Malawi meddling donor, hidden agenda: Z Allan Ntata

  • Does giving aid entitle donors to have a say on who should lead?

The opinion expressed recently by western donors in Malawi, favouring and supporting President Joyce Banda, whom most critics and analysts have concluded is simply their puppet, is out of order and must be denounced. The announcement adds a new dimension to the traditional fear of the developing country community.

In the past, the greatest concern for developing countries regarding donor aid used to be the fact that quite frequently donors used their aid as a whip for blackmailing the recipient nations into following policies that were sometimes against their own interests.

The basis for the power play and the financial sovereignty tug of war has been ostensibly the argument that domestic accountability, legitimate governance and a well-balanced society are crucial for good development outcomes. Donors in this regard, so the argument goes, have a responsibility and an interest in ensuring that the aid they give is strengthening rather than undermining domestic accountability. The insistence of donors and development partners such as the IMF and the World Bank to have a say in how a country is governed is therefore based on this apparently noble motive. Yet in the case of to the IMF, the well-documented trail of devastation left by the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) in developing countries justifies the suspicion and scepticism that those anti-aid and globalisation commentators have made regarding the ulterior motives of these seemingly well presented arguments.

IMF Chief Lagarde with Malawi President Banda

IMF Chief Lagarde with Malawi President Banda

It is becoming more and more clearer that the recipient countries’ suspicion over the donor motives are well founded. Recently in Malawi, donors are on record as crossing the line between simply being interested in ensuring good governance, to meddling in internal politics with suspicious motives. In suggesting to Malawians that the solution to that country’s social and economic problems do not lie in Malawians voting out President Joyce Banda, donors in Malawi are encouraging the adoption of a particular model of governance, and indeed promoting a particular leader simply because that leader is advancing faithfully their interests and following their ideas even at the expense of her own country’s economic growth.

In the still underway presidential elections in Kenya, there have been multiple and reasonable tangible accounts and allegations of the British government favouring the incumbent Raila Odinga over Uhuru Kenyatta, and even using underhand tactics to support their preferred candidate.

This western meddling in the operations of local democracies is an illustration of the new fear that far from simply seeking to nurture an environment of transparency and accountability out of which appropriate solutions to the challenges of development can emerge, led and owned by local stakeholders, donors are no longer satisfied simply with this status quo, but are now actively seeking to influence if not even be in charge of the instalment of leadership as well.

Although this unattractive drama is being repeated across most of the developing world, the case of Malawi and the accidental presidency of Joyce Banda is a particularly interesting one.  With elections only about a year away, and the Malawian displeasure arising out of IMF inspired economic hardships becoming more and more evident, the donor community is quickly beginning to realize that they stand to soon be embarrassed.

It has been argued that aid policy for rich countries is not simply a question of interests, but is also a form of ‘autobiography’ through which donor country elites construct and buttress both an operative ideology and a self-image that they wish to project to domestic constituencies. In this regard, President Joyce Banda’s momentous failure to shore up the economy is essentially the failure of the donors and their policies. President Joyce Banda followed their advice and as evidence of the failure of her policies and ideas is becoming evident, they are trying to save their own face by supporting her- to the point of despicably meddling in local politics.

The need for domestic accountability in developing countries is essential. However, donor emphasis on this need should not proliferate into becoming a drive to meddle in internal politics to the point of making calls for whom the locals should maintain or vote for as president during elections. Insisting on policies that promote accountability should not be mistaken to mean the same as meddling in internal politics and maintaining donor puppets as presidents in Africa, particularly when the policies promoted by donors are clearly making people poorer. Policies, whether donor acquired or local, are useless if they make the common man poorer.

But the old debate of aid versus sovereignty in recipient countries is not a new thing. Mixed motives for giving have ensured that the threats and opportunities presented by the aid architecture to developing country sovereignty have never stayed constant for long. Thus no matter the merits of the comments and arguments presented by donor representatives in favour of supporting any one leadership over another, donors need to be careful that in pursuing their interests in this regard, they should not become hypocrites and begin to themselves undermine democracy and good governance.

Meddling in local politics and attempting to sway public opinion in favour of a certain leadership is outside the donors’ mandate and infringes on national sovereignty. Donors can demand domestic accountability and an establishment of structures that support and ensure good governance, but they should let Malawians and indeed any developing country be free to decide its leadership without their influence or interference.

The donors can give aid and advice, but developing countries should always be given the freedom to choose what they want to be and who should lead them. People in developing countries should have cause to be concerned when donors and international organizations prefer or recommend a certain leadership over others. The basis for this preference or recommendation, although made to sound as though it is based on principles of good governance and domestic accountability, the truth of the matter will always be that such recommendations are made based on the leadership that will best advance the donors’ own interests and not the interests of the developing country in question.

Domestic accountability plays an important role in enhancing service delivery, in ensuring that natural resources are used and governed effectively, and in helping to reduce the risk of conflict. More broadly, domestic accountability helps to build legitimate governance; governance that is regarded as legitimate in the eyes of the people who are governed. Legitimate governance helps to deliver the inclusive, responsive and stable relationships between states and their citizens that are key to development. When there is legitimate governance, a country’s leaders are trusted to respond in a locally appropriate manner to the specific development challenges faced by the country and its people.

Legitimate governance is, however, in the language of the Paris Declaration, about broad country ownership that goes beyond the executive to include parliament, civil society and other stakeholders. Legitimate governance is democratic governance. It is not the governance of developing countries by western puppets, nor should it ever allow for the kind of ulterior motive meddling that is currently being practiced by donors in Malawi and in other developing countries.

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