Updated: Jan 21
Bakili Muluzi needs to hear this now. Not later. So should we all.
Mr. Muluzi made a solemn promise to dress every Malawian in shoes once voted into the presidency in 1994, a position he, himself, swiftly recanted as soon as the power he sought was handed to him. Mr. Muluzi’s own counter-argument made obvious sense to us when he wondered on grounds of common sense how a single mortal would not account for every Malawian’s shoe size. Promising us cover on our heels was a captivating force in 1993 and 1994 as never had many of our feet come into intimate contact with the leather Northstar Bata made with nor the curved plastic Moccasin and Sofia Shore Rubber put on the counters nationwide. Yet, this promise was foundational to Malawi’s democracy whose counterbalance by its chief orator would become a standard for government’s unfulfilled promises. To not fulfill a developmental promise once made to Malawians has become the pedagogue of every governance book passed on from one president to the next, male and female, educated and not quite so.
Not living up to the mark characterized much of Mr. Muluzi’s presidency. It transcended trust and exemplified habitual public official’s shortcomings in Malawi associated with granting rights holders the fruits of ‘diligence to country’ undertaken by its duty-bearers. The stalling of the economy, coupled with recurrent slumps in real GDP growth since 1994, means the anticipated human rights have not been delivered to the rights holders in full, if at all. Many reasons explain the failure to deliver, including limited education and exposure, corruption, or even Malawi’s kinship to misfortune.
On close examination, however, a few structural matters affecting our development pop out when appreciating the history of our democracy vis-à-vis its role in development. A fixation on human rights, as a foundational principle of democracy, led development planning to integration of human rights into the first ‘pro-poor’ development strategies in the mid-1990s with Mr. Muluzi in the driving seat, while the Bretton Woods institutions moderated the driving. Every succeeding strategy has crowned this individualized approach to development, whose failure to solve every Malawian’s problems would be a failure to truly uplift people from poverty. So, the lingua of development has embraced terms from ‘pro-poor’ in the 1990s to ‘inclusive growth’ in the 2000s, to ‘leave no one behind,’ a mantra of the newly adopted sustainable development goals. Our politicians live out this language, and they almost convince us they are fulfilling their promises by their perceived orientation to these new paradigms.
These new notions, and the heavy scriptures that come with them, have kept development practitioners busy trying to figure out how they fit in a Malawian context. Conditionalities imposed on Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning officials to stick their heads into complex permutations of monitoring and evaluation, without which no further funding would be received, has elevated process above change. Not to say these are unimportant, but it has resulted in the celebration of reports in Malawi as a constant, yet costly, tradition. In the meantime, starvation, poverty and degradation linger on with a vengeance.
To properly understand the correlation between human rights and development for good policy-making, it is worth reverting to world history to see the tenets that thrusted the developed West forward. Much of this history of Western success is, unfortunately, depicted by the full measure of greed, suffering and cruelty…the whole nine yards. With the exception of those European nations that owe much of their development to post-World War II financial injections of the Marshall Plan, traditional civilizations of Great Britain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the United States, etc., rose on the blood and sweat of inferior classes, colonization and/or slavery. Their intimidating infrastructure and artistic charm scarcely divorce away from an infringement of someone else’s human rights. The loss of lives of the poor and child labourers during the construction of the Great Eastern, a ship that never sailed, on the shores of the Thames River; or the African slave labour that hoisted block after block to build the White House; or the financing of the magnificent Antwerp Train Station in Belgium’s diamond city, with minerals looted from the Congo, signal an unjustified morality of Western civilization. The awe of the West’s grandeur is, and must rightly be so, an occasion of deep pain for those with the misfortune of tagging their present to such a dark past.
The privilege to interpret world history from a human rights angle creates a pathway towards more humane development by developing economies today. But this development must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility on both duty bearers as well as rights holders. This is usually the missing narrative on the lips of politicians, both those active in the local domain and the ones that come to school us on development. So, by promising a handout, Mr. Muluzi’s campaign deserves more scrutiny and may be censured for inciting laxity through the caressing of high expectations without seducing the impetus to earn even one’s own footwear. This birth of Mr. Muluzi’s laissez-faire democracy was also the birth of the present economic downfall, whose occurrence cannot be explained by more recent events without trending back to the formative years of our democracy.
The one job that Bakili Muluzi could do was to tether the temptation to go easy on work. Instead, he infiltrated the psyche of the illiterate poor by promising a silver spoon to every multiparty-leaning Malawian. His rhetoric should have espoused the real costs of democracy while exposing people’s rights to freely render their labour in ways that expanded their endowed potentials. His underlying theme should have continued to mimic Kamuzu’s plea for hard work. It was a foregone moment where defining democracy within the eyes of being Malawian was important to draw our own terms of developemnt, which we did not do then. It remains something we still need to aspire for.
In ensuring that no one is left behind, 21st Century Malawi continues to frame development from the lure of handouts and not the creation of wealth, physical or mental. The grants and loans the country receives make their way towards feeding hungry stomachs instead of concrete and steel. All this so the government checks the boxes that foreign pity prescribes on its responsibilities to look after the masses that can hardly stop themselves from fast-paced reproduction. The men and women who have the ability to divide the meagre resources are championed as magicians who deserve to stand higher in the hierarchies. And so, locally-generated resources still support institutionalized corruption that justifies paying certain classes of skilled professionals discriminately from other equally hardworking contributors to national development.
The mentality of dependency abounds in Malawi. The want for improvement grows by the day. And the ability to achieve wears off much like any plastic Moccasin Muluzi could have offered. Their intersection is a place where leaders and followers need to re-examine the gains from a democracy that demands much less from its people. It must interrogate the tenets of human rights that seem to groom people with a tendency to expect that the next meal is the worry of a foreigner impregnated with pity for the poor.
Our failure to rid ourselves of this sickness means only proving Mr. Muluzi right. And nothing will surely change.