Navigating Complexity: Understanding Public Policy Making in Malawi

Categories: GovernmentPolicy


The term public policy is not new in the contemporary world. "Policy is the aspect of politics that concerns most people. It reflects the impact of government on society; that is, its ability to make things better or make things worse" (Heywood, 2013). In this case, policy is defined as a "statement by government of what it intends to do such as a law, regulation, ruling, decision, order, or a combination of these" (Birkland, 2015). Indeed there are no commonly accepted definitions of what constitutes public policy.

Different scholars have attempted to define public policy from difference context and angles. For instance, "public policy refers to a relatively stable, purposeful course of action taken by Government or public actors in addressing a social problem" (Chinsinga, 2007). These social problems among them are health, unemployment, inflation, housing, land reforms, welfare, education, and security. Again, Rose (1976) defined public policy as "government's program of action to give effect to selected normative and empirical goals in order to address perceived problems and needs in society in a specific way, and therefore achieve desired changes in that society.

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" In many countries, Malawi inclusive, public policies may be affected among others by financial pressure, economic status, elite consensus, party behavior, party representation in the Legislature, and civic activism (Chinsinga, 2007). On the other hand, many scholars have different views on public policy making process. Public policy making process is defined as "a political problems solving activity in the face of complexity rather than a logical process involving well-informed calculations by rational actors who seek maximize economic utility, political power, or organizational effectiveness" (Stone, 1997).

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In fact the environment of public policy making process is surrounded by many forces making it very complex. These environment include structural, economic, political and social forces (Birkland, 2015). However, this essay is an attempt to discuss the complexity and diverse environment of public policy making in Malawi in terms of structural, economic, political and social forces.

Structural environment

Structural environment involves rules that dictate how government goes about its business (Birkland, 2015). Some of its business includes the policy making process. Chinsinga (2007) argues that policymaking process does not practically happen in neat distinct stages as suggested by the policymaking cycle except perhaps in a minimal sense that a policy has to be proposed, legislated, and implemented. The truth of the policymaking process is that its stages are not a linear sequence from policy formulation through to policy implementation. It is a very complex, repetitive, and cyclic process with neither a clear beginning nor end. It is a continuous, complex mesh of interactions and ramifications between policy makers who are the parliamentarians and implementers such as the civil service bureaucracy (Chisinga, 2007). In the case of Malawi, the complexity comes in because when implementing a policy, another public policy problem arises. For example, after the introduction of Free Primary Education policy, enrollment rates were increased which forced government to formulate another policy of establishing Community Day Secondary School which also generated by overlaps in education policies such as gender sensitive policies (Kayuni and Tambulasi, 2007).

Additionally, Chinsinga (2007) contends that it is very hard to identify the institutional framework for public policymaking in Malawi. The drawback is in fact recognized and acknowledged in the Public Sector Management Reform Programme (PSMRP) of 2002-2006. The problem with the public policymaking process in Malawi is that there is no central agency responsible for providing leadership and creating public support for policy initiatives and reforms. However, it is difficult to identify the main key players who are involved in the various stages of the policy process (Booth, et al, 2005). In this case, it becomes a must to opt for political systems and procedures in understanding the environment in which public policies are made.

Another complexity of the policy making process environment was seen during one party system from 1964 to 1994 where policy making process was highly centralized. President Kamuzu Banda by then was totally dominating in the policy making process of decision-making in both the party and Government. As such, the office of the president and cabinet (OPC) was effectively the center for all public policies, planning, and implementation (Chinsinga, 2007). In this case, the President provided the vision, direction, and pace of policy outcomes especially in terms of defining the core ideas, framing issues, and defining measures of success for policy initiatives. This in turn raised the overall profile of the bureaucracy in the policymaking process (Chinsinga, 2007). This clearly shows that the elite theory was being practiced during one party system whereby the orders were coming direct from the president going to the bottom without the involvement of the mass.

Furthermore, government's ability to formulate, communicate and implement real policy interventions has remained a problem of outstanding concern in modern times. The evolution from dictatorial rule of Dr. Banda to multiparty democracy is particularly regarded as the focusing point in the adaptability of policy formulation in Malawi (Booth et al, 2005). The transition to democracy in May 1994 signified vast opportunity for the renewal of the policy making process in Malawi. It presented opportunities for possible significant revolution of the policy making process from the exclusive sphere of the President and the bureaucracy to an activity subjected to a wide range of influences from actors at different levels of society (Chinsinga, 2007). Several key players could be accepted since policymaking is no more an exclusive sphere of the President as was before 1994. These stakeholders include political parties, civil society, the media, transnational organizations, the three branches of Government and the public (Chinsinga, 2007). Though diverse actors involved the environment of public policy making becomes complex when it comes the time of decision making since the views will come from different actors with different interests.

Political environment

Again, it is emphasized that public policy making process environment in Malawi are basically political in nature. Stone (1997) argues that policy making is the struggle over ideas and contest over incompatible goals and values. Additionally, policy making is about changing people's behaviors and that each policy effort takes place within political environment. Some policies are made to satisfy specific groups only to suit short term political motives especially those at the wheel of government (Stone, 2007). For instance, the Free Primary Education (FPE) policy, which was initiated by the former President of the Republic of Malawi Dr. Bakili Muluzi under the United Democratic Front was done at the political rally during its campaign in 1994 as a response to the problem of high illiteracy level among the youth who were unable to pay for primary education. Again, the introduction of the malata - cement subsidy policy which was initiated by Proffesor Arthur Peter Wa Munthalika and was first revealed during the 2014 campaign period in order for those who have poor houses to have decent houses. Bryner (2003) claims that the political leaders who make such policies normally have strong interest in ensuring that beneficiaries should trace the roots of the benefits given to them so that politicians may be voted into power for the next election.

Economic environment

Besides that, public policy making process is essentially about the allocation of resources among competing issues and demands in society (Harrigan, 2005). How government sets its priorities is determined to some extent by the strategic influence of competing groups and the resources that a government has at its disposal. The amount of resources that a government has for its policy making is largely dependent on the performance of the economic status of that country. If a country's economic capability grows substantially, the country's resources for policy making are far more than if the economy remains the same. Moreover, Harrigan (2005) further claims that public policy making is also greatly influenced by the amount of domestic as well as foreign debt which government is owing and has to pay back. If a government has huge amounts of foreign and domestic debt then most of its resources are committed in paying back that debt leaving inadequate resources for policy making which negatively affect this process. In this case, the complexity and diversity of policy making in Malawi according to Chinsinga (2007) comes in because economic capability of the country cannot manage to provide all resources needed for policy making hence it rely on donor aid. The impact of relying on the donor aid is that these donors propose policies which are not relevant to the inborn citizens as well as government policy plans and political system making such policies not diverse. For instance, during the reign of President Bingu Wa Muntharika Malawi was forced to adopt same sex marriage which is contrary to the Laws of the country and culture of the inhabitants as part of the condition for continued donor support. This led to the release of aunt Tiwo and Monjeza unconditionally by the president Bingu Wa Munthalika after being imprisoned for the offence of same sex marriage because of the pressure from the donor countries. Furthermore during post-Cold War era Malawi came under pressure to reform its governance and human rights record as a condition for continued donor support as Chinsinga cited in the book of Patel and Svasand (2007). The main problem so far has been that the donor approaches on policy-making process have equally not been resistant to short-termism, competitiveness and personality politics characteristic of state policy (Harrigan and Sahely, et al, 2005).

Another complexity to successful rational policy making process is the prevalent corruption that shakes institutions in many developing countries. For instance, the Malawi 2006/2007 budget session of parliament, the opposition proposed a review of the approach of implementation of coupon system as it was alleged that the system was providing an opportunity for corruption on side of the ruling party and chiefs (Patel and Svasand, 2007). Additionally, the recent cash gate scandal in Malawi also has negative impact bearing on other policy making processes because donors are unwilling to give aid unless government limits corruption. Hamdok (2003) disputes that where a government has a reputation for corruption, it is difficult to convince the inhabitants for its policies. This low trustworthiness on the side of a government and its institutions does not only separate the population from supporting public policies, but also applies high costs on policy implementation that renders them to fail.

Social environment

Finally, it is also a fact that, the weak socio-economic position of the wider public in the developing country like Malawi is emphasized by high illiteracy rates, alarming unemployment levels and poverty obstructs any sense of meaningful participation (Umar and Kuye, 2006). The poor education system that is devoid of linking knowledge to production, the horrible human rights record and difficult means of livelihood exacerbates the low levels of their civic competence. Some cultural factors or some traditional practices in Malawi are also incompatible with certain aspects of government policies and may be resisted by the masses due to cultural beliefs (Chinsinga, 2007). For instance, some religious groups like the apostolic seventh day do not go to the hospital to receive treatment whenever they fall sick which is contrary to health policy initiated by the government for its citizen. Hence this shows the complexity of the public policy making.


In a nutshell, policy making is one of the vital functions of Governments worldwide. However, the environment in which the policy making process takes is believed to be complex and diverse due to norms, rules and political system. These environment include structural, political economical as well as social environment. Since Malawi is heavily donor dependent, donors tend to have considerable influence in the country's policy making processes which makes the country to fall policies which are irrelevant to their culture. These factors therefore makes environment of policy making process in Malawi be complex and diverse. However, Malawi is advised to be independent when making its policies for the betterment of its citizens.


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  2. Booth, D., Cammack, D., Harrigan, J., Kanyongolo, E., Mataure, M., & Ngwira, N., (2005) "Drivers of Change and Development in Malawi", Working Paper No. 261, Overseas Development Institute: London, UK.
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  7. Heywood, A., (2013) Politics, (4th Ed.) Newyork, Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. Kayuni, H., & Tambulasi, R., (2007) Teacher turnover in Malawi's Ministry of Education: realities and challenges. Intern. Education J., 8, 89-9
  9. Patel, N., and Svasand, L., (2007) Government and Politics in Malawi, Zomba: Kachere Series.
  10. Rakner, L., Ngwira, N., Mataure, M., & Schmidt, K., (2004) The Budget as Theatre: The Formal and Informal International Makings of the Budget Process in Malawi: DFID. Lilongwe, Malawi
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  12. Stone, D., (1997) Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision. New York: W.W. Norton
  13. Umar, K., & Kuye, J.O., (2006) Rationalism and the Problematique in Policy Making and Analysis. The Case of Public Policy Targeting in Africa. Journal of Public Administration, vol 41 No 4.1 December, 2006: School of Public Management and Administration: University of Pretoria.
Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Navigating Complexity: Understanding Public Policy Making in Malawi. (2019, Dec 20). Retrieved from

Navigating Complexity: Understanding Public Policy Making in Malawi essay
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