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Civil Society Participation in Malawi


Presented at The Malawi Washington Association Extravaganza Panel Discussion


July 7, 2001


by Jeff Thindwa


Malawi has witnessed  exponential growth in the numbers and activities of civil society organizations since the early 1990s. Civil society in Malawi has become increasingly strident and vigorous in championing and articulating issues, and advocating changes in diverse areas from development programs to policy making; from politics to human rights. It is also notable that increased press and media freedoms in Malawi since 1994 have provided a powerful vehicle for reinforcing the breadth of civil society agendas and programs. Indeed, it is not possible to read a newspaper in Malawi today, or to listen to the news, without coming into the activities of civil society organizations. In an unprecedented way, government officials and politicians are taking a much more active interest in the activities and issues of civil society organizations, and in some cases forming alliances with them around particular agendas. Notwithstanding, questions continue to be asked about government control and influence of the broadcast media, notably the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation.


There are many schools of thought on civil society, and many definitions. But today’s occasion is not a classroom. We do not have the time or appetite for intellectual debates about the theories propounded by political scientists about civil society going back  centuries. For purposes of today I will focus on a functional understanding of civil society, coming from the associational school. To quote one social scientist, Goran Hyden, “civil society is that part of society that connects individual citizens with the public realm and the state. Put in other words, civil society is the political side of society”.[1] Hyden clearly emphasizes the essentially political nature of civil society,


US Senator Bill Bradley, in an address in 1995 to the National Press Club, said:


“Government and market are not enough to make a civilization. There also must be a healthy, robust civil sector: a space in which the bonds of community can flourish. Government and market are similar to two legs of a three legged stool. Without civil society, the stool is not stable and cannot provide for a vital America”.[2]


Civil society, it can be said, comprises a wide variety of private organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on cultural, economic, ethical, political, social or religious considerations. It is that arena of associational life between the family and the state. Michael Bratton, Professor of Political Science and African Studies at Michigan State University, offers a useful perspective when he says that civil society is that “sphere of social interaction between the household and the state which is manifest in norms of community cooperation, structures of voluntary association, and networks of public communication”.[3]



Indeed some commentators understand civil society as intermediating between state and citizen; and others view it as being a countervailing institution to the state. Civil society is also widely referred to as “the third sector”. But even this has been challenged by those who see both the historical role played by civil society, and the democratic principle of people’s sovereignty, as pointing not to a “third sector” status, but to an essential primacy of civil society as the only legitimate first sector.[4]


Associational life has always thrived in Malawi. During the colonial period there existed many civic associations: religious groups, notably missionary societies and churches; artistic and cultural associations of all sorts; farmers groups; schools; professional associations. As I came to learn in 1982, there was even a Nyasaland Council for Social Services, whose successor is the present day Council for Non-Governmental Organizations in Malawi (CONGOMA). In the three decades of rule by the Malawi Congress Party, associational life was also active. There were many civil society organizations: NGOs; professional associations-of nurses, teachers, students, farmers, lawyers, even a rifle association; youth clubs; sports clubs; churches; church based coalitions such as the Christian Hospitals Association of Malawi (CHAM); religious organizations such as the Students’ Christian Organization of Malawi (SCOM), the Young Christian Student’s Association (YCS) and the Muslim Association of Malawi; women’s organizations such as the Women’s Guild and Chitukuko Cha Amai M’Malawi (CCAM); charitable organizations such as Rotary and Lions Club; private schools, private hospitals; and so on.


If all these civil society organizations were present and active before the democratic transition in 1994, what has changed in the 7 years since the democratic revolution? What is the difference? Why does there seem to be such a new awakening of associational life? Why are NGOs and other civil society organizations as confident now in pursuing their goals? To answer these questions we must look at the context in which civil society operated prior to 1994.


First, there was a limit to the kind of civil society organization that could operate in the country. Not long ago, however, I read press release by a group of civil society organizations in Malawi, under the aegis of “the Human Rights Consultative Committee”. They were expressing concerns about shortcomings in the process by which 3 Bills were being prepared for Parliamentary debates. (One of these was “the NGO Bill”). The content of their petition-the main one of which was the inadequacy of consultations with ordinary people and civil society-were as striking as the kind of organizations who had sponsored it. The organizations were: Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace, Public Affairs Committee, Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Women’s Voice, Civil Liberties Committee, Malawi Human Rights Resource Center, Malawi Institute of Democratic and Economic Affairs, Malawi CARER, Youth Empowerment for Civic Education, Society for the Advancement of Women, Consumers Association of Malawi.


It is not difficult to identify organizations in this list that would not have been permitted to register and operate in Malawi before 1994. What has changed is the presence of organizations whose mandates are clearly political. The words “human rights” simply did not feature in the civic lexicon of Malawi. To this list of hitherto proscribed organizations we must add trade unions. We never heard about them.


Second, there was a limit to the scope of activity of civil society organizations. A perimeter fence was drawn around the activities and mandates of civil society organizations, excluding in particular those deemed to have political implications, or to negatively affect the desired image of the country. NGOs were restricted to development projects. They could not be engaged in policy discourses or lobbying of government that had political dimensions or purported to tell government what to do. Human rights as an agenda was outside the scope of development organizations or indeed any civil society organization, even though we understood the multi-dimensional nature of human poverty, and the importance of the human rights agenda.


Third, all civil society assemblies and activities were subject to the veto and/or  intervention of the state at any time. This meant that in principle no organization could discuss its affairs “behind closed doors”. While the state built a perimeter fence around the activities and mandates of civil society organizations, it permitted no restraint for itself in intervening in the lives of these organizations. Certain organized assemblies of civil society organizations, including religious gatherings, had to be approved; and NGO workshops invariably had self invited “guests” who took note of all the deliberations. What has changed is that civil society organizations are entitled to meet and to deliberate without fearing that the ears of the state are listening.


Fourth, what civic associations could or could not say, especially pertaining to the status of the country’s development, was subject to restriction. Commentary about poverty, suffering, crisis, disaster or government performance, was especially regarded sensitively by the state. It is the same sensitivities, in effect, that led to the widely criticized delay in official acknowledgement of the scale of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Malawi. What has changed is that civil society organizations are able to comment on a range of issues in the national interest.


Fifth, civil society connections with external groups was monitored and restricted. As part of a political strategy intended to protect Malawi’s brand of  politics and government, and to mitigate the influences of dissidents and subversive elements, in neighboring countries and overseas, contact between domestic civil society in Malawi and foreign groups was placed under surveillance. People came up for questioning in relation to who they spoke to when they visited Tanzania or Zambia, Britain and other countries; and civil society delegations to overseas assemblies were conscious they were being monitored, and that they could not interact without restraint. What has changed is that Malawian civil society can network without restraint with international civil society, producing synergies that can strengthen its work and support its causes.


Sixth, and finally, some civil society organizations were formed and controlled by political elites with the support of the state. Others were in fact spawned by the state itself. While the aims of these organizations were humanitarian and charitable, their governance structures were neatly woven into the state machinery. They even used the facilities of state to run some of their operations. They were quasi-civic associations that in many ways were subject to state control. In today’s lingo we might call some of them GONGOs-Government (sponsored) Non-Governmental Organizations. Another category, more benign perhaps, was where political elites joined the boards of trustees of civil society organizations and exercised strong influence. It needs to be said that, independent and autonomous as civil society is in Malawi today, it is not entirely free from this particular dynamic. While political control of NGOs as such is not prevalent in the new dispensation in Malawi, capture by political elites is an ever present danger. As citizens, politicians of course have every right to establish civic associations and to serve on boards. When this happens, care must be taken that political influence does not undermine the autonomy of the organization.


All in all, civil society was present and active in the 30 years of Dr Banda’s rule. However, limitations to the kind of organizations that could operate in the country, the scope of activities they could undertake, their privacy, the content of their messages,  their ability to network internationally, and the practice of political patronage, meant that Malawi’s “third sector” was severely crippled, and ineffectual as a countervailing force  to the power of the state. The unrestrained power of the state in Malawi was therefore reinforced by a paralyzed civil society to create a dysfunctional state deprived of the essential complementarities of state, market and a vibrant civil society that make a healthy nation.


Today most of these restraints have been cast off, and Malawian civil society, including human rights and other non-governmental organizations, enjoys a freedom that compares favorably to any in the world. A caveat is observed in the “Freedom in the World 1999-2000” survey, an annual survey of Freedom House, a US based foundation. It indicates that Malawi’s political rights rating changed from 2 to 3, and its status from Free to Partially Free. This was due to violence against suspected ruling party supporters and Muslims following presidential and parliamentary elections in June last year. This change in rating is no indictment on the government per se, as the survey is sensitive to violence however motivated or occasioned. But, importantly, in 1999-2000 Malawi was in the “Free” category, among a crop of very  few countries, and it is hoped the country can slide back into this league.


It must also be noted that Malawi’s 1995 Constitution provides for strong protection of fundamental freedoms, and the rights of assembly and free expression are generally respected in the country. However, concerns have been expressed that police continue to use unprovoked violence to disperse strikers.[5] The Constitution also guarantees the right to form unions, and it protects the right to strike. These unions are active, but Freedom House observes that they face harassment and occasional violence during strikes, and there have been reports of union employees being fired for their political views.


The growth of civic activism in Malawi, and indeed in all of Africa and the world over needs to be seen in the wider context of the end of the Cold War and the wave of democratization that swept eastern and central Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cold War rivalry and the insulation it provided to client states gave way to a different form of international relations where donor countries were able to focus appropriately on issues of governance and the large scale impacts of their programs. In this they saw an important role for civil society in strengthening democracy and democratic values. An important aspect of this revolution has been the globalization of civil society, so that  civil society is networked trans-nationally in ways that can strengthen the campaigns and programs of domestic civil society. But no amount of support by external civil society can take the place of domestic activism in securing vital transformations in any given country.


It can be said that the role of civil society was pivotal in bringing about the democratic transition in Malawi between 1992 and 1994; and that Malawi’s democracy is thriving in no small part because of the presence and interventions of a robust civil society. Likewise, civil society in Malawi is thriving because of the democratic framework that prevails. Civil society and democracy are mutually reinforcing. As Ann Florini has aptly put it, it is possible to have a form of democracy without a vibrant civil society, and for a country to have a vibrant civil society without developing democratic and liberal values; but far more often, democratization and the development of civil society go hand in hand.[6]


Malawi’s democracy owes its life to the brave actions of the Catholic Bishops (among other factors, of course) who risked everything to write the famous Pastoral letter in 1992. This happened in a context where freedom of expression was non-existent. What is important is that the churches, despite isolated incidents of cooption of church leaders by the state in the new dispensation, have maintained their prophetic role and issue commentaries on the state of the nation from time to time. Subsequent “pastoral letters” have focused on governance issues including corruption, and churches like the Nkhoma Synod of the CCAP have weighed in, in the past few months, with a well articulated, comprehensive letter addressing a wide range of national concerns, the priority ones being the issue of the third term for the President and poverty alleviation, in particular public expenditure. Muslim leaders have also issued a letter raising critical issues. 


At the same time traditional development organizations are awakening to a very important role in the work of building the nation. Previously confined to micro-level activities in the form of development projects, NGOs are increasingly claiming a stake in the way the nation is governed.  What is happening in Malawi is a reflection of a world-wide revolution characterized by increased civil society participation in global governance. From international security to human rights; from issues of the global financial architecture to international aid and cooperation; from international trade to the environment, we are witnessing strident activism on the part of civil society, which is dissatisfied with the manner in which global governance is conducted.  The new revolution effectively means that government, at both the global and national realms is no longer the exclusive domain of governments. It is fiercely contested by citizens who want to co-decide what issues need to be given priority, what policies are appropriate, and how they are implemented.


In Malawi, civil society organizations are influencing the development of the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRSP)[7]. At the onset they challenged the timetable the government had committed to for developing the PRSP, which requires wide-ranging consultations with national stakeholders. The government listened and changed the timetable. Civil society organizations and ordinary citizens in Malawi today are deliberating the PRS, examining all the issues at stake from the macro-economic framework to sectoral priorities. At the center of civic engagement in the PRS is the admirable work of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, which has been working to encourage government accountability in relation to the economy, and the PRS in particular. The MEJN has recently commented critically on the 2001-2002 budget, expressing concerns around the ability of the government to fulfill specific commitments made on the key Priority Poverty Expenditures. 


I hope you can see the profundity of what is taking place here. NGOs, as I said earlier, were restricted to community development projects. Now, participation by civil society in the realms of national policy formulation and strategy development is taking place. This is a much welcome development because a lot of civil society organizations can genuinely claim proximity to the poor, which helps it to acquire local knowledge. In turn, this can be brought to bear on the tasks of policy development. Now, civil society in Malawi must develop capacities to monitor the implementation of those policies, and in particular to have a say in budget allocations, to track expenditure flows, and monitor impact of public expenditure.


Concluding Comments

Is this increase in civil society organizations and civic activism a good thing for Malawi? What remains to be done to ensure that the gains made so far produce positive results in nation building? It needs to be acknowledged that the Malawi leadership has made plausible progress in entrenching democracy and the rule of law in the country. The freedom of association, and of expression are important pillars, and this mushrooming of civic associations is  reflection of the new dispensation. Just a few end notes:


a)      Democracy does not mean unrestrained freedom. It connotes profound responsibility, and places enormous obligations on all. Civil society and the media have to exercise civility, approach debate constructively, and be willing to recognize and respect the rightful role of the state. Commentary in the media of both government and politicians can and should be conducted in a critical but constructive manner. Here, there is a lot of room for improvement.


b)      For democracy in Malawi to deliver a healthy nation where poverty is reducing, there is need for a strong partnership of state, private sector and civil society, where each acknowledges the comparative strengths of the others. Importantly, civil society must work in ways that strengthen, not weaken, government. A strong government is essential for effective service delivery, which is indispensable in the battle against poverty.


c)      Government should continue to welcome civil society interventions and create an enabling environment for its activities. The right institutional, policy and legal frameworks must be in place to permit the growth of a healthy civil society.


d)      Malawian civil society is having an increasing say in how the nation is governed, and how national programs are decided and implemented. This is a good thing if all parties are given the space to contribute their unique strengths. For NGOs, for example, they must continue to inform policy making from, among other things, the perspectives they gain from working with poor communities.


d)      The transparency and accountability of public institutions is essential to effective service delivery and poverty reduction. Government should forge new alliances with civil society to promote cultures of accountability, and to co-monitor with civil society the performance of public institutions.


f)        Finally, civil society in Malawi has itself to keep its house in order. It needs to demonstrate fiscal probity and build a reputation for integrity and excellence. Civil society organizations also need to subject their programs to rigorous evaluations, and to make those evaluations available to stakeholders. In addition, they need to live out democratic values and principles in the governance of their own organizations.



[1] Goran Hyden. “Building Civil Society at the Turn of the Millennium-pp17-46, in Beyond Prince and Merchant: Citizen Participation and the Rise of Civil Society, John Burbidge, Ed., 1997

[2] Bill Bradley. “America’s Challenge: Revitalizing Our National Community.”, National Civic Review. Vol. 84, No.2, Spring 1995, p. 95, Quoted in Beyond Prince and Merchant, p 6

[3] Michael Bratton. Civil Society and Political Transition in Africa, Quoted in Beyond Prince and Merchant, p6/7

[4] Rajesh Tandon, Civil Society as the First Sector, in Beyond Prince and Merchant, p6

[5] Freedom in the World 1999-2000. Freedom House (

[6] The Third Force: The Rise of Transnational Civil Society, Ann M. Florini, Ed.Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000, p219

[7] A national strategy that needs to be developed-with the participation of national stakeholders-in order for the country to receive concessional assistance and debt relief from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund under the HIPC, Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.


Jeff Thindwa (

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