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Corruption’s Coat of Many Colors and Malawi’s Pathways to Opt Out

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Corruption in Malawi is, like everywhere else, emblematic of the reallocation of public resources intended for addressing income inequality, access to improved services in education, health, infrastructure, agriculture and other evils burdening our country towards rent-seekers situated at various vantage points in the public financial management system. The pilferage in the coffers of the government, whose sums continue to be subject of an inconsequential contest between those who think know the right figures, has always been an urgent bottleneck in the redistributive effectiveness of the development machinery. The perspective drawn by managers of these resources, a.k.a. elected politicians, that they were unaware or had nothing to do with the percolation of resources to unintended use clearly becomes a bogus viewpoint for our intelligence to embrace.

At the current 2.8% rate of population growth, Malawi receives 1,255 brand new citizens every day of the year. This means another 6.5 million Malawians will have been added to the nation in the next 15 years! It appears the one thing the country does best is maintaining our fertility at unbeatable levels. But, while we ought to live the full meaning of “the more, the merrier,” being alive in Malawi in the year 2030 looks more petrifying than pleasant.

Having taken a plunge to 1.89% at the core of the global economic crisis, the nominal GDP growth rate has been recovering steadily, and was poised to be just under 6% by the end of 2014 – according to the World Development Indicators. Three considerations remain worrying in light of this positive growth: (a) growth in the face of increasing numbers of the starved is inevitably going to divert resources from productive activities to feeding those hardest hit, and for as long as no long term solutions are found, there will be a problem reconciling growth with public expenditures; and (b) growth in real terms is likely to be on a downward path, as the growing inflation trend, which has grown to levels above 20% since 2011 (21.25% in 2015) stands resolute to erode the benefits from positive GDP growth; and (c) poverty in other dimensions, such as access to quality education, healthcare and adequate living conditions, is both proven and anecdotally on the rise. These basic principles are important to keep in mind.

The sharing of the perceived growing pie requires efficient redistribution measures, although the country’s authorities play double duty with the continued urgent attention to the disturbances that corruption causes on the public purse and the state of the economy, with direct consequences on delivery of development. With continuing corrupt practice, these losses in progress will lead to an economic and social blackout. As it turned out, it was, regrettably, Malawians themselves – a handful of them – that manipulated governance systems to divert public resources towards private interests at so many and unfathomable levels. The gap between rich and poor Malawians continues to expand, on average, and the poverty gap has already grown by 1.1% between 2003 and 2015, if one zooms in on the action at the poverty line. Alongside this inequality growth is the growing levels of a negative moral fabric, which is the justification mechanism for misconduct and failure of its amendment. Unfortunately, the externality effects of the redistributive impacts on poverty reduction – having gone the other way – will require a long and excruciating future of painful discipline and redress.

Some argue that redistribution is costly for the economy, bearing in mind the market can address the problem. We think we need to rethink this assertion. Without the necessary level of sacrifice and individual responsibility of all Malawians, backed by effective public policy, we can be certain of no progress. But it starts with those in leadership as the role models, the benchmark on which everyone else humbles themselves to this fact. They have to reverse the (mainly misplaced) mentality that political leadership equates wealth. In the absence of market-based wealth-generating solutions for many of our political masters, the public resources poor Malawi entrust them with actualize into the business enterprise(s) they never had. This public purse package comes with decorations of on-the-job management and assurances of failsafe profitability.

Beyond the blatant theft from public accounts along its hierarchy, with corruption’s foot soldiers also getting their cut, is the institutionalization of corruption. This comprises the perks that are undeserved for public officers, most of whom the taxpayers have sponsored. For example, the rewarding of senior officials with resilient vehicles that will hardly plough rough terrain during their dutiful mileage is an excuse for the respect for those holding high office. Whichever way one looks at it, it is a cover up for the transfer of resources from the poor to the rich who, by receiving these perks without a cringe, show incapacitation to the awareness of the impact of these receipts on the deplorable state of the poor.

The guarantee of a ‘cheap’ inheritance of public assets has created the moral hazard problem of minimal and/or super-watchful use of public vehicles until their depreciation is perceived to have run its life course. At four years old, it is allowable for government to declare vehicles unfit to extort any more value from them. These vehicles experience real-world use from the time of change of title. The same can be said on other assets of government such as government-built residential houses. The gap between the haves in government and the have-nots clearly widens as fast as the envy of those at the bottom aspiring for growth.

Although perks for the civil and public services ought to somewhat be an incentive to aspire for in one's career development, only a few ever get to make it to very high ranks. For the majority, the resultant effect of this reality emboldens the pursuance of life’s fortunes through ways unconventional and otherwise. Corruption, then, trades places with the call to national duty and becomes a living institution in the structure of all three arms of government, and corruption’s generosity becomes accessible to every Jim and Jack (and their female versions) occupying all ranks of the civil and public services in its path. The small numbers of these beneficiaries, relative to the population, reinforces the solid imbalance in the redistributive mechanism of the economy.

There will be at least 23 million of us in 2030. And problems do not exhibit any signs of slowing down any time soon. If we are to prevent any socio-economic stalemate in the coming years, something has to be done now. The six strategies to fight corruption summarized by Augusto Lopez-Claros in 2014 apply to the Malawi context and satisfy the need for enforcing equity in public institutions and fairness for the poor who deserve sound public investments to develop. However, a bigger shift in mentality is required in how far Malawians are willing to remunerate public officers and politicians when nothing seems to change. While doing this, a complete halt or reversal of compensations is needed to correspond with how much our politicians/public officers work the extra mile, while they also do away with the preoccupation of fingerpointing for our failures, and instead lead Malawi to self-sufficiency and a real state of development.

Imaginably, we also need to rethink our actions against hunger that have opened up channels for diversion of public resources to the rich and taking more radical approaches. For example, we may opt out of options that perceive ‘the vulnerable’ or ‘the smallholders’ as our best investment choices for sustained national food security. Our own structural transformation plan, led and owned by ourselves, would help to relieve our agricultural sector of unproductive farmers who can be put to better use. Our policies and plans can be tailored in this direction. But this is another mammoth issue for a full-fledged discussion at a later date.

It comes down to leadership and our power to hold them accountable. If we have no alternative to selecting more representative leaders in this change process, at least we can make the current ones know that impartial and effective redress of corruption is not an option for Malawi.


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