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Problems in Malawi’s education sector are tied to the country’s governance and have their roots in a broader global context of economic and education policy prescriptions

In its editorial of Thursday 29 November, The Nation newspaper expressed alarm at the revelation that Malawi’s education sector was performing worse than our neighbours. The Nation posed the question “Where are we getting it wrong?” The news of our dismal educational performance came via the Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Eunice Kazembe, who was speaking at an Education Joint Sector Review meeting in Lilongwe that week.

The Joint Sector Review is a periodical gathering of donors, Ministry technocrats, academics and other educationists to discuss progress against benchmarks outlined in educational policies and implementation plans. Amongst the problems the newspaper quoted the minister highlighting was that seventy percent of Malawian pupils lacked basic skills and necessities, and that most of these learners drop out before reaching Standard Six.

In this two-part article, I want to argue that any analysis of the problems that have paralyzed Malawi’s education sector ought to be understood in the larger context of Malawi’s governance and the political economy of the country. I also want to point out that what we see as local and internal causes of these problems have their roots in a broader global context of economic and education policy prescription and domestic adaptation.

A primary school teacher and a primary education adviser enact a literacy strategy during a continuous professional development training in Mzimba North

It would be an exaggeration to argue that education is the only sector performing miserably. A lot of Malawians still suffer from chronic hunger, despite all the efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture. Most Malawians have no access to a hospital, and the few available hospitals have no drugs. Medical personnel are overworked and disgruntled. Many Malawians die needlessly, due to sheer negligence and lack of empathy. Electricity continues to be a nightmare for the 8 percent of Malawians who have access to it, and water supply is highly erratic.

The majority of Malawians go without police protection, and most of the times the police are unable to prevent crime or apprehend criminals, leaving Malawians helpless. The conditions of our cities are atrocious. Garbage is everywhere, most roads are dirt roads even in the capital city, and have not been maintained since they were constructed. Our city markets are so filthy it’s a miracle we don’t have Armagedon cholera epidemics.

We therefore need to put the malaise of the education sector into perspective. The failures of the education system are symptomatic of the general failures of the country as a whole. As I am writing, the majority of Malawi’s primary school children have no access to a school textbook. Textbooks were last distributed to schools in 2008, and schools no longer have those books due to wear and tear. A niece of mine told me recently her Standard Six class has three English pupils books against sixty eight pupils. A day later a group of Primary Education Advisers told me entire classes in their schools do not have a single pupils’ book.

And our teachers are an angry lot. They are always paid late, teach in classrooms unfit for purpose, live in houses not worthy the name, and are treated as second class citizens. Recently Malawians have lamented on social media sites remarks purportedly made by the president herself demeaning teachers. She is alleged to have said, at a public rally in Thyolo, that farming was a better paying preoccupation than the teaching profession. As teachers have no means of expressing their anger directly at their ministry or at the country’s leaders, they resort to other tactics easily misinterpreted as incompetence unprofessionalism. Left unaddressed, the anger our teachers are nursing is slowly but steadily eating away at the educational fabric of the country.

The causes of the problems bedeviling Malawi’s education sector are local and global, internal and external, structural and political. They are the same problems ailing every aspect of Malawi’s governance system as well as social architecture. They must be addressed in a holistic manner.
Much has been said, lately, about the problems of leadership that have stagnated the country’s progress. Little has been mentioned about those Malawians who have persevered against the odds, and have been an inspiration to others. Teachers are amongst these unappreciated leaders.

It’s hard to acknowledge, in the current atmosphere, but there are things that still work in this country. We need to highlight them, celebrate the leaders behind them, and make them an example for everyone else.

The local, internal and political causes are easier to recognize than the global, structural and external problems. There is a part where we as a country, as The Nation editorial alluded to, are indeed “getting it wrong”. But there is a part where it is global structures of economic governance and geopolitical power that are “getting it wrong.” Somewhere along the continuum, the internal and the external causes are connected.

Inefficiencies such as late salaries and bureaucratic bottlenecks that choke career prospects for teachers are part of the local and internal causes. So is the size and structure of the country’s economy, which makes it impractical for teachers and most civil servants to be better paid. There are capacity problems that have led to millions of kwacha being returned to donors or to the national treasury because we are unable to utilize the money, despite all the known problems that are, paradoxically, caused by lack of money. The global and external causes also factor into the local and internal causes, something we will explore in part II.


In the first part of this article I argued that the mess in Malawi’s education sector is not occurring in a vacuum; it is a reflection of the state of the country’s governance and political economy. I also suggested that the internal causes of the problems are tied to external causes. In this concluding part I discuss the external causes, focusing on arguments made by a prominent Malawian development economist and an American educational researcher. I end by calling for more investment in the professionalism of Malawi’s teachers, and in addressing the root causes of the anger that has gripped the country’s teaching profession.

Writing on the discussion forum Nyasanet in October 2012, Malawian development economist Thandika Mkandawire, professor and chair of African Studies at the London School of Economics, helped put into perspective some of these causes. Professor Mkandawire listed mistakes that the IMF and World Bank had admitted to making in the decades that developing countries were forced to adopt prescriptions for which there was no guarantee that they would work. In the decades leading from independence of African countries, international financial institutions had what Professor Mkandawire called an “anti-tertiary education stance.”

This stance led to declines in investments in human capital, whose results are unfolding today. The mistakes these institutions have admitted to have had a “profound impact on African economies,” examples of which include “serious shortages of energy, lack of a skilled labour force, and an absence of long-term financing,” according to Professor Mkandawire. The lack of a skilled labour force and the absence of long-term financing have struck at the very heart of African countries’ governance and social service provision. They have crippled the capacity of countries such as Malawi in not only the education system but right across the entire public sector.

Steven J. Klees, professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland in the USA, argues similarly in a September 2012 article, titled “Why Does the World Bank Hate Teachers?” In much of the world, including Malawi, teachers are some of the lowest paid civil servants. Professor Klees traces this phenomenon to World Bank policies that pushed for low salaries for teachers. He also accuses World Bank policies of promoting teachers’ “ignorance,” a result of prescriptions to governments to cut both pre-service and in-service training for teachers, as part of structural adjustment programmes.

Untrained teachers have become a common full time feature of many educational systems around the world, another mistake Professor Klees attributes to the World Bank. When I started teaching in January 1990, it was after a ten-day crash course that introduced us to the basics of the curriculum and lesson planning, after which we were unleashed onto thousands of unsuspecting learners. In the mid-1990s Malawi hired 20,000 thousand school leavers and left them handling full classes on their own for years.

Malawi is still years away from achieving the optimal teacher-pupil ratio. Education policy documents prepared by the Ministry of Education indicate a target teacher-pupil ratio of 1:60, considered the ideal. Professor Klees argues that this ratio prescription came out of a flawed World Bank study. Anybody who has taught young children knows how demanding it is to handle just a handful. For the World Bank to have prescribed 60 learners in one classroom just shows how out of touch some policies can be. Professor Klees notes, cynically but poignantly, that this prescription could not have been made for children of World Bank staff. We can add to that list children of Malawian cabinet ministers and high ranking government bureaucrats and other elites.

What this means is that countries such as Malawi must never accept policy prescriptions without subjecting them to scrutiny and examining them for suitability to our contexts. Currently many donors are prioritizing early grade literacy, in recognition of the pivotal importance that the ability to read holds for the future of a child. But Malawi’s needs are such that little can be achieved in early literacy as long as classes continue being very large and learners continue having no books to read. Government needs to make its priorities clear to donors, and to take an active role in the formulation of donor projects so as to ensure relevance and efficacy. Pilot projects are helpful, but it is pointless to have pilot project after pilot project without applying the lessons nationally.

We cannot afford to revert to training just a few thousand teachers at a time when school enrollments are at an all-time high. Handled well with resources and commitment, the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) model is the most efficient way of training a large number of teachers at once, using new instructional technologies. In other parts of the world, the ODL model is being used to upgrade teachers’ minimum professional qualifications from a certificate to advanced degrees. We need to invest in the professionalism of teachers, providing them with resources so they can form professional associations and acquire advanced qualifications.

We must address the root causes of the seething anger that has demoralized teachers. We must motivate them with meaningful career prospects. There are some excellent, highly motivated Malawian teachers out there. We must invest in identifying them and supporting their efforts. It is high time we started having teacher professional associations and national teaching awards as is the case elsewhere. Only when we have understood the broader context of Malawi’s socio-economic problems and its crossover effect in education, and made the necessary investments as described above, can we begin an earnest attempt at getting it right in education.


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* Steve Shara, PhD, is a 2012 fellow of the Programme for African Leadership, London School of Economics. He blogs at