Self-help key to Malawi kicking aid dependence, western economic hegemony
The point has been made before and will continue to be made but no harm in repetition for emphasis. In ‘Post JB era: Malawi must reject neocolonialism going forward’ published by Nyasa Times on May 30, the day results of the May 20 elections were announced, this author made the point about Malawi reducing economic dependence.
Malawi, a former British possession, is not alone in gripping about rich western nations using the power of the purse to impose their will. In the run up to the May elections, the actions of the country’s chief bilateral aid giver, Britain, could be viewed as giving President Joyce Banda protection for the potential fallout from the corruption scandal in which over $30 million was stolen from government coffers. Critics say it was Banda’s supporters who funneled the money into her party’s election war chest.
The UK, which paid for a forensic audit of government financial records, prevented the exposure of suspects’ names arguing that would compromise court cases. The investigation was supposed to be independent but the interference must have emboldened the Banda administration to delay bringing offenders to justice.
Just a footnote, it is worth mentioning that Malawi-UK diplomatic relations were restored after Banda assumed power following her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika’s expulsion of a British envoy for criticizing his leadership style. Bingu died in office in 2012, two years before the end of his term.
Regarding the graft scandal known as Cashgate, Bingu’s younger brother Peter, who thoroughly beat Banda in the elections, has promised not to leave any stone unturned in the prosecution of the case in line with his government’s ambitious development agenda that could transform the southern African nation of about 16 million people. Most earn less than a dollar a day and struggle to make ends meet.
The economy of landlocked Malawi is driven by agriculture which contributes 35 percent to its gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 85 percent of the workforce. Donors help make up the 40 percent shortfall in the country’s budget, giving them power to dictate terms.
It would be foolish for Malawi to expect to receive, in perpetuity, financial assistance from western donors who are showing signs of fatigue. Failure to make sound investment choices and paying lip service to fighting corruption — fraud, embezzlement, bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, gifts and kickbacks — has been the ongoing challenge for developing countries.
What must be pointed as well is that developing nations do not have a corner on corruption which also happens in developed countries but what matters are attempts made at accountability. Effective checks and controls make a difference thus Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau, a toothless paper tiger, needs complete government support to preserve its independence and allow it to fight aggressively against the vice.
To attract investment, individuals and businesses, big or small, must feel that their money would be safe and return a profit in future. As pointed out, corruption happens everywhere but it is the action that is taken to prevent it from happening and what happens after it happens that gives would-be investors confidence.
Take your pick from the many forms it presents itself, corruption affects ordinary people. Cashgate prompted donors to freeze aid which impacted delivery of health services at government-run institutions which are the main providers of health care in the country. A sick nation cannot develop and another question the government must answer is why its hospitals, unlike those owned by religious and private organizations, chronically face drug and staff shortages posing a significant public health threat.
Education is another critical area that must be fine-tuned to get the country out of poverty and end dependence. The country should be ashamed of continually letting down its young people who cannot find work after graduating from school because there are too few jobs to go round.
And while there has been an expansion to educational opportunities, are the country’s academic institutions producing the kind of knowledge needed in the 21st century? Why has there been no concerted effort to help those who want to start their own businesses to promote entrepreneurship?
In public service, demotivated workers would rather go to the office, hang their jackets on the back of chairs and disappear most of the day attending to personal matters. And there is no doubt that people do not like paying a bribe to get a service or see powerful individuals commit crimes with impunity since police happen to be in one’s pocket.
If the new government keeps its promise of reforming the civil service, some of these undesirable practices will surely be dealt with. Government, which is the largest single employer, must work well for everything else to work well. Led by Vice President Saulosi Chilima, the Civil Service Reform Commission expects to come up with something in six months.
Done right, civil service reforms should make government efficient, improve service and and cut waste. In the long run, this will save taxpayers billions of kwacha which means the government will have money to solve some of the country’s problems and improve lives.
But what is also true is that those savings alone would not eliminate Malawi’s aid dependence. Cognizant of the fact that the exploration of minerals and oil is still in its infancy, Finance Minister Goodall Gongwe says the country must double its exports, which are mainly from agriculture, to increase revenue.
That proposition however does require international cooperation on at least three fronts: trade policy, prices of commodities and preventing individuals and organizations illegally taking money out of the country. At the local level, Malawi must marshal resources from areas of the economy yet to be exploited.
These are serious challenges and President Mutharika threw down the gauntlet on his inauguration, saying Malawi’s traditional donors were “welcome to stay here” but his government would be looking for “new friends in emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia”. Can these challengers to western economic hegemony help Malawi’s dream of economic independence become reality?
Malawi became independent in 1964 and turns 50 this year. To a defeatist a fool at 40 is a fool forever. But to an idealist like this author, nobody said this was going to be easy.
Given the task and its urgency, the new government must come on like gangbusters and quickly follow through on do-it-yourself promises thus setting up the stage for bigger things to happen with the help of others. The efforts should pay off and sooner rather than later Malawi would be on its way to gaining economic independence which would give the country power to determine its own destiny.
That is true independence in my book.
- The author is the former founding editor of Maravi Post now a regular columnist on Nyasa Times
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