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A political economy analysis of Malawi’s rural water supply sector

Research reports

Written by Naomi Oates

Many rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa still lack clean water for basic needs such as drinking and washing. Even where water points have been constructed, many break down prematurely or provide inadequate, seasonal or poor quality water supplies. While techno-managerial factors are relevant in explaining these problems, attention is needed to the institutional and political-economic dynamics shaping policy outcomes on the ground.

This report presents the findings from a political economy study of Malawi’s rural water supply sector. Combining a review of the literature with in-country interviews at a national and district level, the analysis identifies the underlying causes of bottlenecks in the service delivery chain, which undermine sustainability and functionality of water points. These relate to structural factors (i.e. the political, economic and institutional context) and actors’ practices, influence and incentives. The authors recommend that central government departments and development partners engaged in water service delivery:

  • give greater recognition and support to District Councils and District Water Development Offices, as their role is crucial to delivering sustainable water services
  • adhere to basic good practices in developing and implementing programmes
  • increase attention and funding to neglected areas of the service delivery chain, namely post-construction support and monitoring activities
  • avoid ideological approaches to decentralised service delivery, and focus instead on context-specific solutions, including support to successful innovations
  • provide spaces to critique dominant approaches to service delivery, as part of an adaptive learning process.
Drillers are contracted by an NGO to install new water points in a drought prone area of Balaka District, Malawi
Image credit:Naomi Oates/ODI, 2018
Naomi Oates and Evance Mwathunga