Successful zero-aid Malawi budget requires shared sacrifice

“You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.” ~ Bob Marley

It is no longer news that the 2014/15 national budget will not be subsidised by donors who contributes up to 40 per cent of the total budget. The donor pullout meant that Malawi government needed alternative ways of covering the deficit; we now know that Malawi has settled for what it calls ‘zero-aid’ budget, with a deficit of MK107 billion. It is not clear at the moment where this deficit will come from.

Malawi Congress Party (MCP) registered their fears that the ‘zero-aid’ budget could yet be a ploy by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led government to avoid donor accountability. Cynicism is good; I think it should be encouraged but the budget statement indicates that the government is still trying to regain the donor confidence. This should go some way to arrest MCP fears.

Njobvuyalema:  Fear its DPP  ploy to avoid donor accountability

Njobvuyalema: Fear its DPP ploy to avoid donor accountability

Though valid and definitely in good faith, MCP’s observation grosses over the fundamental point on aid and repeats the infinite and a dangerous mistake of overlooking the role of taxpayers in holding their government to account. Grants and donations are intended for all citizens. Of course donors have a right to demand accountability for their resources but citizens, Malawians in this case, in whose name donations are made, must take lead. Part of the logic of aid sanctions is that when ordinary citizens, the ultimate beneficiaries, struggle to survive due to sanctions demand accountability and good service delivery from their government.

Like most local commentators have noted, MCP should be demanding fiscal discipline, not worrying about donor accountability. The budget title: “restoration of fiscal discipline as a foundation for poverty reduction,” clearly shows that Goodall Gondwe, the Finance Minister, is fully aware about the importance of fiscal discipline.

MCP spokesperson on finance, Joseph Jobvuyalema, was recently quoted by The Nation newspaper saying: “yes, donors are on our neck, but we should also look at the capacity of the country to generate enough revenue to meet all obligations. Otherwise, this might be a tool to punish Malawians.” I believe every country has enough resources for survival of its people, if managed properly and fairly distributed. Political will and whether all Malawians, ‘large and small’, are prepared to make necessary adjustments is the big question.

The unrecognised state of Somaliland has thrived without any donor support since its secession from Somalia in 1991. Donors cannot give aid to unrecognised state. What would stop Malawi financing its entire annual budget more so that other crucial sectors such as health are heavily donor funded? With its mentality, it is difficult to see Malawi embarking on a path to economic independence. Cases such as the current aid freeze may be heavy on the country and its people but may be necessary for Malawi to start looking at ways of financing itself.

Look. Somaliland is solely dependent on local tax revenue. According to a Stanford University researcher, Nicholas Eubank, cited by The Economist, citizens in Somaliland use their tax revenue as leverage to make their government more accountable, representative and transparent – making it more democratic one would argue. Meanwhile, in Malawi the main opposition party is more worried about donor accountability.

As Eubank observed, Somaliland’s case cannot always successfully be applied elsewhere and I am not advocating that Malawi adopt anything on a wholesale from Somaliland, or any other country. But Somaliland’s is an inspiring story and a timely one for Malawi. Somaliland has shown that citizens must make the destiny of their country their responsibility. Citizens must demand accountability and transparency from their representatives and government must work for the interest of its people.

Donors are withholding budgetary support due to cashgate revelations and failure, largely by the previous administration to tackle it head on. Yet, Cashgate involved a lot of people, civil servants, private contractors, commercial banks and politicians over a number of years. Yet, there were no whistleblowers.

There is a sickening culture in this country that allowed cashgate to happen: Malawians do not take responsibility for their own country. Malawians worry more about petty partisan politics than serious matters of national interest. ‘Cashgaters’ basking in opulence of unexplained wealth have become role models and envy of the town.

It is not surprising that donors are more dismayed and angry about cashgate than Malawians. It is not surprising that Joyce Banda’s administration made the results of forensic audit on cashgate only available to donors, not Malawi taxpayers. They say every government is as good as its people. I am sure most Malawians would disassociate themselves from this mediocre. Yet, they will not take stance against because they want to protect their own interests.

In his budget statement, Goodall Gondwe said: “… I invite everyone of us to ask how we can help Malawi to pass through this turbulent terrain smoothly and safely. I have no doubt Mr, Speaker, Sir, that if we took this stance, we will achieve fiscal normality within the financial year.” Of course Goodall and his ilk need everyone’s sympathy at the moment but they will be different animals when aid is flowing in.

But my question is: are the so-called middle class Malawians and the government itself prepared to sacrifice few luxuries for the same sake of common good? What of greedy ministers and MPs demanding obscene pay increase and unjustifiable loan facilities? Will ordinary Malawians put their petty partisan politics aside and demand accountability, more equitable distribution of resources and improved service delivery?

Surely, if all Malawians were prepared to work for the common good, Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) would not need the lion’s share of the 2014/15 budget for fighting graft. As it is, that allocation can somehow be justified because the consensus is that ACB need to protect us from ourselves.

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