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Isolation and effects on public service delivery for poverty eradication: Civil society policy responses to chronic poverty in Malawi

Working papers

This paper was prepared for the international workshop "Understanding and addressing spatial poverty traps: an international workshop".

Poverty in Malawi is still deep, wide and severe. Out of the population of 12.3 million, 6.8 million are living below the poverty line, representing 52 percent. On the other hand, 22 percent is living in ultra poverty, representing as many as 2.7 million Malawians. This also means that about one in every five people cannot afford to meet the daily recommended food requirements.

The spatial dimensions in terms of the rural-urban divide reveals that urban areas have much less lower percentages of people below the poverty line and they also have the lowest share of the ultra poverty. In contrast, as many as one third of the rural population in the South region and one quarter of the rural population in the North region live below the ultra poverty line. The worst poverty in Malawi is concentrated in rural areas in the South and North region, while the Central region is better off.

Chronic poverty in Malawi is also described to extreme poverty. These two terms relate to ultra poverty although not all people in chronic poverty can be said to be ultra poor since ultra poverty mainly relates to the about 250,000 that are also labor constrained. These include the elderly and the chronically sick.

Isolation from public services has a bearing on the magnitude of poverty in Malawi. Community variables generally show that households in communities with more infrastructures have lower probabilities of being ultra poor.

Overall, the access to roads and transport services is low in Malawi. Urban communities, most of which have roads with tar or asphalt, experience much higher levels of access. One-third of urban roads are asphalt compared to only 13 percent or rural roads. In addition, rural communities in Malawi are on average located 20 kms from a tarmac, and this distance is higher at about 40 kms on average in the North region.

In the context of Malawi, one of the mitigating actions would include income diversification especially through crop diversification. However this depends on availability of capital to support diversification and is likely to be compromised by lack of markets. On the other hand, large most urban and rural households who have non-farming income sources are more likely to diversify into income from enterprises, mainly retail or wholesale trading.

Responses by households can include strategies that will enable the household to survive the crisis without disintegration or significant damage or cost. These include getting assistance from family and neighbors, accessing free food and getting a loan from an employer. Other strategies include spending cash savings, selling down assets, cutting back on consumption, and increasing labor supply. Borrowing or receiving assistance from NGOs and religious institutions is normally associated with serious illness of household members.

The ex post responses highlighted above have an effect of blocking people into the poverty trap and make households more prone to future risks. Selling of productive assets entails that households can no longer participate in productive economic activities and they cannot utilize economic opportunities even as they arise. Withdrawing children from school and reducing consumption especially of young children, has an inter-generational perpetuation of poverty.

The Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN) works to promote participatory economic governance and poverty reduction. MEJN uses participatory budget and policy monitoring tools for collecting evidence for demanding accountability. One such tool is the Service Delivery Satisfaction Survey (SDSS) which is constructed to capture perceptions of users of public services from which policy recommendations are made. The SDSS confirms the spatial poverty traps in which the chronically poor are blocked and highlights areas where the Government is doing well to rescue the situation while pointing at areas that need concerted effort.

Civil society in Malawi recommends adequate financing and provision of non financial capacity for fighting poverty. It is further recommended that Government must continuously play its social welfare role and not abandon it through a minimalist social protection window.

Mavuto Bamusi