Bridging the Gap Between Activism and Policymaking in Malawi

Mason Fellow Paul Kwengwere studies solutions for economic growth at HKS

It is a typical morning in rural Malawi. Women wearing colorful red, yellow, and blue patterned dresses carry large metal buckets, many balancing them on their heads, and often with young infants strapped to their backs. To get fresh water for their families, most travel an average of two miles on unpaved, meandering roads. At present, 30 percent of rural Malawians do not have access to safe drinking water.

“The lack of safe water access is just one of the many disheartening statistics that contributes to Malawi’s widespread poverty,” said Paul Kwengwere, one of the Ash Center’s five Ford Foundation Mason Fellows for the 2011-12 HKS academic year. “When I first traveled outside of Malawi to Kenya and then later to the UK and US, I was shocked by the dramatic gap between the poor of other countries and the poor of mine.”

Nearly 40 percent of Malawi’s population lives below the poverty line (1). Kwengwere notes that Malawi’s per capita income, currently at $300/year, has made relatively little progress in the last three decades. While 70 percent of the population are considered literate, only 30 percent have a formal education (2). Despite the country’s implementing free primary education in 1994, 20 percent of school-aged children do not attend school (3).

Before coming to the Kennedy School, Kwengwere served as the sector wide approach coordinator for the country’s Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development. He acted as a mediator between donors and the government to move forward public works projects increasing water access in rural areas. As five departments within the Ministry alone work on water issues, no comprehensive map of water needs had ever been created, and donor-funded projects were dictated by donors, not necessarily by population need. Under Kwengwere’s guidance, this process is starting to change: a new basket funding model has been approved by all parties in which funds are pooled and used according to need and a detailed district-level analysis of water access is underway.

Serving as an intermediary is not a new role for Kwengwere. In his previous work at ActionAid International both in Malawi and the UK, he collaborated with regional nonprofits, community leaders, and government agencies to spearhead projects to improve agricultural production, increase awareness of HIV/AIDS, and build schools in rural areas. Delivering such services and tools required more than just resources. As Kwengwere explains, “you must become a member of the community you are trying to help; it should not feel like we are imposing ideas upon them.”

After a fellowship at Yale focusing on leadership and NGO networks, Kwengwere transitioned to become the president of the Economics Association of Malawi. He offered water, health, and education sector analysis of key government budgetary decisions to interested stakeholders, and set up the country’s first ever budget training program for members of the Malawi National Assembly. Again as a mediator between government and the nonprofit sector, Kwengwere witnessed many disconnects between the grassroots advocacy community and policymakers at the national legislative level. “In Malawi, there is a lot of talk, but little action,” said Kwengwere. “Most of the policies are on the books, but very little is well implemented.”

Upon return to Malawi at the end of his mid-career MPA, Kwengwere hopes to establish a think tank organization that would bridge the communication gap between the advocacy and legislative communities to foster real improvements in the lives of Malawians. “We have seen many countries make tremendous economic progress, and I want to determine what recipes for success could be adapted to Malawi,” said Kwengwere. “The fresh, innovative ideas of my fellow colleagues and professors at HKS promise to renew my focus on improving Malawi.”

1. Welfare and Monitoring Survey 2009, National Statistical Office 2010 publication.
2. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/malawi_statistics.html
3. WMS 2009 – National Statistical Office