National Debt and Unchecked Borrowing

A Historic Step towards Government Oversight in Malawi Parliament

Global Partners Governance has been delivering a USAID Parliamentary Support Programme to the Parliament of Malawi in partnership with Democracy International. Our Project Manager, Wisdom Lipenga, reflects on recent efforts by Parliament towards legislative scrutiny, and how the Parliamentary Support Programme may contribute to building capacity for government oversight.

In the face of mounting government debt and the historical weakness of pre-legislative scrutiny, the Malawi Parliament is taking a significant step towards increasing oversight of government borrowing. For the first time in its history, two Loan Authorization Bills were referred to the Budget & Finance Committee for pre-scrutiny.

In her remarks, Speaker of the National Assembly, Hon Catherine Gotani, MP, described the referral of the bills to the Budget & Finance Committee as a commendable development that will ensure that Parliament, through its committees, performs its constitutional obligations effectively. It signals the potential for the Parliament to move beyond mere rubber stamping of government legislation and to take a more meaningful role in providing follow-up and oversight on how decisions are implemented. We reflect on three key implications of this and on what it means for the prospects of reform in Malawi in the future.

First, the scale of public debt faced in Malawi and the implications for its ability to finance its budget deficit underline the importance of accountability and oversight through Parliament and to its citizens.  Malawi is grappling with an escalating public debt of substantial magnitude. The Ministry of Finance’s Annual Public Debt Report, released in March 2023, revealed that the country’s total public debt had surged to MK 9.4 trillion, equivalent to 75% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Among other measures, the Malawi Government has initiated discussions for debt restructuring with various lending institutions. Debt restructuring has been identified as one of the essential pre-conditions for the country to secure a new credit facility from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The convergence of growing debt and the imperative need for additional financial resources to finance its budget deficit, ongoing expenses, statutory obligations, capital developments and service maturing debt make it critical to ensure that government financial decisions are subject to rigorous scrutiny, accountability, and oversight by Parliament through relevant committees.

Second, the government has also re-activated its Open Government Partnership (OGP) membership to highlight its commitment to addressing the debt problem through transparent lending and borrowing through meaningful scrutiny of Loan Authorization Bills by the Budget and Finance Committee. OGP is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from national and sub-national governments to promote open government, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. While Malawi had been a part of OGP since 2013, its lack of follow-up on its commitments led to it being declared an inactive member. In response, the government formulated an action plan (2023-2025) to meet the OGP’s standards, which, among other solutions, recommend for mandatory referral of money bills to the Budget and Finance Committee for pre-scrutiny before they are passed.  

Third, despite these efforts, historical weaknesses of pre- and post-legislative scrutiny in Malawi represent a persistent challenge that has undermined the effective oversight of government financial matters. This issue is deeply rooted in the country’s political landscape and legislative processes. This is openly acknowledged in the Malawi Parliament’s own Strategic Plan for 2021-2026, which highlights that Money Bills have traditionally undergone a process that closely resembles rubber-stamping, lacking the necessary thorough examination and critical scrutiny. Consequently, financial decisions of paramount importance have been made without the rigorous analysis they demand, allowing for potential misuse/misallocation of funds and insufficient checks and balances.

What compounds this problem is the absence of a stringent follow-up mechanism regarding how the executive branch utilises the approved funds. This glaring gap makes it difficult to trace allocations and expenditures and to follow where the money goes. All of the above means means that there remains a significant need to strengthen pre and post-legislative scrutiny in Malawi, making this first commitment to the scrutiny of the Loan Authorization Bills an important test case.

Global Partners Governance (GPG), as an implementing partner in the USAID-supported Parliamentary Support Program in Malawi led by Democracy International, places significant emphasis on legislative scrutiny as a critical element in strengthening parliaments. In this aspect, GPG strongly aligns with the “end-to-end” approach to effective legislative processes, which encompasses pre-scrutiny of proposed legislations, formal legislative stages such as debates in plenary sessions and detailed considerations by relevant committees (as was the case with the two Loan Bills which were referred to the Budget and Finance Committee for the first time), and finally post-legislative scrutiny where Parliamentarians follow-up to make sure that the law is fully implemented and that it is achieving the intended results and make necessary decisions as required.

Given the efforts made by the Malawi Parliament towards legislative scrutiny with emphasis on Loan Authorization Bills, GPG will give priority to enhancing the capacity of  MPs and parliamentary staff to develop familiarity and understanding of these scrutiny processes through pilots in areas that may be politically less sensitive, and working with key offices such as the Parliamentary Budget Office and reformers in Parliament who are dedicated to more meaningful oversight roles in the future.