Thinking Development


By Christopher Guta, PhD

Writing this column is a joy though also a lonely endeavour. Inspiration comes in the form of feedback from readers and I invite you to do so using the email address above. On a good note, I got feedback from a senior official in the public service this week. What a relief to hear that he follows this column. From that feedback, the title of today’s entry is in a question form: ‘Is Malawi trickling down to the bottom of the League of Nations?’

In a race, winners get prizes because they run faster than other competitors. In a short distance, such as the 100 metres sprint, the distance between the winner and the slowest runner would be small. In a marathon, however, the distance between the eventual winner and the slowest competitor would, as time goes by, be increasing.


A few entries ago, I shared my thinking on how Malawi should use strategy to move the country forward. I asserted that, as we fight the war against poverty, our leaders, in both the public and private sectors of the economy, need to act as army generals by using available resources efficiently and effectively to win the war.

In the past few months, I was immersed in a knowledge transfer endeavour that has refreshed my insights about the world we live in. It is claimed to be a Vuca world. Vuca is an acronym for four words – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – that define realities of the world in which Malawi is expected to compete with other countries in a race whose top prize is an acceptable state of human development.

The Vuca world is defined by two dimensions. The first dimension relates to how well the results of actions can be predicted while the second dimension relates to how much is known about a particular situation. When the results of actions can be predicted fairly well and clear knowledge of a situation exists, the world that emerges is a volatile one. One way of dealing with a volatile world is to enhance the level of preparedness. In Malawi, preparedness would, in an economic growth context, take the example of training Malawians to acquire expertise in managing petrochemical industries even when we do not have a single oil well.


When the ability to predict is low but knowledge of a situation is high, uncertainty rules the world. One way of dealing with an uncertain world is to focus on structural change. I have argued more than once that Malawi’s current state of underdevelopment is inextricably linked to the lack of structural change of its economy. One indicator of structural change is labour dynamics. An analysis of employment patters I did for the period 2004 –2008 showed that the pattern had favoured manufacturing. I do not think that the situation persisted given the decline of manufacturing in the recent past.

The world becomes complex when there is confluence of high predictability of outcomes from actions with low knowledge of a situation. The number of interconnected parts and variables is high and actors, such as planners and policy makers, are overwhelmed by the situation. In such a world reforms, which Malawi has been implementing, are recommended. Finally, when low predictability of outcomes from actions dovetails with low knowledge of a situation, ambiguity emerges. One does not know what is causing the situation. There are, as Donald Ramsfeld, a former Secretary of Defence in the USA once said – ‘unknown unknowns’. The antidote to this situation is experimentation. Malawi, and other developing countries, have been grounds for experimenting exogenous models of economic growth and development the results of which I leave you to judge.

Malawi is developing a successor vision to Vision 2020 which, as reported in the media, was not realised. Our planners, assisted by consultants, are banging heads to understand why this was the case as a basis for the new national vision aimed at focusing our efforts at spurring economic growth and development. I suspect that we did poorly at predicting the results of the actions in Vision 2020 and made few and/or inaccurate attempts at understanding our development situations.

As the new vision is being created, need arises to understand strategy from the Vuca perspectives shared above because they all apply to our desperate situation regarding human development. Speed is of essence because Malawi is in a marathon race towards the ever-moving finishing line of better human living conditions. Wastage of resources through whatever means, including poor allocation of human resources, is as dangerous as a soldier failing to shoot an enemy in a battlefield. Such soldiers can be court-marshalled. Otherwise, as time goes by, we will find ourselves sitting at the bottom of the League of Nations.

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