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The Malawi Government and the Great Big World Tour

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

There are two broad drivers of international relations around the world: politics and money.

The politics define the power relations among countries, hoard the sizes and shapes of mutual support and set the rules of the game. But also, the politics govern where the money goes, what it does and who it ultimately benefits.

On the global scale, Malawi’s political clout is the size of a drop in an ocean, having no reckoning as an agenda setter, let alone a voice to listen to. When the country coughs, those keen enough can hear its fading echoes. Being known for poverty, backwardness, a willingness to endure in the dark and a people who display rare resilience in the thicket of anguish and anxiety, has become more routine than news. It is not weird to hear the silence the country offers the global development debate during major global events such as the United Nations General Assembly, whose 71st session began this week. Once in a while, a delegate from Malawi can be spotted as the UN WebTV camera swivels past them in its quest for the next plenary speaker. Our leaders are given the podium mainly as a matter of formality. A handful or no successive speakers will speak to that important point Malawi made earlier. Neither are key decisions made in the context of our struggle for progress. It is safe to acknowledge the prominence of our oblivion in international affairs.

If it is any consolation, only a handful of African countries have whack at international affairs.

Although politics are undoubtedly not our flavor of ice cream, we have the choice to flip the political space to our gain as we patter on foreign lands, raising money for development. If there was a single job our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFA) would have to excel at, it would have to be this one. Prime among our list of considerations is the state of the global economy.

The turmoil produced by the global economic crisis has seen development aid diminish to levels never quite seen before, to the dismay of developing countries. The threat of continued decline is gut-wrenching. Although for reputable aid-recipients like Malawi the pretext is the wrangles with its development partners in its backyard – a battle over fiduciary prudence concerning public resources – still, the general scheme of aid giving is slowly dying away. Even countries that plundered from the developing world, now with sufficient conscience to return some portion of the loot, are more aware they will not sustain the taps for much longer. Some have cultured new lingua that Africa needs to graduate from aid dependency sooner as a responsible thing to do. The world’s top five economies, among themselves sharing US$38.69 trillion (or 49.6% of global GDP), according to the 2014 World Development Indicators, have their shares of public debt in national income in a dash to equate to GDP scales. In Japan, central government debt was 200% of GDP in 2013 with no signs of weakening. Everyone is in trouble.

But whether it is out of pity or not (well, we are inclined to think it is), Malawi’s ODA seems to have hovered around the US$1 billion mark rather stably over the past five years. World Bank data says the country’s GDP in 2015 was US$6.6 billion, confirming the importance of development aid to the entire economy, at 15%, not just to the public purse. The stagnation should be our gauge for the innovative talents of our MoFA. The draft 2016/17 Financial Statements Report from Malawi’s Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development estimates that the country will spend MK11 billion (MK10,910,076,088), the MoFA budget, to raise what we can only expect to be another US$1 billion. In subsequent years, it is important that the graphs levitate more than remain complacent, let alone fall. While donors redirect aid to the great migration crisis, international security and fighting other evils, MoFA will have to fashion new alluring reasons to entice foreign grants, loans and investments to the country.

Weaning Off Clingy Bambinos

We have devoutly clung to the idea that upholding a cheery face to the world makes Malawians a global attraction. Refusing this baby to grow only takes us as far as looking nice. Adorable. And so, we maintain 19 foreign offices, some near and some far, many of which are satisfied to keep the seat of bilateral relations warm, and not much more. Although it is pleasant to break bread together with our global friends, the relationships we nurture with many of them lack of strategic value to Malawi. And nice is quickly proving it is not what drives the world. And, with limited foreign exchange reserves, it is costly too.

But before we share the How To guide for a functional foreign affairs apparatus, we start with the basic economic notion of marginal productivity, in which those that make effort get rewarded. If our foreign affairs will be chiseled by the drive for resource mobilization, then every human, desk, pad and drop of ink has to be worth the cost. More importantly, every dollar we spend on diplomatic mission staff should reap high returns to the taxes, and the foreign and domestic debt used to invest in them. UNICEF, a UN entity with a funding envelope about the size of Malawi’s economy, invests US$0.25 for every dollar the children’s organization raises. The apparent lesson here is that, to make big money, you have to spend big money.

When MoFA is able to get the math of foreign relations right, it might just discover that Dr. Chaponda's (Mr. Francis Kasaila's predecessor) recent decision to cut back on the number of staff in diplomatic service under the guise of austerity may not have been most astute. A central accounting moral there is that reducing recurrent expenditures without changing the size of your overheads actually makes your outfit more expensive. We argue that we need more, yet diversified, expertise requisite for strengthening the resource mobilization prowess of our government abroad.

The MoFA does not have a global workforce of thousands doing noticeable work that attracts spenders to save something for its country’s poor, nor is it currently backed by a parent government system that is operationally sound. But it certainly has enough diversity in the country’s workforce that, with the right configuration of talents in its foreign missions, can create a persuasive lobby to foreign governments, agencies, foundations and private funders to start listening. All the Malawi Government needs to do is demonstrate it still has what it takes to convert the inflows into development and enthused markets that work for all. The second most important Ministry at Capital Hill will have to be one of the fiercest fundraisers for the national budget, research and development, civil society and private sector the country will ever have.

Soaring graph lines will require weaning off another baby that we refuse to let grow. Our value proposition is to close some foreign offices, alter the modus operandi of all of them, and breathe life into a new strategic foreign relations order. This will ensure that each office is able to navigate the dynamic world and identify entry points to seal the deals. MoFA should remix staffing skills in new codes that allow our offices to be well informed and have enough gut to rid the timidity characterizing our outlook on grabbing the resources within reach.

We suggest fourteen reconfigured offices (see red stars in picture above) – down by five from the current nineteen – which will be indispensable for us to reap an acceptable rate of return. The two offices in New York and Washington DC will remain to take care of the proximity of the multitude of bi- and multi-lateral partners as crucial political capital in our flirting with financiers. The DC office will continue massaging relations in North America. Trekking southwards, we only need one office in the Latin American Region – strengthening the Brazil office, to be precise – to handle relations with Latin America and the Caribbean but also to cultivate the emerging economies eager to assert themselves in Africa.

In Europe, a new office in the Nordic Region would be most handy, as the Nordics have demonstrated the world over their progressive and serious models on how to put taxes to work for those most likely to be left behind. They are favorable to equity and equality, fiduciary prudence and are ardent to support environmental work, which we are in dire need of in our vanishing agricultural sector. They are privy to grant-making too. We can pick any Scandinavian country as a location, it will not matter. Other European offices that should remain open, albeit with new marching orders are those in Brussels, Rome, Geneva and in London. We do not need the rest of the offices, and can boldly assure that our love for Europe remains. These four offices will not only keep the bilateral ties in Europe, but will keep us engaged with multilateral processes in the Commonwealth, European Union, regional development banks and the United Nations outfits in Switzerland, Italy and Austria.

In Asia and Africa, Malawi would create five more strategic spots. A single office in Asia is adequate to handle all Asia-Pacific relations from Bangkok, where Asian and Pacific states are already in full supply as they lie in proximity with the UN-ESCAP. Based on the volume of business with Asian countries, it would help if the size of this office were commensurate with the traffic of the business. In Africa, offices in Abidjan (African Development Bank and West and Central African relations); Nairobi (United Nations and East African relations); Ethiopia (African Union, the great rift valley and the Horn of Africa); and Johannesburg/Pretoria (SADC and Southern Africa relations). A new Middle Eastern and North Africa office, in Kuwait City or Abu Dhabi, can ably manage relations with countries in the Region but also advance the development interests of, particularly the rich Gulf Region, in Malawi.

Clearly, English alone will not succeed at nurturing the relationships we want to see. Malawian diplomats will need to move beyond celebration of French as the third language we can speak and master very rapidly the mediums of exchange in the new architecture. It is not only smart for business, but it also creates a perception of friendliness. That is smart politics worth investing in.

Finally, to carry out efficient functions in this new era of international relations will need very qualified human capital, people impregnated with a zeal for development, yet with enough maturity not to spend their taxpayer salaries nodding to anything thrown their way. An equally competent office in the MoFA will need to be mandated to hire these diplomats with minimal political interference so that this pool of talent is not exposed to vulnerability when a change of government occurs and when the situation necessitates that diplomats give the political establishment some straight talk.


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