Worlds of Education

A packed classroom in a Primary School, Malawi, February 2013 (GPE/Tara O'Connell).
A packed classroom in a Primary School, Malawi, February 2013 (GPE/Tara O'Connell).

Economically disadvantaged Malawi teachers bear the brunt of IMF wage bill policies

published 23 April 2022 updated 17 June 2024
written by:

Malawi has a long-term relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which drives the country’s macroeconomic policies, often to the detriment of progress in targeted sectors such as education and health. Malawi became a member of the IMF on 19 July 1965 and has had at least 16 arrangements (loans) with the Fund, including an Outstanding Purchases and Loans (SDR) arrangement, amounting to US$292.35 million as of 30 June 2021.

Towards the end of 2021, I was commissioned by Educational International to undertake a study on public wage bill constraints in Malawi. The study was part of an international study commissioned by Educational International and its affiliates across four countries: Malawi, Nepal, Senegal, and Zambia. During the study, I interacted with teachers and noted their concerns, particularly in relation to the impact of IMF austerity policies on their lives and the education sector.

One of the study’s conclusions was that the big cost of austerity macroeconomic policies, such as wage bill policies orchestrated by the IMF, is borne by teachers as many of them struggle to make ends meet.

In Malawi, the introduction of the IMF-sanctioned wage bill policies started in 1998 as a way of containing the budget. This occurred first by limiting wage increases, and then by imposing a recruitment freeze among other restrictions, according to a study conducted in 2007 by ActionAid.

Since then, the wage bill ceiling has remained within the range of 7-7.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), even though the government has failed to achieve the imposed ceilings by over 1.4 per cent, according to recent IMF reports [1].

The education sector employs more than half of Malawi’s public servants and is a perennial victim of wage bill gymnastics. From 2019-2020 to 2021-2022, the public wage bill averaged 23.5 per cent of total public expenditure. In the 2020-2021 financial year, the total education wage bill amounted to K270 billion, accounting for 51.5 per cent of the country’s total public wage bill. In 2019-2020, the education wage bill comprised 4.2 per cent of GDP, increasing to 4.3 per cent in 2020-2021 and falling to 3.8 per cent of GDP in 2021-2022 [2].

Wage bill restrictions mean that the government cannot recruit sufficient numbers of teachers. The country needs to recruit an additional 52,459 teachers to reach a benchmarked teacher-pupil ratio of 1:40 [3].

But recruiting such a number would increase the primary education wage bill by 63 per cent. As a percentage of GDP, the education wage bill would need to increase from 3.8 per cent to at least six per cent. This would increase the overall public wage bill by at least 2.2 per cent, from 7.7 per cent of GDP to at least 9.9 per cent of GDP. Consequently, this would contravene the wage bill projection of 7.5 per cent for the 2021-2025 period as prescribed in the 2020 IMF extended credit review report. Thus, in the 2021/22 financial year the government recruited only 2,082 primary teachers against an annual projected recruitment of 9,000 [4].

Furthermore, based on personal stories of teachers and other actors, it is hereby argued that teachers bear the burden in the education sector, with wage bill policies a significant frustration in their lives. Among other consequences, wage bill constraints have limited teacher recruitment and supply, and have led to teacher shortage, heavy workload, poor preparation by teachers, and poor health outcomes.

One teacher, Alice Kamchere, who teaches Grade 3 which has 78 learners at Mwatibu primary school in Lilongwe, said teacher shortage had adversely affected the quality of teaching and learning at her school: “ The teacher shortage makes it hard for teachers to teach effectively. For instance, in my case, I fail to prepare thoroughly for the class in terms of preparing the resources to use in class. At family level, I am unable to attend to my family since most of my time is spent at school due to the heavy workload”. These views were shared by another teacher from Balntyre city, Yankho Mlamba, who teaches at Lunzu Secondary School.

Charles Samala, head teacher in a school in Lilongwe, was worried that teacher shortage had increased classroom enrolment, making him tired and unable to prepare for lessons thoroughly: “ This problem is affecting me as a teacher in different ways. Often (after teaching), I become very tired and, when I go back home, I fail to prepare the next lesson for the following day. Also, as a family member, it affects me. I fail to assist my family in household chores”.

Given that teachers suffer most from the impact of education wage bill constraints, the Teachers’ Union of Malawi (TUM) reported its concerns about delayed teacher recruitment and the poor welfare of teachers resulting from the IMF wage bill policies. According to the TUM’s Programme Manager, Pilirani Kamaliza, “ Our concern has been the high teacher-pupil ratio, which makes it difficult for teachers to handle pupils in large classes; and this has necessitated our demand for government to recruit more teachers”.

It is evident from the voices of frontline workers that wage bill policies pursued by the IMF in the name of austerity, macroeconomic stability, or other reasons have negative impacts on teachers and the education system in Malawi.

Going forward, these policies must be reviewed, resisted, and even abandoned in pursuit of human rights, social justice, and sustainable development goals. The Government of Malawi should pursue more accommodative macroeconomic policies and seek funding alternatives to increase revenue and improve public services. Some of the alternatives are suggested in analytical reports by Rick Rowden (2011) [5], Ortiz and Cummings (2017) [6], and Actionaid and others (2021) [7]. The alternatives include increasing tax revenues, eliminating illicit financial flows, borrowing, or restructuring existing debt, reallocating public expenditures, expanding social security coverage, and providing workers in the informal sector with good contracts. Other options are lobbying for aid and transfers for lower income countries, using fiscal and foreign exchange reserves excessively accumulated in central banks, and adopting a more accommodative macroeconomic framework.

2. ^

MOF (2021), Annual Economic Report 2021, Budget Document No. 2, Ministry of Economic Planning & Development and Public Sector Reforms.

3. ^

Ministry of Education (2020a), The 2019/20 Education Sector Performance Report. Lilongwe: Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education (2020b), Malawi 2020 Education Statistics. Lilongwe: Ministry of Education.

4. ^

MOF (2022), Annual Economic Report 2021, Budget Document No. 2, Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development.

7. ^

Actionaid, Educational International and Public Services International (2021). The Public Versus Austerity: Why Public Sector Wage Bill Constraints Must End. Johannesburg: Actionaid.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.