Posted by: dmcnicholl | November 24, 2011

“We Cannot Fall Apart”

Last week, an article by Dr. Diana Cammack ran in the Guardian arguing that Malawi is at risk of becoming a fragile state. Indeed, Malawi’s economic woes continue as a shortage of bottled drinks sweeps the country, and fuel, now available, has jumped in price by 40%. President Bingu wa Mutharika has been largely unavailable as of late, first requesting a $500,000 holiday to Australia, followed by an emergency medical trip to Hong Kong. Many times in the past few months I have arrived home to find my Zimbabwean roommate, shaking his head knowingly at a new turn of events, tell me that he’s seen all of this before.

As someone who works closely with Malawian government, I have asked about our team’s continuing investment in supporting institutions in districts. If a state is on the verge of fragility, what will the lasting value be of the support provided to technocrats?

Interestingly, the day-to-day workings of district government in Malawi appear largely disconnected from the high-level political workings of central government. In a recent cabinet shuffle, the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development (MoIWD) was integrated with the Minsitry of Agriculture to create MoAIWD. Practically speaking, at the district level, the effect of the integration is imperceptible. Both departments continue to exist as before, managing their own staff, stretching their own resources to deliver services.

I asked a friend who works in local government for her opinion on how high-level politics affect her work. What would the effect be if there were a regime change, or if the government falls apart? To which she replied:

“The government can fall apart, but we cannot fall apart. Whatever happens up there, we will still be here.”

She is an extraordinary woman, soon to travel abroad to begin a master’s program, and the manager of a network of extension agents for her branch of local government. We had a fascinating conversation about her challenges as a manager with limited resources, and how policy, however well intended, will always be limited by practical implementation constraints. In that sense, for her, higher level politics only matter to a certain extent. At the end of the day, she will still be trying to do the best she can with the limited resources she has, regardless of the regime, policy, or economic climate.


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