My next guest is a Lecturer and Academic, writer, news media & communications scholar. His interests include political and social changes in Sub Saharan Africa including Malawi. You can find out more about him on his website Spirit of Umunthu.
Jimmy Kainja, thank you very much for taking the time to do the 100 Voices interview.
Q 1: As a Malawian, how important is Malawi’s Socio-Economic stability to you and your family?
Who wants socioeconomic instability? Can anyone succeed in anything where there is no socioeconomic stability?
Q 2: After nearly 50 years since independence, what visible progress do you think Malawi has made since independence, and in your view, what pressing challenges remain? In view of those challenges, what do you think is the role of government and the people in tackling those challenges?
Nearly 50 years of independence Malawi remain donor dependent country. About 40% of its annual budget come this donors, this is huge and its impact on Malawi economy was laid bare 2 years ago when Bingu wa Mutharika decided to chase off the donors. The economy nosedived in a blink of an aye. So political independence, yes, the battle now is for economic independence.
I am 1980s baby so it will be hard for me to analyse “visible” progress of the whole 50 years of independence. But I am sure everyone would agree that Malawi is much better than it was when it attained independence in 1964. More doctors, more schools, more universities, more roads, better communications services etc. However, all these fall way short of what would be expected of a country in its 50th year of independence. If there is a country in afrika that can objectively be used as a yardstick for Malawi, than its Zambia. Zambia has now graduated to a middle-income country while Malawi has not. In fact all development indicators show that countries surrounding Malawi are doing much better than Malawi.
Both government and private sector have a role to play in tackling the persisting problems. BUT the government is a prime and a key player. It needs to provide conducive environment for this to happen. It has an autonomy of what happens with the national boundaries, the influence of private sector is limited and in many cases secondary to the government.
Q 3: As someone who lived(or has lived) outside Malawi for some time, and has been exposed to modern and progressive ideas, what symbols of development in the foreign country in which you lived have had the greatest impact on you, and why?
Efficiency in public service delivery; people’s love for their country; and a shared national vision which ensures that national policies are priorities over personal and political party interests. In Malawi a change of ruling party means dismantling everything starting all over again. In developed democracies it is the civil service that is tasked with ensuring continuation of national policies, regardless who is in power. Malawi civil service needs to be independent of political influence. This is important.
Q 4: What lessons do you think Malawians and the Malawian leadership can learn from those ideas?
I don’t think it’s the lack of knowledge, I know a lot of people with brilliant ideas but they act otherwise. I think its the mind-set and the system that needs to change. People in positions of power do things with impunity, they do things simply because they can. This has to stop. Due process ought to be valued and respected
Q 5: When you last returned to Malawi, what struck you the most as the greatest sign of improvement or development since the last time you left?
I would say the younger generation. There are a lot of young, ambitious and determined Malawians to do and achieve things. Malawi’s ICTs industry has also taken off and most Malawians aware and they keep up with global events than they did a decade ago. That said, I also noticed a huge and growing gulf between the haves and have nots. Urban poverty is a massive and grown problem, especially in the two major cities – Blantyre and Lilongwe.
Q 6: What struck you the most as the biggest sign of stagnation or regression?
Lack of opportunities for young educated population, both urban and poor; poor governance; lack of vision and lack of clear policies to lift Malawi from the poverty trap, most important wean itself from donor dependency.
Q 7: Malawians will be going to the polls in 2014, to elect a new president. In your view what kind of leader does Malawi NEED, considering the country’s current challenges? And specifically, how should that leader approach the top job in terms of creating sustainable development and foreign reducing aid dependency?
Everything I have said above, especially point 6. Also I don’t really think it’s the leadership he/herself that matter. We are past the age of charismatic leadership; you can’t replace charismatic leadership, what is need is proper structures and institutions in place. Leaders only need to be able to work and respect those institutions/structure. These are better guiders of development. Can you imagine one of the big talking points being the president’s refusal to declare assets?
Q 8: As you know, Tobacco is Malawi’s biggest source of export revenue. Looking at the problems that have plagued the tobacco industry in recent times, what alternatives do you think Malawi has besides Tobacco, and why are they viable alternatives?
These are kind of issues that should have been dominating public discourse by now but we are fixated on personal egos and endeavours. Malawi is a second largest producer of tea in Afrika, after Kenya, I don’t know why we have not encouraged more of that. Recently, the country has started paying more attention into extractive industry, I don’t know the amount of such commodities that Malawi holds, The Financial Times recently said Malawi could hold the largest deposits of rare earths in Afrika. So maybe there’s something, but it needs to be handled with care, to avoid environmental disasters and also because these are none renewable. Malawi is also seriously lacking expertise in this industry.
Another way of boosting the economy is to boost cross-boarder trade. We need better communication. This is a serious problem in Afrika. It is easier for me to catch a flight to London than Tanzania or Mozambique, yet these two are our neighbours.
Q 9: Considering our troubled history with donors and funders such as the IMF and World Bank, most recently when Bingu Wa Mutharika was president, how do you see Malawi progressing from this relationship in view of the criticisms these organisations have received in the media across the world?
Mutharika’s experiment has left a disaster for Malawi. Everyone who witnessed what happened when Mutharika rubbed donors the wrong way would not want to repeat that. This means leaders becoming subservient to donors, like Joyce Banda is at the moment. It’s easy to blame her but the fact is almost everyone in her shoes would have done it. Malawi needs a national policy, a clear direction to weaning ourselves off aid dependency. I am sure donors themselves would support such initiative. What happened to vision 2020? We need it revived. Malawi need it as early as yesterday! Read it if you haven’t.
Q 10: We now know that Malawi has some precious minerals, including Uranium, possibly oil and other natural resources. How do you think the present government is doing regarding managing Malawi’s natural resources?
Appalling. Paladin Africa was given “tax incentive” deal to operate at Keyekera mine, the result is that Malawi is losing huge sums of money. I don’t have figures on top of my head but annually, it is enough to pay for our cash-strapped university education system. As I have said, Malawi is seriously lacking experts in this area. I hear the ministry concerned have engaged experts from a Scottish University and one other to help establish courses/training on these issues at universities of Malawi and Mzuzu.
Q 11: In your view, can the government do better to manage natural resources? If so, how can it do better?
Engage experts, people that actually know what they are doing. Government knows it, hence the efforts to involve the above-said institutions. I think government should be commended for the idea but it needs to be implemented. There have been a lot of promises in this country that never materialise.
Q12: What is your answer to increasing transparency and eradicating corruption which is plaguing most governments across Africa?
Transparency is a key prerequisite for any development effort, it is the case in any given institution; it encourages trust and work ethic. Even at a family level, couples that talk and share stuff openly are happier and more effective. But I don’t think corruption in Afrika is a sole cause of the persistent problems on the continent. In many cases I think it is a product of it. It differs from one place to another. It is easier to discuss Afrika the country, not Afrika the continent with 54 distinct countries.
Q13: Any famous last words