Of African’s concept of time, Malawi’s achievements of the MDGs

Despite boasting of more than half a century years of self-rule, Malawi’s socio-eco-political strides have been abysmal, especially in her achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But what could be the derailing aspects responsible for Malawi’s marasmic being? Yokoniya Chilanga writes:more_mdg_promises

To the question why Malawi has failed to achieve all the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after it seriously committed to do so, there might be two possible answers: Either it chewed more than what it could regurgitate or it counted the chicks before they were hatched.

Counting the chicks before they are hatched in African traditional thinking means to make a wrong calculation on what one can get after a successful planning without projecting at the risks of the business.

At many times, Malawi, has had the habit of counting chicks before they are hatched; starting from the Malawi Development Policy (DEVPOL) of the period soon after independence, to Malawi Vision 2020 and the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS). So many chicks were counted in these but with relatively little results.

And so Malawi’s another failure to achieve its commitment of the MDGs has not come as a surprise, for it now a habit. But some bad habits die harder.

“My government is aware that the Millennium Development Goals 1,2,3 and 5 will not be achieved by 2015”  said President Peter Mutharika during the launch of the HeforShe campaign in  Lilongwe last month.

But some years ago, his brother, former President Bingu wa Mutharika, was confident to achieving all the MDGs and as an achiever that he was known to be internationally, in the course of leaving a great legacy for the African continent on achieving food security for his country, boldly told the fellow Heads of State and Government at a three-day summit of the UN in New York in 2010 that, his country is “making continuous progress in achieving all the goals by 2015”.

And returning to the same New York city, four years after, his brother President Peter Mutharika, in his address to the 69th session of the of the General Assembly of the UN, told a different story, that; his country was on track to achieving only four of the eight MDGs and thus would proceed to the post 2015 era with unfinished business.

President Peter Mutharika cited inadequate resources and development partners’ commitment that had been unpredictable and at times unfulfilled as a mong the reasons for Malawi’s failure to achieve all the MDGs. He added that the post-2015 development agenda should allow for some flexibility in implementation.

Former President Joyce Banda also told the 68 the Session of the United Nations Assembly in September 2013 that Malawi on course to achieving four of the eight MDGs reducing child mortality; combating HIV and Aids, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

So what made the older Mutharika think Malawi will achieve all the 8 MDGs? Was it another African lacking the sense of the future time?

Some western thoughts had long ago accused Africans (particularly those in sub-Saharan region, to which Malawi is part of) of failing to think progressively and lacking the concept of future time.

John Mbiti, a Ugandan professor of Theology and Philosophy, formalised this western accusation and blames fellow Africans of having a two-dimensional phenomenon of time, with a long past, a present and virtually no future. This means that the Africans regards as important on the now time(the present) as Africans think about time only within their day-to-day experiences. Mbiti argues that that by contrast, “the western concept of time is non-phenomenal (mathematical) and linear, with an indefinite past, a present and an infinite future”. Mbiti further argued that he cannot find a word in three East African languages which expresses the future beyond two years.

In Malawi may that could be the same, we don’t have the one word for the future time extending beyond two years. Malawi’s main language Chinyanja, has words such as ‘chaka cha m’mkuja’ meaning next of next year and no other words expressing the time beyond this.

Mbiti contends that this lack of proper words in African languages expresses the people’s conception of the future time, which is to them inexistent, thus the absence of a word implies the absence of a concept. “Or can there be a future time without a corresponding time in a natural language?” Mbiti asks.

So is this conception of no future time, part of the reasons that Malawi has always failed to achieve its development goals by end of certain period in the future time and so the reason that it has failed to achieve all the MDGs?

Mbiti, is widely and heavily criticized but in reply to many of his critics, he claims that he states clearly that there is a future dimension of time, but that people do not project their day-to-day thinking into a distant mathematical future.  In other words, the Africans projection into the future is but limited.

Associate professor of English language, who is also the Dean of Humanities at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, Dr. Sydney Mnthatiwa, argues that Mbiti committed a fallacy of hasty generalization by applying to the rest of Africa what he found only in three East African languages. Dr. Mnthatiwa implores on Mbiti to study the hundreds of African languages before committing to his conclusion that the absence of a word implies absence of a concept.

Now, if Africans really have the concept of future time, is it something that can be defended with enough reasons?

The Reverend Father Dr. Boniface Tamani, also a lecturer at Chancellor College’s, in the Department of Philosophy, argues that he is not very much surprised with Mbiti’s claims as the development progress of the countries in the west and those in sub-Saharan Africa tells how the west value time and project into the future in their day-to-day experiences. Fr. Tamani argues that, “if you have ever visited the cities in western countries and compare to what you see in the morning in cities such as Blantyre, even the pace of movements of people in the two cities differ- there is always a fast pace in the western cities”.

But who is it to fully blame on Africans lack of sense of future time and how they manage it?

UNDP Resident Representative, Richard Dictus is reported said in one of his addresses that, “For those living in poverty, the MDGs have never been abstract or inspirational targets. They are a gateway to better life and that a successful summit should generate renewed political commitment and a global plan specifying clear roles for everyone in order to support countries including Malawi to achieve MDGs by the 2015 deadline.  Achieving the MDGs is possible. We have the experience, the technology, the money and the plan to address the challenges systematically. What we need is the will to put it into action” said Dictus.

So have the development partners and the western donor countries, in all the time, help Africans manage their future time with resources that they have?

He further said, UNDP is intensifying efforts to help Malawi achieve MDGs by supporting the country to pursue its MDGs priorities in line with the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS)

Dictus, understood in the sense of the disparity between the western and African conception of time, would mean that Africans and their western development partners should put their two conceptions of time together by way of the development partners committing to their pledges in time and the Africans having well projected budgets implementations that extends to a period in the future of beyond two years.

Since the Millennium Declaration was adopted in the year 2000, the world has spent a decade planning, piloting and evaluating MDGs.

One of the UNDP report said that Malawi and other Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have failed to meet most of the MDGs. The LCDs are a group of 48 nations, most in sub-Saharan Africa, which have been recognised by the UN as requiring transformative economic change.


While many critics dismiss Mbiti’s claims as a negative indictment on Africans for their lack of development, Dr. Pascal N. Mwale, also a Chancellor College lecturer in Philosophy department agrees with Mbiti and argues that, “the general lack of economic development on the African continent is partly caused by “laxity and the lack of time discipline”.

This laxity and lack of time discipline is evident in Malawi government efforts to achieving the eight MDGs.

On the Eradication extreme poverty and hunger, the first MDG, the Malawi Third Household Integrated Survey (IHS3) conducted in 2010 and 2011 reported that the incidence of poverty (measured through the headcount index) had declined only slightly to 50.7 percent from 52.4 percent in 2005. However Malawi is now ranking behind and is struggling to make unprecedented progress in reducing poverty levels.

The government, after it introduced the Farm Input Subsidy Programme(Fisp) to smaller holders in 2005-2006 farming season to improve their food security and foster agriculture growth and productivity, is failing to be creative enough and project into the distant future in coming up with different macro- economic programme that can similarly help in reducing poverty levels.

On the second MDG which is achieving universal primary education, from the initial introduction of the free primary education in the country in 1994, the government with support of the development partners has been implementing school feeding programmes aimed at improving attendance. These initiatives has helped in increasing net enrolment in primary schools, for example from 73 percent in 2006 to 85 percent in 2011. But the country is still far from achieving universal primary education. In might also appear that in the introduction of the free primary education in Malawi, the leaders then failed to project into the distant future to design the sustainability of the programme while not losing the quality of education that could be compromised overcrowding in schools and lack of adequate resources.

The government has also been implementing programmes aimed at achieving the third MDG of promoting gender equality and women empowerment by among other things establishing the MDGs Acceleration Framework. However, the government is far from achieving this goal as for example, in the 2015 tripartite elections, only 32 women made it to the parliament out of the 261 that contested representing 12 percent. In 2004 of 1268 registered candidates for parliamentary seats, 154 were women and only 14 percent of these succeeded. Furthermore, in terms of the 193 parliamentary seats, representation of women is now at 16.5 percent. This means that there is a drop by 5.5 percent from the previous 22 percent in 2009 but higher than the 14.5 percent in 2004, 8 percent in 1999 and 4 percent in 2004.

For councillors, only 52 women have made it out of the 419 women who contested. In consideration of the Mbiti claims of Africans not being able to project into the future, a Mbitian proponent would argue that the lack of the progressive trend in increasing the number of women in politics and the drop in women parliamentarians, means the lack of proper projection and planning of the future by the programmes such as the 50:50 campaign.

But significant progress is reported to have been made in the provision of child health services (MDG 4) such as malaria prevention, prevention of mother to child transmission and provision of infrastructure. In this regard, under-five mortality has been declining steadily from 234 deaths per 1000 live births in 2009 to 112 per 1000 live births in 2011. And it was projected that there will be 61 deaths per 1000 births by 2015, surpassing its target of 78 deaths per 1000 live births. There has also been unprecedented reduction in maternal deaths (MDG 5) from 675 per 100,000 live births in the recent few past years to 460 in 2014. However compared to other countries in the region, Malawi way behind to achieving desirable levels of good health and the preventions of avoidable deaths.

Malawi has continued to register significant progress in the national response to HIV as evidenced by results in the areas of prevention; treatment, care and support, impact mitigation and the legal regulatory environment for HIV and AIDS response.

From 2004 to 2010, the national prevalence rate is reported to have declined from 12 percent to 10.6 percent. Over the past years, a few number of key documents to support the fight against HIV and AIDS have been developed and reviewed. These include the Draft HIV and AIDS policy 2012-2016, the National HIV and AIDS Strategic Plan (2012-2016), the Male Circumcision Policy.

The Environment (MDG 7) is very crucial in development of any nation. But the current trend in deforestation and forest degradation is proving negative effects on the socio-economic and environmental conditions in the country. It is being estimated that between 1990 and 2005, the country has lost about 494,000 hectares of forests, the underlying cause being poverty, increasing population growth and inadequate alternative livelihoods and affordable technologies.

Efforts to protect the further depletion of the environment is  supported by such documents as the Malawi State of Environment and Outlook Report; the Environment Sustainability  Criteria and Framework, the National Energy Demand Assessment and draft Energy Supply options. These documents have helped shape environment policy and Fisheries Policy.

While all these efforts and documents are appreciated as the first step to achieving Malawi development goals but one question that we should always ask is probably that: do they project well into the future time and take into considerations of the many setbacks met on the way in implementing the goals? Or we should be tempted to think that Mbiti was right for Malawi that, it has no concept of the future  as going by one of its old sayings that ‘Mawa silidziwika’ to mean we are our development efforts only focuses on the present time and not the future?

A good 15 years have gone from the UN declaration of the MDGs and for Malawi, the fact that the deadline for the MDGs is here, feels like a man being awakened from a deep slumber only to be told it’s another day and it is surprised that what appeared as the inexistent future is here and gone.

  • This article was born out of a seminar held most recently by the Chancellor College Philosophy Department in the Faculty of Humanities at the college at which Dr. Pascal N. Mwale and Dr. Grivas M. Kayange, presented papers, one of them titled, “Temporal Logical and Phenomenological Reflections on Mbiti’s Concept of Future Time”.


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masa masina

Malawians do not like challenges that require thinking. We like other people/nations to think for us. No wonder we can not balance our national budget without katapira from IMF/world bank.

mphasayaweni lobi
the rampant corruption in our public and private sector is all to blame. adding on top of that the high illiterate population with high poverty levels have all together contributed to all this mess. the literate ones take advantage over the illiterate and enrich themselves,depriving others of the scarce resources we have in this country. a good example is the cashgate…..imagine the civil service were staging demostrations against low salaries yet other people, the same officers who were saying the govt has no money,were busy stealing the same money the civil servants were looking for. do we expect the country… Read more »
mphasayaweni lobi

very well written article, true there are alot to be done in our country.

Che Chiwela

Indeed this is a good one..However issues of corruption, Cashgate and lack of serious legislators in our August house needs to be taken seriously coz if we are to read thru our MGDs later alone the Vision 2020..there is no reason for failure to achieve these goals and what measures did we put in place to ensure that the same is achieved…the problem is that we want to make name within our Political time not to implement and develop the Nation with longterm policies .Where is the National Policy????

Che Chiwela

Indeed this is a good one..However issues of corruption, Cashgate and lack of serious legislators in our august house coz if we are to analysis our MGDs later alone the Vision 2020..there is no reason for failure to achieve these goals and what measures did we put in place to ensure that the same is achieved…the problem is that we want to make name within our political time not to implement and develop the Nation with longterm policies .Where is the National Policy????


The article is really good and provocative, but look how many people have commented?! then open useless articles about sex….you are going to see over hundred comments. How can we develop if we cannot challenge our brains and concepts? This article says it all. We will remain poorer…period!


may be the democracy we are practising is not best suited for us. Kamuzu was able to implement some govt business may be because there were no five_year terms. For those in power now, they only see cloudy future after leaving public ofices, thats why the policy implementation isnt good and resources meant for nation building end up in their pockets


Good analysis. There is more envy in Malawi. Even the national anthem states that envy is our enemy.


Nkhani yatalika iyi! Try to shorten stories.

Rodriguas Latata

No continuation of plans by our politicians. Every party that wins elections discard everything started by the outgoing to start afresh thereby lendering all the time and efforts by the outgoing useless. All Malawi needs is a National Policy that should be adhered to by all regardless of who is in power. I rest my case.

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