Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Research Student: Dr Virginia Kamowa

Civil Society and Policy Making in Malawi

Photo of Dr Virginia Kamowa

In Malawi, civil society organisations (mostly urban based advocacy organisations) were among the key groups that actively took part in unseating the country's authoritarian rule under Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The country got its independence from colonial rule in 1964 and was from that time ruled under one party dictatorship for thirty years.  The Banda regime was characterised by oppression and abuse of human rights and it created a culture of silence which forced many people to become passive recipients of government policies. However with time, people of Malawi started to oppose the authoritarian rule. Pressure groups and civil society organisations (especially churches) led an uprising in the early 1990s to call for the introduction of multiparty democracy in the country. In 1994 Malawians voted into office their first democratic, multi party government. The birth of this democracy saw a proliferation of civil society organisations in the country. Hypothetically, participation of civil society organisations in the running of government affairs has become necessary for the promotion of accountable and transparent government and policy processes that benefit the poor and excluded. However, it is not yet known how civil society organisations' participation in the above mentioned processes has meaningfully contributed to the process of social transformation that would benefit the people that are currently excluded, the majority of whom are the poor.

Sixty five percent of the Malawian population lives below the poverty line of US$1 a day. The economy remains one of the poorest in the world - ranked 165 out of 177 countries in terms of human development. Eighty-six percent of Malawians, most of whom are poor, live in rural areas and have no direct linkages with the government, parliament and other government mechanisms. The concerns and priorities of the poor may in some instances not reach the levels where policies that claim to be for their benefit are made. 

This study therefore investigates donor assumptions about whether promoting civil society in Malawi would necessarily lead to pro-poor policies. The thesis questions the role of advocacy groups and grassroots organization and how significant and effective their role is in policy making in Malawi. It analyses different relationships that exist in policy making processes and what influences these relationships have on the development of the policies. Further the research analyses linkages and relationships between urban based civil society groups (especially advocacy organizations) and grassroots based civil society organizations. Examining possible relationships or their absence and whether it is in the interest of the grassroots organizations to influence the development of pro-poor policies through development of relationships with urban based groups. It assesses whether urban based advocacy groups have the legitimacy to undertake a policy representation role and whether their involvement is important in helping the poor to articulate their voices in policy processes. Finally it explores to what extent and in what ways donor discourses and activities in support of civil society have influenced the strength and role of both advocacy groups and grassroots organizations in policy-making processes in Malawi, in policy outcomes and in the development of pro-poor policies.

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