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The Edison Effect

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

In 1877, Thomas Edison and his team invented the phonograph, a sound recording machine that was the first to reproduce the sounds it recorded. An introductory video in the Musicians’ Hall of Fame and Museum in Tennessee, USA, shows followers beaming in bewilderment as Edison carefully runs a pin over a tin-coated roller, a process that in the magical recital of his spoken words as if it were real life. It was the beginning of a new phase of life, business, livelihoods, entertainment and communication among peoples and countries. Over a hundred years later, we have almost taken this invention for granted in decisions that shape our world today.

There is an important development lesson in the impacts that followed Mr. Edison’s pioneering invention: the changes in our modern ways of life would not happen in the absence of a solid platform on which more innovations would boom. In Edison’s case, he had gifted the world of music (just to pick one) the base on which organized sounds would carry messages of hope, emotion, love and discontentment – expressed through different genres - across the world. Along it, he changed the world.

It should be the same in developing countries as Malawi, that the sectors of development will not thrive if there is no base to springboard changes in people’s lives to prosperity. Important are the lives of the poor, who subsist on nothing but their quickly degrading lands that sharply shape the magnitude of want. According to this website, a developed Malawi needs to consider the today's decisions regarding infrastructure development.

While economic growth will be measured against the number of schools, hospitals, markets or roads that have been built in a fiscal year, the development question is whether these will have achieved education, health, economic empowerment and autonomy, and the movement of goods and services efficiently. The latter, as you will have guessed, is what constitutes development. It is obvious that billions of dollars have gone into Malawi’s infrastructure development, and yet the country continues to suffer development regression and stagnation that registers positive nominal growth in a regime where real growth has been commonplace for an economy determinately locked in reverse gear.

An important component of development in Malawi has been the implementation of infrastructure projects that are hardly coordinated for delivery of a more complete package. For instance, the levels of education in Nsalu in Lilongwe will not change because a school, alone, is built. As long as this school will not be accessed by a decent road that will allow the Ministry of Education truck that will periodically deliver learning materials, and clean water that will provide sanitation for girls (a crucial aspect of keeping them in school), or electricity that will facilitate both teaching and studying, or even a functional telephone line that will ensure services to the school flow smoothly, education will hardly be delivered. A valid argument professes we had a generation in Malawi that received education without many of these facilities. It is important to note the difference in numbers of children attending school then and now, and that teaching the masses will require more and cleverer investments in methods that can deliver this education. And both physical and ICT infrastructure will play a critical role.

Experts, analysts and advocates howl all year round to persuade government to provide better schooling facilities in our urban and rural schools. They will always fall short of producing children that are educated at the level to contribute to modern challenges Malawi and the world face today.

It would be nice to work on the assumption that the country has a masterplan on infrastructure development. We only hope this masterplan is not as old as the day we walked to our independence.

But we also get the compulsion to perceive our country as poor. And this couples with the deficiencies we experience in numbers of high-quality expertise that comes at an affordable cost to the lean public purse, to spur quality implementation to scale. The hard reality is that we need to recognize this reality and understand the cascaded nature of development, whose momentum we continue to lose through mismanagement and corruption in our public and civil services. If we dealt with public malfeasance and focused quickly on developing the country, we would have focused on continuing the development of, say, quality rural growth centers and expansion of the regional road network that the first Bingu wa Mutharika administration had started. If we were to follow that pace, Malawi would have expanded the growth of these rural centers in more districts, which would be generating growth at district level at a faster pace than we currently see.

Instead, Malawi’s leadership has locked itself in an eternal campaign, including when it has not been absolutely necessary. All the while, it has foregone the foresight that needs to drive development. And this makes infrastructure projects less favorable because of their lengthy nature to materialize, in turn making food and other handouts easy ways to guarantee a seat in public office. This, in lieu of providing agrarian communities with water infrastructure that would enable irrigation post-season. At this pace, we may well forget the ambitions laid in Vision 2020 about self-sufficiency and middle-income status that we have desired to achieve in three year's time.

Several articles on this website have hinted on the infrastructure development lessons from the Asian Tigers, and the specific Saemaul rural development model of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) being a singled-out example. And it worries this website that those in the know of such policies are Malawi’s finest, Malawi’s educated. Yet, they have done little to lead the nation's principals appropriately to adapt these lessons into our local context to turn around our fortunes.

Why, then, are we seemingly determined to continue with half-baked implementation plans through the next three medium term strategies in our journey through 2030 (the Sustainable Development Goals’ deadline)? Why will they suffer a lack a strategic template of infrastructure development that can fast-track benefits for all?

The Edison effect is real for development and will be an important stimulant for innovation, growth and sustainable development. Development of service infrastructure in select (especially remote) areas will make the construction of roads a more meaningful development, if Mr. Muluzi's very idle, high quality, tarmac Namwera road is anything to learn from. While it brought the people of Namwera closer to civilization, in the least, it may have only created traders who remain tied to poverty and are destined to stay loyal to it for much longer. More importantly, it will be crucial for the inclusion of the poor in advancing more dignified livelihoods. As for now, it will cost much less to simply feed the hungry and dedicate resources in investments that will establish a modern foundation for stronger development.

To conclude, it is necessary to note the primary role of the government in rolling out infrastructure development. The incumbent Mr. Mutharika's team is doing this, like many others who precede him. But in setting the standards that will bring quality and a holistic set of infrastructures, it is not quite meeting the mark, although the first Mutharika's Nsanje City dream-in-colour came close to such a model (the merits of the bigger concept are a thought for another day.) Unfortunately, all that remains is a barren block of concrete that resembles as much unfinished business as a short thought process (Bingu wa Mutharika's flagship legacy in picture above).

The laxity in instilling the necessary standards in the arteries of our development blueprint is the only inspiration much of the private sector - driven mainly by shortsighted profit-making interests - has when they establish their infrastructures for business. This is besides government's capability in directing a more strategic installation of infrastructure that will bear quick and lasting spin-off effects on the economy and income distribution.

For, the laissez-faire approach to infrastructure development commonly has the faces of the rich, not the poor, painted on it.


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