Inequality in Malawi – a Dangerous Divide

This entry posted by John Makina, Country Director, Oxfam in Malawi, on 26 November 2015.

In 2015, eight million people in Malawi – or 50% of the population - are living in poverty. Yet while poverty may be a familiar issue for discussion in Malawi’s development sphere, Oxfam is today putting the spotlight on a less talked about issue, but one that threatens to severely hinder poverty reduction in the country: Malawi’s increasing inequality.

Building on the launch of Oxfam’s global inequality campaign Even It Up over a year ago, Oxfam in Malawi today launches its own national report, ‘A Dangerous Divide’, analysing the state of inequality in the country. The study, authored by Dr. Richard Mussa and Dr. Winford Henderson Masanjala of the University of Malawi, highlights some shocking findings. In just seven years, the gap between the richest 10% of Malawians and the poorest 40% has increased by almost a third.  Malawi’s Gini coefficient, the key measure of inequality, also shows the extent to which robust economic growth is benefiting the rich whilst leaving the poor behind. In a period of impressive growth between 2004 and 2011, the Gini has leapt up from 0.39, on a par with Cameroon, to 0.45, on a par with the Democratic Republic of Congo. And if inequality continues to rise in Malawi as it has in recent years, by 2020 1.5 million more Malawians will be poor, in addition to the eight million living in poverty today.

Inequality in Malawi – a Dangerous DivideThe new report also examines the extent of inequality in access to healthcare and education. Health inequalities are stark in Malawi, where the richest are able to access high-quality private clinics that are out of reach for the poor. Primary health facilities in Malawi are free at the point of use, meaning they are not as regressive as in many African countries where fees are charged . However, persistent shortages of medicines and staff mean these facilities often provide a very poor quality service, despite the best efforts of their few heroic health workers.  Moreover, the government intends to scale up paying services in four major public tertiary hospitals, namely Queen Elizabeth, Kamuzu, Zomba and Mzuzu Central Hospitals. Given the huge barrier to use that even the smallest user fees represent to the poorest, and particularly women, any move by the government to scale up fees within the public healthcare system is likely to have a damaging effect on people in poverty, and increase inequality.

In education, the government has made significant strides in recent decades. Primary education has been free in Malawi since 1994, and there has also been a big increase in the provision of community day secondary education. Despite this, the study shows how education qualifications remain unfairly distributed in favour of the better-off. While action by the government has borne fruit in reducing this bias towards the rich, at secondary education level recently increased fees could undo all past hard-won progress.

Oxfam’s study also assesses the impact of gender inequality, in particular highlighting how poor women can be trapped in their situation by a perfect storm of discrimination and economic disadvantage. As Margaret from Chikuse village in Dowa district says:

"My cousins told me to leave the village I have called home since I was born because my father paid dowry to marry my mother, who came from another village. As per tradition, I and my siblings have no “right” to own any piece of land. When I insisted that I had a right to inherit a piece of land that belonged to my father before he died, my cousins resorted to destroying the crops in my garden as a way of trying to frustrate me...One day they torched my house and I was forced to leave. I strongly feel they did this to me because I am a woman, because my brother still lives in the village.

Since 2011, I have been moving from one place to another trying to find somewhere I can settle and be with my children. Sadly I haven’t found anywhere...I decided to check in at this government rehabilitation centre. I am helpless and hopeless.’’

The study also shows how gender inequality can compound the impact of other inequalities. For example, in rural Malawi, the richest boys are 28 times more likely than the poorest girls to complete their secondary education.

Finally, the new report shows how political power is unequally distributed in Malawi, and how corruption too is fuelling the growing gap between rich and poor. Grand corruption, where the Malawian state is defrauded of hundreds of millions of kwacha, drives inequality not only because it makes a handful of individuals very rich, but also because the money stolen is money that could have been spent on public services such as health and education serving the majority of Malawians.  This dynamic is further compounded when donors suspend their aid to government because of corruption scandals, necessitating further draconian cutbacks in essential services, which hurt the poorest and increase inequality even further.

The message from Oxfam in Malawi’s study is clear: the state of inequalities across a range of dimensions in Malawi - including consumption, education, health, and wealth - clearly represent a dangerous divide.

Moreover, reducing inequality will only happen as a result of deliberate joint policy efforts, which for Oxfam in Malawi must focus on strengthening free at the point of use public services for all, supported by increasing public revenues raised from progressive taxation, and tackling gender inequality.

This entry posted by John Makina, Country Director, Oxfam in Malawi, on 26 November 2015.

Photo: Bwalia ‘Bottom’ Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi. Patients wailt for treatment in the pre-labor ward in crowded conditions. Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Download the report: A Dangerous Divide: The State of Inequality in Malawi

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Graphic: economic inequality in Malawi


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