Why development plans under-perform in Malawi?


By Milward Tobias:

Thomas Munthali

This is input to the review report of Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS III). The review report provided what worked and what did not work. This write up focuses on why there was a decimal performance and why such decimal performance has been a persistent occurrence in our development plans. The Vision 2020 which the MGDS III is one of its implementing strategies also under-performed. The Centre for Research and Consultancy argues that under-performance of strategies has been a result of deficiencies at formulation stage and failure to create prerequisite foundation or environment for successful implementation. Here are some thoughts:

Some targets failed at formulation state


Without attacking personalities, the team that formulated MGDS III suffered from shortage of seriousness. Some targets failed right at formulation stage and did not require review to assess whether they performed or not. There are data inconsistences with serious implications on measuring performance. For example, page 26 of the printed version of MGDS III says additional investment of US$1.2 billion would help double per capita income from US$380 yet the annex on page 184 shows per capita income in base year at US$458. On page 28, there is a projected average GDP growth rate of 6.2 percent. This is also shown in a table on page 29. Yet annex on page 184 shows average GDP growth rate of 6.5 percent. Surely, a national development strategy prepared by technocrats with specialised training ought not to suffer from such inconsistencies. Now let us consider the doubling of per capita income from US$380 in five years. Arithmetic interpretation of ‘doubling US$380’ means growing per capita income to US$760 by 2022. Page 15 of the same MGDS III shows a projected population of 19.4 million by 2022. Let us say 19 million for simplicity of illustration. Let us also use the higher average growth rate of 6.5 percent from annex on page 184 and further, let us assume exchange rate policy would remain the same over the MGDS III implementation period. Available sources show that GDP in 2017, the base year, was approximately US$6.7 billion. Using conventional growth formula, our calculation at the Centre for Research and Consultancy (hereafter the Centre) shows that per capita income would only grow from US$380 in 2017 to US$483 by 2022 assuming the 6.5 percent average economic growth rate was achieved. However, since the start of implementing the strategy, economic growth rate has far been less than annual targets.

Unwillingness to make sacrifices

We are a nation that has deficiency of sense of pride and cherish begging. We are not shy to beg for basics while we spend our own resources on luxuries. In its contribution to national budget, the Centre has advocated for abolition of the current Fleet Management Policy and replacement with a cost-effective policy. The Centre genuinely believes the current Fleet Management Policy is a drain and does not resonate with the depressing development indicators. Available information indicates that Rwanda and Botswana have cost-effective Fleet Management Policies that demonstrate the principle of collective sacrifice. On this note, the President must be commended for announcing to reduce presidential convoy. He won the hearts of some of us. There are also some entitlements that must be reviewed. They are not only unreasonably high but also reflect institutionalized form of impunity. There are cases where fuel entitlement of senior officers is worth more than salary of an officer in middle management grade. Parastatals should stop spending huge amount of money on printing diaries and calendars as if they are in marketing business.


Abolition of Fleet Management Policy, review of some entitlements and other cost-cutting measures will free up resources to finance development project. At the moment, development financing is largely left to non- Malawians (donors). At the Centre, we would even be happy if donors would make implementing cost-cutting measures a conditionality to access their support because those in public service seem not to be willing to sacrifice for the larger good.

Competition for resources

One of the review findings is that there were many flagship projects including some which do not qualify to be flagship. This is an area the National Planning Commission will have to prevail in future development strategies. Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) tend to turn into activists championing the relevance of their institutions and projects even when such projects do not add sufficient value to the overall national goal. The reason is that projects are a niche for resource mobilization and the more resources an MDA has, the more ‘power’- more vehicles and more field trips (local and international). This ‘empire building’ attitude must be tamed and it is what the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development miserably failed to tame. The directorate of Planning in each MDA tends to forget that they represent EP&D and must be the first to advise the MDA where they are deployed of the importance of prioritizing national goal over vested interests.

Need to value evidence in policy making

There is need to invest where there is high return for investment save for areas that do not have to be subjected to conventional cost-benefit analyses such as social protection, health care delivery and others. For example, huge investment in agriculture and infrastructure while under-funding disaster risk reduction has rendered such investment highly vulnerable. Studies show that a US$1 investment in reducing child stunting yields on average US$16 in economic return in adult life of children. A US$1 investment in child immunization saves US$18 in reduced health care costs and other returns. Similarly, investment in water and sanitation is found to reduce diseases burden substantially and reduce health care costs. Often focus tends to tilt on reactionary rather than preventive measures.

Need for a motivated and accountable public service

Successful implementation of any development plan depends on those who implement it. The public service must be motivated and be held accountable.

No political podium policies

If necessary, NPC should facilitate enactment of a law barring any politicians or indeed anyone from making political podium-driven policies or directives which sometimes override technocratically-driven development plans. When the National Transformation 2063 is in force, all projects implemented must be those that have been technically found to be transformative.


The MGDS III was not prepared to succeed. It failed at formulation stage and where success seem to have happened, it was by chance. There was no seriousness and it failed to propose the required environment or foundation for its success. Apparently, technocrats feared political sensitivity more than the politicians themselves. But what politicians want are votes. What voters want are good policies and actions. The role of technocrats is to tell politicians good policies and how to communicate them to the public.

Milward Tobias is Director for Centre for Research and Consultancy, a Think Tank focusing on economic policy

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