Will Malawi ever develop?

I have just returned from a visit to Malawi after a decade long absence. Malawi has changed a lot over the past 10 years. Unfortunately, most of the change is in the negative direction.

Buildings that used to be the pride of the cities are now spotting rain-stained walls and dirty roofs. Once nicely kept lawns are now bushy. Yes, new buildings have been erected; but most of those look as if they were designed for the 1960’s.

The only television station, the pride of the country, has not improved much over the last 10 years. The studios are dark and cameras used substandard. Just like 10 years ago the state president is a constant, perhaps, permanent fixture on TV. While I was in Malawi the president made a few trips in the country. The TV heavily covered these presidential trips. When I asked whether this was normal for her, I was told that she actually had scaled down her public engagements because of the holidays. Apparently she is usually up and about opening restaurants, rest houses and distributing maize. All these events are covered in their entirety on TV.

The Malawi economy seems to be on a deathwatch. In theory, the currency has been ‘floated’. In reality though the currency is not floating but “sinking” deeper and deeper everyday. Floatation would imply moving up and down. Our currency is just on a downward trajectory. Hardships abound. A good cookie/biscuit costs not less than K1,000.00.

Countrywide demonstrations were held in July 2011 that left 20
Malawians dead over the same socio- political and economic challenges. Similar protests are scheduled for January 17

On my way back at Kamuzu International Airport departures section, I looked up and saw cobwebs on the walls. One door marked, “strictly for employees only”, was decayed and literally falling apart.

We may not have money to build new infrastructure, but do we really lack money to have cleaners at the airport? How about maintaining the building by painting the walls and keeping the lawns nice?

I had a layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As I was boarding a plane to the US, I met an old friend. He too had been visiting his home country Ethiopia. We were in graduate school at the same university at the same time. He was at the time studying for a PhD in Biomedicine and, as I recall, was very passionate about African politics.

During our conversation on the plane, he talked about exciting developments he had seen in his country on this trip. When he left Ethiopia in 2000, there were only two government universities in that country. On this trip he found that the number had grown to 31. New world-class buildings are cropping up everywhere in Addis Ababa. Major multinational organizations are partnering with the city to conduct their annual meetings there. The Ethiopian economy is doing very well and future prospects seem good. True Ethiopia had its own shares of dictatorship woes in the past, but things are different now.

As I listened to him I felt sad that I could not say the same about my own country. It sounded like a tale of two countries –Malawi and Ethiopia- with similar backgrounds and challenges but yet on two different paths. The question that kept coming up in my mind was, “Will Malawi ever develop?”

It is very important for people to understand that countries do not always succeed. Some end up as failures. No nation is guaranteed success. I have talked to many Malawians who believe our country will develop because it is our turn to do so. This is erroneous reasoning.

Nations, which eventually become prosperous, have had to work hard for the success. If our citizens are not careful enough, it is possible that Malawi could remain poor for a long, long time. It is possible that 100 years from now Malawi could still be at the bottom of the table.

The greatest problem with Malawi is a wrong mindset. I recall a conversation I had with a relative in 1994. The UDF had just taken over government. The economy immediately went into a tailspin.

This relative, a diehard UDF supporter, had come over for a visit and was complaining bitterly about the economy. When I asked him whether he felt responsible for the hardships since he had helped put Bakili Muluzi in office, he looked surprised and said, “What has Muluzi got to do with the economy? You think he is God? If God wants Malawi to pass though economic hardships, nobody can do anything about it!”

My relative had not yet made a connection between the economic performance of a country and the country’s leadership. No, it was not just because he was an uneducated villager. Most Malawians including the educated elite, to this day, have not yet made this connection in their minds. We choose our leaders based on everything else except their ability to solve problems at hand. And then we sit back and say, “perhaps we should give him/her more time”. It is as if we expect our problems to be solved, not through carefully designed strategies, but by mere luck or trial and error.

We have multiparty politics but we really do not understand what it really means. As I write this article, there is a stand off in the United States on negotiations to prevent the so-called “fiscal cliff”. The real problem comes from the fact that the two parties –Republicans and Democrats- have two different ideologies on how to run the country.

Democrats believe that government has potential to do a lot of good to the society. If you get more revenue in form of taxes, government can use this money to better people’s lives. Republicans believe that individuals can use their own money better than government. So the less taxes you collect from people, the more the people will have extra money to invest and grow the economy.

These two different ideologies mean that the two parties approach problems differently. So if one party wins an election but then fails to solve problems at hand, it makes sense to give the other party a chance because they will be trying a different approach.

Compare this to Malawi where the political parties have no ideologies at all. Some of them do not even have manifestos or constitutions. There is no difference between them. That is why people can easily defect from one party to another and then back. That is why people like Goodall Gondwe can be Bakili Muluzi’s adviser (UDF party) and become Bingu wa Mutharika’s minister of economic affairs (DPP party) and then secure a similar portfolio in Joyce Banda’s government (PP party). There is simply no difference between these parties. Changing parties in Malawi usually means changing personalities not ideologies. This in effect nullifies the real purpose of a multiparty system.

Malawi desperately needs a solid plan for development. Yet, nobody seems to have a clue on how to move this country forward. We continue to be a nation heavily dependent on aid. Our budget is heavily subsidized by donors. None of the current crop of leaders have suggested how to get out of this humiliating cycle. Ministers of finance give yearly budget speeches in parliament but they are yet to set forth a time-frame for weaning the country off the aid. Instead, politicians take a lot of pride in receiving aid, pointing to it as a sign of endorsement by the Europeans.

Are we really looking to the future with a purpose? Will Malawi ever develop? Unless there is a radical transformation of our mindset, Malawi could remain the tail of the world forever.

Ad Astra!

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