This article outlines the impact of local governance institutions on public goods provision in contemporary Malawi. Three cases – on safe birthing, market management, and public safety – are presented. These demonstrate that coordination between agencies and rule enforcement are important to the delivery of public goods. Undermining coordination are jurisdictional overlaps and uncertainties, capacity weaknesses, politicisation of public services and resource constraints. Policy shifts originating with donors and major regime changes compound the problem. Conflicting rules and norms emerge during transformations, and their not being enforced contributes to their not being obeyed or adopted by citizens. It is also important to work with local beliefs and perceptions, since doing otherwise can undermine attempts to provide public goods. Citizens and local leaders do join together, launch self-help initiatives and work with local and state officials to deliver public goods, but for various historical reasons these collaborations generally remain small and weak, and do not endure over long periods in Malawi.
IDS Bulletin (2011) 42 (2) 43-52 [DOI: 10.1111/j.1759-5436.2011.00210.x]