It seems like in Malawi we have found a solution to government’s perennial failures in running public services: privatise everything. Selling ‘failing’ public entities is now an easier substitute for our government’s lack of efficiency in running and managing state assets. Malawi Savings Bank (MSB) is sold. Indebank is sold. Now we are mulling over privatising mortuaries.
Those who advocated for the sale of MSB argued that governments should have no business running banks. MSB was a poster-child of this argument. There were all sorts of figures presented alongside the argument to show how MSB had ‘failed’, as if banks run themselves.
It was difficult to argue against because, as Mark Twain observed, “facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable”. To paraphrase George Canning, one can prove anything by statistics except the truth. In short, it is easy to convince anyone with statistics.Those advocating for the MSB sale played this game very well—avoid historical context on why the bank was established in the first place—apply figures instead.
Contrary to the popular argument that governments have no business running banks, governments run banks elsewhere – Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Bank in UK are state owned. But even if we were to agree that governments have no business running banks, the truth is that governments have a mandate to provide services for its people, and is it not for this purpose that MSB was established?
As a state owned bank, Malawi Savings was a public good, there to carter for all Malawians, not only the monied class who can afford savings elsewhere. Will privatised MSB fulfil this mandate? This is unlikely, regardless of the assurances by the new majority shareholders. The repeated argument that MSB has failed is ridiculous – MSB never ran itself. Why not sack those who were entrusted with the running of the bank? How will FDH Holdings run the failing bank? Is it not by bringing efficiency where it lacked?
Governments do and should run banks like MSB for the sake of the people it is mandated to cater for. Politicians should not run banks. It is politics that has failed MSB. Politicians ran the bank and it was full of political appointees. We need meritocracy in running state institutions – it is efficiency that is needed not privatising public assets.
Privatising ‘failing’ state entities instead of striving for efficiency sets a very dangerous precedent, especially in a country where majority of the people are low earners and solely depend on public services. Be mindful that the argument put forward for the MSB sale can also be used to privatise Water Board, Malawi Housing Corporation, University of Malawi, Admarc etc. All these organisations are sacking huge amount of public money. But they are kept for provision of affordable services for all.
The ‘debate’ to privatise mortuaries is taking hold. And we know it does not matter what everyone thinks – including our ‘representatives’ in parliament, government (whoever this is) could privatise mortuaries tomorrow if it pleases. The MSB sale and the arguments for its sale have set a very dangerous precedent. We must judge and hold the government to account for its failures instead of looking at privatisation as a solution.
Malawi is becoming a society where everything is seen as commodity to be sold – a typical capitalist view, and this is capitalism that Malawi, at this stage of our development cannot afford. Public services, not private services are the key to moving the current state of Malawi economy forward.
It is fine to have a market-based economy but the truth is that not everything should be a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit. Not all services and assets are for commodification. Other commodities are essential for provision of priceless public and social services; these have to be protected for the sake of the people. These are public goods. MSB was one of them – it was a noble idea that has been ruined by greedy politicians, nepotism and corruption. Unfortunately, the selling of MSB will not solve this problem. It is a problem that even the much talked about Public Services Reforms has avoided. This is the problem Malawians must fight against.
It is now time to ring-fence and protect whatever state resources Malawi is remaining with from marauding capitalists. Privatisation of mortuaries must be stopped at all cost. Malawi cannot afford to commodify everything. Commodification is a process of making unsalable things becoming salable. We need to get this right. We cannot commodify people’s lives and wellbeing.
Economic problems and crisis always provide an opportunity for governments to sale public entities. It is what author, Naomi Klein, called The Shock Doctrine; The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. It is the same trick that Bretton Woods organisations, the World Bank and International Monitory Fund (IMF), use to impose harsh economic conditions on governments. There are several cases around the world chronicled in Klein’s work.
In a country where all public services are commodified, people are no longer citizens to be protected and cushioned by their governments. Citizens become customers – mere consumers to be exploited by market forces. Public services become a subject to market forces and competition – only those with financial muscle survive.
This dilutes fundamental value that governments have a responsibility to cater for all the people regardless of their income or economic ability. A government that fails to provide services for its people has to go – it has failed its mandate. A carpenter who blames his tools for his failure is not good enough.