Why Donors should halt all COVID-19 Aid to the government of Malawi until there is full accountability regarding the usage of funds

COVID-19 statistics for Malawi as of 12th February 2021. Source: PHIM
  • US$1 = MWK 780.22  – Source: xe.com (13th Feb 2021)
  • Officials in Malawi, including people at the Department of Disaster Management Affairs(DODMA), have misappropriated the majority of K6.2 Billion (US$7.948 million) of Government funds which were earmarked for fighting Covid-19 and issued to government appointed Covid-19 Cluster committees- which are made up of civil servants.
  • According to credible reports from several sources, in one instance out of K85 Million ($109,000) earmarked for the purchase of Personal Protective Equipment(PPE) for Blantyre district, only K10 million was used for PPE, with K59 million being used for allowances. In Machinga, K30 million was spent on allowances with nothing on PPE. In Chitipa K22 million was spent on allowances, and nothing on PPE. In Chikwawa district for example K16 million was spent on allowances, with a meagre K4 million being spent on PPE.
  • There were several instances where significantly more money was spent on fuel than on PPE.

If you were looking for the perfect excuse not to waste your country’s citizens’ taxes to help the citizens of some poor country in East Afriica, one where officials have the nerve to steal COVID19 funds, now you have the perfect excuse.

Officials in Malawi have been accused of misappropriating a significant chunk of K6.2 billion meant for fighting Covid-19. The scandal now informally named COVIDGATE has revealed just how rampant, insensitive and endemic corruption continues to be in Malawi, and how little accountability there is in Government spending.

Despite the rhetoric from the Tonse Alliance government that they are serious about fighting corruption, or “clearing the rubble” to use President Lazarus Chakwera’s own words, the scandal has revealed just how little in practical terms the government has actually achieved towards that end. And how a lot more needs to be done.

Commenting regarding the scandal, one Malawian I talked to noted:

“If they can steal billions while Malawians are dying of COVID19 every day in our hospitals, while the hospitals are ill-equipped and overwhelmed and struggling to cope, while we have an acute shortage of PPE, what else won’t they do? What does that tell you about the kind of rot that we have in the civil service in this country? I understand poverty but these people are heartless, their brothers and sisters are dying everyday and they’re still stealing?!! They don’t deserve any mercy. Every single one of them needs to be fired!”

These people are heartless they don’t deserve any mercy

One Malawian commenting about the K6.2 Billion scandal.

Another commenter said: “If you donate to the government, your donation will end up into a politician’s stomach.”

Malawians on social media are equally enraged:

Meanwhile the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Lilongwe has ordered the Inspector General of Malawi Police Service to commence criminal investigations into the scandal. How long that process will take remains to be seen. However, historically such type of corruption or embezzlement cases in Malawi tend to take a long time. And in previous adminstrations, there were allegations that the lack of urgency and speed in prosecuting people who have embezzled Government funds pointed to a lack of political will.

The leader of opposition in Malawi’s p
Parliament Kondwani Nankhumwa MP

The leader of opposition in parliament Kondwani Nankhumwa MP has called for a forensic audit to ascertain weather DODMA and other Government officials misappropriated the funds.

However, until all the culprits are brought to book, and until there is total transparency regarding expenditure of Government funds, and until allowances on matters such as healthcare emergency spending are banned (all of which may take some time), I believe donors and international agencies working in Malawi should with immediate effect route all COVID19 aid funds either via charities and NGOs or via the COVID19 Private Citizens Response initiative (which so far has had an excellent record of transparency and of accounting for each and every single penny that has been donated).

Such a drastic action will focus minds within the Government of Malawi to do something decisive and to do so urgently against the scourge of corruption in Malawi.

Malawians are tired of being abused and taken advantage of like this. They want to know who was responsible for the embezzlement, how much was stolen by each official, and to see those people not only prosecuted and jailed, but also named and shamed, and forced to return the stolen funds back to the Government. And if they can’t return the misappropriated funds, then assets of each guilty person equivalent to the misappropriated funds should be confiscated. There has to be a very strong deterrent to stop this kind of thing happening over and over again.

The Governments of Britain, Germany France, the US and the EU should take note of this sad case of embezzlement, and be firm with officials in Malawi. This is an opportunity to force through much needed accountability and transparency in public service.

President Chakwera has on numerous occasions said he wants his leadership style to be a servant leadership style. This wanton embezzlement of emergency healthcare funds unfortunately frustrates such noble sentiments, and must be met with a tough response.

Nkhalidwe wonunkha kwambiri uwu. This behaviour must end now.

Flipping the Corruption Myth

Flipping the Corruption Myth by Dr Jason Hickel, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and an adviser to /The Rules
– Corruption is by far not the main factor behind persisting poverty in the Global South.  Original article via Al Jazeera here

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Transparency International recently published their latest annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), laid out in an eye-catching map of the world with the least corrupt nations coded in happy yellow and the most corrupt nations smeared in stigmatising red. The CPI defines corruption as “the misuse of public power for private benefit”, and draws its data from 12 different institutions including the World Bank, Freedom House, and the World Economic Forum.

When I first saw this map I was struck by the fact that most of the yellow areas happen to be rich Western countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, whereas red covers almost the entirety of the global South, with countries like South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Somalia daubed especially dark.

This geographical division fits squarely with mainstream views, which see corruption as the scourge of the developing world (cue cliche images of dictators in Africa and bribery in India). But is this storyline accurate?

Many international development organisations hold that persistent poverty in the Global South is caused largely by corruption among local public officials. In 2003 these concerns led to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which asserts that, while corruption exists in all countries, this “evil phenomenon” is “most destructive” in the global South, where it is a “key element in economic underperformance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development”.

There’s only one problem with this theory: It’s just not true.

Corruption, superpower style

According to the World Bank, corruption in the form of bribery and theft by government officials, the main target of the UN Convention, costs developing countries between $20bn and $40bn each year. That’s a lot of money. But it’s an extremely small proportion – only about 3 percent – of the total illicit flows that leak out of public coffers. Tax avoidance, on the other hand, accounts for more than $900bn each year, money that multinational corporations steal from developing countries through practices such as trade mispricing.

This enormous outflow of wealth is facilitated by a shadowy financial system that includes tax havens, paper companies, anonymous accounts, and fake foundations, with the City of London at the very heart of it. Over 30 percent of global foreign direct investment is booked through tax havens, which now collectively hide one-sixth of the world’s total private wealth.

This is a massive – indeed, fundamental – cause of poverty in the developing world, yet it does not register in the mainstream definition of corruption, absent from the UN Convention, and rarely, if ever, appears on the agenda of international development organisations.

With the City of London at the centre of the global tax haven web, how does the UK end up with a clean CPI?

The question is all the more baffling given that the city is immune from many of the nation’s democratic laws and free of all parliamentary oversight. As a result of this special status, London has maintained a number of quaint plutocratic traditions. Take its electoral process, for instance: More than 70 percent of the votes cast during council elections are cast not by residents, but by corporations – mostly banks and financial firms. And the bigger the corporation, the more votes they get, with the largest firms getting 79 votes each. This takes US-style corporate personhood to another level.

To be fair, this kind of corruption is not entirely out-of-place in a country where a feudalistic royal family owns 120,000 hectares of the nation’s land and sucks up around £40m ($65.7m) of public funds each year. Then there’s the parliament, where the House of Lords is filled not by-election but by appointment, with 92 seats inherited by aristocratic families, 26 set aside for the leaders of the country’s largest religious sect, and dozens of others divvied up for sale to multi-millionaires.

Corruption in US is only slightly less blatant. Whereas congressional seats are not yet available for outright purchase, the Citizens United vs FEC ruling allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns to ensure that their preferred candidates get elected, a practice justified under the Orwellian banner of “free speech”.

The poverty factor

The UN Convention is correct to say that poverty in developing countries is caused by corruption. But the corruption we ought to be most concerned about has its root in the countries that are coloured yellow on the CPI map, not red.

The tax haven system is not the only culprit. We know that the global financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by systemic corruption among public officials in the US who were intimately tied to the interests of Wall Street firms. In addition to shifting trillions of dollars from public coffers into private pockets through bailouts, the crisis wiped out a huge chunk of the global economy and had a devastating effect on developing countries when demand for exports dried up, causing massive waves of unemployment.

A similar story can be told about the Libor scandal in the UK, when major London banks colluded to rig interest rates so as to suck around $100bn of free money from people even well beyond Britain’s shores. How could either of these scandals be defined as anything but the misuse of public power for private benefit? The global reach of this kind of corruption makes petty bribery and theft in the developing world seem parochial by comparison.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we really want to understand how corruption drives poverty in developing countries, we need to start by looking at the institutions that control the global economy, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the policies that these institutions foisted on the Global South, following the Washington Consensus, caused per capita income growth rates to collapse by almost 50 percent. Economist Robert Pollin has estimated that during this period developing countries lost around $480bn per year in potential GDP. It would be difficult to overstate the human devastation that these numbers represent. Yet Western corporations have benefitted tremendously from this process, gaining access to new markets, cheaper labour and raw materials, and fresh avenues for capital flight.

These international institutions masquerade as mechanisms for public governance, but they are deeply anti-democratic; this is why they can get away with imposing policies that so directly violate public interest. Voting power in the IMF and World Bank is apportioned so that developing countries – the vast majority of the world’s population – together hold less than 50 percent of the vote, while the US Treasury wields de facto veto power. The leaders of these institutions are not elected, but appointed by the US and Europe, with not a few military bosses and Wall Street executives among them.

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, has publicly denounced these institutions as among the least transparent he has ever encountered. They also suffer from a shocking lack of accountability, as they enjoy special “sovereign immunity” status that protects them against public lawsuit when their policies fail, regardless of how much harm they cause.

Shifting the blame

If these patterns of governance were true of any given nation in the global South, the West would cry corruption. Yet such corruption is normalised in the command centres of the global economy, perpetuating poverty in the developing world while Transparency International directs our attention elsewhere.

Even if we do decide to focus on localised corruption in developing countries, we have to accept that it does not exist in a geopolitical vacuum. Many of history’s most famous dictators – like Augusto Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Hosni Mubarak – were supported by a steady flow of Western aid. Today, not a few of the world’s most corrupt regimes have been installed or bolstered by the US, among them Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the warlords of Somalia – three of the darkest states on the CPI map.

This raises an interesting question: Which is more corrupt, the petty dictatorship or the superpower that installs it? Unfortunately, the UN Convention conveniently ignores these dynamics, and the CPI map leads us to believe, incorrectly, that each country’s corruption is neatly bounded by national borders.

Corruption is a major driver of poverty, to be sure. But if we are to be serious about tackling this problem, the CPI map will not be much help. The biggest cause of poverty in developing countries is not localised bribery and theft, but the corruption that is endemic to the global governance system, the tax haven network, and the banking sectors of New York and London. It’s time to flip the corruption myth on its head and start demanding transparency where it counts.

Dr Jason Hickel lectures at the London School of Economics and serves as an adviser to /The Rules. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jasonhickel

Global 100 Voices: No 4

My next guest is a good friend and a brother who I have known for many years. Based in London, he is a true son of Malawi, and someone who I genuinely believe has a bright future ahead of him. Yet it was only recently that I discovered just how much passion and ‘fire’ he has for Africa. Mr James Woods-Nkhutabasa, thanks for doing the Global 100 Voices Interview!

[ Brief profile: James has several years’ of communications experience working for public and private organisations, in promoting achievement in African leadership, issues concerning global governance and development. He is also one of the founding members of Diaspora Capital LLP (dCAP), a members investment club which seeks to make socially impactful investments in Africa ]
  1. As a Malawian, how important is Malawi’s Socio-Economic stability to you and your family?

I believe a socio-economic stable environment is beneficial not only for the nation only provided government can create an arena of good governance, accountability, transparency and no corruption. This is also attractive for investors.

  1. After nearly 50 years since independence, what visible progress do you think Malawi has made since independence?

The visible progress for me is that Malawi is now a democratic nation, people have more access to goods and are also more connected due to the digital revolution. On the downside Malawi is still fighting the goals set at independence and poverty levels remain high. We still have a long way to go.  Maybe regional integration is key to addressing this weakness through the delivery of wider social and economic benefits that would benefit the country and drive its development further. We need to stop thinking of Malawi as a single unit but think of it as a major part of the remaining 53 nations on the continent. Only then will we sing our success story. But we need to get our house in order first.

recycleds      3. In your view, what pressing challenges remain and what should Malawi aspire towards?

Malawi, similarly to other African countries is facing major corruption issues and a lack of good governance. Our parliament is also filled with recycled politicians – what I aptly name – ‘The Kamuzu/Muluzi Giants’. It seems to me that our politicians change allegiances as much as they change suits. The political world, leading a nation, serving your people should be a vocation or ‘a calling’ but not a pension, as it currently seems to be for some.

Malawi should aim to be a success story in good governance.

  1. In view of those challenges, what do you think is the role of government in tackling those challenges?

Create an environment of patriotism, transparency and competence. The government needs to remember that they are there to serve their people: men, women and children and thus to run the country accordingly as it is their responsibility. We need strong leadership and this can be achieved collectively, through government and civil society. Malawi needs an enlightened and dedicated sort of leadership that looks forward and not backward. Most importantly get the right sort of people involved in government.

  1. As someone who has lived outside Malawi for several years and hopefully been exposed to modern and progressive ideas, what things in your country of residence have had the greatest impact on you, and why?

The competitive work ethic and drive that people have in London is absolutely brilliant. People have the desire and resilience to achieve the best possible outcome. This has taught me to continuously improve to keep up with this ‘rat race’ and be able to be significant in the growth and development of the nation.

  1. What lessons do you think Malawians and the Malawian leadership can learn from those ideas?

Malawi has extremely bright individuals who can contribute great things for the nation. The leadership needs to promote an open society – welcoming of all and not based on ethnicity, tribe or social standing, but instead on what you can offer to drive forward development.

  1. If you have recently visited Malawi, what struck you most as the greatest sign of improvement or development?

The amount of women and youth trying to make a living through a business; truly inspiring to see the entrepreneurial spirit and a can-do attitude, be it selling vegetables on the side of the road to managing small wholesalers. It is really amazing at how they have adopted technology such as the use of mobile phones to sell and place orders. This has inspired me.

  1. What struck you most as the biggest sign of stagnation or regression?

I believe the lack of good educational standards and opportunities have really been under-played. Youth are the future of Malawi, the leaders of tomorrow; they are being frustrated by the lack of opportunities and a lack good of education. These youth can be a curse or a blessing and rather sadly it has been a curse on the nation with increased criminal activity. If we do not invest in the youth and create jobs how are we to have a good future? Without the right investment we will continue to face the same problems of corruption, poor leadership and bad governance.

  1. Malawians will be going to the polls in 2014, to elect a president. In your view what kind of leader does Malawi NEED, considering the country’s current challenges?

I think we need a bit of the positive characteristics that our past and present leaders have shown but most importantly we need a leader who has an entrepreneurial spirit, a socio-entrepreneurial impactful spirit. We as African’s are natural-born entrepreneurs…we need a leader who will use an entrepreneurial approach to create sustainable development and leadership in so doing promoting a culture of hard-working, ambitious young people to drive forward development. A leader who has innovative ideas and simply not just focussing on what has been done, but looking at what can be done. We need a leader who will deal with disparities in wealth that exist between the poor, the middle class and the rich. High on their specification will be better business and financial acumen, infrastructure, education, employment and better health services.

  1.  Specifically, how should that leader approach the top job in terms of sustainable development and reducing aid dependency?

I believe aid is still vital to Malawi for the next few years at least, but our president needs to really focus on the fruit of a stronger regional economic integration across the continent; and build economies of scale to enable Malawi and Africa to better compete in the global economy. Malawi seems to be attracting a lot of investors to the vast minerals in the country ranging from bauxite, gold, limestone (marble), monazite, niobium and uranium…then we’ve got oil and agriculture. The key aspect to ensuring the leadership moves away from aid dependency is to create a strong and efficient financial system that could support high levels of investment…also the need to eliminate the tax breaks these foreign investors have in the country as we are losing millions of US dollars annually.

Malawi can have a wonderful future. By strengthening its financial and legal systems respectively, and focusing on regional integration, Malawi has the potential to become one of Africa’s fastest growing economy by the end of this decade provided that political stability, social protection, quality education, private sector and good governance are implemented.

  1. Looking at the problems that have plagued the tobacco industry – which is our biggest source of export revenue– in recent times, what alternatives do you think Malawi has besides Tobacco, and why are they viable alternatives?

There is a major problem by relying on tobacco. Let us look at the bigger picture – tobacco farming is a major employer in Malawi where it employs 70% of the nations workforce – in terms of providing a living to the population it plays a big part.

The country does need to diversify and not only focus on tobacco as the international controls on tobacco are surely having or going to have an effect on the economy.

I think a strong emphasis should remain on agriculture produce such as tea, coffee, macadamia nuts, groundnuts, sugar, cotton, soya and timber. The potential for agribusiness is there but we need the right mentality in promoting good practice to increase efficiency and bring in investment and expertise to help scale up production but also go into agroprocessing, where higher prices for commodities can be achieved.

Infrastructure development is vital for Malawi’s economy to flourish. There is a need for better roads, airports and aviation, rail, ICT, water and sanitation.

Stronger focus on the extractive industries and corporate realisation of Malawi’s objectives in oil found in Lake Malawi. Mining currently accounts for only around 2% of GDP, with tobacco, sugar and tea remaining the main exports by value, but we all know the short and long-term potential of the mining industry if we play our cards right.

Tourism is another sector to focus on. This would bring the needed foreign exchange and foreign direct investment and importantly raise the profile of the nation as truly ‘the warm heart of Africa’. I do not know if you are aware but Malawi was recently crowned runners up in the 2012 Safari Awards “Best Africa Tourist Board” beaten by Kenya. This is definitely an important space.

12. Considering our troubled history with donors and funders such as the IMF and World Bank, how do you see Malawi progressing from this relationship in view of the criticisms these organisations have received in the media across the world?

Malawi, is still too fragile to sustain herself – as mentioned earlier I believe once the powers that be start developing the nation, attracting more investors and regional integration is in place Malawi will be on the right path to stand with the rest of Africa as partners and not rely on these international bodies.

13. How do you think the government is doing regarding managing Malawi’s natural resources?

Problems are there, such as issues to do with mining legislation. The main legislation governing mining is the Mines and Minerals Act 1981.

The Mines and Minerals Act 1981 states that companies operating in Malawi need to employ and train local staff but this is left at the discretion of the company, thus local workforce are often found to be losing out. There is lack of regulation, think of the people who are displaced by the mining companies? There is no protection for these people – regulatory framework for resettlement only requires compensation to be given for land, livestock etc…but nothing is in place to give those people back land of same quality. Most people living in villages where these mines are based do not own the land through purchase but through living there for generations thus when the mining companies come, these people are evicted and not titled to any compensation. Most importantly there is a lack of transparency – mining companies are not revealing their profits in line with expenditure and taxes. The mining companies are not required by Malawi government to reveal their spending in Malawi.  

14. Can the government do better to manage natural resources? If so how?

Government needs to address the points I’ve just raised and ensure something is done to curb this behaviour of secrecy. They need to tighten legislation, this will be achieved by revising the Mines and Mineral Act 1981 – I understand that this is being done.

15. What is your answer to increasing transparency and eradicating corruption which is plaguing most governments across Africa?

African governments need to be accountable to their citizens. The responsibility for dealing with corruption and transparency falls equally on all parties from governments and donors, to civil society and citizens. We all have to fight to ensure we can develop better leadership with the tools of good governance.

We have to remember, when we the people have information; we have the power to hold our leaders and governments accountable to improve the systems, tackle corruption and have transparency.

16. Any famous last words?

Let’s continue driving our country and continent forward. In the words of Kwame Nkrumah ‘’We face neither East nor West: we face forward’’.

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