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Key findings
  • Shortages of basic necessities affect most Malawians. More than six in 10 citizens (63%) say they or someone in their family went without a cash income “many times” or “always” during the previous year. Substantial numbers of people report frequently going without enough food (35%), medical care or medicines (34%), cooking fuel (29%), and clean water (24%).
  • Based on these shortages, three-fourths of Malawians experienced either moderate (38%) or high (37%) lived poverty during the previous year.
  • Moderate/high lived poverty (described here as “deprivation”) declined substantially between 2003 (77%) and 2008 (55%) but has risen by 19 percentage points since then. Moreover, compared to 2019, high lived poverty has increased by 17 percentage points while moderate lived poverty has decreased by 12 points.
  • Examining deprivation under successive governments, moderate/high lived poverty declined under the governments of Muluzi and Mutharika (first term) but has worsened under all subsequent governments.
  • Similarly, citizens’ assessments of the government’s performance on improving the living standards of the poor were most positive for Bingu wa Mutharika’s first term (when 60% said the government was doing “fairly well” or “very well”) and have been worsening since then. Only 15% of citizens approve of the current government’s efforts to reduce poverty.

Since Malawi’s independence in 1964, its leaders have been promising to reduce poverty. After the collapse of the Hastings Banda dictatorship in 1993, the country’s first democratically elected government put in place a poverty alleviation programme (Government of Malawi, 1995) and adopted the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (Government of Malawi, 2002) as then-President Bakili Muluzi stated that his focus was on eradicating poverty and hunger and promoting sustainable livelihoods (Muluzi, 2002).

In 2006, Muluzi’s successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, introduced the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy, whose overarching objective was to reduce poverty (Government of Malawi, 2006). Buoyed by high economic growth rates between 2005 and 2008, the president in 2010 changed the design of the national flag by replacing a rising (half) sun with a blazing white (full) sun, arguing that it aptly represented how the country had developed under his leadership – a change that was reversed shortly after his death in 2012 (Guardian, 2012).

Similarly, the short-lived government of Joyce Banda (2012-2014) claimed to have boosted the economy and made strides in eradicating poverty (Nyasatimes, 2013), and Peter Mutharika boasted that his administration had developed Malawi to the point where young people were “selling cars like bananas along the roads in every town” (Sabola, 2020).

These leaders’ claims are bolstered, to some extent, by strong gross domestic product (GDP) growth over the years, ranging from 4% in 2017 and 2018 to 9.6% in 2007 (World Bank, 2019). While the official poverty rate has declined only marginally, from 54% in 1998 to 51% in 2020, extreme poverty declined from 25% in 2010 to 20% in 2020 (National Statistical Office, 2020; World Bank, 2020).

The question is: To what extent do these numbers and government efforts translate into improved living standards for Malawians?

The question can be answered by tracking poverty trends. One way to do this is via the National Statistical Office’s poverty estimates based on people’s consumption of goods and services. Another way is to use the Lived Poverty Index (LPI), an experiential measure developed by Afrobarometer that examines how frequently people say they went without basic necessities (food, clean water, medicines or medical care, cooking fuel, and a cash income) during the previous year (Mattes, 2020).

Results from Afrobarometer’s 2022 survey show that three-fourths of Malawians experienced moderate or high lived poverty during the past year, continuing a negative trend that started in 2008. Moreover, the share of households reporting the most severe level of poverty has increased since 2019. The most frequent shortages in Malawian households are of a cash income and sufficient food. Alongside worsening lived poverty, citizens’ ratings of the government’s performance on improving life for the poor have been growing increasingly negative since a 2008 assessment of the first-term Bingu wa Mutharika administration.

Maria Mkwawira Chunga

Maria Mkwawira Chunga is a senior research associate at the Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR) in Zomba, Malawi.

Maxton Tsoka

Maxton Tsoka is the co-national investigator for Malawi.