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ZEF - Staff

Junior Researcher

Dr. Blessings Chinsinga

Contact E-Mail

The politics of poverty reduction in the context of political and administrative reforms: The case study of decentralisation in Malawi

Malawi has experienced significant political, social and economic transformation since the beginning of the 1990s. From the most repressive one party regime in the entire Eastern and Southern Africa region, it is now a democracy but, with the Gross National Product (GNP) estimated at U$ 170, it still remains one of the chronically poor countries in the world. This momentous transition to democracy has, however, inter alia, meant substantial changes in the pattern of state-society interactions particularly in the spheres of governance, poverty alleviation and development. Most notably, the transition to democracy marked a disjuncture with the one party official rhetoric that either entirely denied the existence of poverty or viewed it from a grossly minimalist standpoint. The question of poverty did not arise at all as long as the people had clothes on their back, enough food to eat and lived in houses that did not leak.

These changes have led to the proliferation of poverty alleviation initiatives to fight the depth and breadth of poverty in the country. The Poverty Alleviation Programme (PAP) was launched in 1994 under which the Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF) has been the main intervention. This was followed by the Vision 2020 in 1998; the Malawi Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (MPRSP) in 2001; and the One Village One Product (OVOP) in 2003. Strikingly, all these poverty alleviation initiatives champion decentralisation as a two pronged implementation strategy for consolidating democracy and achieving poverty reduction. The purpose of this study therefore is to examine the politics of poverty alleviation in the context of political and administrative reforms with particular focus on the patterns of power structures both intended and unintended obtaining among institutional actors and stakeholders at various levels of government and society. The specific objectives of the study are as follows:

1. To investigate the influence of the democratic political reforms on decentralisation and poverty alleviation initiatives;
2. To assess the role of the legal framework and institutional design in decentralisation and poverty alleviation efforts;
3. To investigate the dynamics of participatory governance as an integral part of the decentralisation policy reforms and poverty reduction efforts; and
4. To assess institutional relationships of stakeholders in the implementation of decentralisation and poverty interventions.

The study is inspired by the popular argument largely orchestrated by donors that developing countries can only create favourable conditions for economic growth, democratic governance and poverty alleviation if they decentralise their government structures. This prognosis is in turn reduced to the question of good governance billed, as almost important, if not more important than labour and capital in the achievement of economic development and poverty alleviation. To achieve its objectives, the study uses the notion of political space as an analytical framework to understanding the politics of poverty reduction. Within this framework, the politics of poverty alleviation is viewed as resulting from the ongoing series of contests and conflicts over how society should be organised with particular focus on the interaction between the state and the citizenry within the formation and implementation of pro-poor policy. The belief is that the advent of democracy in a polity widens the political space for engagement between the state and the society and consequently curves out favourable patterns of interaction for viable poverty reduction efforts.

Against this backdrop, this study thus attempts to address three interrelated features of pro-poor policy. These are the roles that states play in promoting and implementing redistributive policies; the ways in which institutional alignments in reform processes affect theses actions; the competing ideas about how political and administrative reforms should be organised in order to provide lasting relief to the poor. A quick preview of the findings of the study suggests that the political and administrative reforms have at least opened up political space for engagement between the state and society especially within the realm of poverty alleviation which did not previously exist. A potential framework for addressing the problem of poverty is taking shape but the resultant intense struggle over the emerging political space for poverty alleviation has inevitably shifted the focus from concerns with the plight of the poor to strategic efforts among stakeholders to advance and safeguard their interests. The poverty alleviation discourse is presently less characterised by benign, and increasingly with opportunistic overtones than when it was christened about a decade ago.

The relevance of this study to poverty and development is manifold. It can for instance be situated within the framework of the Millennium Development Goals (MGD) whose target is to at least halve the population of the people living in poverty, estimated at less than U$ 1 dollar per day, by 2015. While the MDGs have prescribed the indicators for assessing progress, there is however very little in terms of the strategies and means through which they can be achieved. However, within the donor community there is presently a strong belief that substantial poverty reduction could be achieved through decentralisation which not only brings government closer to the grassroots but also makes the local government institutions responsive to the needs of the poor. By understanding the politics of poverty alleviation, the results of this study will probably contribute to the design of decentralised planning frameworks that would help improve service delivery and help countries march closer to the MDGs’ goals of halving the number of people eking their livelihoods in absolute poverty by the fast approaching 2015 dealine.

Dissertation, Department of Anthropology and African Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. In: Mainzer Beiträge zur Afrikaforschung Band 15, Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Köln
Department ZEF A: Department of Political and Cultural Change
Contacts Blessings Chinsinga
Department of Political and Cultural Change (ZEF A)
D-53113, Germany
Research countries - Malawi
Research topic The Politics of Poverty Reduction in the Context of Political and Administrative Reforms: A Case Study of Decentralization in Malawi
Projects I am involved in two book projects on Malawi. The first one focuses on Strategies of Achieving Food Security whilst the second one focuses on Politics and Government in Malawi.
Working groups I belong to the working group on Governance and Conflict in ZEF A department. This group is coordinated by Dr. Conrad Schetter and members are working on various thematic issues concerning governance and conflict in Africa, Asia and Russia
Affiliation of research I carried out my PhD research in corraboration with the Department of Political and Administrative Studies, Chancellor College, University of Malawi
Partners University of Mainz, Department of Social Anthropology and African Studies (Prof. Dr. Thomas Bierschenck) Department of Political and Administrative Studies, Chancellor College, University of Malawi
Funding institutions DAAD/GTZ
Degrees BA (Public Administration), University of Malawi
MPhil(Development Studies) University of Cambridge
Professional experience Lecturer in Institutional Analysis, Development Administration, Public Policy Analysis and African Politics
Financially supported by BMZ via DAAD & GTZ
Cooperation partners University of Mainz, Department of Social Anthropology and African Studies (Prof. Dr. Thomas Bierschenck)
Department of Political and Administrative Studies, Chancellor College, University of Malawi

Chinsinga, B.. 2007. Decentralization and Poverty Reduction in Malawi: A Critical Appraisal. In: Gordon C., and Thomas H. (eds.): Decentralization, Poverty Reduction and Conflict Management in Africa. EADI Publishers, Netherlands,

Chinsinga, B.. 2006. The Interface between Tradition and Modernity: The Struggle for Political Space at the Local Level in Malawi. Civilizations, 54 (1-2): 255-274.

Chinsinga B. 2005. Clash of Voices: Community Based Targeting of Safety Net Interventions in Malawi. Social Policy and Administration, Vol. 39 No. 3, 39 (3): 284-301.
Download [PDF | 125 KB]

Chinsinga, B.. 2005. District Assemblies in a Fix: The Perils of Politics of Capacity in the Political and Administrative Reforms in Malawi. Development Southern Africa Journal, 22 (5): 529-548.

Chinsinga, B. 2004. Poverty and Food Security in the Context of Crumbling Traditional Support Systems: Some Policy Reflections. Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 25 (2): 321-340.

Chinsinga, B. 2003. The Participatory Development Approach Under a Microscope: The Case of the Poverty Alleviation Programme in Malawi. Journal of Social Development in Africa, 18 (1): 129-144.
Download [PDF | 120 KB]

Chinsinga, B. 2003. The Problem of Lack of Alternative Leadership in Democratic Malawi: Some Reflections Ahead of the 2004 General Elections. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 12 (1): 1-22.
Download [PDF | 208 KB]

Chinsinga, B. 2003. The Role of Information, Education and Communication (IEC) in Poverty Reduction Efforts. In: Mulinge, M. and P. Mufune (eds.): Debt Relief Initiatives and Poverty Alleviation: Lessons from Africa. AISA,

Chinsinga, B. 2002. A Beacon of Hope in a Regional Context: The Case of South Africa in Southern Africa. Regional Development Studies, 8: 1-19.

Chinsinga, B. 2002. The Politics of Poverty Alleviation in Malawi: A Critical Review. In: Englund, H (eds.): A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi. Nordiska Africa Institutet Uppsala, pp 25-42.

Chinsinga, B. 2002. Globalisation and Regional Integration: The Case of the Southern Development Community. In: D. Milanzi, M. Mulinge and E. Mukamaambo (eds.): Democracy, Human Rights and Regional Co-operation in Southern Africa. Africa Institute,

Chinsinga, B. 2001. The Market as an Instrument of Political Control and Exploitation: Some Insights from Kenya. Journal of Cultural Studies, 3 (1): 246-258.

Chinsinga, B. 2001. Africa and the Globalising World Economy: Some Policy and Theoretical Reflections. In: Maloka E., & le Roux E. (eds.): Africa in the New Millennium. Africa Institute of South Africa, pp 61-74.