Lamentations of Malawi’s dismal performance on socio-economic development are widespread and glaring. On social media, the narratives are even hysterical. The diagnoses of the development challenges we face are often technically sound and so too the solutions. Praise for our ability to formulate and craft policy documents and electoral manifestoes that are beautiful in both appearance and content is not in short supply either.
Our monumental challenge is implementation—the translation of our good ideas into practice and results. We can hardly move a significant edge towards the state of development that we so urgently and fervently desire. And when we do move, it is at a pace slower than of a snail and hesitant like that of a chameleon. But we have a gullible lot of sycophantic leaders with very low, sub-optimal thresholds for satisfactory development performance. They often go out of their way to cartoon themselves in praise of inconsequential results at best and imaginary development outcomes at worst. But that is not the essence of the article.
This article is an animated call for reform of politics. Except for the half-hearted political reforms associated with the transition from the one party, conservative autocracy to what we intended to be multiparty liberal democracy, there have been no political reforms to write home about. But the need is evident and urgent for our new descriptive label as a ‘defective democracy’ is clearly an indictment of unfinished business in political reforms. On the one hand, there have been numerous attempts at policy and institutional reforms informed by technically sound diagnoses that have come in various waves of public sector reforms. Alas! We have often ended up where we started. Huge sunk costs. Transient euphoria. Policy fads. No significant change. Verdict? Malawi has an intractable ‘implementation gap’.
Attempts to unpack the implementation gap quickly go down the wrong but usual analytical path. Resource constraints, lack of capacity, etc. So we contract one loan after another and make rounds on our bended knees with a begging bowl for grants of development finance. We sign up for capacity building efforts that offer to develop stocks of knowledge and skills sets that are often below what already exists. We skirt around the real culprit of the implementation gap. Politics. Politicians. Malawian politicians across the board champion variants of politics that excel at being anti-development and retrogressive.
Unless we get back to the unfinished business of political reforms and phase out the bunch of politicians that behave as roving bandits in the corridors and echelons our power, the development trajectory of this country can only continue in its current direction. Downwards. Why? Because development outcomes are shaped, for good or worse, by politics. So how does politics—the configuration and exercise of political power and administrative authority—confound our developmental potential? There are many ways but here I just do a broad brush of five.
Politics determines the fibre of the State machinery through its recruitment processes and criteria. Malawian politics throws out meritocratic recruitment and promotion, impersonality and rational decision making. Instead we see more of political deployments aimed at controlling key State institutions to facilitate access to personal wealth and power, mostly by ignoring, bending or breaking the rules. The main roles of the deployees is not to get work done for collective development outcomes. It is to retain and protect their political patrons and matrons. The State serves as a nepotistic instrument of exclusion rather than a unifying force for inclusive governance and development.
Politics shape the nature of state-society relationship. Malawian politics promote instrumental, non-transformative and sometimes disempowering forms of participatory governance. Citizen participation and agency are hardly galvanised for development but for creating a semblance that passes the donor test. Furthermore, State-society relations are often shaped by violence and intimidation perpetrated by youth bandits of political parties associated with the governing elites; and also patronage that includes jobs, dubious contracts and payments from public confers to those deemed to belong to the governing club.
The need for political patronage as a strategy of political survival is a watershed for mismanagement, corruption and bad economic and political governance. While policy drives minimal levels of patronage elsewhere, it is largely patronage that drives policy in Malawi.
Malawian politics and politicians love pretence. They all want to be seen to be doing something good for the collective good but simultaneously engage in clandestine efforts that squarely militate and obliterate all good intentioned efforts. So, good laws, policies and institutions with the right forms are created but politicians and their bureaucratic associates intentionally undermine their functionality and effectiveness in service of narrow interests.
Malawian politics of particularism and parochial identities elevates tribalism and regionalism at the expense of citizenship; rulership at the expense of leadership; self-aggrandizement at the expense of collective good. In this culture, plurality of views on development policy and practice is abhorred for a mono-view on politics and development is effectively misunderstood and reinforced as a manifestation of patriotism. Our politicians and their politics give us a raw deal.