Bad & Deceitful Counsel: Malawi’s unutilised advisers

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There’s an old Ghanaian proverb that says When a King has good counsellors, his reign is peaceful.

This proverb essentially means a leader is defined by the circumstances and people around him. If a King is surrounded by good and honest people, wise men and women of good repute, truly knowledgeable and full of wisdom and grace, it is highly likely that they will provide sound advice to him; it is also highly likely that they will foresee potentially troublesome situations well in advance.

The result will be that the King will make good decisions, and fewer mistakes; the advisers will shine a torch for him, to see where the potholes are, all of which will benefit the people of the land he rules.

On the other hand, if a King’s advisers are unwise, evil or plain bad, if they are more interested in accumulating wives, wealth and personal possessions, and power, their advice is unlikely to be sound or helpful. They are more likely to give that King the wrong kind of advice, and if he listens or implements such bad advice, it is likely that his reign will be disastrous. Indeed many mistakes will be made, and the people of the land will be the ones who will suffer most.

The assumption implicit in these scenarios are that the King does listen to his advisers, since it is possible to have a wise King who happens to have a few bad advisers amongst the majority good ones, but who is strong enough (mentally) to filter out the bad advice he receives, selecting only that which is progressive and helpful for the realm, leaving out the crap.

There are too many examples of sayings or scenarios similar to this proverb throughout history, although a few are worth a mention.

In Genesis chapter 26 verse 26, we are told that Abimelech, the Philistine King went to Beersheba to see Isaac from Gerar with his adviser Ahuzzath and Phicol the commander of his army. This is one of the earliest mention of the presence of an adviser in the Bible and some scholars say Ahuzzath may have been a  ‘friend’ or ‘minister’ to Abimelech. But whichever way, if you read the story in full, you will see that throughout the period Abimelech lived at peace with Abraham’s son, save for a few minor scuffles between their herdsmen. It’s quite possible that this peaceful co-existence was largely due to the advice the Philistine leader received from his advisers. Indeed many stories in the old testament testify of the eventual downfall of Kings primarily because they listened to the wrong type of advice, ignored the right kind of advice, or sought no advice at all.

For those who disbelieve the Bible, dismissing it as a collection of fairly tales, maybe the influence of Piers Gaveston on Edward II of England will convince you. He was an adviser to Edward II and according to one account here

 Piers Gaveston was a knight’s son who had been Edward’s friend since boyhood. When Edward, still a prince, feuded with important officials in his father’s court, Gaveston was seen as the cause, and was sent to exile. Summoning him home was Edward II’s first royal act. Gaveston was made Earl of Cornwall, but his political fights with the existing nobility would define the rest of his life, which didn’t last long. The nobility, without whose money and prestige and feudal armies Edward could not run the country, forced Gaveston into exile twice more in the next five years. He was never openly attacked for his sexuality, but instead was hated because he gave advice to the king that was no good, and the king should be taking the real nobility’s advice, anyway. In 1311 a committee of aristocrats and bishops imposed a series of Ordinances on the king, which declared that “through bad and deceitful counsel, our lord the king and all his men have everywhere been dishonoured.”

Bad and deceitful counsel. It’s one of many stories but it always ends pretty much the same way.

Although it doesn’t mean that even wise counsellors don’t get it wrong sometimes. In Daniel chapter 2 verse 24, we have Daniel pleading with  the executioner Arioch, who King Nebuchadnezzar had appointed to execute the wise men of Babylon (after they failed to interpret his dream) “Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him.”

More recently, during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, despite a somewhat positive and respectable legacy, the US government was involved in so many controversies many of which were the result of bad counsel perpetrated by more than just a few dodgy advisers. Reagan’s White House aide Michael Deaver and national security adviser Robert McFarlane were convicted of various offenses. MacFarlane pleaded guilty in 1988 to four misdemeanors of withholding information from Congress and was sentenced, but later pardoned by George H.W. Bush. Deaver was convicted of perjury for congressional testimony he submitted to a congressional subcommittee and federal grand jury investigating his lobbying activities with administration officials. Then there was Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger who was indicted but later also pardoned by Bush? The question is why didn’t Reagan refuse to authorise all these botched schemes?

At this point let us consider the well-known English idiom Birds of the same feather, flock together, and ask the question under what circumstances will a sensible leader allow people who are unlike him to influence him in some material way in terms of making decisions that have particularly far-reaching implications? After all what do crows (akhwangwala) know about hawks? Isn’t one bird a cowardly scavenger ever pursuing after leftovers, whereas the other is a bird of prey that is not only an able hunter, but belongs to the same group from which the King of the birds come. Shouldn’t there be an exercise of judgement?

But what has all this got to do with Malawi?

Well, these days as I talk to Malawians from all over the world, and read what other progressives are writing about in terms of development and the general climate on the ground in Malawi, I’m left surprised by the sheer number of good ideas they have. From the writing by one Malawian originally from Salima,  to those of another (who is not from Salima, but is nevertheless inspiring), I feel these kinds of ideas should be listened to? In any case, just because someone opposed a certain thing doesn’t mean that what they are advocating is not valid.

On this blog, I’ve purposely chosen to echo some of such views not because I’m sunk in an illusory world of familiar opinion. Instead, I believe that in the right hands, with the right leadership and mechanisms of oversight, with driven effectors, those same ideas these people advocate can help transform our country positively.

I mean take a look at the recent news headlines coming out of Malawi, can you see anything that you can point that has a chance of transforming a country with 14 million people? The Banning of Satchets? Breaking up Escom? Tobacco Sales (the country’s largest source of export revenue) in Lilongwe Suspended again

The news that populates the airwaves is not that of innovative ways of helping young people, or of increased Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as a result of a clean and conducive investment climate. Something which Paul Kagame in Rwanda has strived and just about achieved. No, the news on Malawi news channels is filled with accounts of dubious court cases (some on prosecution of embezzled funds by government officials, and another – a recent one –  in which it is alleged the president is suing a well-known UK-based activist); you hear of a presidential aide who is said to have bought a PhD from some serial con-artist – brilliantly seared here by one Pasteni Mauka (himself said to be a DPP insider in concert with other disgruntled DPP insiders, now turned against the clique running the show at Capital Hill);

As if this is not enough, then you read of charities pitying Malawians and sending them token gestures. And celebrities – all of which also serves to remind us all just how terrible the country’s situation is. Every single day I get about 3 different stories in my inbox, on various charitable efforts happening in Malawi. That’s over a thousand a year! What concrete progress has those efforts achieved all these years, especially in terms of sustainability and ensuring that the recipients stand on their own feet?

Here please allow me to digress: when was the last time you heard that some famous star had gone to Mauritius or to Malaysia to give alms? When did a wife of a billionaire wear a sari, mingling with the women who live in the slums of Mumbai? There are poor people in these countries – just as there are poor people in America, and in England. But such places are not ‘headline grabbing’. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but the fact is you rarely hear of such charitable visits…Instead it’s always a poor African country at the receiving end of do-gooders (most of whom I doub’t know these facts). Most recently it’s increasingly becoming fashionable to go do something charitable in Malawi. Malawi is fast becoming the Oxfam of the continent, if it hasn’t already done so.

It seems it’s easier to give Malawians fish, instead of a fishing rod. Because if you give them a fishing rod, you probably won’t be able to go back in 2 years time and pose for carricatured photos demonstrating your charitable kindness. Photos which you can then put up on Instagram and twitter for all the world to marvel at your fantastic heart.

Then there’s the regionalistic hatred (‘Ntumbuka’ uyu, ‘Mbwenu Mbwenu’…azipita kwawo) spewed shamelessly on the comments of these news sources I refer to … which frankly speaking shouldn’t be authorised on any news site; there are stories of police beating up innocent people – over some lame vendetta. And oh, I almost forgot – a presidential press secretary who writes a memo encouraging government ministries to advertise on a radio station with links to the presidency. And then accuses the radio station of forgery???

And in most of these things one must wonder where Peter Mutharika or his advisers are. Fine, you can’t expect a leader to hold everyone to a leash, but there has to be some ground rules, some responsibility, some direction. And when people screw up at government level -be they advisers or otherwise, they need to face the music. That’s the only way to restore public trust in politics.

So then, next time you meet a King or a leader, remember When a King has good counsellors, his reign is peaceful.

The press isn’t providing what the public desperately needs — news that matters

newsRemember my post here, regarding Press Reform in Malawi?

Well, consider this article here, titled ‘The press isn’t providing what the public desperately needs — news that matters’ that presents an all too common perspective over what we regard as the news. It’s written by one Dr. Denny Wilkins, and in this case, the field of concern is the US Press/ Media and Journalism sector.

A few snipets from the article are worth replicating on here:

The news in print dailies just isn’t done as well and as often these days as in the past. Print journalism just doesn’t do it for us any more. Yes, I know — newspapers companies have “news” websites. We could go there, I suppose. But who are the reporters writing for? You and me? Or the editors and publishers who want to see clicks and more clicks on stories….But the newspaper industry’s managers have largely abandoned journalism as a calling and replaced it with “content” as lowest common denominator for the masses. They assume we only react, that we no longer have the capacity to think. 

The artificial and inept news stories masquerading as objectivity serve none of us well in understanding all these issues in their full context. Newspapers (and they’re better than cable news) offer too many “he-said, she-said” stories. Too many one-source stories. Too much “false equivalence.” Too many “sources told me” stories. This summer, an ESPN reporter actually began a breathlessly intoned report like this: “I just spoke with a friend of Melo’s …” Really? Who was the friend? What was his or her relationship with NBA forward Carmelo Anthony? Why was the friend granted anonymity? That kind of reporting pervades today’s journalism — and too few of us protest this slipshod, careless, mindless attitude subverting an honorable craft.

The newsroom traits I learned as a working journalist in the ’70s and ’80s — fairness, balance, comprehensiveness, objectivity — retain their value for me. But, as I approach senility, objectivity as practiced today has become a sinecure behind which newsroom managers hide. (And don’t tell me reporters are doing too many stories under onerous deadlines because too few reporters exist these days to carry the load. That excuse has lost currency.)

Who can argue with that?

Press Reform: Time to create an independent media watchdog for Media Organisations in Malawi

projector-64149_1280Who regulates the Media in Malawi?

Who is it that will confront  the many dodgy online (and some who are not online) publications that have been known to create false stories against public figures out of no-where? What code of conduct do they subscribe to? Who is it that they are answerable to? Are their writers trained journalists conversant with established journalistic inquiry methods? What standards do they observe when they go about crafting their menace? When they concoct their heresies – who can chastise them? Who gets to rebuke those who push out false material into the unsuspecting public in an everything-goes fashion?

I’ve not suddenly become pro-establishment. I’ve not suddenly woken up today and dreamily decided to attack press freedoms.What I’m asking after a long contemplation of the news coming out of Malawi News portals in recent months is what exactly constitutes press freedoms? Can writing a story that one knows is false, that one knows didn’t happen, or that one suspects couldn’t be true, all in an attempt to create a stir, or appease a financier, does that qualify as ‘press freedoms’?

The questions above need to be carefully considered for a good number of reasons.

Firstly, as many Malawians who follow the news will know, we have been misled quite a number of times by the news agencies, and various publications, over issues from president Joyce Banda’s dealings in office, to  the current president’s sexuality. It’s simply not fair, or sustainable, or even professional for such kind of rubbish-pit chicanery to continue to splatter the media. Think false or twisted stories against some Malawians, including Jessie Kabwila, and much recently against Thoko Banda and many others.

Those who write these stories will obviously have justifications for creating them. Any fool can do that. It takes a real professional to independently verify a story before presenting it as ‘fact’. It takes a real professional to separate fact from allegation. What is also interesting, especially in online news portals, is that in regards to most such false stories, as soon as the authors are confronted, they quickly backtrack and delete these stories – issuing an apology. But only after thousands of readers have already accessed the fabrications. After the damage has already been done. Often than not, the story leaves behind a record, a trail which can be used to unfairly taint a character – many years later.

It’s simply not sustainable for Malawi’s media organisations to operate like this. There has to be some basic standards and fair reporting.

Secondly, some of the Media organisations are owned by politicians. Or by people with direct affiliations to political parties and politicians. So, what they publish is invariably going to favour their patrons. Which is not always good, especially if they begin to unfairly attack other politicians or groups opposed to their patrons. Further, there are some media organisations in Malawi, which in an attempt to bring down an opponent will publish material that is false, or will twist facts to present a sensationalist picture that is not entirely true. One that does injustice to the individual concerned. Obviously this is not right, and you can not use ‘freedom of speech’ to justify such behaviour.

‘What about MACRA (Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority)?’ I hear you say. Can’t they regulate this environment? Isn’t that their job? Well, they have been described as ‘poorly managed‘ by the 2006-2007 Media Sustainability Index Report. They have been accused of pro government bias. In my view, MACRA is overburdened by other things. Their organisation is already stretched in dealing with issues such as tax evasion by telecom companies, unauthorised broadcasting by the same, and other tedious issues. They are not ideally equipped to scrutinise as many media outfits in the land to ensure that what is published is, firstly true, and secondly in line with the type of code of conduct I hereby propose. Further, if MACRA went about demanding integrity and quashing rumour and propaganda in online publications, such behaviour is likely to come across as anti-democratic, and may even qualify as censorship, simply because MACRA is a government institution.

‘You are advocating press Censorship’ I hear another say.

And why would I do that? If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll realise that I’m quite liberal in my thinking. I often publish material on accountability, fair and even distribution of wealth, anti-corruption and such themes. Why then would I suddenly become a chum of the powers that be, and advocate censorship? There’s a difference between on one hand propriety and abiding by professional standards that aim to preserve integrity and professionalism, and on the other hand censorship. Asking that publications must verify the truthfulness of a story before publishing it is not censorship. Instead, it is ensuring that fabricated rumour and other gooble-de-gook doesn’t pass-off as news. At its bare bones, I’m advocating a quality check.

I believe what the European Court of Human rights once said (Castells vs Spain): “Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. In particular, it gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the preoccupations of public opinion; it thus enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society”

Words which echoed Theodore Roosevelt, when he said ” Free Speech exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where people are themselves free.”

But this free political debate only works if the public opinion or the ‘free speech’ that is published is in fact true. It can’t work if the stories are false or fabricated with the intention of character assassination or otherwise.

What about the recent E-bill?

Well, it doesn’t go far enough, and critically it focusses the power in the hands of the government via MACRA, the regulator, which as I said above is restrictive. Like the current framework, it is not sufficient. What is needed instead is a framework run by an independent body with neither political nor neopatrimonial interests.

So what form will this new regulator take?

Well, assuming that we agree that the current state of play is not sustainable, we will probably also agree that self-regulation is not an option. Similarly, if  the likes of MACRA have been accused of interfering, or being pressured by the state to interfere with the media, then they are probably not the ones to front this.

Thus, taking a simplistic view, what I propose is a Malawi Media Monitoring Commission that will have a parliament sanctioned Professional Charter and Code of Conduct. Its role will be to uphold standards in the media and communications industry.

It’s not going to be that simple. Public Affairs Committee (PAC) will need to take an active role in formulating that code of conduct, and a public consultation will need to be launched, to ensure that views of ordinary Malawians are taken into account, and that the executive does not monopolise or influence the organisation.

Why all the hassle?

Because the role of a free press is to hold the government to account. It should not work the other way round. And you cannot have a free press if there are few or no standards being observed, or if the government attempts to stifle or gag the press via instruments such as the E-bill. Leaving the formulation of this important aspect of democracy to parliament alone can compromise its independence and thereby press freedoms.

The Commission will be led by a commissioner on a 2 year contract, appointed by a committee including members of PAC and some parliamentarians. In order to minimise costs, the office of the commissioner will have no more than 10 fully paid members of staff, whose duties will include advocating the merits of a free impartial and professional press, sensitizing the public about the code of conduct of the watchdog, running seminars for journalists and members of the media, investigating complaints, dealing with reports of false and fabricated stories, investigating false stories, imposing fines against unscrupulous media outlets, enforcement, and in particularly acute cases, proposing the prosecution of media organisations or their employees. It will operate separately from MACRA, although it will need to work with the police to ensure that the public’s faith in the regulatory structure is restored. Further, MACRA will be obliged to pass on any complaints of unfair reporting they receive to the new commission.

To me this sounds like a more functional and independent system with much better prospects of creating a media that is responsible, and that puts leaders to task, than the current framework. In any case, it prevents concentration of power in the arms of the executive or legislature.

Where is Africa’s manufacturing?

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I prefer to ask (and answer) the above question, that references to the ‘stage’ or ‘point’ (not physical location) when asked ‘Why is Africa not manufacturing?’ . I’ve been asked this question so many times, by people beffudled as to how Africa pretty much fails where everybody else has succeeded. The reason I prefer to answer the above question is because unlike popular belief Africa is in fact manufacturing, just not as much as everyone else, and just not always visibly (you don’t hear these stories on Tv, and they are rarely in the mainstream media publications – unless you read FT – although that’s arguably not mainstream)

Similar to the questions of manufacturing is that of whether the skills for the establishment of a bigger manufacturing sector are readily available for investors to tap into?

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I’ll start with the bad news:- If the skills are available on the continent, then as things stand, they are in severe shortage and are not really of African origin. According to research from OECD [see BBC link here], by the end of this decade (emphasis required, that’s by 2020) 4 of every 10 young graduate is going to be either from India or China. Looking at the list of countries listed, not even a single one is an African country. What does that say? Well, a number of things; that we are not producing enough graduates, or that the number of African graduates with skill sets (and of a high calibre) who can compete with their contemporaries from Chinese and Indian universities is comparatively insignificant. Which is worrying, because it essentially means Africa’s manufacturing is nowhere, or only material if driven and held together by non-African effectors.

In the past the Education of Africans has received very little support from those who should know better. Most dictators who took over from the colonialists did too little to maintain the standard and level of Education (or Higher Education) across Africa, focussing instead of consolidating their rule. With a few exceptions, multiparty governments that came after dictatorships followed suit, by not investing anywhere near enough as was necessary. The donors that were bed-fellows with the dictators (and those that came after) arguably weren’t as sympathetic or visionary. According to an ESSA paper (quoted in this paper titled “THE ROLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION IN AFRICA” by Prof.Dr.Birgit Brock-Utne of the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Oslo) the World Bank once viewed Higher Education in Africa as a luxury:

“To meet minimally acceptable targets for coverage and quality of lower levels of education in most countries, as a general rule the tertiary sub sector’s share of stagnant real public education expenditures cannot expand further, and in some cases may have to contract. Some combination of efficiency improvements, increased private contribution to costs, and constrained growth of – in some countries and fields, outright cutback in – production of graduates must be sought.” (World Bank 1988: 95)

Expenditure on education was merely a self-serving budgetary exercise, and it didn’t matter what the result was, or whether indeed Africa would be ‘left-behind’ as a direct consequence of the under-investment, what mattered was only that money had been saved.

Without research into what their policy position currently is, I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether this view has changed or not.

Investors with the means have been to put it mildly, shy of investing on the continent let alone into skills development. A paper by a researcher named Paul Bennell which addresses the issue of whether structural adjustments programs ( these are those stringent rules imposed on African countries as part of loan agreements from the likes of IMF and World Bank) over a 15 year period have indeed achieved the desired response (i.e. increasing foreign investment in the hope of triggering technology transfer from the industrialized countries to Africa) paints a depressing picture. To quote Bennell (via this link):

Surprisingly, the share of net earnings from UK manufacturing investments in Africa remitted each year to the UK was higher than the global average between 1985 and 1990 . . . While UK companies have been keen to reinvest very sizable proportions of their profits in North America, Europe and Asia, investment opportunities in manufacturing have generally been very limited in Africa and thus, given the option, most parent companies would like to remit the bulk of subsidiary profits from the region

In other words, Africa was where you went to make your money, and not a place to reinvest your profits.

But it isn’t all bad news.

Recently, the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) approved a US$ 45 million grant for the creation of a Pan African University (PAU) that will consist of five Pan African Institutes focussing mainly on science, technology and innovation. The background to the story reads:

Africa has only 35 scientists and engineers per million inhabitants, compared with 168 for Brazil, 2,457 for Europe and 4,103 for the United States. Shortage of skills has been a major constraint to Africa’s progress in science, technology and innovation. Due to low investment in research and development, Africa ranks low in global competitiveness and productivity. African students tend to opt for economics, business, law and social sciences rather than science, engineering and technology, hampering the continent’s competitiveness and growth. The result is a mismatch between skills produced and private sector jobs.

While one would hope this initiative will be a success, and the Institutes will not falter under the common problems that beset universities and research institutions across much of Africa, it will be interesting to see how this develops.

As is well understood universally, innovation is the lifeblood of industry, and without the creation of ground-breaking and new products,  a country cannot advance or gain a competitive advantage. It was the case during the industrial revolution, during the rise of countries such as Germany, Russia, Japan and even Brazil. The exception (only to an extent) to this rule appears to be China, but that’s for a whole load of other reasons that distinguish it from the rest of mankind

But as the African Development Bank correctly observed above, in order to create ground-breaking innovations and products, and in order to influence global scientific research and technology, you need a skilled workforce. That’s why  the AfDB initiative represents a realignment of Africa’s potential in the right direction.

Across Africa, there are many success stories that are truly inspirational, although as i stated above, these are not shouted about in the mainstream media. One such inspirational story is that of Fabrinox, a south African company manufacturing sheet metal that was formed in 1993, and that has seen turnover in recent years hit US$5.8 million. Asked what had been the best decision he had made to grow his company, the company founder says:

To have followed the advice of my business mentor Johan Beyers to not restrict Fabrinox and its people to one geographical area, product or service, but to take a global view in running the business. For instance, it means that we think globally in terms of our supply chain, and are most willing to service clients beyond the boundaries of the Western Cape province in which we are located, and South Africa for that matter.

In addition to such success stories, there are also many partnerships between foreign manufacturers and agricultural producers across Africa, and some of those partnerships are genuinely beneficial to Africans. Who knows maybe some of these could one day pave way for an African manufacturing industry of its own, if some haven’t began to do so already? After all, manufacturing in industries such as motorcycle build and assembly in China began when after purchasing equipment from Japan, the Chinese assemblers began to modify the Japanese made components; fast forward a couple of decades, and China was making its own motorcycles which essentially were improvements (i.e. “innovations” more or less) of the original Japanese models.

The partnerships article above correctly points out that:

The level of mechanisation in African farming is still very low. Kenya had 25 tractors per 100 square kilometres of arable land in 2009 while Nigeria has almost seven, according to the most recent data from World Bank. That compares with an average of 271 machines in the US.

There are also some manufacturers who are looking towards Africa not because it’s ideal, but because they are getting sick and tired of the happenings in Asia (workplace safety that in recent years has become a major issue, levels of corruption, the increasing fees demanded by some factory owners, etc)

But before anybody gets too excited, look, the Chinese are planning on setting up shop in Africa! (see here and here). Although here one must wonder, does that mean Chinese labour (as they have been known to do in some African countries across the continent) or will these factories use African labour?

As for the power that will drive everything and get every bit of machinery working (in some countries – putting an end to years of intermittent blackouts), that’s about to get much more exciting. At least that’s what Obama seems to be saying.