Interview: UK never stopped aid to Malawi – DfID

Sarah Sanyahumbi, the head of the United Kingdom (UK) Department for International Development (DfID), has completed her assignment after a three-year tour of duty in Malawi. Sanyahumbi has worked, albeit briefly, with both the Mutharika brothers and former president Joyce Banda. Journalist  Raphael Tenthani engages her {article appeared in Malawi News) to look back at her eventful tour of duty in Malawi. Excerpts:

My three years in Malawi have been challenging. I came at a time when relations with the UK were strained, our High Commissioner had been expelled, and the country was off track with the IMF.

Malawi is now in a better place. The economy is pretty stable, forex reserves have improved, the country again has an on-going programme with the IMF, relations with donors are better and, although budget support remains suspended, there is a huge amount of development assistance coming into the country.

 Sarah Sanyahumb

Sarah Sanyahumb

I would have liked to have seen more progress in strengthening public financial management and in reforming health systems, particularly (the Central Medical Stores) CMST, to ensure better delivery of drugs and essential medical supplies.

Great Britain is among donor countries that are withholding budgetary support in the wake of ‘cashgate’, the systematic plunder of public resources at Capital Hill. And you were one of the tough critics of ‘cashgate’. What is your assessment of fiscal moves by the new administration?

We welcome all moves by the new administration that will improve the management of scarce financial resources and ensure that funding is properly targeted, well spent and properly accounted for. This may take a cultural shift but is doable and absolutely necessary. We have had assurances before that this is being done, when in fact it wasn’t, so what we need now is verifiable action over a sustained period. In my view, only this will bring back the confidence in the government’s systems.

Should Lilongwe be hopeful that donors, especially DfID, will resume aid soon?

I want to stress again that the UK never stopped aid to Malawi. What we had to do because of ‘cashgate’ was stop funding that was channelled through the government’s financial systems because we no longer had confidence in these systems that our money would not be lost or misused. Until we can be sure those systems are safe, we will not be able to return to funding through government systems. But that does not mean that our aid to Malawi has stopped. We (DfID) still have lots of programmes in health, family planning, nutrition, agriculture, education, water and sanitation, encouraging private sector growth and working with civil society.

I am proud of the continued level of assistance that we have been able to provide to Malawians throughout the country; whether it’s food, bursaries to keep girls in school, humanitarian assistance, emergency drugs, increasing water points in under-served communities or helping the poor earn a living through our livelihoods programmes. We also have a series of programmes designed specifically to strengthen government systems, such as support to public financial management and preventing corruption, which hopefully means that sometime in the future we can return to working through government systems.

But we need to be realistic that this is likely to take time.

Do you think ‘cashgate’ could have been prevented?

Cashgate was abuse of the IFMIS system, which was made possible because the necessary checks and balances failed, reconciliations were not done, budgets were not monitored properly and individuals were allowed to circumvent the implemented controls.

But corruption takes many forms. Through the forensic audit investigations other forms of related corruption have been uncovered which show that proper procurement procedures were not followed in the award of large contracts. I believe that if the relevant people had been following agreed government procedures, much of what we are discovering now could have been prevented.

You have had some run-ins with local manufactures of medical drugs. They accused you of preferring international suppliers, especially those from The Netherlands, who were comparatively more expensive. What do you say to this?

For the last three years we have been requested by the government to provide emergency drugs for Malawi because the government and CMST were not able to do so. As a UK government ministry we have to follow EU procurement guidelines for any large tender. This ensures we have value for money and the appropriate quality we need.

Malawian companies are able to bid for these tenders provided that they meet the international requirements, but we are not able to give Malawian companies preferential treatment because of the EU’s rules.

The best way forward for all concerned would be for the Malawian Government to take back the procurement of all essential drugs for Malawi, after our current support ends in six months. The planning for that needs to start now to ensure there is no gap between the end of our programme and whatever takes its place. When the Government handles the procurement of drugs, Malawian companies can then deal with the Malawian Government directly as they would not be subject the EU rules.

Any last words, Madam Sanyahumbi?

The new government is at the stage of setting its priorities and I’m heartened to hear that public service reform, public financial management and tackling corruption will be at the top of its agenda. It’s critical that the basic functions of government work well if the government is to be able to serve its people and deliver the essential services they need.

But this alone is a tough agenda and it will take time. There are always many competing priorities and vested interests that could threaten this agenda. The UK government has already offered support to the government in taking forward these plans, but it is the government that needs to drive these reforms and make sure they are fully implemented. I wish the Malawian government and the people of Malawi courage, patience and God’s blessing as they strive together towards a better future for all Malawians.

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