This is how I would deal with the Tony Blair issue

If you didn’t already know, Tony Blair (like him or not) is back in town.

The former British Prime Minister is going to be working with the government of Lazarus Chakwera to …. do something? According to the website of Blair’s Institute for Global Change, Blair and his people will be ‘ …looking to set up a new project to support the govt of Malawi to strengthen its delivery and implementation mechanisms. This is likely to include a delivery function in State House, but also support other parts of the Presidency e.g. communications, international affairs…‘ and ‘…to strengthening delivery in the Presidency, the Project will seek to strengthen connections with other key ministries such as Energy, Agriculture, Industry and Trade, and the Ministries covering infrastructure‘.

But already, some Malawians are up in arms about the news. They are not happy with what suspiciously looks like a useless intervention. Among the protestations is the allegation that when Tony Blair came to Malawi to assist Joyce Banda in 2012, when she was President of Malawi, there wasn’t much that was achieved back then, and Malawians have never been given solid evidence that his involvement at that time was beneficial to the country, despite the significant cost his involvement incurred.

There has also been the allegation that considering the long-term effects of Britain’s foreign policy when Blair was British PM – which saw the UK support the US led illegal invasion of Iraq, among other misguided military campaigns, associating with Blair now apparently tarnishes Lazarus Chakwera’s near-perfect image, and is a regression of the very idea of a new corrupt-free Malawi. The architects of this accusation essentially say that some people will be asking “Why is that small poor African nation paying a fortune to a war criminal?” to quote just one twitter user, who no doubt is not a fan of Blair.

Finally, there are those who are resentful that the West including Tony Blair did not speak up or help Malawians when the former president Peter Mutharika, to quote one complainant, “tried to rape the constitution” in stealing the 2019 election (which was over-turned because of widespread irregularities). They say it was only when Lazarus Chakwera won this year’s Election re-run and ascended to power “that they came running” to quote the same complainant.

The government of Malawi in defending the collaboration with Blair has said that those who are against his involvement are xenophobic, which if you ask me, is about as lazy a response as any tired press officer could muster in his sleep.

But putting aside the unhelpful bickering, is Blair’s version 2 foray into Malawi worth the time and money?

This is how I would deal with the issue, if it were up to me:

I think some people who are opposed to the idea of Tony Blair’s services to the government of Malawi are getting the wrong end of the stick on two distinct but important things.

Firstly, they wrongly think that Tony Blair’s involvement is an admission that we don’t have any capable Malawians able enough to to sell Malawi to the world, which ofcourse we do. This criticism says that by employing Blair we are failing to recognise or advance the talent of hundreds of Malawians who can do pretty much the same thing just as competently – which is not true. The second fallacy in all this is that advice as to developmental issues should be free, or paid for by someone else other than the country that stands to benefit from such advice. This thinking too is misguided, and if you can excuse my Chichewa: ndi maganizo wa anthu ozolowela ku vencha.

Let me explain why.

The real question here should be what is a fair price for a poor country to pay for High Level access and investment due diligence?

The reason answering that question matters, or should matter, is because there are “doors” (figuratively maybe ‘corporate doors’ is more accurate here) out there which a Finance minister/ Business Development official of Lazarus Chakwera won’t be able to open on their own, but which with just one phone call from an influential person such as Tony Blair will land a face to face meeting.

Let me give you an example: Would Felix Mlusu (Malawi’s Finance Minister) or Eisenhower Mkaka (Malawi’s Foreign Minister) be able to easily land a meeting with the head of Citigroup Michael Corbat? Or the CEO of Tesla Elon Musk? Or of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, or say, Berkshire Hathaway’s CEO Warren Buffet, or the Chief Executive of GlaxoSmithKline Emma Walmsley, or the Chairman of Dyson Technology Sir James Dyson, or Richard Lutz the Chief Executive of Deutsche Bahn – the largest European railway operator, and second-largest transport company in the world… I could go on and on, but all these meetings being for investment talks into Malawi?

I doubt such would be as easy or straightforward for any of the ministers or trade officials in Chakwera’s government.

But I can bet you that Tony Blair probably has the direct line of at least one of these executives in his mobile phone right this very moment. I am also certain that if he doesnt have their number, he personally knows someone in his network who has their direct phone number. And that even if he didn’t personally know the executive, the mere mention that Tony Blair is on the line to any of the executives would ensure that phone call is put through.

And it would be such a simple and straightforward exercise to arrange high-level meetings between a development team from Malawi, and senior executives of those companies.

That kind of access is valuable, and it’s high time Malawians learn this undeniable fact.

Thus, I think the questions Malawians should be asking should instead be (1) What is the Return on Investment (ROI) on using the services of people like Tony Blair; and (2) Can Malawi afford it?

I think someone has to sit down and talk to Blair’s people, crunch some numbers, and then explain to the Malawian people in detail the benefit of what they (or the so called “well-wishers”) will actually be paying for, so that there is less misunderstanding regarding these kinds of issues.

Of course we need to learn the lessons from 2012, but working with Blair ought to be a case of having a solid and strong contract between Tony Blair’s Institute For Global Change and the Government of Malawi, listing 11 or 12 targets or deliverables, an execution time period, and a non-performance clause:

  1. We want a joint-venture between GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) – the large British Pharmaceutical with revenues of £33.75 Billion (2019)- and the government of Malawi, to manufacturer drugs locally in Malawi, in which the Malawian government owns 51% of the joint venture, assuming GSK invests £200 million of hard cash into the facility and the development of the local area, development of downstream industries that supply big pharma, and to employ hundreds of Malawians.
  2. We want Citigroup to open a state of the art Investment & FinTech hub in Lilongwe to lure other financial industry heavyweights, and to help our FinTech entrepreneurs and local Finance sector companies tap into international capital markets. We would like them to invest at least £80 million into the facility and make it their East Africa headquarters, giving finance jobs and training to at least 200 Malawians.
  3. We want Amazon to open an East African Headquarters in Blantyre, Malawi, and regional Logistics Hub (Warehouses and fulfilment centres) for East Africa. We would like them to commit to investing $250 million into the venture, and to employ 400 young Malawians.
  4. We want Dyson Technology to build and open a state of the art Engineering University like the one they have in the UK, to train and equip hundreds of Malawian young people with practical engineering skills.
  5. We would like Tesla to invest $1 Billion in an electric car assembly factory and automotive battery manufacturing plant that will give jobs and technical skills to hundreds of Malawians.
  6. We would like to invite Berkshire Hathaway to invest between $1 Billion and $3 Billion in two large Solar farms to be built in Malawi, with assistance from one of the companies in their investment portfolio (Berkshire Hathaway has invested at least $16 Billion in Solar and Wind, and is looking to invest more in the sectors), in a 50:50 joint venture with the Government of Malawi, so that we can solve our energy deficiency challenges.
  7. We would like two Supermarket chains from Walmart/ Sainsbury’s/ Marks & Spencers/ Cooperative Group Food Limited to partner with another two local Malawian supermarkets in a 30:30:20:20 Joint Venture to open 10 brand new supermarkets across the country and invest at least $400 million in infrastructure, job creation for hundreds of people and adoption of best practices gleaned in other markets.
  8. Can Tony Blair persuade the leaders of the construction behemoths Laing O’rourke (£2.75 Billion -2019 revenues), Kier Group (£3.42 Billion – 2019) and Balfour Beatty (£8.4 Billion -2019) to join two carefully selected African construction companies in forming a Malawian Consortium whose members collectively invest a $500 million loan into the building and fitting of a new state of the art Public Hospital in Mzuzu, the loan being repayable over 15 years at a fixed interest rate of 20%.
  9. We would like to do deals with four world-renown hotel developers / chains with a good track record, including sound employment practices, to each help build and establish a 4-star / 5 -star hotel / golf resort along the lake, one in Monkey Bay, another in Salima, a third in Nkhatabay and a final one in Karonga, all being near the lake, with the government owning 35% of each hotel/golf resort , and a veto on major decisions.
  10. Can Tony Blair’s organisation convince Heathrow Airport Holdings and the SmithGroup (who helped design Hartsfield -Jackson Atlanta International Airport – the world’s busiest airport by passenger travel since 1998), to partner with the Department of Civil Aviation to upgrade the country’s airports and invest $1 Billion for a 40% stake in Lilongwe International Airport and Chileka Airport.
  11. Similarly, we would like to do a joint venture with DHL, UPS and ParcelForce for an Air Cargo company operating weekly cargo flights from JFK International Airport, Manchester Airport, Dubai International Airport and Shanghai Pudong International Airport directly to Lilongwe International Airport, to help Malawians to cheaply import things, with the government of Malawi owning not less than 25% of the joint venture.
  12. …. Some other important investment imperatives you can think of…

if Tony Blair’s team can deliver on some all of these important investment commitments, and see through the signed contracts with these corporations, I wouldn’t have any qualms for the government of Malawi to even pay Tony Blair and his associates £5 million a year for the duration of their contract, so long as the projects above actually happen and there is Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) associated with them coming into Malawi, and clear, quantifiable, independently verifiable and unmistakable value to Malawi’s economy, as a result of Blair’s intervention.

Failing that, I would have a clause in the contract with the Institute saying that if for whatever reason the deliverables have not materialised within 10 years from commencement of the contract, then the Institute should repay Malawians 100% the full cost of the consultancy fees plus interest.

Development – even to a poor country, does not come cheaply, so let’s be pragmatic and accept the reality.

Also, let’s make another thing very clear: Just because you have dealings with a former world leader whose politics is far from palatable doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with each and every aspect of their foreign policy.

For the longest time, Malawi had dealings with all manner of dodgy regimes like Apartheid South Africa, Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and the People’s Republic of China (PROC), let alone the Mugabe’s and the Gaddafi’s of this world. These days, we are cosying up to Israel’s Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s MBS – who are far from faultless. But we didn’t (and don’t) necessarily endorse or agree with any of the controversial or plain wrong things which those leaders and their regimes did/do. Our alliances with them is purely business.

Global disease

Some parts of the world look just the same. If you look closely, carefully – their going-ons look exactly the same.

Never mind what Matt Damon says here about the world, in which he says:

“… that the wrong people are in power. And the wrong people are out of power.That the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way, as not simply to require a small reform, but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth…Now if you don’t think, if you just, listen to Tv and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad…”

…if you look closely enough, some things seem to be slowly replicating themselves, over and over, across the globe. Indeed there is nothing new under the sun.

Take Gloria Arroyo (see short profile via BBC here) the former president of the Philippines, for example. While some of her supporters will inevitably counter that the case brought against her regarding diversion of disaster relief funds (see another here), and misusing lottery funds (~$8.8 million) – for which she was arrested – is in fact politically motivated, few will argue that such things don’t happen elsewhere.

In Haiti – a country 10,000 miles away from the Philippines, reconstruction officials and aid organisations have been accused of diverting millions of dollars (see another source here via New Internationalist) of reconstruction funds. In Japan, after the 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami, US$2 billion was diverted, according to a Japanese Newspaper. Even authorities in the US have been accused of attempting to divert funds raised and donated for hurricane Katrina victims (see source here), and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been sued over the matter.

In Malawi today, we have a president who, in my view, has a lot more in common with Gloria Arroyo, than with an ordinary Malawian woman from a village in Mulanje. (see a list detailing some of Gloria Arroyo’s government’s scandals here)

Joyce Banda has a whole string of gaffes behind her (either bad advice or she must learn to speak fewer silly things); Like Arroyo, Banda has been accused of diverting funds into private or personal projects (including using Independence Celebration funds for a PP party commemoration), and her food distribution exercises have been criticised, with some accusing her of attempting to ‘buy votes’ through distribution of maize and fertiliser. And just like Arroyo’s tenure had been, Banda’s government has been the subject of one political scandal after another. Like Arroyo, Banda has been accused of attempting to rig an election, and protecting corrupt colleagues from facing the hand of the law. Like Arroyo, her cash handouts have been criticised as wasteful, and calls of an audit as to the origins of the money she gives away at rallies have been heard far and wide within Malawi. Joyce Banda, like Arroyo has also been criticised for excessive travelling, and just like Arroyo, Joyce Banda has hired a PR company at great expense, to clean up her image, and that of her government.

And all that is even before you get to the ghost companies set up by civil servants – to embezzle funds, allegedly unexplained donations to the president’s foundation, and many other potential woes that can sit comfortably side by side with what the Philippines former president has been accused of.

But in the face of all that, including recently, a very public withdrawal of donor aid by Malawi’s donors – which minimally shows disapproval, Joyce Banda still maintains innocence.

Unlike Arroyo, who apologised (external link – YouTube Video) for speaking to an official of the electoral commission, Joyce Banda has not offered an apology to ordinary Malawians for the harm and devastation that has occurred under her government, especially in relation to the cashgate scandal.

It’s simply just incredible how similar the circumstances can be; the lessons so bountiful, yet political leaders (past and present) just don’t seem to learn.

Similar Links

How Joyce Mtila Banda Lost my 2014 vote

African Queens: the catty spats inflicting Africa’s first two female presidents

Tony Blair faces questions over Malawi scandal