The start of a new year offers an opportunity to reflect on goals, aspirations and plans as well as assess how realistic these are.
Most low-income countries continue to plan activities over a five to 10-year period, often guided by documents variously promoted as visionary, ambitious and forward-looking.
The day-to-day policy environment for ministers and civil servants, however, requires quick decisions and routine adjustments to such long-term plans. In addition to domestic pressures for income generation, efficient revenue collection and the provision of quality social services, policymakers must be well-prepared to respond to international events and trends, including fluctuating prices of major imports and exports, and changing trade arrangements that can have a major impact on gross domestic product (GDP) growth.
Added to these concerns is the growing threat of economic progress being adversely affected by climate change. Indeed, the bush fires that have engulfed Australia in recent weeks are a warning of things to come.
What should, then, Malawi do? Is it really the case, as some claim, that Malawi is “policy rich but implementation poor”?
One could begin with a frank assessment of the impact of current development strategies, including revisiting the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS). Do certain areas of public policy require a major overhaul? If so, what type of reform should one begin with, and in which sectors?
Should certain policy domains receive greater attention or more urgent priority? If so, what? Are there certain policy decisions that can be overlooked for the time being or avoided totally? If so, why? What options are currently on the table for financing Malawi’s development agenda and how can these be further consolidated with national and international resources?
Another conversation starter would be to revisit how public policies could be implemented more effectively. What is working, how and why? And what lessons have been learnt even when policies have not had their desired impact? Malawi has numerous, and meticulously formulated procedures in place for every possible task—from applying for a driver’s licence or a passport to getting admission into schools and colleges or for procuring goods and services in an ethical manner.
However, in many of these areas, effective implementation is a challenge when civil servants are demotivated, when resources are insufficient, when corruption is widespread, or when officials risk a “punishment posting” for offering an honest opinion. The net result is that a simple procedure can become overtly cumbersome and inefficient.
In addition to the above, many other areas could also be highlighted—prioritising the rural poor, engaging the youth, being better prepared to tackle natural and man-made disasters, addressing social taboos and facilitating a constructive dialogue with all political actors. The key thing is to begin a constructive national conversation on the road ahead.