Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences



Committee Chair

Joseph M. Hodge

Committee Member

Robert M. Maxon

Committee Member

Tamba M’bayo

Committee Member

Michele Stephens

Committee Member

Elias Mandala


This dissertation documents the struggles and dilemmas that the Malawian state endured as it attempted to achieve its developmental goals from the 1930s to 1983. It contributes to histories of development by focusing on the interventions both the colonial and postcolonial states made to improve the living standards of African rural communities, the ideas which shaped state programs, and the behavior of the state which such interventions reveal. Scholars typically argue that state policy in Malawi was necessarily destructive and limited the economic progress of the local communities. The state deliberately pursued land, market, and other agricultural policies that constrained the rural poor, while enriching large-scale farmers and other players. This argument, however, exaggerates the autonomy of the state, misreads state intentions, and ignores other forces that acted on the development process. Nor does this view address the broader debates on the ideas and practices of British colonial development and welfare, how they played out in colonial Malawi, and their legacies for the postcolonial society.

This study uses both imperial and transnational frameworks to situate Malawi within a wider or more global context. Through five case studies and one thematic chapter, the study shows that none of the aims and strategies of development which defined the postcolonial state were without deeper historical antecedents. The case studies reveal concerns the state had over the welfare of the poor while seeking to raise resources for the economic stability of the country. How to reconcile the two objectives was a subject of debate that pitted various actors against each other, including politicians and bureaucrats, the settler community and Africans, international non-state actors, and state aid agencies. The contestations and debates which emerged left behind results that fundamentally contradicted the effort to mitigate poverty. These debates, both during the colonial and postcolonial period, played out in the attempts the state made to introduce private property in customary land as a way of increasing productivity and improve the welfare of Africans. Industrial projects, particularly the tung oil and pulp mill industry of the colonial and postcolonial era, respectively, provided another space for these debates. Rural development projects served a similar purpose. None of these projects succeeded. In emphasizing the commonalities in the failure of these projects, the study points to the cyclical nature of the country’s development history and how the power to set the economic agenda of the state was contested in ways that rendered the state weak and incapable of achieving its development agenda. Rather than condemning the state based on development outcomes, the study suggests studying state intentions and how they failed to translate into practice over time.

Embargo Reason

Publication Pending

Available for download on Saturday, July 29, 2023