Aid and its implications for governance: [email protected]

Malawi marks 50 years of independence next Monday. But the country is hardly independent in any meaningful sense. It heavily relies on donor support and international NGOs. It is these foreigners, not the citizens, who are in charge of the country’s governance

Malawi is one of the most aid dependent countries in the world. In fact it has been said that ‘Malawi receives more aid per capita than the average developing country in sub-Saharan Africa and other low income countries.’

Malawi is so reliant on official development assistance – as aid is called in development practice – that up to 40% and 80% of its recurrent and development budget is financed by donors.

IMF Chief Lagarde with Malawi former president Banda
IMF Chief Lagarde with Malawi former president Banda

Of course most of this would fall under what is known as bilateral or multilateral aid. When one considers the work that is done by international NGOs, however, or by them through local surrogates, it becomes obvious that there is no aspect of life in Malawi that has escaped the ‘benevolence’ of the donors.

As we approach July 6, 2014, however, 50 years to the day when Malawi became an independent state it’s important to accentuate the discussion on aid in Malawi. And if at all we will ever want to have some serious debate on the implications of aid for Malawi, no area will be as important as that of governance. I use the word governance to mean ‘the exercise of political power to manage a nation’s affairs.’

It is difficult, nay impossible, to talk of governance in Malawi without mentioning or at the very least thinking about donors or development partners as we euphemistically call them. It is fair to say that donors have always had a say in how, as a country, we manage our affairs.

Long before Kamuzu Banda’s strong grip on power loosened, Malawi had already accepted a range of pro-market policy prescriptions in exchange for World Bank aid under the Structural Adjustment Loans.

Because of Malawi’s geostrategic significance in the Cold War, however, the politics of the time remained untouched. Africa Watch, in its 1990 report, ‘Where Silence Rules: The Suppression of Dissent in Malawi’, noted for instance that ignoring the worsening tyranny of Banda, some donors in fact responded by increasing their aid to Malawi.

Things were to dramatically change, however, after the end of the Cold War and the resultant loss of Malawi’s strategic lure meant that governance issues in their broadest sense possible could no longer be ignored. In 1992, all non-humanitarian aid to the country was frozen pending an improvement in the country’s human rights situation.

And while there was a confluence of factors that were ultimately responsible for ending Banda’s autocracy, there is no gainsaying that the aid leverage played a significant role. Thus was to commence a period of the most- in medical speak-invasive engagement in governance issues in by donors. This engagement started in earnest in the management of the transition from the single-party regime to multi-party politics.

For instance, so invested were the donors in the constitutional making process that Kevin Bampton, who worked as secretary to the Committee drafting the Malawi Constitution, has remarked that there were times when it appeared that it was in fact the donors who were in charge. The result, naturally, was in the words of one scholar ‘one of the world’s most liberal [democratic] constitutions.’

To their credit, the donors have not wavered in their commitment to the Malawi liberal democracy project, the birth pangs of which they had been privy to in the early 1990s.

And so accordingly, not only have they generously co-funded each and every one of our general elections since 1994 but they have also helped us build, reform and support those institutions that are vital for the success of the liberal democracy project.

The United Kingdom, for instance poured millions of its taxpayers’ money into the reform of our Police Force, as it was then called and has been key in sustaining the operations of the Anti-Corruption Bureau.

The World Bank has spent quite a lot in its attempts to help with the reform of the civil service and it was also instrumental in the establishing the Commercial Division of the High Court.

Of course, as is the nature of aid, its disbursement has been far from certain. ‘Governance concerns’, often times quite legitimate it must be said, have often resulted in suspension of aid or in the most extreme of cases a demand for repayment of abused donor funds. This erraticism of aid has naturally had a crippling effect on the operations of some of these institutions and their ability to effectively plan their activities.

The occasion of the celebration of 50 years of our independence might be as a good as an occasion as any to examine the rather unsettling implications of this state of affairs. It appears to me the most undesirable of situations to the leave the responsibility of a significant part of our governance edifice in the hands of other nations.

From a practical aspect, the most obvious concern is one of sustenance. It does not appear far-fetched in my view to surmise that if donors decided to pull their plug on all governance-related financial support to Malawi, the liberal democratic project and its weberian institutions would suffer a cataclysmic collapse.

Alternatively, its sustenance would come at a huge social and political cost as it would mean diversion of resources from provision of more basic social services to fund activities such as tripartite elections. From a more conceptual viewpoint, however, aid distorts the social contract between the governors and the governed.

Because such a significant portion of public expenditure is financed by donors, it has been shown that those who exercise political power in the aided state will be more beholden to the donors than their own people.

In these states, citizen involvement in governance is often times limited to general elections. After the winners have been declared and the losers consoled, the voters will often times be relegated to the periphery while donors will continue to be at the centre of how political power is used in management of the affairs of the state.

Those who have followed the government’s response to the Cashgate scandal may agree that the response has mainly been designed with a view to winning back donor support and not exactly in fulfilment of the government’s constitutional obligation to account to its people for how it exercises power.

Accordingly, the lasting legacy of governance related-aid may be that contrary to the avowed wishes of its providers, it has had the effect of undermining popular participation in governance.

As we celebrate the golden jubilee of our independence we will need to ask ourselves some tough questions. We need to find ways of growing our economy to such levels that we are able to govern ourselves without outside help. If this is an impossible pursuit, though it need not be, then we need to ask ourselves whether our current governance paradigm, with its associated institutions, is fit for purpose in our circumstances.

The alternative to liberal democracy need not necessarily be a replication of the authoritarianism of Banda. We can find something more autochthonous. Something that meets the aspirations of our people without our being perpetually beholden to donors.

I know some will find this proposition startling. But regardless of our ideological differences, we can at least agree that organising elections and then asking someone else to fund them may easily be mistaken for irresponsibility. A debate on whether there is another way for us should accordingly not be stifled but fully embraced and encouraged.

– Khumbo Bonzoe Soko is a Malawian lawyer currently studying for a post-graduate degree at the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK, and is a regular social and political commentator on Malawi.

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