Thinking Development


By Christopher Guta, PhD:

In social science, the concept of path dependence looms large. In the context of Malawi’s development, this concept says that what Malawi is today arises mostly from irreversible choices made in the past. Correspondingly, the choices we make today will foreclose other routes to development that future generations would have loved us to have taken.

Today’s episode is on social change, which is synonymous with social development. My interest is on the choices in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) manifesto that have the potential to determine a better path towards development currently and in future.


At least five key concepts define social change. First is the concept of capabilities under which Malawians need to have the required economic, social and political freedoms to support a decent life as defined globally. Second is the concept of assets, which are accumulated investible resources for social and economic development in the form of human, social or tangible artefacts, including ownership of homes and small enterprises. Between 2000 and 2006, Malawi implemented a United Nations Development Programme-funded Sustainable Livelihoods Programme in which, by engaging in economic activities, rural communities could accumulate livelihood assets they could put to productive use to get out of poverty was central.

The third concept is empowerment which entails putting in place social action processes that promote participation of people, organisations and communities towards increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of community life and social justice. The fourth concept is that of ‘strengths’ where, among other attributes, the propensity of every person to have an inherent transformational capacity and regenerative potential are important. The fifth concept is social capital understood as the norms, shared understandings, trust and other factors that make collective action feasible and productive. Social capital also enables society to collaborate in many areas including in the exploitation of economic opportunities.

I have two examples of conditions that should challenge us with respect to social development. The first example is what His Grace Bishop Martin Mtumbuka of Karonga Diocese attested to recently through a heart-rending account of a family that disperses in the morning expecting that each member will fend for himself or herself during the day especially in terms of food – a basic need of life. A case of ‘each man for himself, the house for us all’. He also gave an account of an old woman who used to eat from banana leaves – not by choice – but because she could not afford to have plates, even plastic ones. The other example is from Chikwawa where, according to one official at Chikwawa District Hospital, 24 women had lost their lives in child birth since January this year, apparently because they got to the hospital late due to lack of ambulatory services.


Given that these examples are unpleasant accounts of social change in Malawi, what are some of the propositions in the DPP manifesto on the five concepts of social development?

Isolating political freedoms as a form of capability, we should look out for how the DPP will respect its manifesto regarding separation of powers between and among the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. The election this week of an opposition legislator to the position of Speaker of Parliament should be seen by the DPP and all as a stepping stone for such separation. Conflating the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary has contributed to limited social development to the extent that it attenuates accountability, often leading to wastage of resources that would otherwise be used to service the ambulance at Chikwawa District Hospital and elsewhere. On assets, I am persuaded to continue advocating enterprise development where we should look forward to a reformed institutional framework that includes better access to investment finance and competitive access to markets for goods and services funded by pubic resources. The DPP’s proposition to initiate mining of rare earths minerals and “extensive exploitation of our oil resources” will create new sources of wealth, thereby spurring enterprise development due to multiplier effects. On empowerment, let us hold DPP accountable for its propositions regarding action to ‘embark on a comprehensive economic empowerment programme targeting all people’ as well as establish “concrete programmes for rural poverty alleviation and rural industrialization”. Regarding the concept of strength, I expect better respect for intellectual property rights following the proposition to review requisite policies and laws. There is rampant theft of not only intellectual property but other forms of property, which needs to be checked for social development to be enhanced. Finally, on social capital, we should hold DPP accountable for its proposition to “move towards an e-Government to ensure a government that is trusted, efficient and responsive to the needs of the citizenry”.

The above matters are for all Malawians to take an interest in. Civil society organisations responsible for safeguarding governance should, however, play their expected roles.

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