Sunday, February 16, 2014

'Kudya Nawo': How Cashgate Became a Mindset

A lot of Malawian pundits and commentators have pointed out that cashgate symbolises a larger malaise affecting Malawian society. To these commentators, cashgate happened because we are a “rotten” society ruled by corrupt leaders; because we have lost our moral compass as a nation. If this is true, does it not then follow that many of us, to some extent, have what we can term a “cashgate mindset?” Does it also not follow that this “cashgate mindset” can be evidenced in every sphere of our daily lives?

Despite a few revelations of how much money has been looted thus far and how IFMIS was at the centre of it, forms of plunder at the scale of cashgate have gone on before in the history of the country. Only that past perpetrators managed to get away with it. There is need to continue asking what really caused cashgate, and what needs to be done to ensure it does not happen again. Short of that, we should brace ourselves for more of the same.

In what follows, I discuss the extent to which a “cashgate mindset” has been in the making since we won our independence. I suggest that our failure to tackle inequality and improve the lives of the majority of Malawians lies at the root of the greed that has led to the unprecedented levels of the plunder that we have recently sees. I conclude with a thought for the brave Malawians who have played key roles in bringing out this scandal.

The Malawi Parliament

Categories of plunder
The revelations from how cashgate was perpetrated reveal two categories of plunder. The first category was a means for fundraising for political parties. Many pundits have observed that this goes back to 1994, when we adopted a multiparty system of government. I contend that it probably goes back to the one-party era, albeit in a different format.

The other category of the plunder was straightforward thievery; people selfishly enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else. There have been three common denominators in both categories of plunder. First has been the economic inequality that has been the bane of modern Malawi, preceding the independence era. Wealth in Malawi has always been controlled by very few individuals, be it during the colonial era, or the post-independence era, or the multi-party era.

The second denominator has been a shift in the perception and understanding of moral ethics. What in the past would have been seen as taboo, the wanton looting of public funds, came to be seen as normal and acceptable. Even when people knew it was wrong to steal from public funds, many people who should have stopped the theft either simply looked away, or became involved themselves; “tidye nawo.” 

The third denominator has been the greed mentioned above; grotesque self-enrichment at the expense of others, through uncouth means, including funding for political campaigns through illegal means. Greed has always been with humankind, and it knows neither geographical boundary nor historical era. But in a society where inequality is blatant and moral ethics are shifting, the desire to curtail malpractices can easily give way to nihilistic irresponsibility.

Cashgate in historical context
A cashgate mindset did not take hold of the Malawian psyche overnight. It has been a gradual process in the making for as long as we have been an independent nation. During the one-party era, the only party in power, the Malawi Congress Party, controlled all the resources and did not have the need to worry about how they would fund election campaigns. Wealth was concentrated at the very top. It was a form of a cashgate mindset, although only those close to the corridors of power had access.

When the multiparty era arrived, ushered in by the coming to power of the United Democratic Front in 1994, a different type of cashgate mindset crept in. Allowed to compete in elections for the first time in decades, parties now had to work hard to look for campaign finances. The depravations of the one-party era meant that those newly in power in the multiparty era had sudden access to what they saw as a ready cash cow that could be milked anyhow. For once, politics became the fastest way to accumulate wealth without having to work hard or be accountable to anyone.

With the economy still undeveloped, there were not many rich individuals who could fund political parties from private wealth. The public purse became an obvious target. With international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund insisting on the privatisation of public assets, ruling party politicians found an easy way of transferring wealth from public control into private pockets. Malawi lost national assets such as the Malawi Development Corporation, the Malawi Book Service, the Malawi Railways and numerous other institutions. This was a cashgate mindset at work.

The curse of low salaries
Malawi has always had low salaries in the civil and in the public service. That this was a problem was not obvious during the centralised economy of the one-party era which prohibited individuals from amassing excessive wealth. In the early years of multiparty the UDF government made an attempt at restructuring salary scales in the government. Erstwhile president Dr. Bakili Muluzi commissioned an inquiry, whose findings became commonly known as the Chatsika Report (1995). The report recommended new salary structures, but it also recommended trimming the size of the civil service.

The government warned that it would have to reduce the size of the civil service of almost 120, 000 at the time by half in order to be able to increase salaries. Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on the Economy at the time, Dr. Cassim Chilumpha, was quoted as saying the government would have to raise US$ 660 million (K1 billion at the time) “to fully implement the recommendations of the Chatsika Report” (Malawi News Online, April 1997). Dr Chilumpha, who was also Minister of Justice and Attorney General at the time, argued that pumping such a huge amount of money into the economy would “trigger high inflation” and would render useless the Chatsika recommendations. Most goods, he warned, would be too expensive.

Even worse, warned Dr. Chilumpha, the country would be burdened with borrowed money and accruing interest, discouraging investments and savings. The UDF government's position was that it was better to “share the little there is and retain most of its work force.” There were obvious merits in the government’s argument at the time, but it is up to economic historians to put into perspective the consequences of that decision.

In a 2005 article titled “Public Finance Management Reform in Malawi” economists Dick Durevall and Mattias Erlandsson from Göteborg University in Sweden argue that numerous efforts to restructure civil service salaries failed over the decades due to entrenched elite interests. Many top civil servants were paid salaries close to those in the private sector, and restructuring the salaries would benefit low and middle level civil servants more than they would benefit top civil servants. Durevall and Erlandsson dispute the recommendation made in the Chatsika Report to cut the civil service by half, arguing that Malawi’s civil service has always been much smaller than that of comparable countries in the region.

In an Economics Association of Malawi (ECAMA) lecture he gave in August 2013, Professor Thandika Mkandawire pointed out that while other countries had ratios of 1:12 for civil servants and the total population, Malawi’s ratio was more than 1:100. Professor Mkandawire’s observation about the small size of Malawi’s civil service supports the argument by Durevall and Erlandsson, raising the question of how the country has been unable to have adequate numbers of civil servants while paying them well.

What has happened instead has been a cashgate mindset at work. Groups of elites have set about changing the salaries and benefits regimen for their own benefit, leaving behind those beneath them. Durevall and Erlandsson point out in their article that in 2003 only 35 percent of the civil service wage bill was made up of salaries, while 66 percent comprised allowances. International travel allowances are particularly generous, by far dwarfing monthly salaries. No wonder international trips are a big motivating factor for top civil servants, and a huge cause of resentment amongst low level civil servants who are effectively barred from such benefits.

The private sector was able to carry out salary restructuring, with the result that profitable corporations now offer salaries and benefits that are much more attractive than civil service salaries. It must be pointed out however that such attractive salaries and benefits are the preserve of elite managers and senior employees. Employees in lower ranks are paid low salaries, with huge gaps between the top and the bottom levels, even when educational qualifications are not significantly wide.

Inequality as a root cause
Such discrepancies in salary structures both in government and in the private sector have led to unprecedented levels of social and economic inequality. The inequality has created enormous amounts of resentment, which find expression in the most unexpected ways. Inequality in remuneration leads employees to engage in money-making ventures, including setting up businesses and travelling to commercial centres in and outside the country when they are supposed to be working for their employer and for the public.

Government employees demand bribes to do routine jobs such as issuing passports, drivers’ licences, or business permits. Lowly paid police officers demand bribes to work on cases, or to issue police reports. The cash system of paying for traffic offences on the spot makes it easy for one to pay a small bribe and get away without having to pay an unreasonably exorbitant penalty.

There was a time in Malawi when strangers would come to one’s rescue; today people demand payment for the simplest help. It is not that people have become heartless for no reason. They have seen others become inexplicably rich while they have continued to wallow in poverty with no hope of ever seeing their economic lives improve. Such inequality breeds a type of insidious anger clueless elites find difficult to understand. As some seem to prosper while others stagnate, there has gradually emerged a culture of “tidye nawo.”

Those elected into public office have been in the forefront of promoting the “tidye nawo” culture. Having no fresh ideas for how to find long lasting solutions that would improve the lot of Malawians, they have found it easier to canvass for their own interests. Hardly a year passes by without the Malawi parliament moving a motion to increase their salaries and perks. Instead of benefitting poor Malawians and graduating the country out of perpetual food crises, the Farm Input Subsidy Programme has become a cashcow for entrenched elite interests.

Ironically, their failure to enact a better remuneration package for government workers and to address problems of poverty in their constituencies comes back to haunt them. Malawian parliamentarians spend a good chunk of their money giving hand-outs to poor people for school fees, medical expenses, funeral expenses, wedding expenses, hunger relief and other forms of charity. 

No wonder many parliamentarians choose to live in urban areas away from their constituencies, only coming back during campaign time. Many of those clamouring to run for parliament live in towns and cities but want to represent people living in remote villages.

It is not surprising that the government and the political leadership have sought to cash in on cashgate. While Malawians were perplexed with anger and bewilderment, the government and the leadership were busy claiming that cashgate was a “breakthrough”, a testimony to their efforts to stamp out corruption. But Malawians know better.

Unsung heroes
Thus far the untold story has been of those who decided enough was enough and it was time to stop looking away. These unsung heroes include ordinary Malawians who tipped off the police and assisted them in investigations. They include police officers who rose to the call of duty and made daring arrests, uncovering some of the stolen money and property. They also include government employees, low level, middle level and top level, who knew it was time to act and put a stop to the runaway train of elite robbery and executive impunity. The media and civil society took a leading role in exposing the travesty for the world to see.

These are Malawians who have not been corrupted by the “cashgate mindset.” They work against the current, taking on high profile individuals who mastermind fraud and deception and hope to get away with it. These are Malawians who prove that it is possible for Malawi to turn around for the better and address the entrenched inequality that is tearing the country asunder. They know that it is possible for the country to exorcise the cashgate ghost that has controlled our minds for decades. They inspire the rest of us in taking our respective roles and doing what is in our capacity to make Malawi a better place for everyone.

Note: This article appears in the February 2014 issue of The Lamp Magazine.

What happened to creative writing in Malawi?

The Nation newspaper has raised the alarm over the quality of creative writing in the country. Judges in several national writing competitions have pointed out the quality of entries is very poor it is clear something has happened to creative writing in Malawi.

In order to find a more satisfactory answer to the question as to what has happened to Malawian creative writing, it would be a good idea for the Malawi Writers Union (MAWU) to team up with an English Department in one of the prominent universities to do a study of this phenomenon. A starting point would be to survey a few hundred creative writers, young and old, and ask them about their reading and writing habits and contexts.

I must confess I don't read or write as much fiction as I used to. One reason is because there's a lot to read nowadays online. A lot of my writing nowadays is expository; feature articles and opinion pieces for my blog and for op-ed pages. And that's what drives my reading habits also. I read a lot of expository writing; essays, articles, and opinions. Some of it is also for work purposes in the form of reports.

If I can offer some informed guesses why creative writing is facing problems in Malawi, it could be due to the question of what young Malawian writers are reading these days. Reading is fundamental to writing and thinking. The quality of what is available for reading could be a big factor in what has happened to creative writing in Malawi. I can think of four factors to elaborate this point.

The late Chinua Achebe and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka:
Are young Malawian writers reading some of Africa's and the world's best writers?

The first factor could be the availability of well-written literature by writers from Malawi, from the Southern African region, and from the rest of the world. Let's face it, our bookshop industry collapsed. This happened due to neoliberal policies introduced soon after we adopted multiparty politics in the mid-1990s. The bulk of books one now finds in the few bookshops we have available are for study purposes; for people studying all kinds of programmes, the majority being business management and finance-related fields. There are Malawian bookshops that do not carry a single Malawian fiction book, new or old.

The second factor is the quality of teaching in secondary schools, colleges and universities. The roots of this problem lie in the general problems Malawi's public education system has been facing due to large classes, poor teaching and learning resources, low salaries, and low morale amongst teachers. Most school libraries have very few books outside the syllabus. Even some of our best secondary schools don't stock enough copies of books on the syllabus. One English teacher recently told me she has six copies of one literature title for a class of 60. What this means is that we have students who sit MSCE without having read a single literature book in its entirety.

Of the many private universities that are mushrooming across the country, very few offer humanities courses where people can study languages and literature, creative writing and literary criticism. The University of Malawi has been operating without a university bookshop for some eighteen years now. Funding problems in the universities mean that even the university libraries are unable to stock new literature.

The third factor is the abandonment of research in Malawian languages: The deliberate policy to exclude Malawian languages from official business in government and in public life, and in the economy means that local languages are not developing. They are stuck in the past. Creative writing benefits from language development, and the development of local languages influences writing and publishing in other languages.

A fourth factor is the poor incentives for good writing. Malawi does have very good writers in local languages and in English, but they have to put food on the table first. Writing does not pay well enough to allow these writers to spend time developing good fiction. So we have lots of young people populating the fiction pages in weekend papers and in competitions without the guidance of expert writers and good writing.

What can we do to improve the quality of creative writing in Malawi?

It is useful to point out that MAWU and other individuals are doing a commendable job encouraging students and organising competitions. But there is need to do more trainings and workshops alongside these competitions. There is a thriving creative culture amongst a few individuals in cities such as Lilongwe. The Living Room hosts open mic readings every Wednesday evening, although this is a niche for a small group of people. The launch of the Story Club by Shadreck Chikoti is an excellent initiative, and more such clubs appear to be on the rise. In 2012 Caine Prize finalist Stanley Onjezani Kenani launched Malawi Write, a website that publishes high quality Malawian writing.

There is a big need to incentivise creative writing. As weekend newspapers are the commonest medium for publishing fiction, newspaper publishers need to take a special interest in creative writing. They could invite particular, well-known writers to write good stories and pay them attractive amounts. The more Malawians are exposed to excellent creative writing the better the creative writing that Malawians will be producing. That was the idea behind the website Malawi Write. The newspapers can consider sponsoring established writers to hold workshops for young writers. They can also organise literary contests.

We must augment efforts to promote the teaching of language and literature in schools and universities. Schools need to emphasise the importance of language and literature in cultivating critical minds. Students should be encouraged to read more books beyond what's on the syllabus. Private universities need to include language and literature in their curricula, and to develop university libraries that stock good Malawian and world literature.
Publishers have always complained that Malawians don't buy books, and so literature is a loss-making venture for them. It's a chicken and egg situation. Publishers need to support schools and libraries in promoting reading and writing. The more Malawians become interested in reading and writing the more sales publishers will realise, thereby promoting reading and writing.

We should also work on government policy. We need government policies that can promote the availability of reasonably priced books in the bookshops. Tax on books and imported paper should be reduced so as to bring down the cost of books and newspapers. The absence of a prominent public university in the capital city deprives Lilongwe of an intellectual culture that can drive both the arts and the humanities, and science and technology. The government needs to make the construction of a big public university, or the expansion of existing public University of Malawi colleges in Lilongwe, as a priority in higher education.

Reclaiming the Youth Space: The Next Agenda for Young Malawians

Keynote address given at the Youth Consultative Forum's National Consultative Meeting and Annual General Meeting
6 February, 2014, Crown Hotel, Lilongwe

Youth Consultative Forum annual general meeting
6 Feb 2014, Crown Hotel, Lilongwe
It is interestingly fitting that the Youth Consultative Forum is holding its Annual General Meeting exactly one week after Malawi hosted the BBC Africa Debate at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine in Blantyre. Is it by design? That debate last week focused everyone’s mind in Malawi and in the BBC’s global listenership on issues of youth and what is being termed the ‘demographic dividend.’ As you may recall, the debate’s question was: ‘Africa’s youth population: opportunity or risk.’

The debate’s moderators, Nomsa Maseko and Nkem Ifejika, opened the debate by asking for a show of hands: how many people in the audience saw Malawi’s youth population as an opportunity? How many people saw it as a risk? A rough count of the hands showed an overwhelming response for the risk part. Many in that audience felt that Malawi’s growing youth population was a risk. I raised my hand for the opportunity part, although as the debate wore on, I modified my thinking and felt that Malawi’s growing youth population could be both a risk and an opportunity.  The difference lay in what policies were enacted, what resources were made available, and how much space young people were able to claim for themselves.

I got a chance to speak towards the end of the debate, and said that the statistics were depressing: Malawi has 4.2 million primary school learners. Out of a population of 14-15 million, that means more than a quarter of our population is in primary school. Now comes the depressing part: from 4.2 million in primary school, we come down to only 260,000 students in secondary school. And it gets worse. Out of 260,000 students in secondary school, we have only 13,000 in the universities, public and private combined. That is 0.4 percent of the appropriate age-cohort. The technical and vocational schools have even less, at 9,000 students.

What these numbers paint is a picture of alarming inequality in Malawi; we have an enormous gap between the rich and the poor. The education sector is both a reflection of this, as well as a catalysing factor of this inequality. Less than half of primary school learners, that is 38 percent, finish primary school. For girls, it is 35 percent. The majority of these are in rural Malawi and among the ranks of the urban poor. The most educated 10 percent of Malawians use 73 percent of the resources available. In the universities, 95 percent of students come from the wealthiest 5 percent of Malawians. Private schools dominate university selection; 80 percent of the university population is from private schools.

It is not surprising why most people in the BBC debate saw Malawi’s growing youth population as a risk. As a country, we have not invested much in the youth. At the debate, the Secretary for Youth was unable to say what the budget for his ministry was. It was both a lighter moment, as well as a serious one. The conclusion most people reached was that the budget for the Ministry of Youth is so small that it would have been an embarrassment to mention it to a global audience.

Now to be fair to the Secretary for Youth, the amount of money and resources allocated to his ministry is not representative on the total amount spent on the youth in the country. There are other amounts spent in other ministries, as well as in other initiatives, that also go to the youth. Ministries such as education, gender, health, trade and industry, and initiatives such as the Malawi Rural Development Fund (MARDEF), the Youth Entrepreneurial Development Fund, allocate money and resources to the youth. As the Secretary told the BBC debate audience, some of the ministry’s funding also goes straight to districts.

As well-meaning as are these efforts and initiatives, the investment in the youth is still very minimal, owing in large part to the small size of our economy. And then there are gargantuan inefficiencies, caused by both capacity problems, as well as politicisation and lopsided prioritisation processes. The net effect of these problems has been a massive loss of self-confidence and paralysing cynicism, understandably so. 

But this is where the youth of Malawi have realised they have to step in. This is where the Youth Consultative Forum is leading the effort to reclaim the youth space. And your work is cut out for you as you strategise on how to “Give Back to Mother Malawi.”

The country needs a different kind of engagement with the youth. The youth of today are different from the youth of the previous generation, yet the mindsets of older Malawians remain unchanged. There is a generation gap manifesting itself in a clash of mindsets. The institutional culture remains stuck in a mindset that treats young people as a tabula rasa, an empty mind that needs filling with adult advice and supervision. Unfortunately, this includes the education system.

Despite curricular changes in the education system aimed at engaging students in a more meaningful and more participatory way, many educators still believe in lecturing to young people and telling them what to do (if I seem to be doing that in this talk, it is for purposes of debate). You can see the results of this disconnect in the system itself. Hardly a week goes by without hearing of students vandalising their own school and disrupting their own learning. In the larger society, the loss of confidence in our institutions has led to an escalation of mob violence and destruction of police stations.

The challenge is for young Malawians to take charge and claim their space in a way that is constructive and forward-thinking. This was reflected in the views expressed at the BBC debate. The most important way of doing is through self-education. And the starting point is familiarisation with current research and policy formulation so as to reclaim your space well-informed and well-prepared.

Your contributions to the problems of unemployment need to be cognisant of the fact that this is one of the biggest global policy issues today. It is therefore important for you to know what the research is saying, both domestically and globally. Your contributions need to focus on how to increase the productivity of the youth. Economists say that the only way for an economy to grow is for more people to be productive. For Malawi, the question is in what ways can young Malawians be economically productive? The answers are not easy, but the type of education available to young people is the key issue.

You have to deal with the national confidence crisis. While it is true that many of us feel hopeless, not everyone is paralysed by the cynicism and hopelessness. There are Malawians, many of them young people, who are doing a lot to make Malawi a better place. It is important to identify these Malawians and celebrate them. This is the best way of inspiring ourselves as a nation and re-injecting national confidence into our society.

You need to engage with the question of what really caused the cashgate crisis, in both its historical context as well as in its current manifestation. And you can not analyse the root causes of cashgate without discussing social and economic inequality, which has reached crisis proportions. If we do not learn lessons from cashgate, and what lies at the root of the problem, we are bound to have more cashgates generation after generation. It does not need to be that way.

You will need to engage in the national discussion on girls’ education, which is now taking centre stage. While the numbers I presented earlier are very bad for most young people, they are worse for girls. And they translate into a bigger gender problem. We are a very sexist society, as is much of the world. Do not jump onto the bandwagon of painting all women with a single brush of paralytic cynicism based on what is said to be the performance of one woman.

Nor should you join those who are making the sweeping statement that in the fifty years we have been independent the country has achieved nothing. That statement is made out of understandable frustration, but if you entertain that thought you are bound to let your sadness about the country’s state of affairs paralyse you into further cynicism and inaction. Paralysis of thought impedes progressive thinking. No doubt the country has not lived up to its potential in the 50 years of independence, but it is you young Malawians who can change that and usher in new thinking and new realities.

Lastly, May 20 is approaching, and there will be a lot of drama. It has been very encouraging to see a lot of young Malawians getting involved in the process. Be mindful of the ever-present danger to get co-opted into orthodox thinking and perpetuating failed practices and beliefs about politics. 

In closing, I would like to thank the YCF executive and secretariat for working very hard to make this annual general meeting a reality. I would also like to thank Action Aid for providing much-needed sponsorship. Special thanks go to all of you who have come today.

I wish you a great time of reflection, strategizing and reclaiming your space.

Thank you very much!