My congratulations to President Arthur Peter Mutharika (APM) for winning the 2014 presidential elections in Malawi are aptly late. Over 2 months late – I’m somewhat embarrassed, but just as the lateness was not entirely of my own doing, maybe as a consequence of it (possibly even in spite of it), a lot more thought has gone into preparing these ‘congratulations’ than would have been the case if I had offered them the day APM claimed victory. Had I made haste, the congrats would have been too brief and would lack substance.
In earnest, this post is more of a call to action than an expression of pleasantries. And what better time to do it than when the President is in the US, to meet Barack Obama at the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Pardon me for comparing the picture of 50 African leaders congregating in Washington DC to meet a US President, with governors being summoned to Rome to meet the Emperor, a summon by the Emperor to rulers of the provinces.
Except in this picture, the United states is not really an empire in the classical sense (if we ignore the economic sense for a moment). Neither are the 50 countries which have been invited to Washington, and are sending their leaders, governors of US provinces. So the question is, why comply to such a request at all?
The simple and shortest answer is DOLLARS. Our world is controlled by the stuff. And even though the institution that issues currency in the US is essentially a private consortia of unknown entities (they are secret), the scheme of things is that most parts of the world today are currently dancing to the tune of Washington (and possibly to the tune of those who lend to Washington) , in the same way as at the height of the Roman empire, a large part of the civilised world did what Rome said, and were subjects to the political and economic power of ROME.
And while the rise of China could curb the dollar dominance, that’s not really what I want to talk about today.
Mr President, as a well-educated man, I’m sure you know that there’s nothing wrong with Malawi forming alliances with bigger and more powerful countries. It is beneficial because such alliances can provide access to capital, if not attract inward investment (Your inaugural speech touched on this). Further they are potentially a conduit of technology transfer – which could have huge benefits for a country like Malawi.
Malawi needs developed allies, whether they are from the East, West, North or South.
However, who ultimately benefits from these alliances? Who gets the lion’s share? Are these deals really win-win situations? Could they be made to be win-win situations if they are not? Or is the bigger player benefitting more than the smaller player?
For example if a Chinese or American company invests $300 million into Malawi’s railway infrastructure, mining or agricultural sector, how much of that investment will genuinely foster long-term sustainable growth? A kind of growth in which ordinary Malawians are set to genuinely benefit from the deal? In layman terms, we might ask how many people will have their livelihood transformed by the investment such that they achieve or are likely to achieve long-term financial independence?
I think these questions must be asked, and addressed because it probably will not be of significant benefit to Malawians, if investors are persuaded to invest, but there is no strategy to safeguard the long-term rewards of the investment to ordinary Malawians.
An effective system needs to be created and implemented whereby revenue sharing (between investors and the government / local people) is as much a priority as the luring of investors. Maybe a good place to start would be to create investment organisations or government agencies such as this one in Angola, whose task is to iron out investment rules and create a win-win strategy. Indeed the rhetoric between Beijing and Luanda has increasingly been of creating ‘win-win’ business partnerships.
Malawi should learn something from such partnerships.
This is what most major powers today did in the heydays of their economies. Japan has these agencies, Britain established them many years ago, Germany has them (and has large manufacturing and investment zones which are testament to the success of these agencies), even China has a good number of them. And if you look at younger economies, like Australia and New Zealand, even there you’ll find them. Thus, it’s no surprise that a country such as Iran operates a few of these vehicles. With that benefit of hindsight, is it not important for Malawi to develop Government investment agencies?
The technical projects of Bingu Wa Mutharika’s government were an excellent idea. And it is in your government’s best interest if these were successfully completed. We need more high quality educational institutions that will train our workforce, and empower them with skills that they will need to do their jobs well. Transferable skills which they can use in various scenarios. For this to happen we need to train teachers and lecturers abroad, to access this knowledge and impart it on our students. We also need to attract foreign specialists who already possess this knowledge, and bring them to Malawian institutions so that they can impart their knowledge onto our students. We need to broaden the subjects on offer at our institutions, and we need to make higher education more accessible. Here, the use of technology may be useful, in that video technologies that allow the creation of ‘virtual classrooms’ could provide an excellent (and cheaper) way of technology transfer. Here also is the need for equipment most paramount. Your government would be best advised to source as much educational equipment from other countries or educational institution as can be possible. This can be a real game changer in terms of the quality of graduates we train.
Mr President, if there’s one critical limiting factor to Africa’s economic development, whose negative effects don’t need re-articulating, it is corruption. The practice is killing the continent. And if nothing is done to curb the prevalence, and extent, we will never catch up with the rest of the world. In Malawi, the Cashgate crisis has put this issue in sharp contrast. And an opportunity has arisen in that addressing corruption in Malawi could close the loopholes for good, safeguarding public funds, and paving the way for sustainable economic development. It is crucial that the perpetrators of the Cashgate scandal be brought to book without selection or bias because this will give people confidence in your government. It really is in your best interest that our government in Malawi becomes clean. A cleaner government is a stronger government. And a stronger government has a better chance of creating and maintaining a strong economy, than one which is inherently corrupt. Examples of this relationship stretch from recent governments in Norway, all the way back to the Roman empire I referenced to above.
Bringing in Muluzi into government was a good and commendable gesture. Although many people I’ve spoken to have doubted whether he has the experience for his current office, I think having him in government is a positive thing. But that aside, I think trying to find common ground, and inviting the opposition into government should go much further. There are many talented people in Malawi. Proud Malawians who have immense talents – but who are not utilised and therefore feel left out. Maybe the creation of Parliamentary committees enables participation on some level, but more must be done. I’d think new blood like Juliana Lungudzi and several other young politicians could do more if entrusted with responsibility within government. Why? Because Malawi needs fresh ideas, and different people have different ideas they bring to the table depending on their experiences. Yet ultimately, we all want Malawi to develop, to do better, so it would be in our own interest if everyone participated. I urge you Sir, to empower this parliament to be different, to be united and a force for good on behalf of ordinary citizens. The way to do that is to keep the legislators busy with meaningful projects that have a real prospect to effect change. And to keep jealousy firmly locked out.
5. Federal System of Governance
This goes without saying, but power shared is responsibility shared. There’s little justification why a country the size of Malawi with a population over 13 million should restrict itself by virtue of its system of government. And one man can never fully cater to the needs of 13 million people. Neither can 192 people – no matter how prolific – do enough to improve the lives of so many people. A Federal System could change that. It will bring more people into participation in the building of our economy, and the power bestowed upon them will enable them to undertake projects free from the control or bureaucracy of a centralised system. Across the world, there are many examples of countries with Federal Systems that work far better than those with centralised systems, and as an expert in law, I’m sure this issue is evident to you.
See this and this (which includes a reference to the Shire-Zambezi Water Way). Increased infrustructure will open our continent up, and make it easier for people to do business. It will also lower the associated costs of investment – a factor which could attract more investors.
7. Investment into Manufacturing and Business
In order to be less reliant on products sourced from outside, we need to develop our own manufacturing sector. Why should we buy from outside things which we can make or source quite cheaply within our own borders? With tobacco earnings set to drop, now could be the time to diversify into manufacturing. After all, China is increasingly becoming an expensive destination for western companies – many are looking for alternatives. Creation of incubation and business centres is also a necessary prerequisite to sustainable economic development. If you make the cost of doing business low in your country, many people will flourish and reward your government handsomely in increased tax contributions.
8. Subsistence farming and preservation of Small Industries
There are lessons to be learned from the Farm Input Subsidy Programme. And your government would be best advised to listen to what the people want. Thus, how many fishermen who currently use canoes for their trade would do better with a boat? How many farmers who use hoes to prepare the fields could benefit from a cooperative that lends out a tractor? Similarly, what should the government do to help industries such as these: How second-hand clothes kill business for Malawi’s tailors.
Our culture of accountability needs to be restored in Malawi. People should not do wrong (be it in a parastatal or top civil service position) and think they can get away with it. A good way forward would be for regular performance reviews not only for ministers, but also ordinary civil servants, preferably to be undertaken by external auditors (to minimise the prospect of favouritism developing into self-accountability). That way we would be replacing entitlement (where people think they have a right to a job – even when they are not qualified for it / when they are bad workers) with accountability. Similarly, it must never be right for an investor whose company has earned millions of dollars through doing business in Malawi, to evade tax, legitimately, on Malawian soil. The loopholes need to be closed shut.
10. Increased Trade with other African countries.
I urge you sir to be an advocate of the Africa brand. We need to import more from our immediate neighbours than from farther afield. We need to lobby the west to act in reducing cost of remittances. We need Africans to do more business with other Africans. See this for more information.
11. Security and Safety
We need to restore our confidence in the police. Malawi needs more security, not only along our borders but within our towns and cities. People in Malawi don’t feel safe anymore. Not like how safety used to be defined in the 70’s and 80’s. If we can’t afford police cars, let the government buy our police officers motorcycles (which are cheaper to run), so that they are able to respond to calls for help.
12. Investment in International markets
Malawi and other African countries need to invest in international markets. This should be a strategic and long-term initiative. We need to create organisations that invest in global companies around the world, so that the dividends therefrom are wired back to our countries in Africa, boosting our economies, and thereby contributing to our continent’s economic growth. Just see this article titled Bleeding Money: Africa Is A Net Creditor To The World, Illicit Outflow Actually Exceeds Inflow Of Aid, Investment, to understand why this is necessary. It’s urgent.
Mr president, Malawians are looking up to you now. They need leadership accompanied by action, and less of the empty promises of previous regimes.
Once again, congratulations Mr President Sir!