- Democracy, Decentralisation and Poverty Reduction in Malawi
Blessings Chinsinga’s book examines the politics of poverty reduction set amidst Malawi’s decentralization experience. Chinsinga challenges the widely held belief that decentralization naturally facilitates good governance and development. By means of data gathered from secondary sources, key informant interviews, and focus group discussions, he captures the pitfalls that have unhinged the much heralded policy reform process and portrays a political and social landscape dominated by complex and pervasive power struggles among several discordant actors. What emerges from the study is a reform process captured by the politics of donor-driven development in an emerging democracy. Decentralization, he argues, has led to a series of conflicts over how society should be organized—between the state and the citizenry, the local and the center, the government and the donors—cast in largely zero sum terms. The book engages with the many stakeholders in the poverty reduction process, although Chinsinga’s primary interest lies in understanding the ways in which donor institutions shape and transform the culture and policy environment of decentralization and poverty reduction.
In the first several chapters Chinsinga presents the historical and political economy frameworks necessary for readers to contextualize Malawi’s decentralization process. He describes the weak and underdeveloped civil society in Malawi that has resulted from self-interested players, a culture of bureaucratic secrecy, and the government’s tendency to deal only with apolitical and “friendly and predictable” civil society groups. He also emphasizes the links between Malawi’s deep-seated poverty and the problems with land distribution and land tenure security. As he proceeds to examine the specific legal and institutional structures influencing the reform process, he again notes that land distribution presents the greatest potential for poverty reduction, yet the administration of land remains the most ambiguous. While land issues are not discussed through much of the book, he is apt to point out the strategic lack of clarity that prevails in terms of the roles, functions, and powers of various stakeholders in the decentralization process. In the case of land, this ambiguity has enabled elites to preserve the status quo. With regard to relations between stakeholders—specifically between traditional leaders and local administrators—vague lines of jurisdiction have led to conflict and competition.
The book describes in great detail the dynamics among all actors involved in the poverty reform process and the factors that constrain effective decentralization. The author provides glimpses of administrative relations at every level—the international donors, NGOs, national government, local government, and the entire hierarchy of traditional leadership. He emphasizes the ubiquitous presence of donors. His prevailing concern is [End Page 201] that the dominant players in the development process are foreigners, which translates into a “lack of [local] control of the development process.” Specifically, foreign domination detracts from a sense of national ownership over reform policies, which in turn diminishes the political will to decentralize. Further, because reforms are donor driven, donors and NGOs tend to ignore the decentralized planning framework. The relationship among donors and between donor and government institutions is strained and weakened by an overall lack of coordination—and, at times, fierce competition (especially at the local level of District Assemblies). He argues that the proliferation of NGOs backed by vast donor resources has undermined the capacity of local government and has created parallel structures. Noting the absence of a regularized framework to interpret and measure policy progress, he describes the situation as “an aggregation of donor funded projects driven by a multiplicity of donors with a wide range of motives” (118).
The book also deals with issues of public participation and civic competence, as well as the rising tension between modern and traditional institutions in the decentralization process. Chinsinga tends to homogenize the grassroots, and advocates for sensitization and training sessions as ways of enhancing modes of participation. He views the relevance of traditional authority as a marker of the failure of decentralization bodies to protect and strengthen livelihoods...