Numbers don’t lie: The Malawi situation

Long time ago I used to watch lots of movies. I have not watched one for a number of years now. I always tell myself that I will go to the theatre when I get time. And it so happens that the time never seems to come.

But I recall one movie I watched back in the day. It is still remains fresh in my mind to this very day. It was about an African prince who went to America in search of a bride. Somehow he lost contact with his father, the king. The king decided to travel to America in search of the beloved son. On locating the prince, the king was understandably very angry. He directed all his anger at the prince’s bodyguard for failing to guide the prince properly. He slapped the bodyguard hard on the face. Now here is the most disturbing part of this scene: the bodyguard’s reaction to being slapped hard on the face was to simply smile and say “Thank you very much, Your Majesty.”

Over the years I have thought hard and long about this particular scene in “Coming to America”. Why did the writer of the movie include this scene? Was it his opinion that Africans smile, instead of protesting, when slapped by powerful people? Was he trying to say that Africans are so ignorant of their interests that they even smile when those interests are taken way?

World lenders support: President Banda with IMF's Largande (L) and World Bank''s Idrawati Photo by Govati Nyirenda/Mana
Within the past seven days, it was announced that Malawi no longer wanted to host the Africa Union summit because we do not want to have the Sudanese president on our soil. The announcement went on to say that allowing Sudanese president on our soil will jeopardize aid from the donor community. Immediately we saw celebrations from some quarters of the country. The social media was full of messages by Malawians congratulating themselves for giving up the summit.

Those who know international diplomacy, however, believe that Malawi did not give it up on her own; she was pushed. Once we decided we were not going to allow the Sudanese president to come, the AU must have had issued an ultimatum to us – “allow everybody to come or give it up”. Whatever the correct set of facts, one thing is clear – the cancellation of the meeting was a slap in the face of Malawians. And just like Arsenio Hall in the Eddie Murphy movie, some Malawians were busy celebrating the slap in their won face.

By the time of this cancellation, a lot of investment had been made into this meeting. This conference could have pumped a lot of money directly into the private sector and help jumpstart our economy. In cancelling this summit Malawi has shown that it values the money donors give us more than the money we can make on our own.

The only redeeming thing about this cancellation would have been if we had done it because of principle. Unfortunately, that was not the case either. The president, the VP and the cabinet made it clear that they decided to give up hosting the summit because they were afraid of jeopardizing aid. It was not because we think Omar Bashir is a criminal; it was not because we thought we should stand with the alleged victims in Darfur; it was not because we believed in human rights. It simply was because we were afraid that the so-called ‘aid taps’ would dry.

It is now clear that Malawians are divided into two groups with different philosophies on how to run the country. One school of thought believes that the only way you develop Malawi is through foreign aid. As such you must do everything donors tell you so you can get that aid. Another group believes that Malawians are intelligent enough to make their own decisions and make policies that will turn around the country without having to listen to every dictation from out there. There is nothing wrong with having two competing philosophies– two good people can disagree on some things sometimes.

However, it is very important to learn from history. These competing philosophies are not new. They have been around since the advent of independent Africa. As a matter of fact our first two presidents represented these two conflicting philosophies. One, Dr Kamuzu Banda put much emphasis on self-sustenance rather than aid. He went around telling Malawians to work hard in the fields and other businesses. He sometimes refused aid because he believed that Malawians are capable of feeding themselves.

The other, Dr Bakili Muluzi, believed differently. He flatly told Malawians that they were too poor to develop the country on their own. He did everything he thought the donors wanted Malawi to do. He declared himself a ‘begging president’ and went around the world begging everybody who would listen to him. He once recounted how he went to Europe and met a scary European leader whose ‘eyes resembled those of a cat’. Muluzi, undaunted, still went ahead and asked him to give aid to Malawi – what a great courage!

Question: between Drs Banda and Muluzi, who won the battle of economy? Numbers don’t lie. When Dr Banda left government your K1.00 would buy you anywhere between $0.50 and $1.00. The road infrastructure was superior; public transportation was dependable; Malawi primary school education was the envy of the region. Malawians had enough food to feed themselves.

When Dr Muluzi left office, your K1.00 could only buy you less than $0.01. Public transportation was in shambles. Even to this very day, most durable primary school buildings still standing were built during Kamuzu’s era. Most of those built under Muluzi are already in ruins.

The issue of whether you can run the country based exclusively on donor dictation and aid was settled in the 20th century. Dr Banda’s philosophy won the day.

And this brings me to my last thought. Somebody put the following statement on his Facebook status “ Madam president said Malawi needs $1bn in aid next year to resuscitate the economy. Well, we have got $53m from IMF – its a good start! ” So, after all the concessions she has given and after all the things that have been done to appease the donors, of the $1billion we need to jumpstart our economy, the donors have only pledged less than 10% of the $1billion. Even the most optimistic observers do not believe that the pledges will go beyond 40%.

Remember the second president, Dr Bakili Muluzi? The donor community liked him too. He had just defeated Dr Banda. He was feted by influential European politicians like Sir David Steel and many others. Yet after doing everything the donor community wanted him to do, Muluzi did not get even half of the money he requested from the ‘friendly’ donor community.

Have you ever wondered why donors do not give you enough money to solve whatever problems you are going through? If you need $4 they will give you $1; if you need $20million they will give you $5million. They can afford to give you what you want. But they just don’t.

Think about that….

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