For significant periods Malawi's economy has performed as well or better than might have been expected given its geographical location and natural resource endowments. Underlying these promising episodes is a pattern of centralised, long-horizon rent management and technocratic integrity. This case study of ‘developmental patrimonialism’ found that the period 1965–79 was one of centralised, long-horizon rent management and a vertically disciplined technocracy, and the economy grew healthily; 1980–94, by contrast, was a period in which rent management drifted. Although it remained quite centralised, it became geared more to the short term, while the civil service began to deteriorate as it was politicised. These resulted in a comparatively directionless reform programme. The situation deteriorated still further under President Bakili Muluzi (1994–2004). This was a period of decentralised, short-horizon rent management and a further deterioration of the state bureaucracy. The economy entered a tailspin. A recovery was made during the first term of President Bingu wa Mutharika (2004–09), who reintroduced some aspects of long-horizon rent centralisation and promoted a more vertically disciplined technocracy.