23 July, 2013

Malawi at Forty-Nine: Economic Misery or Progress?

by Harvey C.C. Banda

On Saturday 6 July 2013 Malawi clocked forty-nine years of independence. As is annually the case, there were national independence celebrations which were held in the Capital City, Lilongwe. However, these celebrations drew mixed reactions from a cross-section of Malawians. “Is there, genuinely, any need for these celebrations?” “Aren’t these celebrations nowadays merely organized for formality’s sake?” These were some of the questions posed by Malawians in trying to critique the gains and losses during the five decades of independence. This article is a snapshot of these gains and losses and presents an argument that Malawi, on the whole and in relative terms, is doing poorly, especially on the economic front.

Following the attainment of independence on 6 July 1964, Malawians had high expectations as far as economic progress was concerned. They hoped for a better economic future, in stark contrast to the economic woes associated with the colonial regime. These woes were, believably, to be buried together with the defunct Federation (Chitaganya). In line with this view, the first President of the Republic of Malawi, late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, had the vision of transforming the country into the ‘Denmark of Africa’. It is worth noting that Denmark had prospered due to her agricultural resources, and Malawi was to take the same path. However, since then Malawi has not maximized benefits from agriculture largely because the produce is sold while raw (unprocessed) on the international markets, hence at low prices.

Tea plantation in Malawi (Photo: Publik15)

Despite such hopes, the reality on the ground is quite the opposite. Almost fifty years down independence lane, Malawi is still economically dependent on her former colonial master and other donors. This is enough reason for one to argue that Malawi did not gain economic independence. Although this may be applicable to most African countries (neocolonialism), Malawi is relatively worse off. It is worth noting that Malawi ranks high among the poorest countries in Africa. It is intriguing to realize that in 1964 when the country attained political independence, it was economically ahead of China, South Korea and Singapore on a per capita income basis. Yet fifty years later, Malawi is looking at China as one of her major bilateral donors.

Even Malawi’s neighbouring countries (Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique) are doing better economically, despite the fact that thirty years or so ago the per capita incomes of these countries were not very different. One explanation for the difference is that the neighbouring countries’ economies are anchored by resources such as precious metals, oil and gas. Although Malawi of late also boasts of a uranium at Kayerekera Mine in Karonga District, northern Malawi, it is yet to start contributing significantly to the economy. With the reportedly exploitative contractual agreements in place between Malawi Government and Paladin Africa (responsible for mining and processing uranium at Kayerekera), if media reports in Malawi are anything to go by, such a contribution to the economy may even be more difficult to realize.

In the same vein, John Kapito, one of the consumer rights activists in Malawi, recently described the country’s forty-nine years of independence as shameful, arguing that the quality of life keeps on deteriorating as the years go by. Almost twenty years after the introduction of multi-party politics, Malawians cannot actively demand the real fruits of independence from their political leaders largely because of political patronage. Through this patronage the order of the day is creating ‘dictators’ by blanket and undifferentiated praise. The other contributing factor is the politics of the belly whose by-product is grueling corruption (katangale). In such an atmosphere, what matters most is what one benefits from a deal or transaction and not whether (or not) the deal is (procedurally) right.

Nevertheless, there are some indicators towards economic progress. The guiding question here is ‘Have there been changes in people’s lives over time?’ Certainly yes. Malawians these days look better dressed and healthier; most of the people sleep in brick houses with iron roofs; and most of the vehicles on the roads are owned by Malawians. In addition, most Malawians can access and attain some education, especially following the introduction of the Free Primary Education (FPE) policy in 1994. This is a rosy picture on the surface, but when you go deeper you realize it is misleading. For instance, with only two public universities in full operation, access to tertiary education is extremely limited (less than one per cent of the population has access to university education). Similarly, it is indicated that less than seven per cent of the population of about fourteen million people have access to electricity, meaning that fifty years later about thirteen million people still live in ‘darkness’.

At this juncture, one can conclude that Malawi still has a long way to go. Factually, and not arguably, Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in Africa. What is the way forward? Malawi needs visionary and principled leadership; a hard working, morally-upright and, at the same time, critical populace; and a pragmatic approach towards real time development. I dare say we do not need celebrations this time. You do not celebrate misery, rather progress! Let us try to postpone celebrations for another fifty years during which we should merely be commemorating independence!

No comments:

Post a Comment