As a central plank in its strategy to combat poverty, Malawi has established the legal framework for a comprehensive decentralisation of government functions. This paper argues that while in principle decentralisation is desirable, the prerequisites for making this work are absent. These include a genuine internal commitment to such a transformation, an informed and involved citizenry, effective representation and accountability, and financially empowered local government. Malawi is characterised as a neo-patrimonial state, namely a clientelist political system operating within the guise of a legal rational bureaucratic framework. The roots of this system are deep, and the political attitudes and administrative ethos engendered by the 30 years of party-state hegemony have not fundamentally altered, despite the new constitutionalism. The further wave of reforms required to implement decentralisation will strike directly at the interests of the official class, and consequently there is a submerged resistance to it. Superficial implementation runs the further danger of replicating neo-patrimonial behaviour at the local level. Yet there is some room for manoeuvre, through a parallel process of community-based activity as exemplified by a number of development programmes such as the Malawi Social Action Fund, and various NGO-managed projects. This may be enhanced through further institutional reform particularly in the area of land tenure. More effective community demand may then serve to increase the political space, and act as a building block in the slow process of reconstructing local government.
Cross, S.; Kutengule, M. Decentralisation and Rural Livelihoods in Malawi. (2001) 29 pp. [LADDER Working Paper No.4]