The revelation by the 2010/11 Integrated Household Survey (IHS3) that poverty rate in Malawi has marginally declined from 52.4 to 50.7 percent between 2005 and 2010 in the wake of successful completion of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS II) must have sent shock waves given the more than rosy picture conveyed by the 2009 Welfare Monitoring Survey (WMS) that poverty had decreased from 52.4 to 39 percent over the same period.Â
Questions are being raised as to whether the two surveys have successfully guided policy making and planning in formulating appropriate interventions to reduce poverty in Malawi. Whatever may have gone wrong now warrants dialogue to explore the depth of the problem on reliability of statistical data to support policy formulation and reporting related to MGDS II, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and Sector Plans.
Partial analysis of IHS3 and 2009 WMS on MDGs related indicators show that variations appear systematic, it is a matter of concern. While the WMS reported a decline of poverty rate by 13.4 percentage points, IHS3 stood at 1.7. While WMS reported a decline in rural poverty rates from 53 to 43 percent, IHS3 reports that rural poverty and income inequality have actually worsened despite economic growth reaching a peak of 9.1 percent in 2010 over the same period.
Rural poverty increased despite the massive Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) reputed to have reduced food poverty. The WMS results on poverty trends have been widely referred to and used in publications including the MDGs annual reports, explaining the success of policy measures over poverty reduction. It has widely been reported that Malawi will likely eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, which may now appear doubtful in view of the IHS3 results.Â Â Â Â Â
Technical review between the two surveys shows that there are significant differences in methodologies which make them vulnerable to producing different results. The issue, however, is not the methodological variations, but that difference in results are so large that it creates difficulty as to which one should inform policy making, planning, and budget allocations. The MGDS II starts off from the assumption that MGDS was successful not only in achieving growth but also in achieving five of the eight MDGs including MDG1 (Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger). Hence, MGDS II aims to build on this success and that appears paradoxical.Â
These results may suggest need for a rethink in terms of prioritisation and budget allocation, more so given the fact that poverty may have been aggravated further by inflation which has increased considerably since the IHS3 data collection was done. Similarly, if one accepts the 2009 WMS estimates, then Fisp may have been an effective tool in reducing rural poverty. However, according to the IHS3 results, the effectiveness of Fisp in reducing poverty may be doubted as rural poverty and income inequality increased during the same period. The rethink includes whether and how it can work better.
In my opinion, to address this problem requires action in two areas, namely, identifying policies, programmes, and interventions that need to be revisited in light of the new evidence on the progress (or the lack of it) in MGDS and MDGs; and supporting future improvements in quality of data and analysis. Support for future improvement should encompass addressing data quality and integrity; variables and methodologies; and quality of analysis and reporting. Constructive engagement as to how to improve the quality and reliability of data including the IHS and WMS is in order.
Given that WMS is used in many countries, it would be useful to review experiences as to how well the proxy variables and the model are performing as a tool to monitor a short-term progress on welfare. In terms of quality and integrity of analysis and reporting, a more credible solution is to opt for an independent objective review involving well reputed institutions. In light of the above, it is necessary that the Stakeholder Forum be organised to discuss causes for these considerable variations and implications on both policy and programme planning process. Who knows, WMS could be dropped altogether in favour of IHS to facilitate accurate, evidence-based planning, monitoring and reporting of development results all the time. – The author is UNDP MDGs policy advisor