Friday, December 14, 2007

Who gives who, really? Weaning Malawi out of donor dependency

For a country that is said to rely entirely on donor money for its development budget, can today's opening of the new Ntchisi-Mponela road, said to have been financed solely from Malawian taxpayer money, be a turning point from dependency to self-sufficiency? It came quite as a surprise to me to learn that the road, which cost MK2.5 billion (approx. US$18 million), was financed by not a single penny from donor money, according to Hon. Henry Mussa, minister for public works and transport. The minister said government was able to set aside that amount of money for development projects, as a result of fiscal discipline measures that the president has introduced. In fact Malawi is at the moment enjoying very high confidence levels from the international community, if we go by recent media reports, both domestic and international media. Barely a week ago the New York Times had on its front page a story about how Malawi is ending famine by disregarding stipulations from international financial institutions.

This week opened with news that the European Union was going to give Malawi MK90 billion (upward of US$400 million) for infrastructural development, and hardly had that news settled when more news broke that Malawi had qualified for the Millennium Challenge Account, set up by United States President George Bush. The amount from the MCA was not announced, although media reports suggested that the amount ranged between US$65 and almost US$700 million. And hot on the heels of that news came yet another announcement to the effect that the Malawi Government has signed a memorandum of agreement with the United Nations, for Malawi’s progress on the Millennium Development Goals, worth US$231 million (MK33 billion), according to Nyasatimes.

Not too long ago, just before delivering his speech at the UN General Assembly meeting in September this year, President Mutharika spoke at Columbia University’s World Leaders’ Forum, following an article in the Financial Times , co-authored by Jeffrey Sachs and Glenn Denning, on how Mutharika's decision to introduce fertilizer and seed input subsidies, discouraged by the international donors, had reaped Malawi a bumper harvest of surplus maize. Mutharika spoke on the same day as Iranian President Ahmadinejad, but all the media attention was on the afternoon event at which Columbia University Lee Bollinger, in the eyes of many, waylaid and arrogantly harangued Ahmadinejad. There was no mention of President wa Mutharika’s speech earlier that morning on the same campus.

Many Malawians are thrilled about this spate of what is considered exceptionally good fortune for the country. But for those who have never been comfortable with the whole conventional paradigm that constructs Third World countries as perpetually dependent on developed countries, these developments raise new questions rather than answers. The conventional paradigm is very well established with a hegemonic dominance that totally suppresses any notion about how much money and wealth leave Africa and other Third World countries each year, and go to the global North. Very few people want to talk about that. But those who do, such as the Tax Justice Network, the Jubilee Debt Campaign, The New African magazine, activists and intellectuals, among others, make it clear that the amounts that are extracted out of the continent's natural and mineral resources, not to mention intellectual labor, are far more than the amounts that are given as official aid. The ideal would be a world that recognized how much interdependent on each other we have always been, at the global level, or the truth of the matter is that much of that interdependence has occurred through violence, conflict, and exploitation. I therefore mention the desire to end dependency with a caveat. Even when economists like New York University’s Professor William Easterly, who on the surface appears to appeal to leftist critical traditions in their critiques of aid, dare not mention these facts, as in his book The White Man’s Burden: Why The West’s Efforts To Aid The Rest Have Done So Much Ill And So Little Good.

A radio documentary produced from the 2007 World Social Forum held in Nairobi, Kenya, revealed that for every US$1 that goes to Africa as aid, US$10 more leave Africa and go to the West as dirty money. It was also revealed in that radio documentary, produced by Asad Ismi and Christina Swartz, and titled The Ravaging of Africa, that the mining giant Anglo American which owns the largest share of copper mining in Zambia, in 2006 posted profits of up to US$3 billion. Yet the company under-declared on its returns to the Zambian government, and ended up paying taxed for a miserly US$8 million. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about how Nigeria is known to have initially borrowed US$5 billion, and by 2005, had repaid US$16 billion, and still owed US$35 billion. Conventionally trained economists and the rest of us find nothing absurd about this, accepting it as the workings of compound interest calculations in a capitalist framework. We are still unaware of how new networks of tax havens, offshoring mechanisms, and trade mispricing are all hauling huge amounts of money from Africa and other developing countries, to keep enriching the West, as has always historically been the case.

Even with the new road just inaugurated in Malawi today, the company that was awarded the contract, Mota Angil, is from Portugal. Malawian taxpayers are giving US$18 million of their hard-earned money to a developed European country. In his speech at Mponela, where he spoke for about nine minutes before proceeding to Ntchisi Boma where the main ceremony took place, the president repeated his warning to "colonialists" who exploit Malawian farmers by buying their tobacco at below market prices. He reported that on his way back from Portugal yesterday where he was attending the EU-Africa summit, he stopped over in Cairo, Egypt, where he secured more markets for Malawian tobacco. The president went further, in a somewhat unrelated thread, to warn that any Westerner who holds Malawians in contempt and treats them as if they are inferior beings will be asked to leave the country.

I was preoccupied with other work matters so I was unable to proceed to Ntchisi to watch the rest of the ceremony. But I watched his speech there, and those of the Member of Parliament for the area, Hon. Nkhosa Kamwendo, and the minister for public works and transport, Hon. Henry Mussa. Hon. Kamwendo is an opposition MP, and he said he was speaking not about his concerns, but rather about the people's concerns. He said there was food crisis in Ntchisi, and requested the president to send food relief. Both Hon Mussa and President Mutharika appeared to use the opportunity to jump on Hon. Kamwendo. Mussa said he was going to contradict Kamwendo, who as an opposition MP was against the budget in the mid months of this year, a situation that raised tensions in much of the population who feared that the country would grind to a halt if the deadline for passing the budget went with no agreement. Mussa insinuated that by rejecting the budget, Kamwendo and his fellow opposition MPs were rejecting the very kind of development his own district was witnessing today.

The president went even further. He repeatedly told the crowd that their MP was “lying” to them by being in the opposition and asking for government help. He extended a subtle, implicit invitation to Kamwendo, without necessarily spelling out what he meant, to come and join the government so they can work together. But the audience knew what the president meant. Where upon the eager dancing women shot to their feet and broke into a spontaneous chant: “Achoke!” “Achoke!” (He must go!). At first I was impressed that our current president, unlike previous ones, is tolerant enough to allow an opposition MP to speak at such a function. In fact I noticed one if not more dancing women in the audience dressed in MCP colors, with the late Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda prominently displayed on the chest. Hearing the attacks on the opposition politician, and the president’s implicit invitation for him to leave his party and join the president’s party, it made me wonder if we as a country will ever fully accept the fact that we claim to have opted for multiparty politics. Our mindset seems not to have accepted that. Or is it yet another symptom of our dependency on foreign ideas, which, as with the donor money we feel entitled to, we never critically question whether multiparty politics can indeed work for us? Does it ever really work even in those countries that purport to champion democracy, and use military force to impose it on others?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

When Global Voices Malawi authors meet

Although we are not quite there yet, the beginning of the year 2008 will mark one year when the two Global Voices authors for Malawi, Victor Kaonga and myself, will have been writing roundups on the Malawi blogosphere. Victor and I live half a world apart, and are always in contact via email and phone. But we had never met before, until this past weekend. We are frequently in and out of Malawi, but never at the same time. That changed this weekend when we both flew into Malawi within days of each other, and managed to meet, albeit very briefly. We should be able to meet again, this time for much longer.