HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsIs democracy at war with development in Malawi?

Is democracy at war with development in Malawi?


News coming out of Malawi paints two distinct pictures. There is a Malawi praised for taking its population out of perennial hunger and poverty and one where 18 people were shot dead by police during a protest.

Battle lines are drawn between activists of democracy and those who believe President Bingu Wa Mutharika’s development policies have the potential of taking Malawi out of poverty.

Perhaps, it may be necessary to revisit the foundation of the two empowerment models introduced in Malawi a few years. These, in my view, are at the root of the crisis in Malawi today.

The first one is a donor-driven model. In 2002, the World Bank, through its multi-country Development Marketplace Project funded community participation programmes which included radio projects and other mass communication initiatives. The aim was to create an enabling environment for citizen participation and democracy.

The programme framed participation as freedom of expression, promotion of people’s voices in decisions that affect them, holding government accountable and promoting social changes through dialogue and knowledge sharing. With these, the World Bank believed Malawi would be out of poverty.

The second one is a locally-driven agriculture based model. Upon winning elections, Bingu wa Mutharika went on to overhaul the country’s development policies and programmes and utilised policies to transform Malawi’s economy based on, among others, the prioritisation of agriculture and food security to increase self-sufficiency, prioritisation of irrigation and water development to reduce dependence on rain-fed agriculture.

His Green Belt project included farm input support programmes for vulnerable groups and pro-poor allocation of public expenditures among others.

With this, Mutharika believed Malawi would be out of poverty.
Save for Scandinavians, the World Bank and other main donors opposed and refused to fund it on the basis that it undermined the commercial interests of western suppliers of aid in Malawi.

During my recent visit to Malawi I saw a country that was making progress. There is massive road and infrastructure construction by Chinese companies.

Comparatively, both models are successful. Malawians can now express themselves through demonstrations and they can also feed themselves but can these approaches work together in reducing poverty in developing countries?

Malawi has traditionally been a peaceful country. For 33 years (1961 to 1994), it succumbed to the autocratic rule of Hastings Kamuzu Banda. After Banda it smoothly moved to multi-party democracy until today.

Thanks to the World Bank and other donors’ empowerment programme, there are now anti-government demonstrators in Malawi, a new phenomenon in the country.

People can now raise their voices, something that is unlike Malawian. At least 18 demonstrators have been shot dead by the police, while more than 40 others have been hospitalised during recent protests for a regime change.

During my recent visit, the unhappiness among people was telling. There was fuel shortage and talks of tax increase. In addition to the alleged heavy-handedness on dissenting voices, the president is alleged to be preparing his young brother to take over.

A tour guide at the multi-million dollar Kamuzu Banda Mausoleum told us that Mutharika is reviving Kamuzu’s cardinals of unity, obedience, discipline and loyalty.

But on the other hand, Mutharika’s policies have been hailed for moving Malawi from a food net-importer to a regional exporter, achieving a high rate of agricultural production and food security at national level but also at household levels which include 85% of its rural population.

He even won a food security policy award for contributing towards food security and poverty alleviation in southern Africa “against the backdrop of the current global food shortages”.

Malawi is on track to meet five of the eight MDG goals. Between 1993 and 2008, the poverty head count declined by 22%, the majority of which was recorded between 2006 and 2007.

A 50% perennial malnutrition rate among children under the age of five has gone down to 16%. Food production is cutting expenditure on food aid and giving birth to food processing industries which organically create employment opportunities.

All economic and human development indicators are showing positive developments, except one thing – democracy.

The Malawi scenario presents a number of dilemmas. Firstly, Is the regime change agenda in Malawi punishment for a successfully agriculture programme that ignored the whims of the West or for autocratic leadership?

Secondly, How prepared are we to push for locally driven development models against the impulses of global development regime. Thirdly, is empowering people to demand, challenge and hold governments accountable without giving them access to the means of production enough to achieve poverty reduction in Africa?

Finally who is a better leader – one who takes his people out of the jaws of hunger and poverty and propels economic development but takes away your freedoms (for example China and Malawi) or one who grants you those freedoms while you languish in poverty (for example South Africa)?
Food for thought!

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