Why is poverty in Malawi so persistent?

The relief of poverty in Africa has been a hot topic since the 1970s. Billions of pounds have been pumped in via international aid from NGOs, international agencies  and governments. Yet countries like Malawi remain among the poorest. Why?

Aid doesn’t easily reach the most in need, it isn’t delivered in a way that truly relieves poverty, and the way we measure its impact is flawed. Let’s take those in turn.

Anti-poverty aid tends to skim, helping pockets of people here and there, perhaps partly by a donor-driven desire to always be breaking new ground – when in fact consolidation in one area is far more effective. If you are a wealthy person among a sea of poor people, you don’t have anyone to sell to and they probably don’t have much you want to buy: better to create a local economy that can work for everyone.

A lot of international aid is given via the receiving country’s government, so some of the aid goes to support good governance (in the laudable ambition to reduce corruption) and some gets spent on its way through to the poor. One estimate is that as little as 20% actually gets to the intended point of delivery. But a better way is to put the money directly into the hands of local communities, bypassing government. In Malenga Mzoma where the Foundation works, there are robust banking and accounting systems at the very lowest level: corruption is a lot less likely when everyone knows everyone else.

Governments and international agencies use performance targets that don’t correspond to the reality on the ground. Measuring the relief of poverty by an improvement in GDP (and therefore, supposedly, income per head) is irrelevant at the local level. Massive investment in Malawi’s infrastructure will increase GDP but while it won’t put any more money in the pockets of subsistence farmers, the statistics will show that the investment had moved GDP a notch. This is partly why the Foundation didn’t start working in Malenga Mzoma until a detailed baseline household-level survey had been completed (in which 30% of households participated directly) – our impact can be measured over time.


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