Over the past year, the Economics Association of Malawi (Ecama) has never ceased to depress me with its increasing irrelevance. You just have to wonder what is happening to a body that three years ago practically woke from the dead, raising its profile so high that its president, Dr Thomas Chataghalala Munthali, was appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council.
During that period, Ecama used to carry out and publish timely analyses of economic policy developments and trends. Do you remember the impressive analysis the association did in 2009 on the K111 billion that the fuel shortage cost the Malawi economy?
Those were the good old days when finance ministers and leaders of the donor community actively sought out EcamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s leadership to pick their brains and help shape policy. Such was the bodyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s clout.
What remains now is a professional body that takes so long to take a policy position that by the time it finally does, it simply parrots and regurgitates what others have already stated repeatedly. Ecama no longer leads on economic policy analysisÃ¢â‚¬â€it follows, meekly.
Take its January 19 2012 vague and weak statement titled EcamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Position on Devaluation, Foreign Exchange and Resultant Inflation. For goodness sake, what was new about the statement? Even the journalists who did stories out of it tortured themselves for days to find an angle that would still be newsworthyÃ¢â‚¬â€and relevant.
Debate on the kwacha devaluation as linked to the IMF-supported Extended Credit Facility (ECF) programme started in earnest sometime in the second quarter of 2011 and became more animated during frantic meetings between the IMF and government to save the programme. The discourse became even more heated after the ECF was declared off-track.
During all that time, as most players were debating this issue, Ecama was either asleep, hiding in a corner or making timid noises. So, when I saw the January 19 statement in my e-mail inbox, I was excited that finally the body was going to give us a well-researched, comprehensive, clear and independent policy position that can be taken seriously. I was wrong.
The statement did an excellent and commendable job of rehashing everything that we already know. It summarised the schools of thoughts in this debate. The problem was that we do not need lectures in contemporary economic history from Ecama, at least not during a crisis.
We need the body to give us empirical evidence on pros and cons of each of the forex policy options on the table, not just a description of them. It was all text book stuffÃ¢â‚¬â€very academic and full of suppositions they could not even attempt to justify.
Dear me, is that the best Ecama could do after six months of inertia?
Even the statementÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s recommendations fail to inspire confidence in their uncertain delivery.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We seem to agree most that given the stress the economy has gone through [is going through], we need an IMF programme in place in order to stabilise the economy and restore confidence in the short-term. One of the conditions for the IMF is that the kwacha be devalued to realign it to market forces. Our recommendation is that all efforts be done to win back the IMF programme by agreeing to the devaluation proposal, but not before IMF, government, economists and stakeholders design policies to protect the rural masses from the unavoidable price escalations through safety net programmes.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We recommend introduction of safety net programmes like cash transfers through public works to vulnerable groups [such as] rural roads or other rural employment, targeted transfers of cash or food can also be provided to specific sub-groups of the poor [those unable to work],Ã¢â‚¬Â reads the Ecama statement in part.
Folks, are there any new ideas in that quotation? For example, the cash transfers Ecama is talking about do not need to be Ã¢â‚¬Å“introducedÃ¢â‚¬Â. They are already there with funding from the Local Development Fund (LDF) and other government programmes.
Councils are implementing these programmes in both rural and peri-urban communities. Maybe we need to expand these cash-transfer initiatives, but why canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t Ecama tell us by how much these need to be increased to effectively cushion the poor? And why canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t Ecama tell us where that money will or should come from?
Now, you may wish to know that:
lÃ‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â EcamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mission is to Ã¢â‚¬Å“act as the voice of the economics profession through membership-focused services and evidence-based development policy advice that benefits the profession, its practitioners, government and national stakeholders.Ã¢â‚¬Â
lÃ‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Its main objective is to encourage open/proactive debate informed by sound evidence on economic and policy issues among economists, the private sector, business fraternity, parliamentarians, public sector, public and civil society.
Does it appear that the January 19 statement is somehow in tune with the aboveÃ‚Â lofty statements?