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The social protection policy in Malawi: Processes, politics and challenges
September 2007
Blessings Chinsinga
University of Malawi, Department of Political and Administrative Studies

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges the Future Agricultures website as the source of this report: www.future-agricultures.org


Introduction

This paper is based on a study undertaken to critically understand the dynamics of policy making and processes under the auspices of the Future Agricultures Consortium.s (FAC) sub-theme on politics and policy processes hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the United Kingdom. FAC.s operative philosophy is that contrary to the traditional and highly stylized perspective, policy making does not happen in neat distinct stages except perhaps in the minimal sense that policies are proposed, legislated and implemented. Policy processes are thus a complex mesh of interactions and ramifications between a wide range of stakeholders driven, and constrained by the contexts in which they operate (cf. IDS, 2006 and Oya, 2006). Understanding the policy processes therefore requires: 1) grasping the narratives that tell the policy stories; 2) the way positions become embedded in networks of various actors; and 3) the enabling or constraining power dynamics (politics and interests).

The decision to study the social protection policy processes was inspired by the guarded optimism among stakeholders about the prospects of formulating a viable social protection policy as compared to the fertilizer subsidy policy programme which is generally orchestrated as a success story. It appears, however, that the differences between these two policy processes are largely due to the fact that the social protection policy deals with issues that are not as visible to the public eye and as politically sensitive as the issue of fertilizer popularly perceived as the magic wand to the enduring problem food insecurity. Moreover, the fertilizer subsidy programme is/was a 'political podium policy' while social protection is a ‘technocratically driven policy’. This is to say that fertilizer subsidy issues featured prominently in the 2004 electoral campaign whereas issues of social protection merely lurked at the background except, of course, with occasional vague references to the poverty reduction agenda. References to the poverty reduction agenda were made but often without articulating concrete plans of action to deal with the acute depth and breadth of poverty and vulnerability in the country.

It comes therefore not as a surprise that unlike the fertilizer subsidy policy processes, the social protection policy processes are almost entirely divorced from the locus of real decision making. The key building blocks of the fertilizer subsidy programme were debated and decided on in parliament. In a plural political dispensation parliament is designated as a functionally more appropriate arena for policy debates and dialogue since it brings together political parties representing various shades of opinion from different segments of society. Consequently, by occupying centre in the national legislature, the events leading to the conclusion and adoption of the fertilizer subsidy programme generated a national wide debate and dialogue. In sharp contrast, the social protection policy is nearing completion but a national wide debate and dialogue is virtually non-existent. The fertilizer subsidy programme was a regular feature in the major media outlets but there is almost a complete black out on media coverage about social protectioni.

Social protection has gained currency both on the international and national development agendas since the turn of the millennium. Broadly understood as policies that assist people, households and communities to protect themselves against shocks and risks, social protection is seen as one of the key ways and means of ensuring the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) (cf. Barrientos et al., 2006). This is the case because by committing itself to the MGDs the global community is advocating for a much more focused attention on the extent and persistence of poverty. This commitment is a declaration that more attention needs to be paid to the plight of the 300-420 million chronically poor people in the world, and to developing comprehensive, coherent and sustained interventions that support their efforts to improve their situation. It is against this backdrop that Malawi has joined the rest of the world in pinning their hopes on social protection as key strategy in combating pervasive and chronic poverty and vulnerability but also as a platform for the attainment of the MGDs. A process led by the Department of Poverty and Disaster Management Affairs (DoPDA) in the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) to develop a social protection policy framework was launched in December 2005 culminating in a draft in November 2006. A revised draft version of the policy was produced and circulated to stakeholders for feedback. The drafting team is currently incorporating stakeholders. observations and a final draft version of the policy was expected by June 2007. The June 2007 deadline was projected to coincide with the 2007/2008 budget session of parliament so as to ensure that expenditure portfolios for the recommended social protection programmes in the policy would be provided for in the national budget. The final version of the draft social protection policy is, however, yet to be concluded.

This study reveals three main things, namely: 1) that the social protection policy process is being treated entirely as a technical process; 2) the lack of capacity among leading government agencies to provide the necessary leadership and technical guidance and direction to the policy process; and 3) the fact that policy design has so far been totally driven and determined by donor agencies, particularly DFID and the World Bank. Politicians are yet to be engaged in the process. Neither have the lower level government structures, widely touted as the locus of implementation of the social protection programmes within the framework of decentralization, nor the grassroots been consulted or meaningfully involved in the process as yet. Consultations with local government structures and the grassroots are planned for after the policy is finalized. Thus the impression created so far is that national politics in the social protection process is purely contextual to be examined for the sake of completeness rather than to be accorded an explanatory role (cf. Hickey, 2005). But this overlooks the fact that different forms of politics shape different dimensions of social protection particularly their size, type, implementation and sustainability. The involvement of the stakeholders should be an integral part of the policy process in order to stimulate public debate at political, technocratic and community levels, which is currently virtually non-existent. In other words, all aspects of the social protection policy need to be designed with an eye to the political context.

This study reveals three main things, namely: 1) that the social protection policy process is being treated entirely as a technical process; 2) the lack of capacity among leading government agencies to provide the necessary leadership and technical guidance and direction to the policy process; and 3) the fact that policy design has so far been totally driven and determined by donor agencies, particularly DFID and the World Bank. Politicians are yet to be engaged in the process. Neither have the lower level government structures, widely touted as the locus of implementation of the social protection programmes within the framework of decentralization, nor the grassroots been consulted or meaningfully involved in the process as yet. Consultations with local government structures and the grassroots are planned for after the policy is finalized. Thus the impression created so far is that national politics in the social protection process is purely contextual to be examined for the sake of completeness rather than to be accorded an explanatory role (cf. Hickey, 2005). But this overlooks the fact that different forms of politics shape different dimensions of social protection particularly their size, type, implementation and sustainability. The involvement of the stakeholders should be an integral part of the policy process in order to stimulate public debate at political, technocratic and community levels, which is currently virtually non-existent. In other words, all aspects of the social protection policy need to be designed with an eye to the political context.

This study drew essentially on the review of secondary sources (academic papers, government and donor documents) and on key informant interviews with officials from government, donor agencies and civil society. The analysis is structured along four sections. After this introduction, Section 2 explains the international and national contexts leading to the prominence of the social protection agenda. Section 3 provides a brief historical perspective about the origins and the evolution of social protection in Malawi. Section 4 critically examines the social protection policy processes to date focusing mainly on outstanding issues and constraints. Section 5 provides some concluding reflections.


Footnote:
  1. There has hardly been any media coverage on social protection since the social protection policy process was officially launched about a year ago. The media has on its own accord featured the issue of social protection only once in one of the Sunday Times edition of May 2007. Attempts were made by the Institute for Policy Research and Social Empowerment (IPRSE)-a local think tank-to run a series of debates on key building blocks of the social protection policy in order to instigate national dialogue and debate. There were published at fortnightly intervals. While the features made at least an impact at the national level, IPRSE discontinued the series at a critical point when national debate and dialogue was just beginning to take shape. None of the stakeholders have taken a similar initiative except for ad hoc radio programmes sponsored by Plan International on one of the FM radios which unfortunately does not have national wide coverage.

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