Malta is one of the countries with the smallest land surface areas of the world; it is very densely populated and its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is relatively good. As Malta, which has a population of just 400,000, is often compared to a large town in bigger countries, it is generally thought that its regional problems are few and far between. A study conducted for Leicester University attempted to find out whether this commonly held belief is true or not.

To facilitate the work involved, Malta was divided into five regions. Actually, the division is based on the way the National Statistics Office (NSO) compiles regional statistical data. For the purposes of this study, Gozo was not included because, being a separate island and therefore considered a region in its own right, it is held that Gozo doesn't have evident regional problems.

These regions are normally referred to as the North, Northern Harbour, Western, Southern Harbour and South Eastern regions.

These five regions are subdivided as follows:

1. North: Gharghur, Mellieha, Mosta, Naxxar and St Paul's Bay;

2. Northern Harbour: Qormi, Birkirkara, Gzira, Hamrun, Msida, Pembroke, Pietà, St Julian's, San Gwann, St Venera, Sliema, Swieqi and Ta' Xbiex;

3. Western: Mdina, Zebbug, Siggiewi, Attard, Balzan, Dingli, Lija, Rabat and Mtarfa;

4. Southern Harbour: Valletta, Vittoriosa, Senglea, Cospicua, Zabbar, Fgura, Floriana, Kalkara, Luqa, Marsa, Paola, Sta Lucija and Tarxien; and

5. South Eastern: Zejtun, Birsebbuga, Gudja, Ghaxaq, Kirkop, Marsascala, Marsaxlokk, Mqabba, Qrendi, Safi and Zurrieq.

The study investigates more than one area. Three are given as an example, two of which focus on economic activity and the other draws on the younger generation as it attempts to examine the quantum of absenteeism from school in the different regions.

To put the study into context, Malta's three cultural traits were taken into account, i.e.: traditional activities, primarily those connected with religious sentiments as they generally pervade the regions. Strong family ties as they affect regional development, though some regions have a dearth of youngsters as newlyweds are likely to look for housing in new areas; and, finally, reference is made to the strong sense of nationalism of the Maltese.

Some sociologists hold that a considerable proportion of the Maltese are xenophobic in the way they view other races, cultures and religions. Is there any distinction between one region and another in this regard?

A study on regionalism cannot ignore the effects of the colonial legacy. Rabat and Mdina, which are part of the Western region, were developed by the Arabs; the Southern Harbour region was highly developed by the Knights of St John; and the British occupation, while maintaining a complete hold on the Southern Harbour region, developed most of the Northern Harbour region mainly for residential purposes.

The present-day view of North/South relations is rooted in Malta's colonial legacy, which is difficult to assess, and which accounts for the obstacles that lie in the way of achieving an understanding of the origins of stereotypes. A stereotype is an expression of 'collective personality' that is transmitted to individuals by social environment and through other forms as an expression of public opinion, and irrespective of their personal experiences.

These stereotypes fulfil an ideological function in relation to conflicts and discrimination. This could help in the relation of North/South conflicts that tend to prevail. Relations of this sort can also include those involving the 'centre' and the 'periphery', or, more generally, anything that can be perceived as pertaining to the 'North' or the 'South'.

It is a fact that the two oldest regions, in relation to population growth and early settlements, are the Northern Harbour and Southern Harbour, since people used to flock to places where there was economic activity. The Grand Harbour served this purpose; the building of the naval dockyard attracted even more people to these areas. Agricultural places used to thrive but these started to decline in importance with the rise of industrialisation in the late Sixties.

These developments, together with the consequences of World War II, set in motion the rise of two modern phenomena: centre and peripheral locations. These have been enhanced with the progress in transport and the rise in the number of private cars; these two factors have helped to facilitate people's mobility.

With people becoming more familiar with the different regions, movements of people were observed. The Northern and Central parts of the island were preferred by those who were socially upwardly mobile. This has also been borne out by the three chosen areas of investigation that show that the North and Central areas performed better.

For the purposes of assessing the net average income per capita in each region the latest Household Budgetary Survey at time of research was consulted. The figures for unemployment in each region were the latest figures produced by the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) and, finally, unauthorised absences from school were taken from the latest education statistics compiled by the NSO.

The table illustrates clearly that there is no uniform development continuum process; the Western and North regions appear to be the best areas in Malta. The results obtained show that the Western region has the highest net average income per capita, the lowest unemployment rate and the least level of absenteeism per student. These figures reflect the type of people who live in these areas: highest net average income indicates good development of skills and talents, people are highly motivated; the least percentage of unemployed people proves that people living in this region are industrious, responsible and prepared to carry out their duties.

Regional Statistics


Net Average Income

Unemployment (1)

Absences (2)





Northern Harbour








Southern Harbour




South Eastern




Sources: HBS, ETC and NSO

1. Column shows the proportion of unemployment within the region of the total unemployment level.

2. The figure is computed by taking total number of unauthorised absences in government primary schools divided by the number of students within region.

This has also been reflected on their children as the younger generation does not quite easily resort to truancy; of all the regions, the table shows that the Western region has the least number of unauthorised absences from Government primary schools per student.

The Northern region is not far behind the Western region, statistically. In fact, the table shows that the difference in the results achieved by the two regions is marginal. The conclusion that can be reached from this investigation is that the Western and Northern regions tend to have the least regional problems.

On the other hand, the two regions around Grand Harbour obtained less impressive results. The Southern Harbour region appears to be the most depressed area, having the least net average income per capita, the highest unemployment rate and the highest proportion of unauthorised absences.

To put these results in a better perspective, it has to be noted that unemployment in the Southern Harbour region is nearly four times that of the Western region and unauthorised absences are nearly two and a half times those prevailing in the best region. The Northern Harbour region follows closely.

The South Eastern region's results fall in between the two extremes. Perhaps those inhabiting these region have moderate expectations, earn average income and do not completely ignore their responsibilities.

Thus, it may be concluded that those who live in the Northern and Western regions are better off. Contributing factors to this polar situation are that in these regions (mostly the Northern) there are more hotels and tourist activity than in the South Eastern, South and Northern Harbour regions. On the other hand, in the latter regions many industrial plants, including the dockyard, power stations and Freeport, are found.

This different environment may have a determining effect on the perception and expectations of people. Whereas those in the Northern and Western regions have the tendency to improve their situation, generally speaking those living in the two Southern regions accept their situation.

It seems that this pattern is also reflected in the way people vote. The Nationalist Party is stronger in the Northern and Western regions, while the Malta Labour Party is stronger in the Southern regions.

The results of this investigation prove that regionalism and regional problems are not a myth but a reality. It should be an eye-opener for policy-makers. Adding up statistics from the Southern regions, and comparing them to the other three regions, one finds that the South needs greater attention than the Northern and Western regions. A more equitable distribution would mean that all the people would equally share from the benefits of economic development and growth.

David Borda obtained his M.Sc. from the University of Leicester on a study entitled Regionalism in the Maltese Context: a myth or reality?

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