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Malawi’s “Doing-just-Fine” Problem

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Michael Gaudaum

Malawi is chilling, to use the colloquial for relaxation. And development is passing by. We quickly are running dry of excuses to write anything positive about the country’s development. And neither is this piece sanguine. Malawians have been bursting with contentment about the status quo, an epidemic that has taken root in our social fabric it has become a cultural identity. And it obstinately refuses to go away. You see an easily gratified homo sapien, your odds of spotting a Malawian tremendously improve. Although our leaders mostly humiliate us, within and beyond our borders, the problem is not entirely theirs.

The ease with which Malawians are satisfied with so little, yet so mediocre, continues to rob us of the craving to surpass new frontiers in education, the arts, business and even politics. Cheap gratification stifles discernment of its implications on innovation and progress, but more scarily, the deep-rooted absence of ambition for better things. The only dynamic that paradoxically seems to be constant is our steady slippage into underdevelopment. The performance of many sectors, in the least, adds little to the nation’s good. Our laid back style is the very menace that will rock our survival as a country.

Even when our university is graduating more students than we did before the 2,000s, with more tertiary gigs permeating the scene, our educated still rely on a foreign impetus to do the rest of the country some favor. We are preoccupied with the belief that we cannot rely on ourselves, that donors pulling the plug on the government budget support causes much pandemonium. The day budget support returns will be a day of reckoning, a prized accomplishment for the champions who will have flourished at begging. The fête will have returned, fully loaded with the venal farm input subsidies, globetrotting, perks for the senior civil and public services, more consumption and fat granaries of foreign exchange yearning for mismanagement. As they have done for MCP and UDF, our women will compose a befitting song of praise for DPP rallies.

Evidence points to government’s significance in advancing knowledge, research and development, in turn promoting productivity and more equitable growth. Over 50% of the returns to technological development in the American economy owes its credit to government investments in the internet, the World Wide Web, and others. Au contraire, Malawi’s options crowd out investments in tertiary and vocational education, agricultural and industrial research, ICT and cheaper transport networks. Governing structures seem to reward evidence with a short attention span, shelving reports and crafting new priorities that glorify the powers that be. A fringe of ill-intentioned referees massage the ruling elites with unquestioning admiration. Thriving business as usual ethos and risk aversion, disguised in pro-poor development strategies, have become slow-but-sure disinvestments in capital development and real growth.

The markets have also embraced a matching philosophy. A sense of complacency hits our businesses as trickles of profits come in, causing malice to the spirit of development-oriented entrepreneurship in a globalized world. Dry foreign exchange reserves inhibit procurement of new capital abroad. The agreeable recourse, for many urban Malawians, is to blame government and curse politicians. Yet, seldom will a start-up venture into foreign lands where earnings come in foreign currency and options for innovation are in higher supply. Many of our best firms are wary of flirting with unknowns in other countries. In the one instance where we had a trucking company establish in Mozambique, we were later going to learn the owner was securing resources majorly acquired from grudging taxpayers, aided by government operatives. In our forthcoming publication on entrepreneurship, we validate the shortcomings of our current business environment.

A small scientific detour.

The United States President, Barak Obama, announced through an Op-Ed of 11 October 2016 that the United States will be ready to send people to Mars in the 2030s. Europe, Russia, Japan and China are advancing their space programs. The India Space Research Organization, a relative underdog, pioneered orbiting Mars in 2014. Regardless of achievement, India has endured its fair share of battering by many donor countries who think an aid recipient should focus on things that are more attuned to poverty reduction. This underlines an important tenet about development and space exploration: space exploration should not precede a nation’s responsibility to its poor citizens.

But an important truth remains. Those who control the gadgets orbiting our planet and navigate opportunities in our universe have the future of the growing seven billion global population in their hands. Perhaps India understands a thing or two, in which case moving into space may be one of the smartest investments in its development path. But although sending people to mars may seem like a luxury, it depicts discontentment with the status quo that will only spur forward the already advanced world.

Returning to Malawi…the Implications of Contentment

The appetite for the long shot is large in other countries. For Malawi, programs like India’s ISRO are reality shows watched on television alongside Big Brother Africa and Africa Magic, and only when ESCOM is generous to keep power flowing during more godly hours. Instead, Malawians are busied with survival such that solving science conjectures look too ambitious, almost unwise. Survival is a natural phenomenon in which self-serving reigns above serving others. The prevailing reality is survival infiltrates every level of society, leaving the Lord alone to take care of the rest. Our national programs have followed suit to reflect the mentality of the actors hired by government, whose primary concern is, “What’s in it for me?” And the poor’s only option is to enjoy misery.

In many instances, our customary choice is to go it alone. ‘Team’ is a rare word in contemporary Malawi, destroying the notion of cooperatives that could potentially absorb many small entrepreneurs into production and formal markets. In developed countries like Canada and Italy, and in vibrant developing economies like that of Genghis Khan, Mongolia (reached 17.3% GDP growth in 2011; US$3,800 GDP per capita in 2015; forecasted to be at 6.2% GDP growth in 2018; World Bank), the trust in the cooperative approach is solid. Closer to home, countries like Kenya (fast dashing towards middle-income status, with GDP per capita growing from US$222 in 1993 to US$1,376 in 2015; World Bank) thrive with cooperatives in several industries.

The benefits from business in Malawi accrue to a few successful impresarios, many foreign, or those twisted enough to live off syphoning the public sector, as our trucker above who trekked to Mozambique. Although the law allows for cooperatives, our veins are lubricated with an individualistic attitude to enterprise, for which success is personalized when it eventually descends.

The personalization of success risks the perpetuation of archaic business styles and rigidity to adjust in the ever-changing operating reality. We speculate that the growing numbers of businesses are a scare. We predict a prolonged onslaught on the economy, as inward-looking businesses continue to strangle the limited resources without exploring complementary profit-making prospects abroad. And this is the marvel to which the behavior of politicians owes its origins. Leaders are absorbed with a selfish indulgence that dupes them into believing only their boundless wisdom can save a nation. The resulting reality is the wellbeing of a handful of people who benefit from structures that the rest of society is at pains supporting. With decades of nuancing, the attitude has earned us the predicaments we enjoy today.

From Think Development, to Do Development

Mentality needs to change at all levels, and education is not enough to emancipate Malawi from her love for depreciation. While information and envy of things good are better driving forces for change, honesty about the fatigue we experience in the running of the status quo is required, in a deep ‘I’ve-had-enough’ sense.

The political space sees no need to change its tricks. It keeps the rest of society preoccupied with hustling with the exigencies of the day, while diverting attention from the things that matter. We are kept worried about ESCOM as names of new high court judges are announced in the president’s absence, particularly unsettling if preparation for regime changes can use such channels. That is our fault, not theirs, for we continue to give them the platform on which to menace. So change has to happen on our end too. We have to candidly accept our failures at electing the right leaders, let alone producing the right leaders.

The lax attitude of our thinking and actions is disturbing and lacks forward-looking ambition. To see the future of the nation will need to invest in its structures today. Otherwise, no thickness of lenses (a.k.a. donors) will be able to.

Someday, unfortunately not today, we will write something about a great Malawi. But it will require a psychotherapy sterner than smarty pants to make the change we want to see happen.


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