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Chasing the Good in a Bad Situation

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

“People-centered!” has been the new mantra of development work as the world lives in limbo regarding the feasibility of reaching desired levels of human prosperity for today and the times to come. The belief that no development should come at the expense of a single person treading the planet today faces the more astronomical challenge to meet social and economic development while catering to the needs of future generations. The United Nations has branded this “sustainable development.” This ambitious and holistic – almost spiritual – approach to development counts on large sums of money, and to a great degree, the pity of those that have it, pumped into the deep poverty we suffer today. For countries like Malawi, though, holistic-style development may pose some certain gloom.

A better perspective stems from our almost desperate economic reliance on tobacco. Threatened by the anti-smoking campaign led by the World Health Organization following its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, it has been fifteen years since Malawi’s farmers have experienced so much decline in the tobacco market. These changes have not spared the economy either, particularly as tobacco continues to look for a successor as the country’s main foreign exchange earner. But the impacts on the state of poverty for habitual tobacco growers who, regardless of the market reading, live on the hope that the crop will someday bail them out of a dire situation.

For tobacco farmers in Malawi, the real meaning of divorce from the joys of tilling the land, the numerous loans associated with seeds, fertilizer, curing (for the brave daring flue-cured) and bearing presses – to only mention a handful of the major costs outside labor, is to curtail the anticipation for streams of cash flowing one’s way when the auction floors open. This is usually a hard nut to swallow, especially when the previous year’s crop fetched a good price, a basic indicator for agricultural production for the proceeding year. For many farmers, the disruption of the limited inflows has many social consequences too, including that a household with limited resources is not conducive to a happy marriage, or better-educated and healthy families. A question for gender equality activists, who find it easy to pair up as health champions too, is how to navigate the consequences of poor crop sales for which women will have been most burdened to produce. If tobacco remains the only viable cash crop that could guarantee women’s economic empowerment, the moral stance of people-centered development begins to get blurred in the details.

Anti-tobacco lobbies are not isolated in the fight against the negative health or environmental impacts of unsustainable patterns of production. And certainly not for countries like Malawi. Early this month, activists gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, to protest the mining and use of fossil fuels in powering the world. The message will definitely be strong, loud and clear for the upcoming UN Framework Convention on Climate Convention summit in Katowice, Poland, later in the year. The echoes of the banner #RiseforClimate, is able to reach the eyes of millions of Tweeter users on the click of a button.

Granted the ecological filth of fossils like coal in producing energy, the conversation that is not being had is one that concerns the alternative livelihoods of all the residual labor that is to be released from such mining industries. Until an alternative is found that not only provides for stable and perhaps equally-beneficial employment, but also a transfer of skills so that a minimal level of living is enjoyed, the offloaded men and women from these industries will make a reverse mark on ongoing efforts to eliminate poverty. In the United States of America alone, the outcry of coal mine workers who persist on the mercy of the speed with which clean energy alternatives like wind and solar will expand, reverberates across America’s coal country as if at the hand of a messenger of doom. In West Virginia, also one of America’s poorest States, the threat of unemployment affects people’s access to health insurance, a politically-charged issue in the country’s social-economic debate.

In Malawi’s energy sector, where the future of electricity production still bets on coal, as per Malawi’s energy policy, campaigns like these will always be a pain on the wrong side. Their impacts on human development as well as on the national economy will be disastrous if not properly contextualized in the states of poverty and options at hand. This means, in a country that really needs to consider alternative foreign exchange forerunners and clean energy, the success of lobbying the annihilation of the industries discussed in this article will come with sensible replacements if the people that modern development approaches aim to protect are indeed protected.

The campaigns against tobacco or coal are lengthy but effective in culling practices that are touted to affect long-term human and environmental health. This effectiveness is certainly making its mark on welfare, economically and socially, and may introduce certain alternatives that will inadvertently trigger a spiral of vices that will distort the smooth realization of the three dimensions of sustainable development.

In wanting to quickly appear cooperative, our government has a reputation for its enthusiasm to put pen to paper without negotiating to address the requisite implications of our signature, as it has done with many trade protocols. But this is not always the case. And it is one position that has brought the Government of Malawi to being practical as it weighs the realities of its men and women in the tobacco industry as much as its own.

It makes sense, then, that Malawi still remains one of the non-parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – until it can figure out the alternatives.

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