Open letter to President Joyce Banda: Of Hunger and hand-outs versus saving the babies or looking upstream

Dear Your Excellency Madam President,

I have been following the debate on your gallant efforts to avert suffering (from hunger) amongst some of our people by among others, personally seeing to it that the maize you have secured reaches those in need.

I commend you for your compassion for those in need.

This letter revolves on your response to the criticism from various members of society on your philanthropic activities. According to the Daily Times of Friday, November 16, 2012 your unequivocal response is that:

“Nobody will stop me from giving people food hand-outs because as presidentthis is my responsibility.” A very powerful response if I may say so, and you are absolutely right your Excellency, nobody, no matter how much they wanted to and tried, can and should stop you.

Having said that, my concern Madam President is that this statement can and has been interpreted in many ways. Some can interpret it as an indication that Your Excellency is not fully aware of the complexity and enormity of your responsibilities.

President Banda having a chat with one of the beneficiaries of her food distribution

Others can argue that to spite the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), you have decided not to even give a shot at being the “transactional” leader PAC alleges you to be. And that on the contrary, you have opted to descend even lower on the leadership ladder to what can, at best, be termed “pedestrian” or “run-of-the-mill” leadership.

How have I received this statement?

Personally, until proven wrong, I hold and submit that you are a formidable woman and a great mother, and that as a Malawi leader you have great and untapped potential, hence my investing in writing this letter.

The story below, courtesy of Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. is nothing but amazing. Many people, from diverse backgrounds and in varied situations, have found it useful.

You too Madam President, could learn a thing or two from the story. To be more precise, it can help you meditate on your job and responsibilities so that at the end of the day, your leadership escalates to the “transformational” level that, according to PAC, Malawi is in dire need of.

It is a very relevant story Your Excellency, being a parable illustrating the dilemma of choice. It tells of how difficult it can be to pick among alternatives for the best way to “do good” and “make a difference.”

What is the right choice? Or even what is a good choice? And if there’s a group of us, should we all have to make the same choice(s) and action(s)? If we are leaders, how best do we lead our people towards their aspirations?

All these questions can be answered via this parable and without further ado, Madam President, here is the story:

One day a group of villagers was working in the fields by a river. Suddenly, someone noticed a baby floating downstream. A woman rushed out and rescued the baby, brought it to shore and cared for it.

During the next several days, more babies were found floating downstream, and the villagers rescued them as well. But before long there was a steady stream of babies floating downstream.

Soon the whole village was involved in the many tasks of rescue work: pulling these poor children out of the stream, ensuring they were properly fed, clothed, and housed, and integrating them into the life of the village.

While not all the babies, now very numerous, could be saved, the villagers felt they were doing well to save as many as they did. Before long, however, the village became exhausted with all this rescue work.

Some villagers, with enquiring minds, suggested they go upstream to discover how all these babies were getting into the river in the first place. Unanswered questions like:

  • Had a mysterious illness stricken these poor children?
  • Or, had the shoreline been made unsafe by an earthquake?
  • Or, was it that some hateful person was throwing them in deliberately?
  • Or, was an even more exhausted village upstream abandoning them out of hopelessness?

were giving them sleepless nights.

Needless to say, a huge controversy erupted in the village. One group argued that every possible hand was needed to save the babies since they were barely keeping up with the current flow.

The other group argued that if they found out how those babies were getting into the water further upstream, they could repair the situation up there that would save all the babies and eliminate the need for those costly rescue operations downstream.

“Don’t you see,” cried some, “if we find out how they’re getting in the river, we can stop the problem and no babies will drown? By going upstream we can eliminate the cause of the problem!”

“But it’s too risky,” said the village elders. “It might fail. It’s not for us to change the system. And besides, how would we occupy ourselves if we no longer had this to do?”

This parable in the context of Malawi:

This parable is told in different ways for different audiences with different emphases. For you Your Excellency, it illustrates the ultimate dilemma of choices you have to grapple with as the President of the Republic of Malawi.

For instance questions like: where should you direct your efforts? To rescuing victims or to making sure babies don’t fall into the water? The answer is probably both, because as you rightly argue, you do have a responsibility to take care of the victims and no-one can stop you except by voting you out of office.

But again, it is equally true that you owe it to yourself and everybody else to cut down or even eliminate the tragedy caused “by something upstream” that’s causing these babies to fall into the water.

Just as the villagers in the story did, we Malawians have diverging views to what approach you should adopt. I have heard from at least three schools of thought as below:

  1. Some, perhaps because they are reminded of how they were fished out of the river, want to be sure there are rescue options for other victims. If they had their way, they would have you, day in day out, distributing maize or this and that.
  2. Others, perhaps because they are angry that after 50 years of independence, despite subsidized farm inputs and despite the existence of a lake and water, our people are still exposed to hunger for lack of farm inputs or when rains fail; want you to fix the system so our brothers and sisters and children won’t become the next victims.
  3. Another lot Madam, because they are benefitting from the status quo or for accompanying you on these “search and rescue” operations, want to hear nothing of you going upstream to stop whatever is throwing the babies in the river.

Clearly, for various reasons, not all Malawians are sailing in the same boat. The first, while patriotically motivated to take care of fellow Malawians, will fall short of addressing the underlying causes of the problem.

The second, while intent on fixing the system to produce an enabling environment, advocate that you should not spend as much time and resources on mundane tasks.

The third lot, are guided by pure greed and unlike the previous two, will not take Malawi anywhere.

Is there any way out?

Yes there is Madam, and you can rejoice. Luckily Your Excellency, your predecessors created enabling instruments and institutions formulated, mandated, trained and equipped to deal with the first: i.e. taking care of the victims.

The Disaster Preparedness and Relief Act of 1991 established a framework for emergency or disaster management in Malawi.


The Office of the Commissioner of Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation through theDepartment of Poverty and Disaster Management Affairs(DoPDMA)   with the support of the World Food Programme(WFP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the WHO, the World Bank, UN-Habitat, World Vision, Action Aid, and the many organizations that make up the Council for Nongovernmental Organizations in Malawi (CONGOMA) can ably take care of the victims.

These institutions, for all their good intentions, cannot however substitute the gaping hole your Excellency creates when you depart on the bigger scene to get mired in the mundane tasks that they exist for. Leadership of Malawi, Madam, unlike feeding the hungry, is something that only you can provide.

But since your pre-occupation with the first (rescue operations) is enabling a certain minority to benefit, they will not open your eyes. And this is the main reason I have made this letter public. The fact is: Malawi needs leadership and political will to create change in the way our systems work, or rather fail to work.

Only your “upstream” attention Madam can help Malawi find ways to make a difference in tackling corruption, over dependence on aid and imports, and fighting the chronic poverty,  so that our systems are geared to support production which can make Malawi turn the corner from a net importer to a net exporter and indeed from a beggar to a donor.

Madam if you continue distributing a bag of maize here, and a sack of beans there at the end of your tenure are you really going to sit and happily say that you made a difference? Or do you now want to move upstream, see what’s happening, and facilitate the creation and implementation of solutions that will make Malawi self-sufficient?

This Madam is you call. All I can say is that if you go upstream Madam, you will be amazed at what you will find.

In the parable above, may be it was a mysterious illness that had stricken the poor children; you could then lead Malawi to search for a vaccine, and make sure that all children are vaccinated. Alternatively, you could search for a cure, and make sure that in future all children get proper treatment.

Maybe the shoreline had been made unsafe by an earthquake. Your government could restore the shoreline, or put up fencing, or simply teach children how to swim.

Maybe there was some hateful person throwing them in the river deliberately. You, Madam, could preach against hate, or keep that person away from children, or teach the kids the art of self-protection.

To put all this succinctly Madam, upstream is where your leadership is needed most. Not to waste further of your time what your critics are saying is that Malawi is crying for a leader who will look at the bigger picture and focus on the things that everyone else cannot do.

While we can only have one president at a time, every Jim and Jack, under the constitution can distribute maize. Please rethink your responsibilities.

I remain,

Wise One from the East

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