design and implementation of PSR.

Salient political issues for PSR in Malawi

There are a number of political issues that shape the practice and outcomes of PSR in Malawi.

The first is about a lack of shared philosophy or ideology on PSR among key stakeholders. In part, this appears to have been the case because of insufficient and sub-optimal political and technical leadership for the reforms. After the 2014 elections, the new government has addressed this element by designating the Vice President as chairperson of the re-incarnated Public Sector Reforms Commission. However, the Commission is yet to create consensus on a shared ideology for PSR in Malawi.

The second issue relates to the role of donor influence on the demand and supply of PSR and their outcomes. High external influence on the content of reforms and financing reforms affects local ownership of reform efforts. With a 40 percent dependency on aid, and external influence scored at 8.4 for Malawi on the Failed states States Index (2013), the politics of government-donor relations are important for making sense of PSR practice and outcomes in Malawi.

The third issue relates to getting the balance right between technical aspects of the reforms and the human elements, especially incentives and interests, which in turn appear to lead to the emergence of informal rules and practices that ultimately throw spanners in the otherwise well designed reforms.

The fourth relates to political culture. The reform agendas have been littered with the principles of new public management and marketisation in a country whose dominant political culture in terms of service delivery and development is state-centred. The politics governing the processes are clearly of a patrimonial nature.

The missing link

The story of PSR in Malawi can be depressing, but it is not hopeless. It is becoming sufficiently clear that the missing link so far has been the recognition that PSR is not just a technocratic process: it is a profoundly political one too and needs both optimal technocratic and political leadership. The current wave of PSR in Malawi, being led by the Vice President, does not yet seem to be another ‘false start’. So, in the words of St Paul addressing the Galatians, ‘… let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart’.


Polidano, C. (1998). ‘Introduction: New public management, old hat?’ Journal of International Development10(3), 373-375.

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28 thoughts on “Researching the politics of public sector reforms in Malawi”

  1. Bwitoto says:

    Koma Mtata ndi nyatwa. Zoonadi wamisala anaona nkhondo. Iwe Ntata talebanso zina anthu apeze chochita.Paja aMalawi amafunika kugunyuza basi.Shame!!!

  2. Henry Chingaipe says:

    This article was written as a blog post for a multi country research programm programme. It is an academic programme on the Politics of Public Sector Reforms. In blogs, researchers are free to reflect on current PSR reforms but the research programme is not concerned with the current reforms taking place in malawi. The primary aim of the research is to produce knowledge and to publish it in Journals and scholarly books. Practitioners can draw insights from it but the aims are really academic. The research programme actually began many months before the current DPP leaders took over the reins of government. For all those that have seen and said positive things about the blog, many thanks for your encouragement. For those who have seen negativity or have used this article for negative reflection on me, well, lets agree to differ and move on. We must always remember, each one of us is entitled to an opinion even when we cannot agree on those opinions. That is the beauty of democracy.

    1. stratigist says:

      Even if this was written for scholarly purposes but you were supposed to just summarize so that most us quickly appreciate your arguments and you were supposed to state the background of the article so that people don’t see you as a pessimists

  3. Cashgate says:

    The reforms are being championed by tried and tasted hands. Some the dcisions to make them work will be painful and costly but we have to do them. Just like it is to ampute a cancerous organ. For the information of everybody there is no way we can take out politics from all this because Malawi is a political government and politician campaign on political manifesto and it is only right to put in place people who will implement the aspiration of the political party that made them convince electorates to elect them .Yes people who support MCP are Malawian and they share different ideologies with the DPP and they will work frustrate the DPP so that it should loose the trust of the people who elected them based on their party manifesto.

  4. Okhrana says:

    Kasim, mchawa ngati iwe mwaphunzira liti kuti mumve zalambedwa apa than utelala pakhonde pa mwenye ndi mijomba ku theba. Mlomwe ndi wa mzeru he only comments where due. Do u understand, this is public reform, think otherwise

  5. PPP says:

    Give this boy a bells!!!

    Sober analysis……………

  6. PM says:

    When launching the PUBLIC REFORMs in Lilongwe, the DPP suppoters were brought in to sing songs against OPPOSITION. Besides, it is still treated as a DPP baby and not as a national government programme. This how POLITICS affect otherwise useful national programmes.

  7. pierra says:

    As a layman, I can point out at least two issues that will no doubt be bone of contention in the research: 1- data protection – public data protection across many users as this research points out will be seriously undermined. Now I can understand that government wants to help its people, but I do not believe that deliberate violation of the law is not a correct way of doing right. This may further shed light on legal recourse as any illegal means of evidence collection renders it inadmissible in a court of law. Therefore, any such evidence, however true cannot be used to punish those engaged in corruption. This would lead to an open season for these demagogs.

    2. Expansion of public sector service – it is no doubt a fact that were government to undertake all these dictates, then it requires to massively increase the number of people in the OPC for it to function properly. Public sector remains one of the highest population employers and judging by the need for reform; it also implies its one of the least efficient. Now you can correct me if I am wrong; if thirty people are deemed ineffective to carry out their tasks; a business strategist may point to streamlining the process to have fifteen people do the same job more efficiently. However, in the research proposed, the thirty people will have to deal with more intra-departmental trading of information; some if not all of which will be confidential rendering part of the workforce not at liberty to see or use that information. The only way such efficiency and effectiveness can be guaranteed is by employing more people, contrary to the reform specification agenda. This will no doubt impact on financing.

    In closing, it is normal that research preceeds implementation. Why has government introduced the reforms only for this research exercise to be given a go ahead. Isn’t that wrong way to pursue such events or is there too much money to burn! This exercise should have come at a time well into the implementation process of the government reform agenda…maybe 3 years and only to assess how it is going!

  8. Kester Kaphaizi says:

    Pay us o

  9. frascis sakala says:

    Useless government

  10. duduzi says:

    AChingaipe, inutu muli ndi nzeru KOMA vuto ndidyera………mukukanika kuthandiza ndikulangiza boma mwanzeru zanu kuti FEDERATION ndiyothandiza kutukula dziko lino. Yikafika nthawi yimeneyo mukumameza mawu nzeru muli nazo, chilungamo mukuchidziwa bwinobwino cholinga Mpoto apondelezedwebe ndikutinso inu mupeze kontilaki ya CIVIC EDUCATION ku boma ……Mulungu akukuwonani………nthawi yidzakwana ndithu nzeru zanuzo sizidzakuthandizaniibe…..pano izi ndiyeso ziti….nzanu Mutharika akungovutika ndikutinamiza kuti ….Reforms, which reforms…?.Kuti apitirizebe kutipondeleza basi……tikukuwonani, ndiponso kumakudziwani ndikokudya komwe……tiyenazoni tiwonana kutsogoloko!

  11. BOMA LA KUBA says:

    While I agree with the research, it seems the article is too academic and deeply theoretical for average Malawians. It is a hard academic tone and context. I am not sure if many malawian readers will digest the content.

    The author is very right that there has been so many reforms since 1960 even beyond. One of the causes of their ineffectiveness is the motive. Most of the so called reforms are politically motivated and do not have capacity to transform Malawi.

  12. Dr Moo Thaa Leeker says:

    Akuti Chani Kodi

  13. peter muthanyula says:

    NPM is just a tool for neo-liberal manipulation Henz. The narrative of the hegemon is not always correct. I like your sober analysis… always with a structuralist mind. Well done!

  14. Kaluma says:

    Real analysis osati uja leader of opposition angokuwa kalikonse

  15. nthandalanda says:

    Mukumva, amfiti inu? This completes it all. More especially the element of inclusiveness!

  16. frank chibwe says:

    But are we sure there is political will at this stage? Chilima appears to have no such political clot. Is now a bootlicker of someone else in the name of Ben Phiri. Even Peter himself is a puppet of Ben Phiri. Do we expect Malawi to move?

  17. Matthews Mpofu says:

    Good initiative and it is our expectations that these gospels of reforms dance to the vibrant tunes of the inspirational communities. My experiences working with communities manifest that our abject poverty is part of life and there is not hope for improvement. Therefore, our effort to reforms should also frame the status livelihood of our communities who are the stakeholders of the political culture. Practical, the reforms should trickle down to mitigate the poverty impacts.

  18. chadzunda says:

    Reforms are now being used as political tools to settle Ben Phiri old scores with most Pss

  19. chadzunda says:

    Can we see government now paying off excess Pss then we can say its true there are serious. They are using the process to punish professional Pss by the end of the day government must expect so many law suits

  20. bilimankhwe says:

    It is a false start when chief secretary and others are puppets of Ben Phiri. Example 21 Pss have been declared redundant or constructively dismissed we thought they wanted to reduce the numbets yet Ben Phiri appointed bright kumwembe, thoko Banda and chimwemwe banda just to mention a few. What is it they want to achieve?

  21. koma Umbulu? says:

    Well written article. I hope the reform will not bear ugly faces of tribalism and nepotism. Let only deserving officers with proper qualifications be left to steer the govt activities.

  22. jovelyn kasondo says:

    inunso mukuti chani apa? Kayamweni uko iya

  23. tate says:

    They say monday coaches .it seems most people were sleeping when government was asking for views from the public. Sorry brother the reform bus has since left and is at implentation stage .coming up with lengthy arguments will not make you wise .it like playing a game on monday when the game was played on Sunday. Learn to power point your presentation .this is a fast world now as people want to just read points make fast comments and go and make money .time to listen or read lengthy arguments is not there .

  24. Negative Acceleration says:

    So there have been hundreds of PSRs since independence. Yet Malawi refuses to move an inch. In fact it is moving backwards. Dziko la atsogoleri ouma mitu. Ili lorry bwezi ili Leyland, kapena Hino!

  25. WANDANI says:

    Good analysis! but do we have listening ears in this govt? a lot of lessons to help us shape our psr!

  26. bokhobokho says:

    Its a false start when ben phiri is the one puling strings. Pss are already dumped at home for political reason. Ben Phiri doesn’t like them yet they are professionals

  27. Kasim says:

    Zikanakhala nkhani zoti angamve alomwewa mukanaona ma comments obowa koma since they can’t understand anything they are damn quiet shame on you

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