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Malawi's Love for Poverty, Till Death Do Us Part?

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Poverty, in whatever shape, form or size it smiles on you, is no characteristic to espouse. It is degrading to one’s life, and certainly to the esteem and sovereignty of one’s country. The story of developing countries as ours is quite telling, as we steer ourselves through currents of plans and programs that have not worked since World War II through the post-independence era, at the same time the Marshal Plan worked for our friends in Western Europe. Our active separation of development from development history, as we pride ourselves in an “African” solution to Africa’s problems, may very well be the grandest error in the scheming of poverty reduction and prosperity that remains ingeniously appended to paper, sitting on our shelves, awaiting the coming of the Son of Man.

Our country is happily married to poverty, and appears disenchanted by even the mere thought of divorce. Under various post-1993 regimes that claim difference to the development models of Kamuzu Banda, where the Ngwazi’s whim on what ought to happen was the God-given gift to be embraced with soul and might, we have repeatedly illustrated our incapability to opt out of disastrous deals. The Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF), a three-phased World Bank loan scheme that came in as probably the major democracy era development program Malawi has ever had, needs to be called by its appropriate name: a national disaster founded on the guise of meeting local needs and community participation.

Like MASAF, a few other major programs have been implemented as part of a new poverty reduction oriented national development planning. Take the agricultural Targeted Inputs Program (TIP), for example, which morphed into the Farm Inputs Subsidy Program (FISP), has seen both food security interventions create more hunger in Malawi than root it out of our daily plight. The dawn of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) put forth an imperative for which the international development code was to be the scripture under which national development planning was to abide by, in a process called domestication or localization of the MDGs. The MDGs brought Jeffrey Sachs’ famous Millennium Villages Project (MVP), a well-funded outfit whose good intentions were taken away from the people of Mwandama (Zomba) and Gumulira (Mchinji) for whom they were intended when the projects wound up at the conclusion of the MDGs.

As we slowly welcomed the age of sustainable development, Malawi was already being administered a good dose of inclusiveness, a moot notion whose major assumption was premised on almost the perceived absence of inclusivity of past development strategies we had had. Inclusiveness, intended to amplify the focus on those Malawians at the risk of being left behind in the process of development, quickly drove attention to people deemed forgotten in the formulation of solutions. In a large part, it convinced us that we never had cared enough about our own people from the time we put in place the first development program in 1964, until development organizations pointed it out on our behalf. The 2016 Malawi National Human Development Report, which gives an historical analysis of Malawi’s development strategies since 1964, could never have proven this approach more wrong.

When development under the democratic dispensation arrived to us in the early 1990s, it had little to do with the same parameters that made the Marshal Plan effective in Europe, but rather paid great attention to human rights, wellbeing and social security. This was the reason pro-poor became quickly woven into the development lingua of the third world as the common denominator to achieving economic progress for country and its people. The result was how quickly we abandoned the big picture aspirations like infrastructure, ICT, trade, etc. from our central focus, which are actually foundational to indiscriminatory human capital development, empowering both the marginalized and the endowed. Our amnesia was fueled by the inability to cope with the fast-changing development instructions we were receiving from development partners (consider the concurrent diverse interests of bilaterals, multilaterals, foreign investors), all for the sake of securing development aid inflows.

Our hands are now full with not just how we will align our Malawi Growth and Development Strategy to the Sustainable Development Goals, but also busied with global dynamics that cut across every aspect of our development process. This, thanks to our non-isolation in a globalized world, will ensure that we are affected by the events of every corner of the world, be they political, economic, cultural or even environmental. For example, an important threat to our full implementation of development, and the upwards shifting of our people’s human development prospects, will be the global migration crisis being mainly driven by the civil war in Syria, which has shifted development aid by European donors to containing migratory effects on their own continent. For us, this means an inescapable requirement to turn to alternative and more innovative means to finance our own development, while adhering to quality standards that will exhibit our ability to do development right.

The prevailing development paradigm has kept us occupied with thinking about which solutions are best for advancing development efforts that would truly transform our country. Our fuzzy understanding has led us into creating even more mediocre programs that some donors are still happy to fund. Think of malata subsidies, or the unfathomable one cow, one family conquest of our now incognito Joyce Banda. Malawi's gain has largely been the creation of grey areas in development, an arena where political rhetoric performs better than development outcomes. And the monetary materialization of the rhetoric has become the playground for corruption and embezzlement, with little accountability of those in charge and obscure responsibility of those who must claim the benefits of development.

We must be livid because of our propensity to pat ourselves on the back for petty accomplishments, which are best preyed on by our myopic politicians. And we need to question the development model so religiously bestowed on us by countries that will never share the same story of poverty we will have to tell in the 21st century. Our reversion to a course of development will only start with realizing we have, since the dawn of multipartyism, invested more in poverty enhancement than in securing the foundations on which development should take place (see our article on this here.)

The foregoing arguments highlight the pitfalls of the dominant post-World War II, post-independence, development model for Africa, which has had inevitable consequences for Malawi’s slow development. It is an imperative to question its legitimacy in the face of its claims for doing good, which, according to this website, is characterized by pity in some circumstances, and a business opportunity in others. The answers will and should guide our position on how we organize our international relations (see our foreign policy article on this here) and how we localize internationally agreed development goals.

So, of crucial importance is the recognition that the emphasis on human development of our past plans has never changed. We have only fallen gullible in a process where our interests have been persuaded to divert course to a disastrous trajectory, an outcome we need to feel gravely ashamed of ourselves about. The ambitions of national planning to put the highest standards in education, health, infrastructure on rail, roads, water and energy, fundamental to reaching – in full – the rights of all Malawians, remain more likely to accelerate development than demonstrated by the development frameworks we have agreed to one too many times.

This website will confidently claim that, before the SDG period ends, the international development and political system will identify that the current models of interventions have been inadequate. However, it will be quick to note that there are better solutions that countries must embrace. For Malawi, that will be a time to take some time for some true introspection on what we want.


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