Culture of Poverty in Malawi

The “design of living” for the poor in Malawi shows little evidence of Oscar Lewis’s “culture of poverty.” However, those living in poverty do struggle in living conditions that make them behave differently from their wealthier counterparts.

Malawi was positioned as the world’s poorest country by the World Bank’s Gross National Income per capita measure in 2015. Some may argue that Malawi’s positioning is due to the existence of a so-called “culture of poverty.” The concept of a culture of poverty was introduced by the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis as a result of studying the urban poor in Mexico and Puerto Rico. According to Lewis, the culture of poverty constitutes a “design for living” that is passed on from one generation to the next. This article will analyse this “design of living” based on empirical evidence from Malawi to see if this culture really exists among poor Malawians.

To begin, Lewis’s “design of living” was constituted by the following conditions. Individuals feeling marginalized, helpless, and inferior, adopt a fatalistic attitude of living only for the present. Families are characterized by high divorce rates, with mothers and children abandoned; they become matrifocal families headed by women. People adopting this culture of poverty do not participate in community life or join political parties; they make little use of banks, hospitals and the like. By the time slum children are aged six or seven, they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture and are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of the changing conditions and/or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime.

However, the design of living for poor Malawians is not necessarily passed on from one generation to the next. Poverty is often associated in people’s minds with misery, but anyone who is truly familiar with rural Malawi will know that, like their counterparts in other parts of the continent, poor families accept their lot with courage and cheer. In Malawi, there are families, rich today, who come from poor backgrounds. This upward mobility, therefore, indicates that the poor in Malawi are capable of taking full advantage of changing circumstances and greater opportunity, directly in contrast with Lewis’s hypothesis on the culture of poverty.

In his 2005 book The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs talks about travelling dirty roads and passing women and children walking barefoot with water jugs, fuel wood, and other bundles. These are some of the characteristics associated with the poor in Malawi; they also sometimes wear ill-fitting clothing. As a result of such appearances in public, they are segregated from mainstream gatherings. This kind of social exclusion makes the poor feel demeaned and subhuman.

Poverty is primarily characterised by low incomes; the Malawian poor strive to make ends meet with the common saying, “Tomorrow will take care of itself.” An International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) study from 2011 found that poor households have to adopt costly coping strategies such as selling assets, withdrawing children from school and reducing food consumption; such situations force them to live purely in the present instead of planning for the future.

According to the 2011 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey Report, divorce rates are higher among those people who are employed than the unemployed; in other words, divorce rates are low among the poor when compared to the non-poor. Often, matrifocal families are created due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic which causes the death of the father, the head of the family, leaving the mother and children behind; in some cases, the children are orphaned. Of the one million orphans in Malawi, 500,000 have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

A 2011 IFAD study found that the rural poor in Malawi tend to live in remote areas with few roads, which limits their economic opportunities. Access to financial services is severely restricted, especially for smallholder farmers; only 12 percent of these households have access to credit. In addition, investments such as in banks, hospitals and the like, are made in wealthier areas, since the investors are more likely to earn profits there. Because of their low incomes, the poor seldom have bank accounts or make any transactions with banks, and they cannot make payments to private hospitals. And even in areas with government hospitals, often, the hospital is too far, and because of the lack of any means of transport like bicycles or ox-carts, the poor prefer visiting traditional medicine healers than the hospital.

The Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF) Report from 2006, “The Quiet Revolution: MASAF 1995-2005” gave an example of a Mikunde primary school in a village called Mlonda near Chintheche in Malawi that demonstrates well how the enthusiastic input from the community in brick making and building has achieved the replacement of the inadequate structures with a modern classroom. This shows that there is community participation among the poor in Malawi. MASAF was established in 1995 as a key poverty alleviation instrument designed to address community social needs. The Social Action Fund is community oriented and demand driven and thus depends primarily on the people’s commitment to its success. Regarding political party participation, in Malawi, governments are voted into power. Leaders’ receptiveness to the needs and demands of the poor demonstrates that democracy in Malawi exists for and is operated by the poor majority.

Based on the comparative analysis above, the concept of a culture of poverty as introduced by Oscar Lewis lacks some empirical evidence from Malawi. The “design of living” for the poor in Malawi is not necessarily passed on from generation to the next, and this design of living does not necessarily develop into a culture. Those living in poverty do struggle in living conditions that make them behave differently from their wealthier counterparts. Hence, Malawi’s poverty must be accounted for by something beyond an anthropological model that is premised on outdated notions.