Buying ambulances and boring holes: harnessing Parliament to solve local problems in Malawi

This blog, written by GPG’s Founder Greg Power OBE, was published in June in The Parliamentarian, the quarterly journal by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
Find the original article here.

Earlier this year, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Headquarters visited the Parliament of Malawi to engage with the CPA Malawi Branch and to support a self-assessment using the CPA’s Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures.

As part of this process, the CPA team engaged with officials from Democracy International and Global Partners Governance Practice on the project that they have been undertaking in Malawi funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Greg Power, OBE is the Founder and Board Chair of Global Partners Governance Practice (GPG). His new book ‘Inside the Political Mind: The human side of politics and how it shapes development’ will be published by Hurst in the autumn. To find out more about the work of GPG please visit

In May 2022, the Parliament of Malawi launched the Parliamentary Support Program, a five-year initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and implemented by Democracy International, Inc., in collaboration with my own organisation, Global Partners Governance Practice (GPG). Since 2005, GPG has been at the forefront of efforts to provide more innovative and effective forms of support to politicians and Parliamentarians, and we are delighted to be working with Members of Parliament in Malawi to find new ways of trying to manage the intractable problems that they face.

The Parliament of Malawi shares characteristics with others in Anglophone parts of sub-Saharan Africa, informed by the Westminster tradition, with a constituency-based electoral system and majoritarian elections, but also incorporating aspects of a Presidential system following independence. As in many other countries, those institutions have been tested by periods of authoritarian rule, public unrest and growing demands for democracy, but since the reintroduction of multi-party politics and the establishment of a new constitution in 1994, the political system has mostly ensured the peaceful transfer of power.

However, a key part of the electoral battle between the main political parties in recent years has been the need for greater parliamentary oversight and accountability from the government. As a result, there is a swell of support among MPs from all parties, staff and outside organisations for reforms which will strengthen Parliament’s ability to carry out its core functions. The problem, though, is that there are few obvious incentives for MPs to prioritise their parliamentary roles in practice. The vast majority of their work takes place at the local level, where they spend much of their time trying to respond to the often desperate and immediate needs of their voters. In addition, their electoral fortunes are far more likely to be decided by what they do locally, rather than nationally.

It is these sorts of practical, political and behavioural challenges that the project is designed to address.

The work with MPs in Malawi is at an early stage, and we are still in the process of discussing with the Speaker, MPs and parliamentary staff about where our support will be most useful to them. However, three areas have already emerged as potential areas for development, all of which revolve around engaging with the current practice of politics, and the incentives shaping the logic of political behaviour.

The first is at the local level. In Malawi, as in many other countries, many of the most complex problems that MPs face are within their constituency. Their voters need and want the local MP’s help in areas ranging from health and education, to water, electricity and employment. These requests take on many different forms, and MPs are often asked to cover a child’s education fees, medical bills or the cost of establishing a new bore hole. The lack of ambulances is a problem in many places, and MPs are often phoned to help people get to or from hospital. In such instances, the local politician will either have to use their influence to get an ambulance to the people, send them a car, or pay for a taxi to transport them. One MP told us he simply bought an ambulance for the constituency, and anecdotal evidence suggests this is not an isolated case.

MPs now have a bigger constituency development fund (CDF) of around US$80,000 a year to help manage such cases, but it is clear that many MPs are exhausted and overwhelmed by the work, and simply do not have enough resources to meet all the requests from voters.

There are no easy solutions to these problems of the demands and expectations for what MPs deliver at local levels, but we have started to explore how we might help them to develop more strategic responses and achieve a better targeting of funds to alleviate some of the pressures. For instance, where fifty people are coming with the same health or schooling problem, rather than give individuals money to cover their costs, a better response would be a new health clinic, or scholarship scheme – finding collective solutions instead of individual ones.

At the same time, there are very practical measures that can be introduced. Organisational and financial planning skills are critical, and many MPs have suggested that developing office and finance management systems to monitor casework, track spending and measure impact would be an important first step in finding those collective responses.

However, it is also clear that such local measures only ever tend to ameliorate problems rather than solve them. Permanent solutions to a problem like a lack of ambulances are only likely to emerge from action at the national level, and this is the impetus for the second area of work – connecting constituency and Committee work.

The fact is, MPs have a huge amount of insight as to how well national policy, legislation and service delivery is functioning on a daily basis. Every citizen who asks them for help is highlighting a failure in state provision. As a result, they have a level of experience and expertise that is beyond the reach of Ministry officials, whose job it is to make policy. The challenge is to find ways of routinely channelling that local experience into the Parliament, so that it is used as evidence to help shape national political priorities and inform government responses.

A number of permanent Committees are keen to develop more evidence-based forms of policy making, as part of their wider legislative and oversight roles, and the project will aim to support them in discharging those functions. However, if we can also help local MPs build better systems tracking casework and monitoring local services, this information can be used simultaneously to help MPs address immediate problems at the local level, and also help Parliamentary Committees improve the formulation of policy and legislation in the long run.

The third strand of work, which complements the first two, is in Parliament’s follow-up function. In Malawi as in many other countries, the priority of MPs in Parliament is the passage of new law. However, MPs from across the political divide suggested that its big weakness was in failing to follow up on whether parliamentary decisions were implemented properly, if at all. A number of MPs highlighted provisions in certain Bills that no one had understood at the time, and no Parliamentary Committee subsequently checked on the detail, the original rationale behind the provision, or whether it had been enacted. Likewise, many MPs feel that although a lot of effort is put into approving the government’s budget, MPs were particularly poor at investigating how money is being spent, whether it was having an effect, and whether government spending offered any value for money.

To this end, the project will seek to combine the work of Parliamentary Committees, independent oversight agencies and civil society organisations to gather evidence, assess the impact of certain Bills and make recommendations as to how they should be revised. Such forms of post-legislative scrutiny can take numerous forms. There is no one right way to conduct such investigations, and no blueprint for their implementation. As such, we will be working with MPs to identify both the issues and the process that is suitable in that context. The effectiveness of such an investigation will depend ultimately on the extent to which they are driven by the interests and concerns of the MPs who will have to make those laws work.

Politically agile programming

This last point is central to the success of any parliamentary support programme – it needs to be built around the interests of MPs themselves, not those of the organisations charged with the job of ‘implementing solutions’.

Global Partners Governance Practice (GPG) was asked to be part of this programme on the understanding that we would avoid many of the traditional mistakes of parliamentary assistance. To this end, our approach has developed over many years, draws on our direct experience of trying to manage the process of reform in many different parts of the world, including Westminster, and is built around three main principles: people over process, problemsolving not preprepared solutions, and peer-to-peer exchange.

The starting point – people over process – reflects the fact that all change is behavioural change. Far too many traditional parliamentary support programmes are still built around institutional and procedural reform, rather than helping MPs to do their jobs better. Changes to the legislative process, Committee system and financial oversight only matter if MPs use those opportunities in new ways. In every Parliament there is a gap between the powers that a Parliament has, and the willingness or ability of MPs to use them. The job of a support programme is to find out why that gap exists, and then help MPs to narrow it.

This then leads to the second principle – problem-solving, and not preprepared solutions. There are no universal blueprints for parliamentary development. Changes to behaviour have to start by understanding the problems that MPs are dealing with every day, the challenges that they face, and what they are hoping to achieve. It is in working with them to find their own solutions to problems, that new techniques, working practices and skills develop – which in turn then lead to the gradual strengthening of the Parliament as a whole. It is an iterative, exploratory and entrepreneurial process – and one that is grounded in deep understanding of political realities and existing power dynamics.

We are only able to pursue those objectives thanks to the expertise and experience of our staff and Associates, which is the third working principle, of peer-to-peer exchange. We are fortunate to have a wide range of former MPs, Ministers and Parliamentary Clerks on whom we can draw in this work.

The common characteristic in all of those Associates is that they tend to spend more time listening than speaking. Although we may have a lot of expertise, the MPs that we work with – in Malawi and everywhere else – will have an expertise that is beyond our reach, about the context within which they operate, the public expectations they have to manage and the contours of parliamentary politics within which they operate. That is the key to finding meaningful and effective reforms. It is where international experience and national expertise is combined – through politicians with different backgrounds talking to each other about politics – that new and innovative solutions emerge.

Institution-building from the inside

The key point is that the path of parliamentary development is shaped by the interests, incentives and personal preferences of MPs themselves: Parliaments only get stronger when politicians want to make them stronger. It is when MPs can see how they can use parliamentary procedure, Committee work and financial oversight to address immediate problems, that those Parliaments grow in authority, power and impact.

This is what lies behind the project in Malawi. It is about helping MPs to manage the things which matter today, but doing so in ways that strengthen their institution, so that it will be easier to fix those same problems tomorrow.

However, the ability to facilitate that sort of change depends on understanding the things which are motivating politicians in the first place. It revolves around their opinions, interests and incentives, and the way in which they seek to pursue what is important to them within the Parliament. In short, change cannot be designed from the outside, it has to start from what is inside the political mind, and work outwards from there.

The role of organisations such as GPG in this sort of context is not to fix things, it is to help politicians fix things for themselves. It is a process of enabling, not implementing. It is in aligning the interests and incentives so that politicians of all parties are harnessing the ways in which Parliament can be more effective in serving their citizens. We hope that this project will make a small contribution to that process in Malawi.