Researching the politics of development



Researching the politics of public sector reforms in Malawi

15 January 2015.
By Henry Chingaipe.
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 on Malawi, 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.

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. The Failed 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 Development 10(3), 373-375.