Voting for local councillors a positive step for Malawi, but there’s a long road ahead warns ODI

10 May 2014
As voters prepare to go to the polls in Malawi to elect the first local authorities since 2000, a new report reveals ad hoc public service reforms have resulted in confusion, mismanagement and duplication, allowing scarce resources to be squandered.

The decentralisation of local services – started in 1998 – was intended to strengthen community oversight of health, education, sanitation and water services. Instead, the report Fragmented governance and local service delivery in Malawi from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) found that the process was never fully completed, and that some services are deteriorating, not improving. 

Researchers studied two districts, Dedza and Rumphi, as well as one city, Blantyre. They found many instances of hard-working local officials achieving remarkable successes with little money or support. But overall, researchers found these achievements were in spite of, not because of, the institutions supposed to deliver them.

The authors say, “the ad hoc roll out of local government and service delivery in Malawi has resulted in functional fragmentation, unclear mandates, overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities, and complex administrative processes.”

The report goes on to document the reality of poor service provision. Instances of this are:

  • In Blantyre, the CEO reported that Mbayani Primary School had one of the highest classroom densities in the world – 611 per classroom,
  • Severe shortages of front-line staff. In a clinic run by Blantyre city health department, where there should be five nurses, only three are employed,
  • Overlapping jurisdictions leading to paralysis. In Ndirande market, Blantyre Department of Health and the water board are both responsible for solving the problem of polluted water - with the result that actions are rare and poorly coordinated.
Although decentralisation in Malawi was intended to deepen democracy, the report documents how old power allegiances and patronage have continued to subvert the intention of the reforms instead of improving services for people.

The reform process was also damaged by the suspension of local councils in 2005 - a move which this year's election will reverse.

The authors recommend that to make the most of this fresh start, Malawi's first newly elected councillors should receive support to fulfil their roles and functions.

There also needs to be a review of the legal framework for local government, to resolve some of the current confusion over power structures.

Offering incentives to improve performances at the local government level, reducing duplication and complex processes, and finding reforms that work in urban areas as well as rural areas with less infrastructure and capacity have also been recommended by ODI.