Thinking outside the box: Open letter to donors on weaning Malawi off aid

We all know that there are very good historical reasons why Malawi was a donor dependent nation at independence: colonial neglect; undiscovered natural resources; limited education offered to Africans during the colonial era and so on (Rotberg, 1965, Pachai, 1973; Mhone, 1992 and others). Faced with this scenario, ‘mixed economic socialists’ like Dunduzu Chisiza debated ‘capitalists’ lie Dr Kamuzu Banda – and we know won.

It must be said that Kamuzu Banda, given the ‘cards dealt him’, did his best to develop the natural, infrastructural and human components of Malawi. While he excelled at the first two, his authoritarianism, with, it must be shouted the collusion of some of our present donors then privileging the Cold War and not human rights, lost him many able brains (directly or indirectly, including Bingu wa Mutharika!) to the Diaspora. Some of this human capital could have made a difference to the development of Malawi; in those days ‘donors’ were happy to take engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses and ohers away from Malawi to service their own economies.

Apart from Kamuzu being both a prisoner and beneficiary of the Cold War donor politics (‘you support us at the UN and we’ll support your budget’), a factor which restricted how much aid he could have got, Dr Banda sought to reduce, psychologically in rhetoric as well as in practice, the gap between what we required to spend and what we raised internally.

Representatives of Malawi’s donors at the launch of economic recovery plan in Lilongwe

If the ’colonial state’, Cold War, poor balance of trade, and the perceived lack of resources worsened our chances at independence, then the post-Banda lack of planning and implementation (look at Cabora Bassa – 2014 will come while we still have blackouts and we still talk and we still get IMF and ESCOM promises!), corruption, conditionalities and poor balance of trade has worsened our chances even more, making us even more dependent.

The coming of multiparty, liberating as it was, upset the momentum Dr Banda had set up because, as some have observed (Lwanda, 2006; Cammack, Kelsall and Booth, 2010) the new patrimonials (achikulire) wanted rent from the state and to get this they ‘loosened’ things, plundering state coffers, parastatals and natural resources, while appealing for donors to help (Chabal and Daloz, 1999; Bayart, 2000; Clapham, 1996). Donors became even more essential: donors wanted ‘human rights’, stability to reduce regional conflicts’ and anything that could worsen emigration to donor countries, the MW government wanted funding. The coming to the fore of NGO implemented programmes and activities also accelerated the national donor dependency as NGOs were also donor dependent (Lwanda and Chanika, 2012).

While the ruling elite are prone to indulge in rent-seeking behaviour off the state, between NGOs and donors there was a conspiracy [not in the simplistic sense] of perpetuating dependency: donors wanted projects, donor consultants wanted jobs, and locals wanted jobs and funding. (Cf. Khunga, Daily Times, 15/11/11). If you do not believe in this conspiracy just imagine that between 1992 and 2012, apart from NICE, no Malawi NGO built any buildings or invested in any sustainable income generating activities to ensure its own financial independence – and these organisations were advised by donor consultants (people who advise us) and led and run by NGO leaders (people who tell government where it is going wrong).

As long as this dance was harmonious things were okay. But when the recession in donor countries, the China factor (is China a donor or lender? etc.) (Cf. Reisen and Ndoye, 2008), worsening human rights and governance issues in Malawi and other factors affected donors, things changed – we were back to the conditionalities of the 1980s and 1990s.

Dear donors, decades after the end of the Cold War, is it not, with the Greek and Spanish examples current, not a good time to revise your views on aiding Malawi?  Malawi, like Greece, Spain, Afghanistan and other countries we could mention, needs help. But why do you, dear donors, give Greece ‘leg strengthening’ help, when you give Malawi, ‘leg weakening’ help? We are aware that the reasons, histories differ and are debatable and donor driven, but look at the money that has been given to Greece , Iraq, Iran , Afghanistan … And we know that we are not in that league but even then the scale differences are awesome.

But imagine what we could do with a fraction of is spent in Afghanistan (population approx 30 million) in a week! And Malawi (population approx 15 million), rightly we acknowledge, gets lecturers about accountability for only £10,000,000 annual aid. Are these the same donors who once required help after the Second World War?

Debates are now raging on the relationship between donors, democracy and African political economy (Peiffer and Englebert, 2012), but most of these emphasize ongoing donor-recipient relationships. Both donor consultants and their Malawi colleagues are still following the same paradigms that we have recycled over the last forty years. And who can blame them and the government, they all have vested interests in keeping the current drip feed system going! Is it not time for a new initiative?

And for a workable example we do not have to look far from Europe. What happened after the Second World War? Europe was devastated economically after the war with Germany. The relatively stronger Americans came in with a Marshall Plan. Within 5 years, the countries of Europe were on their feet again! The currently strong German economy is a direct descendant of the Marshall plan itself.

During the transition from colonialism we were considered – for various reasons, including capacity, Eurocentrism et cetera. unfit for Marshall plan scenarios. And to be extreme, some colonial powers envisaged post-independence state failures a la Somalia and recolonisation by other means, usually involving resources.

So then, why do you donors in this ‘recession age’ not prioritise the way you spend your aid money. Is it not time to call for a triple pronged plan to wean Malawi off its donor dependency?: a Marshall Plan type scenario funding once for all capital development plans; an improvement in trade terms and a governance-tied aid reducing plan over six years. The arguments against a Marshall Plan for Africa (Cf. Foreign Policy, 2009) are being disproved by time, the mobile phone and ICT revolution is a case in point.

Taking them in turn: how can it be ethical and right to pour billions into Afghanistan knowing, as every student of history knows, that the hoped for outcome is much less credible than a stable self-sustaining Malawi? What the USA, UK and other European allies spend in a week in Afghanistan would generate enough savings to fund a capital fund possibly equivalent to what the Americans poured into Europe in the Marshall Plan. (See and other sites including the CIA one).

The same argument goes for the Chinese military build up; they too are able to contribute to a capital fund. The fact that donors are withdrawing from Afghanistan soon, makes the case for a Marshall Plan argument for Malawi stronger.  I would plead for you donors – in conjunction with your Malawi counterparts to consider a Marshall Plan scenario – it does work – look at what it has done for Rwanda. After all, as the most common site defines it, the

The goals of the United States were to rebuild a war-devastated region, remove trade barriers, modernize industry, and make Europe prosperous again (Wikipedia).


Why do donors, including China, not want to improve the balance of trade terms for the likes of Malawi? If there is a single factor that would stabilise world security, would it not be fair and free trade?


there is the weaning off. The Marshall Plan took 4 years from 1947. In the case of Malawi, it would involve a round table planning group of donors, government and stakeholders to last six months to set priorities like energy (electricity, fuel wood, tree planting, agriculture, mining conservation, education, etc), followed by a drafting and then implementation stage. Implementation stage would run from mid-government term (for obvious political reasons – the next government could not promise the earth!). In four years Malawi would be expected to be self-sustaining as it would have enough electric power for example to attract factories, tourists etc. Each subsequent government would have to concentrate on accountability and reducing the leakage of state resources, in the full knowledge that no palliative donor funding would cover up the ‘rent-seeked’ cracks.

This kind of scenario would free Malawi from donor dependency; free Malawi from patrimonials dependent on donor funding; empower the poor by removing the effects of conditionalities and energise the Malawi entrepreneur class as they would be freed from their dependence on state patronage as at present. It would still leave local NGOs and their Malawi colleagues to run palliative and small scale development projects.

My dear donors (USA, China, Europe, Australasia, South Africa and others) this is the time to make and take bold decisions on Malawi and not abandon us. As someone recently said: ‘Let s dream in colour!’

* John Lwanda, writer, social and political historian.  

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