Intergenerational Mobility: A Conversation with a Local Chief in Malawi

Author: Mary-Jean Nleya

Mary-Jean is the founder & editor of The Global Communiqué, a current affairs digital magazine. She is a lawyer and is fascinated by the intersection between the media, law, development and public policy. She holds an LL.M. from Harvard Law School and a LL.B. (cum laude) from the University of Pretoria. Follow on twitter: @thegloco


Local Chief Mphalabungu stands beside his bicycle. Photo credit: The Global Communiqué

The World Bank will be issuing a study on the implications of one’s familial socio-economic background on their ability to progress beyond that of their lineage. The introduction to the World Bank’s preview to the upcoming report states that in order for inclusive growth to be a reality, public policy ought to give due regard and consideration to the hopes of people to progress beyond that of their background. In economic literature, this phenomenon is known as Intergenerational Mobility (IGM). However, it has been found that in developing countries it is particularly difficult for those at the bottom to move upward. Ultimately, this stifles the ability of developing states to capture future economic growth and curb extreme inequalities within such nation-states.

This has become somewhat apparent during a grassroots reporting project undertaken in Malawi, particularly in Malili Village (in the outskirts of the capital city, Lilongwe). On October 17, 2017 the local chief Mphalabungu, who is a village herd-man said that he was from a family lineage of chiefs, that is a leader of a group of people or a clan, usually passed down from one generation to the next in a hereditary fashion. The local chief further said: “No one in my family lineage completed school”. As for himself, he “stopped schooling at Standard [or Grade] 4”. When asked why he stopped schooling so young, the 38-year-old local chief said, “There was no money for his parents to continue paying for his schooling and it made sense for him to stop going to school and simply become a herd-boy at the time”.

The main focus of the World Bank study is on IGM, with an emphasis on educational mobility across generations. The preview states that, “Education mobility is important in its own right, as education is a key dimension of human progress” [pg. 5 of the preview]. Mphalabungu said  “Looking for a job is hard especially because I did not go to school – even a job to be a security guard is impossible for me because it requires one to have good papers; I don’t have good papers, I don’t have any papers”. He further explained, “I have completely stopped looking for a job in the city; I stay here in Malili Village and I chop firewood and go to the main road over there, on my bicycle, to sell the firewood. With this I am able to get some money and take care of the family; however, sometimes people don’t buy anything and then we have to go hungry until the following day”.

When asked what his aspirations are, Mphalabungu, who also has a community which he leads as a local chief, said “I want to become a renowned singer in Malawi. I have a talent, which is to sing local music. I do not want to sing for pleasure, however, I want to sing to get money and sell music to improve my living standard”. He further remarked that  “to jumpstart his singing career is very difficult because that too requires money”.

The World Bank preview [pg. 13] states that, “Developing economies dominate the list of economies with the lowest mobility from the bottom”. Low relative mobility is fundamental when it comes to reinforcing extreme inequalities within countries [pg. 17 of the World Bank preview] because those from poor and uneducated backgrounds remain in that position with very little likelihood of progress; whilst those in the higher end of the curve have higher chances of forward movement – thereby perpetuating the cycle of poverty and vast inequalities within countries. Vast inequalities within nation-states are the breeding ground for societal unrest and the lack of social cohesion.

The World Bank preview [pg. 21] recommends “reducing opportunity gaps in education access and quality […] as key tools available to policy makers to enhance mobility”. Malawi has attempted to move in the direction of reducing such “opportunity gaps” by making primary school education free in 1994. While quality is yet to be made fully available in Malawi’s public primary school because some of them  lack resources and physical infrastructure for its students, this is a fundamental aspect to enhance mobility for those at the bottom.

In conclusion, it would be remiss not to reflect on the other side of the coin and mention that there have been many exceptions to the trends of intergenerational mobility, Michelle Obama (as an example) who during the second day of the Obama Foundation Summit, on November 1, 2017 said, “My parents did not go to college, they were not of wealth, not of means”; yet this African-American woman ascended to be a two-time Ivy-League educated woman, and ultimately made history to become the first African-American First Lady of the United States in 2008. Therefore, I am inclined to categorically state that despite the statistical studies on intergenerational mobility, one (whether in a developing economy or a developed economy) can progress beyond that of their background – where one comes from need not define where one is going.

Editor’s Note: The conversation with Local Chief Mphalabungu was translated from Chichewa to English with the help of a translator.


This post is a part of a series on intergenerational mobility hosted by Friendship Ambassadors Foundation (FAF) in support of the World Bank’s #EndPoverty campaign. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FAF or the World Bank. To see all posts in the series, click here.

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