International donors piloted social cash transfers (SCTs) in Africa in the 2000s. Expanding pilots to nationally owned and state-funded programmes is largely driven by domestic politics, but these political factors differ across countries. Malawi is a country that achieved significant reforms when a change of president opened a policy window for donors and civil servants.
The field of social protection reforms in African countries recognizes that politics matters for expanding SCTs. The dynamics in a country also matter for whether and when donors can achieve government collaboration for reforms. This article examines how and why donors were unable to persuade Bingu wa Mutharika’s government of Malawi to implement major SCT reforms in six years, but successfully persuaded Joyce Banda’s administration within two months in office.
Methods and approach
This study adopted Kingdon’s multiple streams framework (MSF) of problems, policies, and politics, to understand why donor and government ideas on SCTs converged at a certain critical point. It employed a qualitative process-tracing method that included interviews with 25 policy-makers in Malawi, including political leaders, donor officials, government civil servants, and civil society officials.
The shift from Mutharika to Banda opened a policy window for donors to promote faster reforms. The ideas, interests, and incentives of the two presidents (including rents), were the main driver of behaviour in relation to policy choices. Moreover, the interaction between the economic and political crisis that each leader faced had implications for their survival strategies and the role for cash transfers in their broader development agendas.
The findings suggest that political elites are more likely to embrace social protection when its framing accords with their ideas and interests. It is more important for donors to frame policy solutions in ways that align with the ideas and interests of elites rather than persuade them to adopt pre-packaged policies. This requires an understanding of how political behaviour informs policy choices. It further requires knowledge of how political windows provide opportunities for problems, policies, and politics to align for the expansion of social protection.