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Cost-effective front-line justice services in Malawi: a case study in frugal innovation

Case/country studies

Written by Marcus Manuel, Clifford Masiska, Chimwemwe Ndalahoma, Hubert Nanthambwe

Image credit:NomeVisualizzato / Pixabay

The country study reviews the operation of Malawi’s Paralegal Advisory Services Institute (PASI) over the past 22 years. PASI’s role in Malawi’s justice system is discussed, both its legal advice and assistance to unsentenced detainees, and support to village mediators.

  • For the last 22 years, Malawi’s Paralegal Advisory Service Institute’s (PASI) frugal innovative model has provided a high-quality, cost-effective front-line service, with its paralegal services supporting both unsentenced detainees and village mediators.
  • PASI’s paralegals and volunteer village mediators are the preferred, or the equally preferred, provider of justice in Malawi. They deliver impact in terms not only of access to justice, especially for vulnerable groups, but also more widely in terms of reducing corruption, community building and improving human rights.
  • PASI’s local, innovative, people-centred approach has been key to its success regarding both quality and cost-effectiveness. ODI’s analysis of PASI’s latest figures suggest costs for over the period 2018-2022 averaged $10–12 a case, significantly below ODI’s scalable benchmark of $20 a case in a low-income country.
  • PASI also provides clear evidence of how increasing scale reduces unit costs. In districts that handle fewer than 500 cases a year, unit costs are typically $30–60 a case. But these fall to $7–$8 a case in districts handling more than 2,000 cases a year.
  • PASI demonstrates the impact of going to scale. Its paralegals visit nearly all (96%) unsentenced detainees each month. This has enabled Malawi to consistently achieve exceptionally low rates of unsentenced detainees – below 20% for many years. This is less than half the African average of 50% and below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) average of 24%.
  • PASI has always been entirely reliant on external funding, receiving 10% of all donor justice aid to Malawi from 2017-2021. It receives no funding from the Government of Malawi. Insufficient funds and gaps in funding are the binding constraints on PASI’s operations and ability to scale up its operations. Despite its cost-effective model, PASI’s village mediation is currently reaching just 3–5% of service needs.