While discussing development in Malawi, a woman I was speaking with stated, “the Sustainable Development Goals do not matter in Malawi unless they take into account our people and our culture”.

 

Why is this the case?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 Goals set forth by the United Nations (UN) to “address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice”. The SDGs were adopted by 150 world leaders in 2015, building on the UN’s previous global development strategy, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  The UN set the target of 2030 to achieve the SDGs with the objective to “leave no one behind”. The SDGs are global goals, “applying to all countries and all people”. Therefore, to work in Malawi, the SDGs must account for the diversity of the people and conditions within the country’s borders.

 

What is important to consider when crafting development strategies for Malawi?

First, it is important to understand the unique history of Malawi, ranging from its British colonial roots to its high rates of poverty, food insecurity, HIV/AIDS, and dependence on foreign aid. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that Malawi is a country in the continent of Africa and that development solutions for other African countries will not necessarily meet the needs of Malawians.

Second, it is important to consider the people. Despite its small land mass, Malawi’s population consists of 18 million people with a wide range of values, beliefs, religions, languages, and practices. Malawi is divided into three regions – North, Central, and South – with distinct characteristics and contains several ethnic groups. Additionally, the country has a youthful, female-dominated demographic. Forty-six percent of the population is under 15, 73% of the population under 35 years old, and 52% of the population is female.

Third, it is important to consider agriculture. It might seem odd to have agriculture as its own category, but a day does not pass in Malawi without seeing or discussing agriculture. Within the agricultural sector, women contribute to approximately 70% of activities, even though men have higher earnings from the sector. Additionally, while Malawi has a young population, youth in Malawi tend to show limited interest in the agricultural sector. I cannot count the number of times I have heard Malawians state that today’s youth want white collar jobs because many youth see white collar work as the key to economic success. However, a lack of employment opportunities and the skill sets of Malawi’s youth demonstrate the significance of the agricultural sector in Malawi.

 

How can development strategies match Malawi’s culture and people?

In addressing the SDGs, it is important to craft solutions that meet the needs of the people within Malawi. During my work with the World University Service of Canada’s Malawi office, I have noticed examples of development approaches that fit the context of Malawi. WUSC focuses on three E’s in their development model which include education, economic opportunities, and empowerment. While working towards the achievement of the three E’s, WUSC focuses its attention on the most marginalized populations, which include women and youth (two populations that make up the majority of Malawians). In order to achieve the three E’s in Malawi, WUSC works in the tea, legumes, and dairy sectors. WUSC Malawi’s partnerships are in agricultural sectors because of the agro-based economy in Malawi. One of the most important aspects of WUSC’s development model is the fact that WUSC partners with local organizations. Thus, the development strategies used come from organizations that understand the people and culture in Malawi.

For example, I recently had the opportunity to visit a Milk Bulking Group (MBG) which is a member of the Malawi Milk Producers Association (MMPA), a partner organization of WUSC Malawi. While at the MBG, a woman pulled me and my co-worker aside and brought us to her house where she showed us her four cows. My co-worker translated as she told us about how she independently owned the cows and that she used the income from the milk produced from the cows to support herself. My co-worker then explained the success of this woman since most smallholder farmers only own one cow. While walking back, my co-worker introduced me to another woman who had lost her husband and was producing milk to support herself and her three children. While the production of milk might not be a development strategy that works for all Malawians, through these examples, I was able to see how it works for some. Supporting development in the agricultural sector promoted the reduction of poverty by providing economic opportunities and reducing gender imbalances in the dairy sector. While working with MBGs, MMPA might not consider their impact towards achieving the SDGs, however, through their work in the dairy sector, SDGs such as “No Poverty”, “Gender Equality”, and “Decent Work and Economic Growth” are being worked towards in Malawi.

By constructing development solutions for Malawi rather than reconstructing Malawi to fit development solutions, it becomes possible to work towards the achievement of the SDGs in Malawi. It is important to recognize the diversity of Malawi as a country, in addition to the diversity within the country’s borders. In order for the SDGs to work in Malawi, development strategies must fit the people, the culture, and the context of the country.